This article first appeared in Backpacker’s April 2008 issue.
Yesterday, retired Army National Guard First Lieutenant Ed Salau slipped the scarred stump of his left leg into a $30,000 hydraulic-fitted carbon-fiber and titanium prosthetic and headed for the top of Mt. Rainier.
He didn’t make it.
But the end of the climb is not the end of the story. The story is how Salau–a trim man who still carries himself with the bearing of his 12 years as a Marine–stomped his way up to Camp Muir, well short of the summit but well above the clouds. How he went barefoot in the snow. Why–even knowing he would go no higher–he spent an afternoon flinging himself face-first into the slush, rehearsing self-arrest and getting kicked in the noggin for his efforts. And then there are all those terrific campfire tales only a one-legged man can tell–the one about the kid in Dunkin’ Donuts, the one about the woman in the bar, and the one where he tells his teenage boy, “Son, I will plant my foot in your ass and leave it there!” The one about spotting the guy with the grenade launcher right about the time it fired.
There will be time for the stories. But right now it is late afternoon. The light is beginning to flatten across the Cowlitz Glacier. Several climbing groups are preparing for summit attempts, and there is a bustle of to and fro throughout the smattering of tents pitched in the Muir notch. Salau’s group will strike out at 11 p.m., hoping to stand atop Rainier by morning. Earlier, the guides huddled, and then one of them–Art Rausch, who’s summited Rainier 150 times–separated from the group to speak quietly with Salau. We’ve talked it over, said Rausch, and it’s just not going to work.
Ed Salau understands why he is being left behind. Despite everything he has done since his last two-legged day on earth–skydiving, waterskiing, downhill skiing, running–he has learned, he says, that you are not going anywhere that one leg won’t let you go. It is not about admitting defeat; rather it is about acknowledging reality. And there is strength in that.
But right here in the moment, he cannot lie. He is not happy. That is why he has taken himself away from the group to stare off at the foothills of eastern Washington, to watch them go orange as the day fades. He has walked away from the tents a good distance. His back is turned to the campsite. He holds himself ramrod straight between the crutches, and he wishes he were somewhere else.
He feels, he says, like the last kid picked.
Down among the tents, Captain Scott Smiley is trying to rest. He is propped against a backpack, awaiting supper. Smiley is a big man, broad-shouldered, with the reasonable musculature of a pre-steroidal tight end. His catalog-worthy features–bold but proportionate nose, wide cheekbones, and a solid outcropping of jaw–are nicely normalized by a grin just crooked enough and ears just jug enough to cast him as a corn-fed kid. In the fading sunlight, Smiley has yet to remove his sunglasses, and they conceal the most striking feature of all: two luminous blue eyes. Smiley is a decorated soldier whose war experience has received a lot of press coverage, and invariably the photographers focus on those beautiful eyes. The eyes are not real. Smiley wears them as much for us as for himself. When he steps off toward the mountaintop tonight it will be dark, but Smiley has grown used to dark.
In 2005, while on patrol in Mosul, Iraq, Smiley spotted a car that squatted low to the ground. The driver was motionless behind the wheel. Suspecting the car was loaded with explosives, Smiley considered shooting him, but nothing is certain, so he hollered and fired warning shots. “The driver slowly raised both hands,” says Smiley, “and then the car just disappeared.” Shrapnel drove into Smiley’s head. One eye was gone, and the other was blinded. The right side of his body was paralyzed. The medics who took him in figured he wouldn’t make it. He was still in his hospital bed when a social worker suggested his wife should sign the papers necessary to have him discharged. She refused.
Rehabilitation commenced almost immediately. Over time, the paralysis receded. He learned to walk again. He carried a piece of his skull around in his abdomen while his brain mended, only to see the bone discarded and the gap filled with acrylic. He hoped his right eye might be repaired, but it didn’t happen. He set about learning Braille and how to walk with a white stick.
And he stayed in the Army–helping others drive an evolution in military policy that is beginning to regard the wounded soldier not as a limited resource to be jettisoned but as someone uniquely prepared to serve the mission in other capacities.
