You may have heard that I recently traveled to the Seattle area to participate in a weeklong mountaineering expedition skills seminar, culminating in a summit climb of Mount Rainier (14,410ft). I made this trip with Bill Bova, Patrick Couture, and Scott Richardson, with whom I have been acquainted for years through my work at UT Austin.
I have just returned to the land of sneakers and smart phones. This is the story of my journey.
Our adventure actually began on Sunday, with meetings, a slideshow, gear check, and foundation training. My high points friends and I enjoyed dinner on Sunday evening in Ashford at the Rainier Mountaineering (RMI) base camp. We assembled on Monday morning for transport to the park and the start of five days of practical expedition skills training, culminating in a summit climb on Mount Rainier.
Mike, our lead guide, habitually wore a cap and glacier glasses and buffered the seriousness of his technical instructions with a deadpan wit that flowed easily and made him an approachable leader. We were there to learn more about mountaineering, and the risks of that vocation demanded attention and respect; Mike set the tone of seriousness and fun and used that dichotomy to keep us engaged. Mustering our attention with, "Guys,..." we were keyed on his voice like dogs to the whistle.
Chris was our second guide and seemed to be born to live on snow. His distinguished laugh could often be heard throughout camp, and his instructions were a consistent dovetail with Mike's.
JT served as our third guide and had the polite habit of asking us about our lives to know us better. Though he had third billing among the guides, his instruction was of equal merit.
These qualities of consistency and equal merit among the three guides made it easy for us to trust them all with our learning and our lives. It never crossed my mind that I would be safer or better served on the rope team of one guide or another--all three formed a great system.
Our seminar team included the Texas contingent (myself, Bill Bova, Scott Richardson, and Patrick Couture), Matt (New Jersey), Bill (Florida), Scott (Minnesota) and John (Florida). Those of us from Texas were part of a High Points team with the goal of summiting the high points of the lower 48 states.
We were dropped at the Mount Rainier National Park parking lot with our gear and were on the trail in minutes. Other people became more scarce on the trail, and the trail eventually became snow. Low clouds and fog made it difficult to determine our place or the time, which played in the interests of our guides: we were out of touch with the world, in an unfamiliar place with days to burn, totally in their hands and ready to learn.
The pattern of instruction followed a method of layering information as it was needed. When we found our first real snow fields, we stopped and learned how to walk with climbing boots on snow. We learned to rest-step as a foundation of climbing efficiency. When hills called for more traction in the snow, we learned how to use crampons. The curriculum and the natural environment complemented each other.
Gaining elevation, we left the trees behind and hiked on through large, hilly snow fields framed by deeply contrasting black rock exposures. After a few hours, with occasional breaks for instruction or rest, we made our first camp in a small snow field at the nose of Paradise glacier.
The guides provided three snow shovels which we used to create a flat footprint for our tents. We also dug boot wells in the vestibules of the tents to make the chore of donning our boots easier. It became apparent to me that my world would be dominated by snow for the foreseeable future: hiking through snow, climbing on snow, sleeping on snow, peeing on snow, drinking melted snow, building structures from snow. This was a real shocker for us Texans. Two other men from Florida felt the same. I kept my eye on the man from Minnesota for clues; he was confident in the snow and handled the shovel like none other but eventually even he was confronted with challenges when climbing in it. I found myself evaluating snow in the same way one might evaluate a potential mate: is it clean or dirty? Fresh or old? Deep or shallow? Is something hidden underneath, like rocks or a big crevasse? Is it going to just dump you, dump on you, melt away, or smother you? Virgin or well trodden? Crusty on top, or fluffy, or flaky, or chunky? Does it have worms? (Yes, I discovered ice worms in glacial snow around Mount Rainier, and even segments of dead ice worms in my water bottle.)
Once our tents were up we rested but the guides industriously continued their camp crafting. A space set aside and away from water sources was created in the snow as a latrine, complete with privacy snow wall, and we were trained in its use and care. The guides built their own tent footprint and then built a canteen in the snow. This canteen, nicknamed "posh" by the guides, was built with a snow saw and careful shoveling techniques. It was essentially a rectangular stepped pit in the snow, about 8' x 6', with a central rectangular snow table. A set of lashed trekking poles supported a nylon canopy. The result was a structure that served both practical and social purposes: water could be boiled in protection from the elements, and we had a place to gather and sit, eating our camp food, all eleven of us neatly crammed inside. To keep from freezing our butts we laid sleeping pads over the stepped snow seats. The water was boiled in a large pot using a multi burner white gas stove whose jet-like sound was the signal of all breakfasts and suppers. When the water was ready, Mike would call, "Guys, come get your hots!"
