The Two Mile High ClubBy: Sean | August 2nd, 2010
It’s not what you think.
It started as a random idea. There is an absolutely wonderful soccer documentary making the rounds this spring and summer called Pelada. If you have an opportunity to see it, I would highly recommend it. The movie chronicles the travels of Luke and Gwendolyn, two college soccer stars who aren’t ready to give up the game…so they travel around the world playing pick-up soccer. The movie tells the story (quite poignantly, I believe) of “the other side of soccer”, the game that is played in different locales and faraway places by people most of us will never hear about. One of the iconic photographic stills of the movie shows Gwendolyn juggling a soccer ball in the salt flats of Uyuni, Bolivia. It’s a great shot and it got me thinking, Wouldn’t it be kind of cool to get a photograph of me juggling a soccer ball in some extreme landscape that wasn’t my suburban pitch in Beaverton, Oregon? I mean, my Facebook profile picture is going on eight months old! (Ha!) But where should I try and get a photo? The beach? Naw, too typical. The desert? I didn’t want to copy Gwendolyn verbatim. How about on top of a mountain? Good…but even better: How about a soccer match on top of a mountain? That appealed to the former mountaineer in me even though I hadn’t peak bagged since 2004. Fortunately, Oregon is blessed with several reputable mountains and I quickly ran through the three tallest, Mt. Hood (11,239′), Mt. Jefferson (10,497′) and South Sister (10,358′). The summits of Hood and Jefferson didn’t support the space to play and were too technical for most of my footy buddies. South Sister, however, offered a very attractive option. The climb is non-technical, requiring only a good pair of boots and a lot of stamina. The summit is a vast snow-covered crater that is relatively flat, with rocky ridges ringing it on the sides, almost like a stadium. The approach climb is five and a half miles to the top with an elevation gain of 4900′+–difficult but not impossible. Hmm…
My random idea became an email to my soccer buddies the next morning. “My Next Great Idea” the subject line read and the battle plan was simple: Climb the third highest mountain in Oregon and play 3v3 soccer on the summit crater. First guy to kick the ball off the mountain buys dinner and drinks for everybody back in Bend (the nearest city) afterwards. The replies were almost immediate.
Brian: Totally in. Dan is in, too, and my buddy Shawn would be up for it as well.
Aaron: Sounds like fun.
Tyler: I am in as well and I do like iconic photographs.
Just like that, we had six guys eager to not only climb a mountain but play soccer on the summit. Brian and Dan own a production display/advertising business and they like to think big, so in short order we had to brand this expedition to elevate it to more than just “something cool”. It had to be epic and epic adventures need a proper name, something like…South Sister Soccer Summit. It even got a catch phrase: “Make the Climb. Play the Game. 07.31.10,358′.” Because we didn’t want to tip our summer plans too early, we just called it “S4″ and hinted to anyone that would listen it was going to be the coolest thing ever.
Epic adventures with proper names also need logos and, we soon decided, proper attire. Dan crafted a brilliant logo and we made home and away kits for the two teams. We’d need a ball, a ball pump to inflate it at roughly 10,300′, some cones for goals and many video cameras. I also mulled over the possibility that some other climbers might not think that S4 was as awesome as we did. Many people climb to find solitude and they might incorrectly believe that us playing the Beautiful Game at the summit would somehow diminish the wilderness experience for them. I would question the validity of that argument, however. On any given weekend the climb trail to the top of South Sister is a freeway with sometimes hundreds of climbers, hikers, tourists, dogs, and small children rambling up the path. Declaring that six guys kicking a ball around is disruptive when there is another two hundred people loitering on the summit ridge isn’t correct so I made sure to pack a referee’s set of yellow and red cautions with us. If somebody took exception to our match, I would politely point out the folly of their argument. If they persisted, I would show them a yellow and ask them to leave us in peace. If they didn’t go, they would be shown red.
We planned the weekend of July 30-31st for our trip and smartly included all things necessary for road tripping, for camping, for climbing (and yes, I did include all ten of the Ten Essentials!), and for the match. Friday night we, umm, “carb-loaded” at a Bend brewery on pasta, burgers, and hops-based beverages and then drove to the Devils Lake Trailhead around 9:30 p.m. While crowded with the rigs and Outback Subarus of other outdoorsfolk, we claimed our section of parking lot and set up camp. Under a soft blanket of stars and one pesky mosquito that would not leave my face alone, I happily dozed off in my bivy sack counting shooting stars…
…until about 2:15 a.m., when a big raindrop smacked into my face. D’oh!