One year after his injury, Smiley was assigned to Army Accessions Command, helping to prepare new soldiers and their families for the transition from civilian to military life. Now he is obtaining his MBA from Duke University in preparation for a career as a professor at West Point. If he makes it to the top of the mountain tomorrow, he will have to hustle back down, because on the following evening he is due in Washington, D.C., to be recognized as the Army Times Soldier of the Year.
Ed Salau and Scott Smiley have come to the mountain hoping other soldiers will follow. Smiley is here at the behest of Micah Clark, executive director of Camp Patriot, a nascent nonprofit intended to arrange for volunteer guides to take disabled veterans on outdoor adventures, and Salau is representing the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP), an organization he first encountered when representatives delivered a backpack of toiletries to him bedside at Walter Reed. Five weeks later, they took him downhill skiing. “I didn’t even have my prosthetic leg yet, and I was going fast,” he says. “My kids looked at me and they were thinking, ‘Hey, Dad’s back!'”
I tell people there are two kinds of amputees—those who have fallen, and those who will fall again. You know, get over it. It’s going to happen.
A New Jersey native, Salau went straight into the Marine Corps after graduating in the bottom five percent of his high school class, completing boot camp 21 days before his 18th birthday. His service earned him a college education, and he found work as an occupational safety and health specialist. The position was still waiting for him when he returned from Iraq. “I stayed on for a while,” he says, “but after the the combat and rehab, the desk job wasn’t a good fit.” In February 2006, he joined the staff of WWP, where his responsibilities include management of an adaptive sports program for wounded soldiers.
The point, he says, is not just to take veterans on a hike, but to help them re-engage the world. “I lost a leg, but I had an MBA and a job. I kept thinking of all these kids in my command, 19-year-olds who came straight from some small town or inner city, often from difficult circumstances, without the best academic background. They don’t know what they’re capable of in the first place; then they get hurt and suddenly they’re back home looking in the mirror thinking they are less of a person. That’s why I go to work.”
“Let’s go, Art!” says Ed Salau, feigning irritation. “Standing is the worst thing an amputee can do!” It’s Sunday morning and sunny. Guides Art Rausch, Curtis Fawley (121 summits of Rainier), and Ashley Garman are making last-minute preparations outside the Paradise visitor center. Salau knows he’s in for a long haul, but at least when he’s moving the pressure on his stump shifts. Too much compression in one area, for too long, produces a painful spot that can go raw and become infected. Rausch gives the go-ahead; Salau leads out. He’s still on the paved trail and within earshot of the parking lot when he falls. The plastic boot on his prosthetic foot scuffed the asphalt and over he went. Crutches, backpack, the whole works. A small group of dayhikers rubbernecks as he struggles to stand. “When I was learning to walk again, I wasn’t afraid of falling,” he says. “I was afraid of people seeing me fall. It was a pride factor. Now I tell people there are two kinds of amputees–those who have fallen, and those who will fall again. You know, get over it. It’s going to happen.”
He’s back on his feet now (his foot now, you think), back at the head of the line. Planting those crutches, trying to get the angle on how to best swing that heavy boot. He meets a steady counterflow of pedestrians, and invariably it’s eyes straight ahead until he’s past, then the heads spin and the murmuring begins. It’s natural enough: To see a line of men headed for a mountain and one of them missing a leg and feel the need to comment. Some give him an attaboy. To which Scott Smiley responds, “Who’s that?” and Curtis Fawley explains. Everyone notices the man with one leg, but Smiley is just another guy in sunglasses.
Fawley has three miniature jingle bells attached to his backpack with a plastic zip-tie. The plan was for Smiley to follow the sound, but the bells don’t jingle unless Fawley reaches around and tickles them, so instead he has taken to clicking his climbing poles together behind his legs. Micah Clark is close on Smiley’s heels, watching his boots intently, giving him play-by-play. “Rock to your right…straight ahead now…more to your left…” Smiley hikes impassively for a good long stretch. He keeps his face oriented directly to the fore. If you have time to study him, you’ll see he never looks down, which doesn’t strike you as unusual until you notice it. Each foot hesitates just prior to touchdown, that extra millisecond allowing the nerves to give the brain the lay of the land. Now and then his boot strikes toe-first with a plasticky thump.
