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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?"

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“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?

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.

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.

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.

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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