The weather changed dramatically and always seemed to fit our circumstances. When hiking we were fogged and misted, which kept the sun away and kept us cool when shouldering our heavy packs. Cloud cover held the sun at bay and hid the stunning view while we built camp, keeping us from distraction. During our lunch and rest the skies cleared to "bluebird" in guide parlance, giving us blinding reflected light from the snow but finally letting us gaze at the glaciers and mountains we would soon ascend. I shared a tent with Scott and Bill, and we enjoyed an hourlong nap that afternoon in the tent, the sun warming the air, a cool breeze freshening the sweaty products of our hike, and an utterly silent snowy mountain vista through both ends of the tent.
After making camp and resting we proceeded with more practical instruction. Clad in our waterproof shells we donned helmets and took ice axes to a nearby hill and valley (covered in snow, which you may assume for the rest of this narrative) where we practiced the basics of self arrest. The idea is to use one's ice ax, in combination with your body, to arrest your fall down a snow covered slope. We practiced all manner of positions, including prone or supine with the head first or feet first. The last part of the exercise was practicing a glissade, where one can glide down a slope while seated, controlling the descent with the heels or the ice ax.
Supper in the posh followed, and we were all soon in our tents for the night. It was not unusual to be in bed by 7:30pm on any night, and we were all up again at 7am the next day. Such was the subtle way in which our guides forced us to bank our sleep in preparation for summit day. The sun did not set until after 10pm, and would start to rise again after 4am, so to imagine eleven men snug in their sleeping bags in four orange tents neatly arrayed in a snow field seems unusual, but in truth our bodies and minds were exercised sufficient to require such long rests.
The sum of environmental factors made nighttime bathroom visits a major logistical undertaking. Reducing or eliminating fluid consumption after supper was the strategic way to solve the problem, but many was the time I heard the zippers of sleeping bags, jackets, and tent flaps, followed by the long silence for donning and lacing boots, then more zippers, then tromping away in the snow to the latrine, and the same song in reverse to get back in the tent to sleep. I pitied those who had small bladders. Through the tent walls one night I heard a man boasting about his pee bottle, but even he had to exit his tent to use it, out of consideration of our cramped living arrangements.
The work of the day left us sweaty, and often we were wet from mist, rain, or contact with snow. From the start our guides were concerned with the cumulative effect of damp clothing on our condition, and made sure to instruct us on ways to mitigate that problem. The double boots we used featured a heavy felt inner boot which cushioned and insulated the foot, and feet were always dressed in wool socks. At the end of every day these felt boots and socks must be carefully dried or they will be cold, still wet, and possibly frozen the next morning. The only way to solve this problem was to sleep with these articles in the sleeping bag with you. Keep in mind that most of us rented these boots, so they already had a special odor all their own. I learned where to place the felt boots in the sleeping bag and still enjoy good positions in my sleep, and by Friday my own special odor had largely won the battle of smells and I was accustomed as I could be on the olfactory front--so much so that I didn't really take notice of our combined odor until I observed the slightly open windows and sunroof of Jeff's car on our ride back to Enumclaw at the end of the seminar.
"Guys, hots will be ready in ten minutes." Mike's morning muster brought us to action. Addressing us through the tent walls, Mike would tell us the plan for the day and list what equipment was required. One had to consider boots, gaiters, crampons, helmets, ice ax, which layers of clothing (five options), which gloves (three options), climbing harnesses, hats, sunscreen reminders (apply every hour), and glacier glasses (must be worn anytime there is daylight).
In our three man tent I had claimed the left wall sleeping space, and I slept very well that night on my new air mattress. This mattress was a last minute purchase, made at the RMI base camp, and for which I am pretty sure I paid a premium. I had never slept on snow and I was determined to be comfortable. I was keen to justify this expense by harvesting as many compliments as possible from my tent mates, and I trolled them for air mattress envy at every opportunity. My dreams when camped on the snow were numerous and strange--one in which my wife got a new tattoo and was dying to show it to me, and another in which Patrick was a squatter in my VW camper van--he completely trashed it.