“To your left, Scotty,” says Clark.
“Micah, you’re gonna have to stop talking,” says Smiley. “You’ll be worn out before we get up this mountain.” You can hear the grin in his voice, the timbre that’s unexpectedly boyish and light in comparison to his stature and experience.
The peak is far above, and the group is still walking on asphalt. But behind them, Paradise drops away. Off to the left, on the other side of the Wapowety Cleaver, Van Trump Park is a cauldron of rolling mist. Already you can see for miles and miles.
Within an hour, the group reaches its first snow at around 5,600 feet. “We’ll break here, guys,” says Art Rausch. Salau steps into the snow and tips over. The climbing boot is just too clunky. After Salau gets himself upright and seated on his pack, Rausch kneels and removes the boot. “Let’s try something different,” he says, stripping the sock away to reveal a tan plastic foot that looks–right down to its sculpted toes–like it was filched from a department store mannequin. This “foot shell” slips over the actual weight-bearing base of the prosthetic to provide an anatomical fit inside a boot or shoe. The image of Ed eating a candy bar with one bare foot plonked in the snow makes the other climbers giggle. “Maybe the crampon,” says Rausch, unrigging a pair from Salau’s pack. Salau detaches his prosthetic at the knee and hands it to Rausch, who straps the crampon to the foot. He has to modify the perforated adjustment plate, and Ed gives a campy wince as Rausch uses a pair of multitool pliers to crimp the cold steel around the flesh-toned heel. Salau reattaches the leg and stands to check the balance: better. It’s a distinctive look: one orange climbing boot and one nude-footed Franken-sandal. There are snow crystals on his toenails.
The break ends. The men shoulder their packs, taking a moment to squint across the snowfield and up the Nisqually Glacier all the way to the summit, brown and white against the blue sky. They are mountain climbers. Ed leads the way back to the trail, pausing a moment to let pass a pair of chubby first-graders in flip-flops.
There is a ways to go.
A point of semantics: First Lieutenant Ed Salau did not lose his leg. Tough to lose your leg, he will point out, when it is strapped across your sternum, just six inches below your chin. Standard military procedure. The leg was apocalyptically detached, but it was not lost. That would come later, when the docs determined the damage was irreversible. From the day he got his orders for Iraq, he knew he might be killed or wounded. “I had accepted that,” he says. “But I was a runner. I trained hard, and I ran for fun. And I do remember thinking, ‘As long as nothing happens to my legs…'”
He was leading the platoon home from a patrol. It was getting dark. He was on lookout, standing in the turret of a Bradley fighting vehicle. “Head on a swivel,” he says. “Look left, look right, look…there he is.” The first grenade was already on its way. It slammed into the vehicle, shattering the armor plating. The second grenade hit in the same spot, penetrating the vehicle, taking off Salau’s leg and that of his gunner. First chance, he stuck his hands down his pants to make sure he had his gonads. “You’re good, sir,” said the medic attending him. Still bleeding, and he was already learning to recalibrate the standard for positive developments.
He’s up there now, on point, humping along. Viewed from the rear, the backpacks ride high in a neat stair-stepped file, but every time Ed swings that leg through, his pack wags off-kilter like a shoulder-mounted metronome. Tick by tock, the cumulative lateral movement ratchets up his workload. The trail has turned gravelly and uneven. He’s sweating. A breeze crosses the snow and cools his face. Rausch has had him redistribute a few items from his pack among the other climbers. His crampon grates in the shale. He is fighting for every foot of territory.
