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August 1999

Climbing: A Higher Calling

In every backpacker's life, there comes a time when you stare awestruck at a mountain and wonder, "What's it like to climb that sucker?"

“Listen up, gang. Now we’re going to climb. Everything up to this was backpacking.”

Jason Tanguay shouts to be heard over the wind and the absorbing silence of 36 square miles of compressed snow. He’s standing at 10,000 feet on the fringes of the Cowlitz Glacier, a dirty-white river of ice tumbling down the east flank of Washington’s Mt. Rainier. Jason is one of three guides leading our group of aspiring mountaineers in a five-day “Expedition Seminar” conducted by the climbing school, Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI). Like the other guides, he is energetic and unfailingly upbeat, but, if I’m not mistaken, I detected a hint of condescension when he said “backpacking.”

I suppose that if Jason considers the relentless 5,000-foot climb in 4 miles from Paradise Visitor Center to the Cowlitz Glacier while wearing heavy plastic boots and a 65-pound pack to be backpacking, then no wonder he wants rid of it. Amen to that. While Jason and I might quibble over the definition of true backpacking, there’s no mistaking that here, beside the Cowlitz, we’re poised to cross a threshold from the familiar into an icy realm known to me and most of my classmates only from magazine photos and adventure specials on television. Just the other day, I was looking up at this very spot while backpacking in the nearby Tatoosh Range. From such close quarters, Mt. Rainier consumed fully half of the sky. Through binoculars, I could make out small black dots traveling up and down Muir Snowfield, which would be our group’s route to Camp Muir and the Cowlitz Glacier. That’ll be me tomorrow, I thought. Abandoning those sun-warmed rocks for the white world visible in my viewfinder struck me as both daunting and challenging.

What’s it going to be like? Can I make it to the top? Would backpacking, which at root would appear to have much in common with mountaineering-lace boots, strap on pack, hike uphill-prepare me for what’s ahead?

Let me say up front that I have no desire to climb Everest; K2 holds no allure. Even Alaska’s frigid Denali, which I’m told I’ll be perfectly capable of climbing at the conclusion of this course, holds no interest. Yet, like a lot of backpackers I know, I have a fascination with high places. I’ve never passed up an opportunity to clamber to any high point in sight. Which is why I found myself looking skyward from atop a 6,500-foot Tatoosh peak, feeling humbled. As I was about to discover, Rainier would be a very different mountain experience.

Each year, 8,000 people attempt the summit of Mt. Rainier. Half make it; the others are turned back by foul weather, dangerous snow conditions, altitude sickness, exhaustion, poor planning, or some combination of the above. Rainier is an imposing mountain that can turn mean in a hurry, yet in climbing circles it’s rated as a “walk up.” In other words, via the most heavily trafficked routes, like the Disappointment Cleaver route our group would take, an ice axe is more walking stick than lifesaver. No death-defying vertical climbing is called for. Just a few falling rocks to dodge, bottomless crevasses to cross, and physical limits to push. Easy, y’know?

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