Tuesday was the first day of glacier travel, which meant being on a rope team. In a nutshell, each man wore a climbing harness and groups of three to four men were tied together via a climbing rope attached to the harnesses. Glaciers by their nature have crevasses which can be hundreds of feet deep, and these crevasse openings may be covered with snow. Falling into a crevasse is still considered a certain death, though there are many examples of rescue. Rope teams, with appropriate spacing between the members, self arrest training, and disciplined movement style can mitigate the risk of falls into crevasses or on slopes.
On this day I was placed on a rope team with Mike. Our entire seminar consisted of three rope teams, and our team was scouting the path on the glacier. The hike consisted of a few hours of ascending the glacier, on snow covered slopes ranging in incline angle of 15 to 40 degrees, often on long zig-zagging switchbacks that we chopped out with our feet in the smooth snow. We gained 1500 to 2000 feet on this hike. Following in the steps of the person in front of you is important, as is maintaining the proper interval in rope team member spacing. Poor spacing puts the rope in the heels of the person in front of you, or into your own steps, resulting in crampon damage to the rope or tangling in your feet.
The weather was once again cooperative, with overcast skies and no wind. The guides repeatedly commented on how fortunate our conditions were.
It was on this hike, trying to find a pathway around several crevasses, that I was confronted with my old friend, that anxiety that concerned heights and exposure. I had learned to call it an old friend because I had always believed such an anxiety was healthy in that it protected me from risk. However, rational thinking on the matter easily exposed this protection as a fraud, in that I was conveniently overlooking other greater risks in my life (riding motorcycles, or kayaking, for example) in order to reap enjoyment from those activities. We came to a point where we could not trust the pathway around a crevasse and had to turn around. In this moment I was faced with reorienting myself in my surroundings and walking down a snowy slope between a crevasse and a rock feature with a gaping moat at its base. When I should have been focusing on my footwork I was instead focusing on the possibilities of risk. Keep in mind that I was wearing a 55lb. pack that represented almost 30% of my total mass and made me topheavy. I became anxious and doubly so knowing that our guides were constantly assessing us for capability and risk to the team; it was not likely I would win the game of hiding my anxiety in such unfamiliar circumstances under the watch of such attentive guides. Mike read it in my posture and footwork and gave me a few firm words on my footwork. Our rope team made its way back to another path cut by JT's rope team. Through the fog and mist I saw Chris's rope team, where Bill was roped in, lagging behind. By his own admission Bill's conditioning for this seminar was not fully developed, and he was struggling. I focused on all the fundamentals of glacier travel and finished the hike without incident, but after our camp was made I had more time to brood on this problem.
It did not help that our camp for Tuesday and Wednesday nights was on a 15 degree slope among a greater 20 to 25 degree slope on the glacier. Looking up the slope one could only see the slope horizon as it crested and continued up to even more slopes; looking about 700 meters down the slope one could see a crevasse. To the sides I had my choice of another downward slope with unknown features, or a rise to the mountain ridge with a crevasse where I learned we would conduct our crevasse rescue training the next day.
This was a lot of information to process, but there was little time to think on it because we needed to craft our camp in order to survive there. Portable snow shovels (incautiously referred to as "avalanche shovels" at one point) were produced and we began the work of chopping out the uphill side of the hill and tossing the waste to the downhill side, thus making a tidy 10' x 25' shelf in the slope where we set up our tents. The terrain being more difficult, our guides spent a little less effort building the latrine and canteen. This work consumed almost two hours, after which we were sent to our tents to rest.
We gained 1500 to 2000 feet of elevation during this hike. The temperatures were slightly colder and the weather was more volatile. We mustered on the slope above the tents that afternoon to learn about building anchors in the snow. This entails carefully crafting a rectangular 1' x 2' hole with a shovel, placing a 2' aluminum rail (called a "picket") in the hole on the downhill side nearest the wall of dense, undisturbed snow, passing a nylon webbing runner attached to the midpoint of the picket through another carefully crafted channel at the midpoint snow hole, and then carefully burying the picket. Such an anchor is called a dead man anchor, and there is no doubt it is named that way as a reminder that using only that anchor, with no other redundancy, is asking for death. We learned how to supplement these dead man anchors with another picket, driven directly into the snow as a stake, to make a very reliable anchor. This instruction, which distracted me from my anxiety, also led me on the path to rational thought about mitigating and managing the risks of this environment.
