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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?"

Perhaps the experience of crossing that bridge best sums up the difference between backpacking and mountaineering. Backpacking is about entering a wilder place and opening your senses. Mountaineering is all about focus. On a big mountain, bodily functions otherwise taken for granted become meaningful. Each step has consequence, each breath is critical. Every morsel of food and gulp of water determines your readiness to handle the stresses of the day. The heightened level of awareness is both exhilarating and exhausting.

The sun is still high when we drop our packs and begin chopping out tent platforms with ice axes and shovels to establish a high camp at about 11,000 feet. This will be our base of operations for several days of learning crevasse rescue techniques, as well as the launch pad for our summit attempt. Travis, my tentmate, and I anchor our tent against Rainier’s vaunted blasts, which never come. The weather is almost disappointingly benign.

By the end of our third day on the mountain, a boisterous camaraderie has developed among the members of our group as total strangers become united by a common experience. We’ve dangled in the blue-ice maw of a crevasse hundreds of feet deep, then clawed our way out using special ice-climbing axes. We’ve sweated through the intricate sequence of maneuvers required to anchor then extract a ropemate who’s fallen into a crevasse. Over dinner, John, a salesman from Snohomish, Washington, regales us with an endless string of bawdy jokes. Brenda, the lone woman on the trip, has heard it all before while guiding other trips, and delivers a few of her own, including one involving Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton, and “I hate Hillary” inscribed in the White House lawn. She sets us howling.

During dinner that night, Matt has an announcement. “I think you guys are ready. Later tonight we’ll go for the summit. So eat up, drink lots of liquids, get to bed early, and we’ll wake you when the time’s right.” We’ll be summiting a day ahead of schedule. An electric current of excitement runs through the group.

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