The rain was short-lived, mercifully, and I managed a few hours of sleep until the horizon began to glow gray. Our intrepid crew–Brian, Dan, Aaron, Tyler, Shawn, and myself–roused ourselves into action, tore down camp, made a final gear check for what we believed would be the highest soccer match ever played in the state of Oregon. Soccer ball? Check. (’Cause S4 would be substantially less awesome if I left the ball back in the Suburban). Home S4 Nike black kits? Check. Away S4 Nike white kits? Check. Cautions for meddling do-gooders? Check. Cones for goals…cones for goals…anybody?
“Oh, dude. I left them on the counter.” A pause. “Oh, but just like in Pelada, we’ll use our backpacks and trekking poles!” Good enough. Check!
Off we trudged about 6:05 a.m., the wilderness alive with enthusiasm and light enough to not merit headlamps. We had some strong, fit guys on the S4 crew. Most of us play for Rangers, “The Greatest O-30 Recreational Football Club in the Greater Portland, Oregon Area.” Almost all of us play on the same indoor soccer team. Four of us coach. Shawn is working toward a Rainier summit. We were pumped and, as most hikes tend to start, we blasted out of the campground at a good clip, crossed the Cascade Lakes Highway, and began the relentless uphill grind. I brought up the rear as switchback after switchback dropped behind us to a chorus of footfalls, early morning bird chirps…and my soon labored breathing. Oh dear, I thought, we’ve only been hiking for ten minutes and I’m gasping. Of course, as I talked with Dan and Aaron about random stuff, I was trying my best to maintain an even breath to not give away the fact I was panting so as not to seem like the weak link. We took our first break after maybe thirty minutes to adjust sweaters and gear and a very depressing thought occurred to me: What if I wasn’t in shape to summit? What if after months of planning I was too unfit to actually play? 3v2 soccer is horribly asymmetrical and my own fragile psyche would be crushed at the prospect of not seeing this out. Some Gatorade, some trail mix and off we went again with climb leader Seanny dropping farther and farther behind. Tyler and Shawn moved like they were shot out of a cannon and I continued my huffing and puffing as the perennial caboose on the train. Guys would drop back and walk with me at my snail’s pace, always cool, but as I was agonizing with every step…especially since I hadn’t worn these climb boots in several years and my toes were tingling numb with the unfamiliar fit.
We continued on until South Sister showed her roomy figure on the horizon, looming large above us. Broken Top clawed its way to the east, just behind Moraine Lake. More water, more snacks, more loss of feeling in my toes.
“Hey, Seanny, your boot sole is coming off.”
Wha–? I looked down. The sole on my right boot was slowly peeling away just a mile and half into the trip. It was a nine year old boot, to be fair. “It’ll be fine,” I muttered, struggling to keep my breathing from being comical.
And so it continued until, for no reason whatsoever, I realized: Wait a sec. I have the ball. I have to summit…so quit being a wussy and keep marching! I fell back into my old mountaineering training of “rest-stepping” (a slight pause with each stride so your weight rests on the bones of your legs for a half second) and while my pace was perhaps even slower than before, I was the proverbial “Little Engine That Could”. I kept chugging away, baby step by baby step, as the incline increased and the trail became more rocky.
It’s like this: Step. Pause. Step. Pause. Step. Pause. Step. Pause. Step. Pause. Step. Pause. Step. Pause. Step. Pause. Step. Pause. Step. Pause. Now keep reading this section over and over for another three and half hours. For maximum realism, play the song “Cursive Eye” by I:Scintilla over and over on your MP3 player as you read it…for three and a half hours. I often get a song stuck in my head when I climb and it would just go on a constant repeat no matter how hard I tried to change the station, so to speak. Take three breaks during that three and a half hours for water and beef jerky. Congratulations! You just climbed South Sister. Now punch your left quad until it almost cramps and shear the soles of both of your shoes off exactly halfway. Congratulations! You’re now me!