It was late afternoon when a storm raced down the glacier and hit our campsite with cold mist. We were ordered to our tents to stay dry and warm. The guides made hot water for supper and the day was coming to a close. Bill and I had a discussion in our tent about our experiences so far. He was convinced by that day's hike that his conditioning was not adequate, and he also said he was anxious about the exposures on the glacier. I remembered that we had shared this same anxiety during the slide show on Sunday. I said that I felt my conditioning was fine but I was experiencing my similar old anxiety. Notice I no longer referred to it as an old friend--I was working through an oscillation of thoughts at this point, considering all the factors and now starting to see that old anxiety as a leash from which I just might yank free.
Bill informed the guides of his desire to discontinue, and I told him he could add my name to the list. I did this first as a conservative and automatic response to my anxiety, and second because I did not want Bill to return alone to the parking lot. As we sat in our tents I could barely overhear the guides discussing our situation. In reality, the situation was simple: we would all continue up the glacier to Camp Muir (10,000') on Thursday and anyone who wanted to leave would be guided out at that time. This seemed like a reasonable compromise. Patrick made efforts to diplomatically communicate between the guides and us (me and Bill), and I later stepped out and talked to the guides myself, to explain my feelings and also gauge the temperament of the guides. It is important to understand that guide services like RMI must wholly manage the risks their clients face--from when they get on the trail to when they finally depart the base camp for home--and so their approach is a balance between protecting their guides, keeping the group fully populated, and eliminating clients that present a risk to themselves, the guides, or others. It became apparent that seminar participants are constantly evaluated for their efficacy in skills, conditioning, and mental state. In speaking to them on Tuesday night I was registering my anxiety but also my willingness to continue to Camp Muir, and in a subtle way, to go even farther. When the subject of the next day's crevasse rescue training came up (where one is lowered into a deep glacier crevasse), I surprised myself and the guides by saying, "I might like to try that." The leash was slowly coming loose.
One of my favorite German words is "Weltanschauung" which simply translates as "worldview" or one's philosophy on life. This day's weather was clear and sunny--a perfect day for observing and adjusting worldviews.
In the Friday post-seminar briefing at the RMI basecamp I applied the comradery of our all male group and a bit of ribald imagery to describe how I was born again from the crevasse on this day.
Overnight, in the chorus of snoring men, I simply took the metaphorical leash off. I didn't even have to struggle with it. I slept well, stayed warm, dreamed interesting dreams, and awoke with sobering clarity. The sky and snow and air agreed. I told JT and Chris that I wanted to summit. Their responses were a mix of surprise and guarded enthusiasm.
We ate our breakfast and looked at the summit. What looked like three fleas marching down the white snowy slope of the summit was actually a descending rope team. I tried to point out the climbing party to some men standing next to me and referred to the crest of the summit as a nipple. There was an awkward silence due to my word choice. I said, "I miss my wife," and everyone had a good laugh. A guide who shall remain nameless followed up with, "everyone like nipples." More laughter and grunts of approval.
We donned our equipment, roped up, and hiked over to the crevasse just north of our camp. The guides chopped a set of benches in the slope and we sat in the sun while they prepared a network of anchors in the snow. Chris was then staged between the two crevasse rescue training stations as a secondary belay system. I took my place on the first team and helped arrest the simulated fall of our man from Minnesota (his name was Scott), who was a healthy specimen. While he dangled inside the crevasse I led the recovery team, under Mike's careful instruction, in the effort to haul Scott out and succeeded in short order. Mike called for the next fall victim and I volunteered. It could sometimes be difficult to read Mike's reactions behind his glacier glasses, but I thought I detected some surprise.
I soon found myself hanging alone on a climbing rope attached to my harness, 20 feet below the snowy lip of a deep crevasse in the Paradise glacier. A bank of snow 60 feet below me was a false bottom--the crevasse continued down to an unmeasurable depth. The sun was shining brightly overhead, casting light and warmth into the crevasse. My fellow climbers on top could not be heard unless they yelled over the lip and down into the crevasse.
I had no problem with this situation. I was happy to be there and confident in our system of equipment and knowledge. I knew the risks and knew they were being managed. The reward was confident happiness in the face of that risk. Another man, John from Florida, was lowered down near me at the next rescue station. A crevasse affords total privacy for anyone within, and we had a brief conversation about his failed summit attempt last year and the risks involved. As he snapped a photo of me I said, "yesterday I had resigned myself to not summiting, but today I want to go for it."
