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The story: Lion's Mane

Peter Polito

The Story consists of six vignettes describing a small part about how each scent came to be. We want you to know more about us—we believe personal connections are the key to understanding people and understanding people is the key to joy. Consider this one small way in which we can connect with you. 

Previous vignettes: ArboristNaturalistAlpinist, AlchemistGeologist

Lion's Mane

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I saved the Lion’s Mane for last. Not only that, but I resisted the temptation to post this vignette until now. This story belongs in the winter, it belongs in the cold, because that is where it was born. If you’ve been following along with these vignettes, every scent is inspired by a specific experience or place from my past. Lion’s Mane takes me to the most remote place I’ve ever been: Southern Chile, Patagonia, to the north flank of Monte San Lorenzo.  

There are several moments in every person’s life where—if a man you become a man and if a woman you become a woman—where you take a substantial step out of adolescence and into adulthood. I look back to this moment not for inspiration or with whimsical optimism about ‘that I time I was a man,’ but as a reminder that when pushed to my limit there was actually a time I didn’t back down. Fortunately for you, I chose to represent this experience with a powerful dose of peppermint instead of the aroma of grit and determination (which, let’s be honest, probably doesn’t smell great).

The scene: We were a large group hiking from the west side of San Lorenzo to the north-northeast where our food cache would be waiting. Weather had delayed us, causing us to spend longer than expected camped on a nunatak in the howling wind, rain and sleet. By this point our rations had diminished to MSG-laced soup packets. We spent a great deal of time reading, drinking warm water, checking, rechecking, and checking once more the state of the tents and gear. Finally, the weather broke and we broke camp. We roped up into four teams and trekked across the gently sloping glacier to a saddle northwest of the summit (~2500 m). Travel was very slow as the lead team repeatedly encountered large crevasses requiring back-tracking and new route finding, coupled with the physically weak nature of a team that hadn’t consumed protein in several days. We finally reached the pass, much later than expected—close to midnight.

There was no way we could cross the arête separating us from our food in the dark so we were forced to find somewhere to camp. It would be one more night of salt-flavored water. The more experienced members of our party (of which, I was not) trekked off into the dark, coming back a short time later with good news. Off to our right was a steep snow embankment, at the bottom was a flattish wind-protected spot. We all fought inertia to tie back into our rope teams and re-shoulder our packs to make the short jaunt. We spent the next bit of time chopping platforms in the snow, setting up tents, burying anchors to hold us in place. To add insult to injury, it began snowing, quite heavily. I spent the remainder of the night waking up every hour or so removing the newly fallen snow that had accumulated around our vestibule so as not to poison ourselves with our own respiration.

The next morning became abundantly clear that it was all worth it. I was the first to wake. I left the tent and entered into near silence. The snow had ceased, between the clouds that seemed to be flying overhead at 50 mph was the bluest sky I had ever laid eyes upon, blue enough to make Lord Rayleigh weep. A steep snow slope rising 50 feet was immediately to my left. To my right, a cliff composed of dark metamorphic rock jutted several hundred feet nearly straight up. We were in the moat—the point where the mountain ends and the glacier begins. I hiked to the top of the snow slope, the very starting point of the glacier, when I saw this:

 Looking northwest from the crest of "the moat" toward Los Mellizos. 

Looking northwest from the crest of "the moat" toward Los Mellizos. 

Behind the snowy front the previous night were tightly packed isobars, driving a howling wind; it hit me full force as I crested. I sat down at the top and breathed it in. There, I pulled from my pocket half a pack of peanut M&M’s I’d been saving for reasons I can’t possibly recall. I took 2-3 minutes to eat each individual chocolate-coated peanut in a thin candy shell. Heaven on earth my friends. Heaven on earth.

It would be nearly 18 more hours before we reached our food, but that night, again close to midnight, we feasted on textured vegetable protein and hard cheese like you could not imagine.

Lion’s Mane is that icy blast at the head of the glacier. It is the stiff mountain wind in your face. It’s God’s country, right there in front of you—deep calling to deep. I want the peppermint of Lion’s Mane to overwhelm you the way the wind, and the snow, and the exhaustion, and the beauty overwhelmed me.