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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?"

As promised, Matt rouses us early-2 a.m. The idea behind the early start is to be up and down from the summit before the mountain stirs. A glaciated volcano like Mt. Rainier is in a continuous process of decay, shedding rock and ice in deadly combination when warmed by sun. Our stretch of luck with the weather continues. When we get underway, the wind is calm and the temperature relatively warm. Our headlamps light the way.

“You guys all right back there?” Brenda’s voice comes at me from the dark, then I see the beam of her headlamp swing in my direction. She’s leading our three-person rope team. I’m second. John, the jokester from Snohomish, anchors. Brenda maintains a brisk pace as we negotiate the jumble of seracs and crevasses where the Ingraham Glacier cascades to the more placid area where we’d established high camp. Like a sensitive tripwire, the rope between Brenda and me betrays my hesitation at what lies ahead. A metal ladder stretches across a jet-black crevasse. Plywood covers the rungs, making the 18-foot gap no more tricky than what I’ve just walked. That’s what my conscious self says. My reptilian, survive-at-any-cost brain stem says, “There’s a 200-foot drop-off on either side, you idiot.” Prepared to leap if my feet fail me, I somehow successfully walk the tight wire.

Our rope team shortly catches up with Cole, the anchor on Jason’s rope. The entire team had just gone into self-arrest position because Andy, a lawyer from Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, had yelled, “Falling.” It turns out Andy had strayed a few feet off route and crashed through the crust up to his waist. “My feet were dangling in the air,” he’d tell us later that day. We wouldn’t know until the return trip that this would be the most hazardous section of the climb. “Alright, we move fast through the section ahead,” Brenda advises John and me. “It’s a rockfall zone and shouldn’t be too bad at this hour. But we just want to be safe. After that, we climb a snow bridge to get onto Disappointment Cleaver.”

Rocks the size of cantaloupes litter the path ahead. From above, I hear a worrisome clatter and pick up the pace. In the dark, the snow bridge is no sweat; its true precariousness would be revealed only later in daylight.

Disappointment Cleaver proves to be an interminable march through scree and loose rock. Early in the climbing season, avalanche danger on the cleaver forces many climbing parties to turn around, hence the name “Disappointment.” It was at this juncture three months earlier that an RMI-led rope team much like ours encountered the merciless power of Rainier. Swept away by an avalanche that would launch them over the edge of a cliff to certain death, the team’s rope snagged on a boulder at the last second. With help from nearby climbers, all members of the rope team were pulled to safety, except for one climber who perished of exposure before he could be rescued. He had the misfortune of dangling in an icy torrent of snowmelt. The wind picks up, and I’m almost thankful for the dust that swirls into my mouth and eyes.

Daybreak finds us close to the summit. We’ve edged around Ingraham Glacier’s bergschrund, the mammoth wall created where the glacier breaks off from the mountain’s permanent ice cap. We pause one last time before the summit push. Less than an hour’s worth of deep, rhythmic breathing and digging deep for reserves of energy will bring us to Rainier’s twin summit cones. Up here, the air is noticeably thinner.

The steep slope we lean against skips downhill for several hundred feet before disappearing. Next stop, Paradise, 8,000 feet below. The sun’s first rays light Washington’s Mt. Baker, Glacier Peak, and Mt. Adams, and Oregon’s Mts. Hood and Jefferson. They soar above the still-dark earth like rosy-hued cumulonimbus. North to south, the view extends more than 300 miles. Only from the window of a jet plane have I seen anything comparable. At that moment, perched at 13,500 feet in a blue dawn, I understand the appeal of mountaineering: You can step onto a cloud.

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