I was soon hauled out. My happiness was somewhat intoxicating and I had to be careful and remain focused during the remainder of the rescue training. The remains of the day were spent in reviewing belay systems and mechanical ascenders. The sun set below the snow slope above our tents and we went to bed.
Hiking up Paradise Glacier brought us to the Muir snow field, where we encountered other people for the first time since Monday. This lengthy snow field is a gently sloping highway that safely takes park visitors from the parking lot to Camp Muir, where many summit teams commence their climbs. After another hour of ascending the snow field we arrived at the camp and claimed our tents. A ravine in the middle of the camp formed the start of the trail up the mountain. One side of the ravine served the public and was arrayed with numerous tents and a set of very busy pit toilets. Climbers and more casual day hikers mingled and busied themselves. A woman appeared in a sari with a photographer in tow. Small groups practiced self arrest on the wall of the ravine. The other side of the ravine was reserved for the guide services and the National Park Service ranger hut. RMI held a prominent position here, and the guides could frequently be seen industriously tidying the tents, preparing gear, or enjoying the relative comforts of their austere quarters. Mike produced freshly made quesadillas which were enjoyed by all.
I had told my Texas friends Bill, Scott, and Patrick that I would join them on the summit climb. I found Mike that afternoon and told him I was in. I heard some surprise and enthusiasm in his reply. The stage was set.
I noticed the guides building a new tent platform from the snow in the ravine and learned that Peter Whittaker would be sleeping there and climbing on Friday just ahead of us. As one of the principals of RMI and a well known mountaineer Peter needed no introduction. In our view our intrepid guides were the best on the mountain and afforded us a feeling of certainty in our summit attempt, and Peter's presence added a shine to all the chrome. This was a good omen.
Weather dominates everything on Mount Rainier. Summit climbs with the RMI guides will often start at midnight, to take advantage of the most reliably favorable weather and because the routes are less populated with other climbers in the early hours. Teams make the first 2,000 feet of their ascent in the dark and it was a stirring sight to see a string of tiny white headlamps marching slowly up the switchbacks and through Cathedral Gap, the gateway to our summit route. Like giddy children on Christmas Eve we were sent to bed early at 6pm and told to stay horizontal until the guides wake us at midnight. We prepared our packs according to specific instructions from our guides. Laid in our tents in forced slumber, our side of the ravine became quiet; visors were dug out to block the daylight from our faces and earplugs were applied to stifle the evening revelry among the campers on the public side. One camper in particular had a penetrating laugh that undoubtedly conquered all earplugs on our side, but his party thankfully ended around dusk. Soon it was dark. The moon was bright over camp and a strong wind began to blow down the mountain and through the ravine. Tent walls shook and popped in resistance. Snow and ice began to blow. Nobody slept.
FRIDAY, ACT I: ASCENT
The rainfly zipper in our tent was slowly pulled open and JT placed a pot of hot water in the vestibule. "Here's some hot for you guys. It's midnight. We rope up in one hour."
Since I had slept with my oatmeal packets my breakfast was ready in seconds. Next to me Scott fiddled with something in a plastic bag. Next to Scott lay Bill, who would not be joining us but was stirring to give us the best possible send off.
At 1am we were gathered in the ravine. I was in the third rope team with JT leading, myself in the middle, and Patrick trailing. I tried not to see this position as an assignment of doubt from the guides, but I accepted that they couldn't look into my head and see what I was truly made of that day. It was obvious that many eyes were on me but I was accustomed to being underestimated. When the headlamps were pointed at my face I met their gaze, smiled, and let them watch.
We were marching forward. Peter Whittaker's team was a few minutes ahead of us. We scrambled up the snow path and through the rocks at Cathedral Gap to Ingraham Flats. More than an hour had elapsed and this was our first stop. Word was passed through our rope teams that one man was already turning back and JT would have to take him back down to Camp Muir. Seated on my pack, I drank water and ate a snack while the rope teams were reconfigured. JT politely hovered over me and, in a cautionary tone, gave the speech I was expecting to hear. It was broadcast to everyone but intended especially for me.
