The Human Lung

April 18, 2010
5:00 A.M. 8,600 feet above sea level. I slipped my camelback over my shoulder and took the stairs two at a time. Adrenaline surged through my veins. As I stepped onto the porch, I shivered in the cold morning breeze and pulled the cuffs of my Gore-Tex jacket over my hands. Paul waited for us across the driveway. Smoky vapors rose into the air from the exhaust pipe of his Toyota Land Cruiser; its engine purring softly like an animal before the hunt. Readjusting my pack, I hurried to join him in the car while my mom locked up our cabin. We wouldn’t return until late afternoon.

“Good morning,” Paul said, smiling at me through the rearview mirror. “Ready to be the human lung again this year, Emma?”

I grinned at the playful analogy, memories of last year’s expedition swimming through my mind. In 2007, I’d been the first in our party of five to summit the West Spanish Peak, one of the tallest mountains in Colorado. Afterwards, Paul nicknamed me “the human lung.” I reveled in the prospect of my second climb.

The car doors opened and my mom slid into the backseat beside me, followed by my sixteen-year-old cousin, Jim.

“Steve said he’d meet us at trailhead, so if this is everyone, we’ll get going,” said Paul, addressing us through the rearview mirror as he backed out onto the dirt road.

“We’re all here.” My mother paused, eyeing Jim, who sat leaning against the window, his mouth slightly ajar, “More or less.”

After exchanging a few comments on the weather and climbing conditions, the car grew silent. I watched Jim’s fluttering eyelids and to my dismay, caught myself in the midst of a yawn. If only Paul would play some music to spike my mental preparation, I thought, annoyed with my own incapacity to stay alert and energetic.

“Tired?” Paul asked, breaking the silence. Jim yawned dramatically but said nothing. “Well, let’s wake up and climb this mountain!”

I raised my head and sure enough, we’d reached the end of the road, the beginning of the trail. Steve stood leaning casually against his car, a forty-year-old in the body of a teenager who had three Iron Man competitions under his belt. This guy ran up mountains. He smiled enthusiastically at Paul, his college roommate of twenty years before.
I leapt eagerly from the car, ready to hit the trail. Pulling my hat over my ears, I rubbed my hands together and paced in front of the trailhead while the others gathered their gear.

“Alright Emma, lead the way!” Paul signaled to the trail, and like a windup toy restrained for too long a time, I sped off. At the pinnacle of my adrenaline, I knew I should probably pace myself, but I continued to sprint blindly through the trees. Due to my verve, it took me longer to note my tightening breaths and the stitch forming in my side, so when the pain finally hit me, it was with the force of a bullet. I couldn’t take another step, yet at the same time, I couldn’t stop. My body and mind were at an impasse. As I faltered, Paul’s voice floated to my ears, “See, what’d I tell you Steve? The human lung. She just keeps going and going.”

Furrowing my brow and taking short rasping breaths, I marched onward. I refused to relinquish my position as leader just to have Jim, who’d never climbed a mountain before in his life, usurp it. Human lung, human lung, human lung, I chanted in my head. But to no avail. Filled with fatigue, I stooped to fake-tie my shoe, managing to save an ounce of my sanity. “No—go on—it’s fine. I just need—to tie this.” Hoping the breathiness of my voice hadn’t divulged my condition, I found myself at the back of the group, motivated by the thinning forest.

Greeted by an unexpected gust of icy wind, our party emerged from the last of the trees, whose strength and determination allowed them to survive at such a high altitude. Goose bumps sprang up on my arms and neck. Paul examined the skies, his forehead creased in contemplation.

“This doesn’t look too good.” He turned to face us and continued, nearly yelling over the howling winds. “I mean we could go on, but the odds of this weather calming down are slim.”

“We’ve come this far,” Jim started. “We might as well try to go on.”

“We could try,” Paul said. “I don’t know how far we’d get, but the wind might die down once we cross that next ridge.”

“I don’t know,” I caught a note of anxiety in my mom’s controlled voice. “I don’t think I can do this. I’m just not prepared for this sort of weather. I’m going back to the car.”

My stomach dropped. She was serious. She’d been just as excited to climb as I had. It would require a pretty good reason for her to back out now.

“I understand,” said Paul. “You three, let’s get going.”

I watched, shocked, as my mom turned away from me. Paul, Steve, and Jim began to climb. I scrambled across the shale to close the space between us, my heavy breaths increasing. If I struggled to manage a few steps, how on earth would I survive another thousand vertical feet? My options? Only one: to climb. And like ants moving up a giant red-wood, we ascended the mountain.

“I don’t know about this,” I said.

Paul turned to me, “What are you worried about, Emma?”

“I don’t know—it just doesn’t seem like a good idea.”

“Well, do you want to go back?”

“No,” the word escaped my lips too quickly. Paul smiled.

“Come on then. You’ll be fine. You were great last year.”

Feeling dutiful, I continued. Miles ahead of me, Jim benefited from brief bursts of energy, allowing him to maintain his position at the front of the group. Each step ached. My eyes burned with tears that I would not let loose across my face, scarlet from humiliation and cold. My futile journey demoralized me. I will never climb a mountain again as long as I live, I swore irritably through my shame. Every part of me, legs and lungs, vied to collapse right there on the shale.

Come on Emma, you’re the human lung. But would Paul still call me that after this climb? For an instant, I imagined his somber face—disappointment disclosed in his russet eyes as he retold the story of our climb at dinner. And when he could no longer avoid including me in his tale, the solemn shake of his head. The silence that followed. I couldn’t bear it. Grinding my teeth, I forced one step, then another.

“Come on Emma, you’re doing great.” Steve extended his hand to me, and with gratitude, I grasped it.

“Congratulations,” said Paul, whom I hadn’t noticed standing beside me. “West Spanish is yours again, Emma.” I smiled weakly. Filled with an odd mixture of exhaustion and euphoria, I crossed the snow field to join Jim on the summit. Whatever breath I still possessed evaporated at the sight of the vast endless earth rolled out before me. The whole world. A patchwork quilt of emerald and ochre, woven together by thin silk ribbons of silver and sapphire. This view makes what we do worth it all. 11:00 A.M. 13,626 vertical feet above sea level. And even if it’s only for a moment, we are standing on top of the world.

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