Get Me Out of Here: Climbing the ‘M’

After a few switchbacks, Katie Heaney was pretty sure she was about to die

Katie Heaney

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My brother has been trying to kill me since before I got here.

He knew, before my mother and I drove out to Montana to visit him, that I was looking for new, mildly-to-moderately-frightening outdoor activities to try. Right away it was clear that we had a misunderstanding.

A few weeks prior to our trip, my brother sent me a text that read, “Skydiving?” I stared at it awhile before typing, “Are you serious?” If I could keep this column going for 65 more years, skydiving would be the very last activity I’d do in the very last week before I was expected to die. Even then, I wouldn’t do it. I would reschedule my skydiving appointment for three weeks later—“It’ll be fine,” I’d email my editor, “I’ve got a month left, easy.”—and then I would will myself to die before I could ever make it. [Ed. Note: Try me. I know your tricks, Heaney.] What do I have to prove? I’m 91 years old. Leave me in peace.

Almost all of my brother’s suggestions seemed to involve jumping off things, actually, to the point that I needed to clarify that I didn’t want to do anything in which I’d start at the top of something and end up, by the power of gravity, at the bottom. I need activities that allow for hesitance and escape. Whenever I’ve been about to take a little shot of bad-tasting liquid (be it cold medicine or cheap tequila), I’ve always needed a few minutes alone in front of the sink. I need time to come to terms with what I’m about to do. I need to be sure that I could pour whatever it is I’m holding down the drain, and nobody would have to know but me.

So I told my brother that I’d be going from bottom to top—that that was the only acceptable direction of movement. He offered up a climb of Mount Sentinel, and once I got to Missoula and saw the big concrete “M” built onto the side, seemingly not so far up, I agreed.

If the main problem with jumping from things is that there is no escape route part of the way through, the main problem with climbing them is that they’ll always look much shorter from the bottom. If I can see the top from here, how long could it possibly take to get up there? A minute? Two?

YOU CAN SEE THE “M”—for University of Montana, the letter having sat partway up Mount Sentinel, in various forms, since college kids put it there in 1908—from all over town. Our first day there, while I ride around town with my family, I keep an eye on it. The hillside it’s planted on is covered in scorched-looking yellow grass. It’s been an extremely dry fall. “Every day for, like, two months, it’s been sunny and warm,” my brother says. While we are there, it rains and rains, the wind piercing. At times, clouds cover the “M” completely, and at others they seem to cover everything but. It looks like an omen or a halo, depending.

On the morning we’re set to make the climb, I ask my brother if I should wear a jacket over my sweatshirt and he says no. “You’re worrying,” my brother says. “It’s not that cold, and it’s not that high, and I see people in terrible shape climb the M every day.” And he’s right: it’s not that high up, really. It’s a 620-foot climb. But those 620 feet take you from an elevation of 3,200 to 3,820 feet, and that ground is covered in just three-quarters of a mile.

As we park in the lot at the bottom of Mount Sentinel, I watch a petite young woman in knee-length exercise pants walk up the stairs to the entrance. She’s sweaty, like she’s just finished working out. But she starts running. She runs up one half of a switchback (of which there are 11) and then the next. By the time my family and I are out of the car and at the start of the path upward, she’s near the top.

I’ll blame that runner for the over-inflated confidence that carries me up the first switchback. It is, after all, just walking. The 45-degree angle at which we’re doing it can’t matter all that much—I just have to lean forward a lot. I feel great, and it isn’t as windy as it has been, and I can already tell that the views from the top will be spectacular. I start walking faster. Trotting, even. And then, 15 minutes later, after climbing three more switchbacks, I get it. I am going to die here.

I’VE NEVER HANDLED ELEVATION changes well. I feel my breath growing shallow, and the panic I get from that feeling makes me draw shallower breaths still. This all happens very suddenly. I fall behind my mom, rubbing my arms, freezing. The wind turns more biting and screaming with each step up. I climb another switchback, trudging now, and collapse onto the bench sitting at the end of it. The “M” is still well above me. I’m thinking about starting to cry. There I am, standing in front of the sink. I could go back down. I could think up another activity to try. But then I hear giggling. 

I look down to see a family climbing the same gravel I just did, and to see that they are doing it merrily. There are three kids, all under the age of six. “Hi!” they say to me as they waddle past. “Hi!” “Hi!” They probably weren’t being asshole-ish on purpose, I suppose. In any case, they force me to get up.

It only takes about 45 minutes to get to the top, though it feels much longer. The runner has disappeared. I never see her make the descent. It makes me feel better to think that maybe she was running from something, that she had no choice but to run up the “M” and further still. As for my family and I, when we get up there, we sit and look. Out to the Bitterroot Mountains to the south, the whole town of Missoula below. The clouds clear just enough. We sit there for just a minute or two, appreciating what it feels like to finish something, to be looking down on the places from where we used to look up. And then we start back down.

“Look,” I tell my family, halfway down, gesturing toward another young runner, a hunched-over guy this time. “I think he’s going to throw up.” I watch him, waiting. Hoping. If he throws up, then someone will have done the “M” worse than I did it. But he never does. He stands up straight and jogs down the next three switchbacks. My brother and I watch him go, then look back to our own path. Thirty seconds later, we see that he’s up near our level again. My brother and I look at each other, perplexed. We turn back to watch, and see that he is running back up the paths each time before allowing himself to decline a level. Down, up, down, down. Good for him.

Katie Heaney is a writer based in Minneapolis. She has a memoir coming out in early 2014.

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