“I’m kind of in shock,” says Henry. “It’s been a long time since I carried this much weight.”
My spindly legs and bony shoulders are saying the same thing. Thankfully, the trail is flat for the first mile. It gives us time to get accustomed. It’s amazing how quickly it happens. One moment you are sure you can’t piggyback this unwieldy beast that gnaws at your hip-bones. The next moment, you’re strolling along as if the backpack is a part of your body, an abnormal pregnancy or an unbelievable goiter.
“I think we’ve bonded,” says Henry, speaking of the heavy load a few miles later.
We are Tim O’Brian characters. We carry: food for three hungry climbers for three days, a three person tent, 40oz’s of white gas, 8oz’s of isobutane, a 4-liter pot, a 40-meter x 9.7mm climbing rope, carabiners, slings, rescue pulleys, harnesses, ice axes, snow pickets, crampons, helmets, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, gaiters, gloves, a camera, extra socks, warm clothes, and everything else you can imagine.
Our packs may be heavy, but our spirits are rising like the 3-day-old clouds that suddenly disappear as if to welcome us to the mountain. Hiking along Railroad Grade, we are drenched in sweat. The afternoon colors reflect off dewy foreheads.
Once they find their groove, their old hiking legs, Henry and Karen move quickly. It doesn’t take us more than a few hours to reach the climber’s camp, which is perched on the edge of the Easton glacier. Blue-grey seracs, black rock, curving contours make our rigid-poled tent stand out.
As well as other climbers, the summit of Mt. Baker is our neighbor. It seems two-doors-down in the clear evening air, the gibbous light. Sleep comes and kneads our weary bodies into the oily dough of night.
Climbing teams trudge through camp, headlights bright, carabiners rattling, crampons scraping the rock, but none of it wakes us. We are placidly oblivious, wrapped in coats of body-warmed dreams. We don’t wake until teams are descending from the summit crest, ant-boats creeping home. They’ve been working for 7 hours. We’ve been trying to remain horizontal. The contrast, from our perspective, is easy to relish.
Today, essentially, is a rest day. So, we spend the morning lazily preparing breakfast, organizing gear, lounging in the sunshine. However, I also want to spend some time going over glacier travel skills. Henry and Karen have not been mountaineering for at least a few years and they need a refresher.
To that end, we spend the afternoon playing in the snow. Self-arrest, crampon technique, walking on a rope team, and crevasse rescue are some of the things we cover. Henry and Karen perform solidly.
“Nice work guys. I think we’ll have a good climb tomorrow,” I say, emptying the snow from inside my gloves.
“You mean tonight,” says Henry.
“Right. Depending on how you look at it.”
My alarm goes off at 1am. The sky is absolutely clear and there is a fresh breeze blowing off the mountain. We are roped up, kicking through the snow by 2:30am and our headlamps are not the only ones on the hill.
The boot pack is like a wagon groove, the moon like a stadium floodlight, the snow like a perfectly baked cookie: soft yet firm, with just a tad bit of crunch. Conditions couldn’t be more perfect.
Cross snow bridges quickly, find your rhythm of rest step and pressure breath, plant your crampons flat on the slope, keep the rope taut and your ice axe in the uphill hand. These are the rules we follow, the suggestions I give. Everything goes smoothly.
We take rest stops every hour or so. The sky brightens. The stars fade, ever so slowly, washed out by the sun as it rises behind the sulfur steam of the crater. Resting on the edge, rotten-egg odor makes eating hard, but the sun’s warmth does a lot to strengthen our weary spirits. With a thousand feet left, we feel strong.
The last push drains us, but we power through it, digging deep into quadriceps and calves. We reach the summit five and a half hours after leaving the campsite. An amazing pace.
And for the first time in my life, the true summit of Mt. Baker is completely, utterly calm. Karen’s exhalations are more powerful than the wind that morning.
Our ascent of Mt. Rainier starts in a hotel room. King’s Inn is located on the outskirts of Enumclaw from where the mountain is visible above the bald foothills and lamp-posts and strip mall roofs. With a majestic twinkle, the glaciers and ice-falls tempt the Tacoma-fringe inhabitants to ascend. I cannot imagine living here—so close that you see the peak looming in your rear view mirror on the way to work—and not having an insatiable desire to climb it.
Henry and Karen must have been trying to ignore that desire for almost thirty years. They are climbers, mountaineers and outdoors-people. I am aware of their accomplishments and abilities, but I am also aware of their incomplete Washingtonian resumes.