"From here on you need to be 100% in. We are only 1/8th of the way through. There's no shame in turning back right now. Tell me in your own words that you are 100% committed. This is heads up terrain. Disappointment Cleaver is ahead of you and it is the crux of this climb. There are no missteps on the DC. Think carefully and give me your answer. "
I watched as Patrick was moved to another rope team and JT roped up with Florida Bill who was going back down to Camp Muir. I gave my answers. Headlamps found me again, and I was questioned again. I ate my half frozen Snickers bar and confirmed my intent to continue. Ice crystals were forming in my water bottle.
Chris took me into his rope team with Florida John and Minnesota Scott. I was positioned directly behind Chris in the team. He gave us some optimistic encouragement as we started up Disappointment Cleaver.
What is in a name? So many assumptions and connotations can be made when reading about Disappointment Cleaver. It reminded me of an unmarked scramble up the side of King's Peak in Utah. The DC was difficult in the dark but it felt familiar. If this was the crux, I was going to be fine. We reached the top of DC, squinted at the shadow of Little Tahoma peak behind us, and took our second rest on Emmons Glacier. The wind had started blow from the summit with indifference and cold. What the guides had said was true--the mountain doesn't care about you.
We wore or carried in our packs the five layers of clothing required for this climb, plus three types of glove, ski goggles, and water. Our guides usually suggested what to wear, but this time we were given firm instructions to wear our heavy parkas. In ideal conditions these parkas were meant to be worn only on the summit on calm days, where the air temperature would be in the teens. We were only halfway up the mountain and already required them. Larger chunks of ice formed in my water bottle.
The next thousand feet included two crevasse crossings made possible through the use of aluminum extension ladders bridging the gaps. One only had to grab an adjacent hand rope, pull tension, and step fluidly across, minding one's own rope lines along the way. I found Mike at the first ladder watching my progress. I crossed "in good style" (as the guides say) and did it again at the second ladder. A series of running belays then greeted us. These belay systems are used to provide extra protection against falls in high risk areas, and encountering them calls for added vigilance. Clipping in and out of belays is always done with announcements of "anchor!" upon arrival at the running belay anchor, and "climbing!" once one's clipping actions are complete. With Peter Whittaker's team we now constituted at least four rope teams slowly working through this slope; lots of yelling, with added effort because of the increasingly violent winds, meant that heads were on swivels and awareness of everyone was vital.
Another hour elapsed working through this part of the climb. I started to hear talk of everyone turning back if the wind got much worse. Whittaker kept going, the guides kept going, and my seminar team kept going. Chunks of ice whizzed by in the wind and occasionally bounced off my helmet. The call to don our ski goggles was made.
It would be difficult to overstate the intense and broad scope of sensory stimulus we endured at this moment. A bright orange sun arose at our backs. A 60mph wind shifted west to east without warning, howling in our ears. Cold air numbed any exposed skin and stung our nostrils. A sweaty smell from breathing through buffs already worn a week on the glaciers. A mouth tasted bitter and dry and a voice made hoarse from breathing the cold air. Blood pulsed in my ears and every breath was a noisy effort against the altitude and hypoxia. Ever present gravity pulled me down. We skipped the last rest point and continued up the final slope 1000 feet to the summit crater.
Imagine the worst pillow fight you ever experienced and then replace the pillows with mattresses. Ascending the last 1000 feet put the wind directly in our faces and every few seconds it felt like someone was slamming a mattress into my body. The exhaustion came from fighting back against these constant assaults. Chris later described me as "the human kite" for the way in which I would sail off the route, tethered to his harness. I was reaching the point of exhaustion when Chris became a human tractor and dragged me up over the lip of the summit crater. After five hours of climbing we had arrived.
FRIDAY, ACT II: DESCENT
Chris gave us all a quick handshake and took a photo. The wind blew furiously and nobody escaped its force. Trying to communicate by yelling into the ear of the man next to you produced no results. Chris dragged us out of the crater to the relative shelter of some rocks just outside the crater lip. We had spent about 90 seconds on top. Another 90 seconds for water and food, and down we started. It was impossible to stay any longer. The mattresses kept coming.
On the descent our rope teams worked in reverse: the guide stayed at the rear and a strong climber, in our case Minnesota Scott, led us down the mountain.
Descending a mountain is harder and more dangerous than ascending. I knew this would also be the greatest test of my reborn self. We marched down the narrow snow trails and enjoyed the views while focusing on my footwork. We still had violent wind but we moved safely according to the methods we had been taught.
