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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?"

That would be evidence enough that mountaineers inhabit an alternate reality. Rainier itself bends reality. I’ve stood on higher mountains (it’s only the fifth highest peak in the Lower 48) and climbed steeper terrain. Yet to gaze at its sheer immensity-it’s head-swiveling, even from distant Seattle-and contemplate scaling to the top seems as presumptuous as climbing the clouds.

By all measures-base to summit relief, circumference, snowfall, glaciation-Rainier is singular among American mountains. Even when on the mountain, you’re reminded of its size, as the setting sun shoots a giant pyramid-shaped shadow across eastern Washington, darkening everything in its path nearly an hour earlier than the surrounding terrain.

On this late-summer morning, the surface of the Cowlitz Glacier is the consistency of a snow cone plucked from the freezer. On a steep stretch, like the 8-foot hump we’re practicing on, boot treads would skid right off. With 12 tungsten carbide crampon points on each boot, though, we find we can ascend and descend at impossibly steep angles. We drill for several hours on the rudiments of crampon and ice axe use-enough to get us through the occasional steep stretch ahead where the old plod-breathe-plod-breathe technique won’t suffice-then circle up.

Our guides, Jason, Matt, and Brenda, unravel three lengths of climbing rope and proceed to tie figure-8 and butterfly knots at regular intervals. “Time to clip in,” says Matt Farmer, our lead guide. He’s a rangy, blonde-haired fellow with a no-worries manner. “Keep the rope on your downhill side, your ice axe in your uphill hand, and don’t let the rope get too tight or too loose.” That’s it. For the better part of two days, we had slogged uphill as individuals responsible only for keeping pace with the guy ahead so as not to embarrass ourselves. As we walk across Cowlitz Glacier, we are three teams linked by more than rope.

This is a mountaineering tale in which nobody dies. Calamity does not call. No avalanches, blizzards, cerebral edema, or frostbite befall our group. At worst, a few stomachs grow queasy, and two members of the group will fail to reach the summit. Everything goes smoothly for five days beneath cloud-free skies-lousy conditions for writing a tragedy-laced best-seller but perfect for learning to mountaineer.

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