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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?"

The truth about climbing a mountain like Rainier is that anyone with a strong pair of legs, good lungs, and iron-headed will can do it. Be prepared for a heck of a workout, too. Classmates of mine who had run marathons and participated in Ironman competitions ranked the Rainier climb on a par.

A thick wallet helps, as well. You’ll want to sign up with a world-class guide school like RMI or the American Alpine Institute in Bellingham, Washington. Both run beginner mountaineering courses on Rainier and other icy volcanoes up and down the West Coast, from Mt. Baker near the Canadian border to Mt. Shasta in northern California. Expect to pay around $750 for a five-day trek, roughly $300 for a two-day short course. Rental fees for helmet, crampons, boots, and ice axe add another $75. Scrimp at your own peril. Mountaineering is one activity in which “self-taught” can equal “perished in a crevasse.”

The hazards associated with mountaineering cannot be blithely dismissed, but as Matt says, “At least the risks are obvious, which is a part of why we’re all out here. People lead their lives trying to control risk to zero, then die in a car accident going to the grocery.” We quickly find walking while roped to be more of a challenge than it first looked. Softened snow clumps onto our crampons, requiring a quick knock with the ice axe to dislodge. Our team of four lurches and surges like a conga line. Barely have we gotten the hang of roped travel than we face our first test. After crossing the Cowlitz Glacier, we leave the ice to climb Cathedral Rocks, a crumbly ridge of volcanic rock several hundred feet high. Rather than pause to remove crampons, as I’d expected, we charge uphill in a cloud of choking dust and the clang and spark of metal on rock. On the back side of Cathedral Rocks, we descend to the Ingraham Glacier. Or very nearly.

The glacier itself has torn away from the surrounding rock walls, leaving behind a narrow bridge of ice adhered to the rock. The route ahead dances across this catwalk. Canted at 15 degrees, no wider than 6 feet in places, and ice-rink hard, the traverse demands absolute attention. A slip could be disastrous since other members of the rope team would find it difficult to self-arrest on such hard ice. If one goes over the edge, we all go. Step by careful step, while alternately pulled by the rope from ahead and tugged from behind, we walk to safety.

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