Occasionally, as the winds became weaker, I heard Mike's voice mention my name on the radio, asking Chris how I was handling the exposure and heights. Chris reported back that we were doing great. I was glad to have so many minders. Mike rhetorically asked "what fears?!?" and then declared me the world's greatest sandbagger.
I took that title back to Camp Muir, where we were greeted by Bill, Florida Bill, and JT. It was sunny and calm. We wasted no time in repacking for the trip down the Muir snow field to the parking lot.
FRIDAY, ACT III: BACK TO CIVILIZATION
In the final miles of our hike out of Mt. Rainier National Park we could judge our proximity to the parking lot, where our shuttle back to Ashford awaited us, by the quality of the trail and the footwear of other park visitors. Snow trails became slushy and brown, giving way to compacted dirt trails and finally a punishing downhill blacktop path. The double boots, snow boots and other climbing boots of the glacier travelers and climbers became increasingly scarce among the sneaker shod sightseers scrambling along the trails. Reactions to us were equally telling: stares became increasingly unapologetic as we approached the sounds of car doors slamming and children playing. A man with an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips caused me to wonder at his motives for being there, a wondering unnecessary when on the glaciers or the mountain. One man faced us, recognized our backcountry exodus, and exercised his chance to be the herald of new information, saying, "Have you heard about France?" We smiled in our innocence and said no. Some of our glow faded as he mentioned the details of that tragedy.
A mixed bag of passively curious and indifferent bystanders signaled our arrival at the shuttle. Our RMI hosts greeted us with water and a duffel bag containing the street shoes we had left behind on Monday. I caught myself cataloging the shoes of my companions of the last week in a final attempt to know them better before heading our separate ways. I realized it was still Friday, but already Act III in this drama, and laughed at how one day can seem like so many: once again, a day of days, or in this case, a day in Four Acts.
FRIDAY, ACT IV: FAREWELL
Back at the RMI base camp in Ashford we "yardsaled" our packs and turned in our rented gear. Our three guides and the eight seminar climbers gathered for a debrief and comments. Everyone had something sincere to say about the week's experience and the summit climb. I spoke last and my comments on being born again came straight from the hip. I especially thanked Chris for helping me through this unforgettable day.
Jeff met us at the base camp, packed us all into his Prius, and drove us back to Enumclaw. We were greeted by his wife Valerie and a fine supper of roasted lamb, chicken kebabs, potatoes, zucchini salad, ginger beer and peanut butterfinger pie. I retreated to my loft bedroom and had to laugh when I caught myself rest-stepping on the stairs. I was asleep instantly.
I thought my adventures on this trip were over--big mistake. I cooked a breakfast of omelettes for the four of us. We packed our bags and Jeff drove us to the airport. We bade a fond farewell to Jeff and caught the light rail into Seattle.
Once we arrived downtown I obtained a car2go, shook the hands of my three companions, and went on alone to explore.
My Airbnb was located in West Seattle. I drove there, got rid of the car2go and stowed my gear bag. My phone was dead so I left it behind--I had already gone a week without needing it.
It was a sunny Saturday afternoon in West Seattle and the seasons had changed in just the last week, bringing forth the people in an orgy of sun worship and enjoyment of the outdoors. I had been warned of the "Seattle freeze," how so many locals isolate themselves and eschew any opportunity to interact with others. I set out on foot to find the thawed Seattle.
Lincoln Park is a massive green space through which it seems all of West Seattle eventually courses. Hugging the shore of Puget Sound, the park has something for everyone and has miles of trails. I walked among tall cedar trees through numerous cool grassy glades where families picknicked and millennials stared at their screens. I watched a swim meet at the public pool and was welcomed into a massive Colombian cultural festival. Food was offered and dances commenced. I watched and walked on, pausing briefly to just sit and think on the seashore.
I wondered why I had not had any deeper emotional reaction to the events of the week. Back at Enumclaw I listened to Patrick with some admiration and envy as he described his spontaneous, tearful reaction following our summit. I looked out to the water and saw the ferry going to Vashon Island. I continued walking.
On the upper foredeck of the ferry I was afforded a comprehensive view of the western face of Seattle. The sun had passed over the zenith and was now causing the entire landscape to bask and move in summer's delight. Clouds obscured all the mountains to the east and I wondered if I would ever see Mount Rainier outside of our days on the glaciers.