The requisite celebratory pictures on the high point of South Sister were taken. Celebratory hops-based beverages were made available. I even took the opportunity to duct tape the soles of my boots back on! It was a gloriously beautiful day, the kind you always hope for but often never get in the mountains. Temperatures were mild, the wind was light, and the Cascades were on full display: Middle Sister and North Sister close enough to touch. Broken Top high-fived to our right. Mt. Jefferson, Three-Finger Jack and Mt. Bachelor were dotted all around the horizon. It was a glorious summit, but it was only the beginning. Here at 10,300′+, the real game was just about to begin…
We clambored off the summit ridge onto the flat, snowy crater. The snow was perfect, warmed just enough to give like beach sand but not enough to post-hole to your knees. Our group marched to the flattest section of the crater, slammed the trekking poles into the snow to mark the pitch corners, and dropped our packs for goals. Our pitch, approximately 50′ x 80′, was plenty big for 3v3 on snow. I took another pole and clawed out an environmentally friendly set of end lines, touch lines, and center circle in the snow and then did a quick pitch inspection to make sure there weren’t any hidden rocks or cracks that would ruin the perfect give-and-go. (There was not, but I did find a knife somebody had lost.) We donned our respective colors and met in the center circle for the pre-match interviews. Brian whipped out the video camera. If we were going to do this, we were going to do this right.
“Gentlemen rules,” it was announced. “No slide tackling, mostly because we’re on top of a mountain. We play to seven. Switch sides at halftime. Let’s keep it clean, boys.” Both sides shook hands and lined themselves up in matching 2-1 formations: The White Team (Sean, Tyler and Aaron) defending the Lewis Glacier End with the Black Team (Shawn, Brian, and Dan) lined up against the Summit. “Game on!” howled through the crater and just like that, the machinations and rituals of every soccer match you have ever seen or played in took over. A ball was kicked and six guys started making runs, tugging at their marker’s jerseys, screaming for a pass and playing 3v3. At 10,300′+. In the snow-covered crater of a dormant volcano. Ironically, the 50-60 people ringed around the summit ridge watching our little match constituted a larger audience than my Rangers had in Portland for any match in the last two years!
But here’s the thing: At 10,300′+, after a Herculean effort just to summit in the first place, you got nuthin’ in the tank. One run in the spongey snow and your lungs are screaming for air. A simple pass over the snow hits a footprint and bounces over your foot, which feels like it weighs twenty pounds. At one point, somebody moaned, “I think I can feel my heartbeat in my brain!” The sun glistens off every surface and even with glacier goggles, the world is bright and then dark and then fogged over while you pant to chase down the striker. The match video is below for your viewing pleasure, and I am not ashamed to say that Seanny played Lazy Striker, Cherry Picker, and Holding Goalkeeper–sometimes all at once. Offsides? Umm, OK! You would get a rush of energy as the ball bounced forward and then, just as fast, you would be lying flat on your back making Juan Pablo (Snow) Angels as you wondered how you got there. Sure, we made some give-and-gos, a couple of crosses, and I think we did head the ball once, which is tricky with the goggles. But everything is so hard to do. Running. Kicking. Standing. Eventually you found your wind, for a few seconds, and it was the soccer you thought you should be playing…until the altitude caught up with you and then you were bent over, hands on your knees, begging for breath.
Goals were scored–some pretty, some not so pretty. Another climber on the ridge, bless him, actually screamed: “GOOOOAAAAAALLLLL!!!!!!” when we “netted”. I got a yellow card for ripping off my jersey after finding the net in the first half, but the cards were in my pack on the other side of the pitch, which was so far away and we were so tired we didn’t bother to brandish the yellow. Tyler urged me to keep my shirt on if I scored again or else I’d get ejected for accumulation of cards. Ha! Nobody intervened or told us we were ruining their mountaintop experience. It was just snow and sky and soccer with my best friends. It was the soccer like you played when you were a kid, without the fancy goals and refs, just a ball and some open space, all joy and perfection. At one point, Brian and I looked at each other as somebody ran to get the ball from out-of-touch and simultaneously, without coaching, we both roared, “AWESOME!” Our joyous chorus of goal celebrations, gasping breaths, and disappointed “Ohs!” when the shot went just wide filled the crater with a din it likely has never heard before.
Eventually one team won and one team lost, with a 7-5 final scoreline. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who scored more goals because I am absolutely convinced that everybody who “made the climb and played the game” won that afternoon. The Two Mile High Club (close enough) completed the match day ritual by exchanging jerseys and bro-hugs. Aaron picked up the inaugural S4 Man of the Match award for his multi-goal performance. We prepared for the long descent back to camp with more water and snacks, another wrap of duct tape to the boot soles, picked up our backpacks and trekking poles and literally left no trace of the highest soccer match ever played in Oregon…