Mt. Rainier is a North American icon. Everyone from Himalayan guides to day hikers can be found enjoying the diverse terrain. The most popular route to the summit, the Disappointment Cleaver, is fraught with huge crevasses, unstable rock, and agonizingly large snowfields. Regardless of these features, the route remains within the technical and physical reach of conditioned, intelligent climbers.
Only a few miles away however, on the mountain’s northern slopes, is Liberty Ridge, a long-standing classic line that combines challenging near-vertical ice, relentless rockfall danger and a level of commitment that makes any mistake or injury into a life-threatening experience.
Both these routes, and countless more, fill-in the outline of a peak that is so massive it dwarfs the surrounding range like a wedding cake on a dinner table full of hors d’oeuvres. It is impossible to ignore. Henry and Karen can’t wait any longer.
From the trailhead, the path is marked with yellow caution tape. In 2006 the White River flooded and destroyed the beaten track and the bridge that crossed the glacial foam. Now, for the first few miles, we stumble over river rocks and through sand.
The Inter Glacier has a boot pack dug into it, as well as a winding glissade track like a snaking waterslide. It will be fun on the way down, but we can’t start thinking about that now. We still have a long way to go up.
It’s important to do things in stages. When I was a boy, my mom and I would go running together. In the brisk Northwest mornings she used to tell me that I should pick something not too far away, “like that lamp post, or stop sign,” and try to run until I reached it. Then, when I passed by the object, I should pick another something to run towards. Breaking the run down into smaller segments made it easier to cope mentally with the overall distance and effort. The same technique can be handy in mountaineering, especially since geographic features often lend themselves perfectly to the creation of these waypoints.
“That is a fucking huge snowfield,” says Henry, head tilted back, staring at the black ants that crawl along the snow: climbers trudging steadily along.
“No worries. We have all day,” I reply.
And it takes us about that long. We stop at Camp Curtis for a bar. Food replenishes energy. Raw seeds and dried organic fruits fill a tank that’s running on empty. Fuel is essential and at this altitude it gets burned up quickly. It is amazing how much better we all feel when we start moving again. Our pace had slowed nearly to a standstill, the weight on our shoulders tying us to the concave snow. After Camp Curtis, we’re no longer sputtering along. Invisible crevasses are traps and with careful footprints we arrive at the final waypoint of the first day: Camp Schurman.
Climbers are already resting for their summit attempts when we arrive. We are late, so we try to be quiet setting up the tent, boiling water, eating our dinner. My MSR Dragonfly is like a blowtorch, but, partly out of respect and partly from fatigue, we use subdued voices to converse.
Sunset calmly decks the alpine corridors with brilliant hues. If there is anything more beautiful than rushing, deep green valleys glowing with hazy orange light thousands of feet below, than it is likely we will see it sometime on this trip. For now, we are content to let our voices fade with the sunshine and to let our bodies fall to rest.
“We have to eat, so we can sleep, so we can get up early to climb,” I say to Henry. It’s a theme today. We are resting all day, watching teams come off the mountain, asking guides for route and condition reports, napping, eating.
Late breakfast is followed by early lunch is followed by dinner at 5pm. We stuff ourselves way too full, loading calories into our system. We’ll burn way more than we consume. Altitude and extreme physical exertion is a great way to lose weight. You don’t see many overweight people on the summit. We’re not hungry at 5 o’clock, but we force ourselves to eat.
Stomachs bursting with re-hydrated mash, we curl into down bags, try to sleep. Arriving teams, celebrating teams, inconsiderate teams keep us awake. One stranger accidentally kicks a guy line as he walks by. Henry is perturbed as we all are. Even though we are not sleeping, at least we are horizontal.
My watch beeps at 11:30pm. It is time to get up and climb. We are the only people awake at Camp Schurman. It takes about an hour and a half before we are kicking steps out of camp up the Winthrop glacier. Before long we are passing by tents at Emmons Flats, where headlamps greet us: other teams preparing to climb. We are the first team in line. I kick steps up the corridor, which seems to last forever. On and on up the narrow halls of shadowy ice, we climb.
Sometime after our first break at the top of the corridor, Karen makes it known that she is not feeling so well. Her stomach hurts, she says. The altitude is having an effect. Henry continually asks, “Karen? Are you OK?” Her response is always yes, although sometimes it comes more slowly than others. Sometimes Henry has to ask twice. It is obvious that she is laboring heavily as we crawl our way up a shallow bowl towards the enormous fin-like serac which is the technical crux of the route.