For his part, Scott Smiley is going pretty much unnoticed. Just stepping quietly along, tap-tapping his poles, sometimes using them like curb feelers to find larger stones beside the trail. Clark and Fawley cue him now and then, and in steeper rock jumbles he reaches ahead with his hands and sorts things out that way. He can feel the sun and then the breeze, hot and cool, and sometimes he smells the scent of fir trees. The other climbers feed him scenes now and then, describing how the treeline has given way to rocks and snow, how the clouds are skiffing past the peak, how his progress is being surveilled by a distant marmot. Off and on he has heard the sound of water, and now he hears it grow more insistent. It is time to cross Pebble Creek.
Ed goes first, and he’s plenty nervous. It’s not the rushing water, it’s the fact that he has to teeter on these rocks. They drop sharply, and if he falls downhill he’s going to take quite a crack. He’s worried about gashing his face, smashing the prosthetic. He moves slowly, placing his crutches and plastic foot with great care, testing the stability, rock by rock. A misty fog has blown in. The stones are cold and gray. Once he commits to swinging his good leg through, he is an inverted pendulum, and all bets are off. “If I do fall,” he says, “I hope to be knocked unconscious so I can feel the pain another day.” Rausch, Fawley, and Garman triangulate, hovering around Salau, but keep their hands off. His lips are pinched with concentration. Rock to rock. The scrape of the crampon, the clunk of the boot. And then, the final pivot. The crampon bites into gravel and everyone exhales.
Scott is more stable, but it takes him longer to place his sticks and feet. Clark holds his left arm, more to steady than to guide him. Garman follows close behind. Smiley crouches, and he places his sticks wide, like outriggers. When he completes the crossing, there are congratulations and smiles all around, but the cheerleading is contained. Everyone is working out the line between encouragement and patronization. After all, the men simply crossed a small creek.
It’s a steep stretch now, up to a nearly vertical snowbank. Ed turns sideways, his prosthetic on the downside. Trading his upside pole for a shorter ice axe, he begins edging up, his left leg doing all the lifting while he drags the prosthetic. He grimaces with effort, his teeth in white contrast to his whisker stubble. The snow bank is cut with chutes and troughs. Descending hikers choose chutes and slide down. Their wind pants pass over the granular snow with a high-pitched zizzzz. “What’s that sound?” asks Smiley. It had not occurred to the rest of the crew to explain the sound. They had seen the sound.
At the next break, Art and Curtis huddle with Ed. He is redlining. At the current rate, it isn’t at all clear that he can continue. Salau is disappointed, but he looks Rausch directly in the eye, and speaks crisply, militarily, matter-of-factly: “What are my options?” It’s a question he’s been asking ever since the grenade.
In the end, Rausch decides to redistribute the weight in his pack further. Everybody takes a few items. “Thanks, guys,” says Salau. It’s a tough moment. Tough for him to have to thank the team, even though every member would gladly take the man up the mountain piggyback. These are the things that go beyond losing your leg. Like having to hand stuff off to people.
The snow is wet and grainy. When the grade allows, Ed faces forward and moves straight ahead. It seems to help when he steps in the footprint of the hiker preceding. But he is puffing out his cheeks now, on the exhale.
Art steps in, helping Salau readjust the prosthesis. They are seeking the perfect uphill combination: knee locked, knee unlocked, sidestepping, whatever it takes. At one point, Salau swivels the plastic foot backward so it pivots off the heel rather than the toes. It’s not the answer, but he leaves some confounding tracks.The sun is dropping. The peak is outlined against the sky. Salau leans into the slope and disappears over the ridge.
He is struggling. He is not stopping.
Salau feels like this trip is bringing him full circle. Camping, and no bad guys. It’s nice to just sit here, agrees Smiley, and not have to face outward.
Salau and Smiley are not being offered up as pioneers: Blind climber Eric Weihenmayer summited Everest in 2001; double-amputee Mark Inglis in 2006. Rather, they are climbing to establish standards and realistic parameters for programs designed to serve a growing population of wounded vets. Each man has been asked to tell his story before–Smiley has addressed the United States men’s Olympic basketball team, has been the focus of several media profiles, and is often called on to speak about his experience. (A devout Christian, his first postwar public appearance was at his hometown church. “I basically bawled for 20 minutes,” he says. “That was my speech.”) Not everyone is inspired: Smiley’s appearance with the basketball team spawned essays on The Nation and Huffington Post websites decrying the use of injured soldiers as a source of motivation.