With no phone, no map, and no plan I walked off the ferry onto Vashon Island. Soon I was alone on quiet rural roads where the landscape was dotted with homes clad in cedar shakes. I expected to see other people and found none. I walked for hours, found the high point on the island, and decided to return to the ferry. Stretching my legs out alone in the quiet led to my mind stretching out as well.
Returning to West Seattle around 6pm on the ferry I found myself again on the foredeck looking at the distant Colombians, whose party was still raging on the Lincoln Park beach. I scanned the eastern sky and for a brief moment the clouds parted and Mount Rainier dominated the horizon. In a gasp I cried and my tears filled the frames of my glacier glasses. After wiping my eyes I looked again and the clouds had reclaimed the mountain. What a great crucible--the mountain and the whole experience. It was one of those rare moments of lucidity when you become aware of a life changing experience and the memory of it elevates to a permanent part of one's being.
POSTLUDE: WEST SEATTLE PEOPLE
HEATHER'S BIRTHDAY PARTY
Hunger turned me back towards my Airbnb on Fauntleroy street. People were exiting Lincoln Park and heading on to their homes and evening meals. I continued walking and heard thumping from high on a hill above Lincoln Park. Getting closer I saw smoke and young people dancing in a park space above the Lincoln Park tennis courts and community garden. I began rest-stepping on the sidewalk up the hill towards the thumping music. I had already walked about ten miles today, so another hill was no problem.
A small gasoline generator purred off to the side at the top of the hill, powering a portable DJ station where two men kept a constant beat thumping through a set of enormous speakers pointed out towards the bay. A small group of 20 and 30 somethings of all colors, shapes and sizes enjoyed beers and bratwurst while dancing to the music. Some folks lounged on blankets, and a few talented women swung their bodies in hula hoops to the delight of all. I sat in the grass apart from them and the setting sun cast an incredible glare on the bay waters and on us. I was quickly waved into the group. Introductions came easily. I had found the thawed of West Seattle.
"I'm Shark Dentures and this is p.Wrecks! Have a beer! Have something to eat!" I hadn't even played my "I'm from Austin" card yet and I was already welcome to stay and party. Shark Dentures and p.Wrecks were DJs and this was a birthday party for p.Wrecks' sister Heather. Heather, a tall young woman in a long and flattering dress floated over to me as I talked with Shark Dentures. She smiled from behind her mirrored heart shaped sunglasses, clasped my left hand in hers, and leaned in to me. "Hi! I'm Heather! Welcome to my birthday party!" She floated off to greet a juggler who had just arrived on the scene. One man soberly grilled the food, but everyone else assumed an air of celebratory repose. I drank a beer--my first in weeks--and let the music and the setting sun wash over me. Satisfied in this excursion, I thanked Shark Dentures and p.Wrecks and walked back down the hill to Fauntleroy, where I caught the bus to the center of West Seattle.
SYLVAN AND EMILIE
I stepped off the bus craving sushi. I walked 100 feet and found a busy sushi bar where one seat was available. I was quickly seated and found, to my delight, that the owner, Hajime Sato, was behind the bar and would be serving me. I had always wanted to try sushi this way. I pushed aside the menu, folded my hands, and smiled at Sato.
"I've been sleeping on snow and eating rehydrated food for the past week. Surprise me three times," was my order. A serious look came over his face. Some minor but necessary questioning assured him that I could and would eat anything placed before me. Such was the delight of the ensuing three hours that I lost track of time, and I was indeed surprised three times. Sato beamed and doled out free sake.
At some point a couple seated next to me struck up conversation. Empty nesters in the medical profession living in West Seattle, Sylvan and Emilie were politely curious about my seminar on Mount Rainier and Emilie quickly caught on that this was a life changing experience. She produced a photo of her son, whom she described as a wallflower. In that recent photo her son stood naked, except for a modestly placed baseball cap, atop Mount Whitney in California. It seems her son was enjoying the same rewards I had enjoyed. We spoke for some time and exchanged emails and phone numbers. They offered their basement as a place to stay on my next visit.
I paid the bill, walked out of the restaurant, took the bus home and fell into bed. By 8am the next day I was seated at terminal B6 at the airport, waiting to fly home.kourt.dehaas.com writings