However, Karen doesn’t stop moving. She continues to follow my footprints diligently and it is rare that I feel excessive tension in the rope. Traversing along the steep fin, I place two pickets to protect potential falls. The boot pack is like a sidewalk.
We have no trouble passing the obstacle, but just as Henry is crossing the final snowbridge we hear an ominous “thwunk,” like a steel door closing over a long cement passageway in an underground bunker. The sound echoes between my bones. Henry’s look is questioning.
“Let’s move,” I say.
“What was that sound?” asks Henry.
“Now.” I respond, ignoring his question, issuing a command.
We churn away from the noise, the snowbridge, the crux and we soon arrive at a safe location for a rest stop. Henry encourages Karen to eat and drink. I encourage her to breathe. Although we are past the most dangerous section of the climb, we are still only at 12000-feet. There is a long way to go.
What drives Karen to continue is hard for me to say. At this point, the view is not a significant factor in her decision. It could be summit fever—the desire to reach the top, to say you have been there—that keeps her moving. It could also be that she doesn’t want to let us, Henry and me, down. Any and all of these factors might be true, but I think Karen’s nature is the real reason she continues climbing. She isn’t a quitter, doesn’t seem to know how to quit. Beyond all the pain, fatigue and discomfort, is focus. It is one of the most amazing displays of perseverance that I have ever seen.
One foot after the other, the three of us gradually ascend. For hours and hours we dodge crevasses, skirt beneath seracs. The only team that passes us is a group of two that have come all the way from the trailhead in one push. Otherwise, we lead the teams up.
When we reach the saddle between Liberty Cap and Columbia Crest the wind arrives in throaty gusts that pull at my jacket like some ghostly fingers. There is nothing to do but continue moving. We are not far now. There is just one giant snowfield left. The switchbacks are trenches. We crawl along and, ever so slowly, we crest the summit and embrace.
Mt. Adams is in the background. Our parkas are flapping in the strong wind. Everything—the wispy cirrus in big blue sky, the crater rim’s printed high point, our relieved, ecstatic faces—is captured by the nearly imperceptible snap of a minuscule camera. And, unconsciously, we are recording all five senses of a moment that, with time, will be continuously fading in clarity but simultaneously growing more venerated and cherished amongst our many extraordinary memories. The moment, while we live it, is worth taking more than just a moment to enjoy.
The success of a climb can be gauged by a combination of two factors: how many people reach the summit safely and how many return to camp unharmed. Our climbs of Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier are both a complete success. Everything goes perfectly.
On the summit of Rainier it is not immediately obvious how overjoyed Henry and Karen are. Altitude, fatigue and wind can dampen any smile, but when we stomp into Camp Schurman their faces begin to glow. For the rest of the trip, that glow doesn’t leave their faces.
In a Starbucks’ bathroom in Enumclaw, we freshen up. Henry and Karen emerge as different people. No longer surrounded by down hoods and helmets, their gleaming features become even more evident. The raccoon lines around their eyes, the sun baked cheeks, the oily hair patted down with sink water are tangible examples of this glow, but there is something far deeper that I notice then and that I continue to notice every time I see them. I imagine that the glow will be refreshed when they see the mountain. When they are flying overhead, or crossing beneath it on the ferry, they will know that they have climbed it.
To be able to provide and share an experience like that, one that has such a strong effect on people, is what, for me, makes the whole trip worth it. I have climbed Rainier and Baker before. So, my voice does not contain the same pride that Henry’s does when he tells folks at Camp Schurman that we summited both Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier in the span of 6 days. Henry, Karen and I have inevitably become close friends over the course of our trips together and there is nothing that gives me more pleasure than knowing how ecstatic they are to have accomplished this impressive feat.
Driving towards champagne and flaming steaks at El Gaucho, the mountain grows smaller in the rear view mirror. It feels strange to be sitting in a car going 60mph. Where are the pack straps digging into my shoulders? I’ve become accustomed to the feeling of 50lbs on my back. Henry doesn’t look normal in a collared shirt. Karen’s dress, although it fits better than her plastic boots, seems out of place. The feeling in my legs though, fatigue growing stronger from abating endorphins, is a welcome familiarity. I can’t imagine anything more potent to remind me of the blessings the three of us have received. I can’t imagine ever feeling more satisfied with a climb, more awed by how perfect everything went. For now, I can’t imagine anything beyond the frozen slopes, the crowded summits, the smile-creases burned into our faces.