Salau is not conflicted. “Those of us who have been visibly wounded have a responsibility to garner as much public awareness as we can for the overall needs of those who can’t, or aren’t listened to,” he says. “Whether it’s making the government enact proper legislation or create regulations that serve wounded from this war or 20 years ago, people like Scott build the awareness. This isn’t just about taking guys waterskiing. I am proud of my country, but I am also proud of making sure it does right by its soldiers.”
Behind the climbers the clouds are closing, and when next they rest, they turn to see an otherworldly sight: a multimillion-acre comforter of spun sugar with Mt. Adams poking through like you could swim to it. Farther west, Mt. St. Helens is a collapsed trifle. The sun drops behind the peak of Rainier, and the air chills immediately. When the climb resumes, it’s just crunch and scuff–everybody working along, everyone in their own head. Time and altitude are adding up. The snow is dark blue.
The plan was to make Muir, but at the next rest stop Art points out the ridge that hides the basecamp. “Think you can make it?” Salau looks upslope, then back at Rausch.
The group bivouacs at the edge of a snowfield. Passing by Salau, Micah Clark asks, “How you doin’?” “This is why God made ski lifts!” says Salau. Then he slaps the thigh of his foreshortened leg. “Touch it! You know you want to!” He’s laughing and smartass-y, but his face is drawn. For his part, Smiley has been hiking right along, but when he takes a seat on his bedroll, it looks like he’s down for good.
The guides are prepping dinner, and Salau and Smiley are left alone together for the first time all day. They fall into conversation, their voices a murmur behind the hiss of the gas jets and the soft flap-flap of water boiling. They are talking about the war now. When Smiley came back from Iraq, he was afraid to go out in public. Scared of everyone and anyone, he says. When he thinks of the war, he thinks of the heat and stink, the grit, cars honking, the rattle of his Stryker vehicle, the sound of explosions and small arms fire incoming. He likes the quiet up here on the snowfield.
Ed Salau took his first camping trip as a Boy Scout. Ever since, he says, whenever I had a sleeping bag and a backpack, I also had a rifle. He feels like this trip is bringing him full circle. Camping–and no bad guys. It’s nice to just sit here, agrees Smiley, and not have to face outward.
The sunlight is all but gone, Rainier casting a final shadow across the clouds clear to Yakima. There was this little town, says Ed. Not a village, not quite a city. They had a two-story police station, and every day we made sure that the station wasn’t bothered. The police chief looked to us for security. He knew we had the big guns. We became friends with the people. Spent time in their homes. After I was stateside, they told me a tanker truck pulled up one day. Levelled the building.
We worked so hard, he says after a pause. We worked so hard to keep them safe.
The food is ready. The headlamps cluster, dipping over reconstituted spaghetti. Everyone eats gratefully, the way people do in the cold out of doors after a hard day’s slog.
Then there is the down-muffled whizz of sleeping bag zippers, and the shift of bodies settling. Bone-tired and concerned about contaminating the socket of his prosthetic, Ed detaches his foot but leaves the rest of the device in place. It’s a calculated gamble. “Just like leaving my contacts in at night,” he says. “You wake up in the morning and deal with what you’ve got.”
And then it is quiet. Up above, the sky is shot with stars, the vaporous spray of the Milky Way spanning all creation. In the open air, Salau and Smiley sleep.
Come morning, the clouds have broken up and slipped downslope. The sky is blue, the sun is bright, and Muir is all but in sight. Ed Salau is reinvigorated. He has heard there is a handicapped-accessible restroom at Muir. “That I have got to see,” he says. As with anything in the mountains, the camp is farther than it appears, but Salau is on a mission and pulls away. By the time he reaches the stone hut at Muir an hour later, the word has gone out–a ranger and a cluster of climbers are waiting with congratulations. Salau takes a moment to look back, and his first thought is Holy crap, I just came up that thing! Then he goes hunting for the bathroom. Sure enough, a few rocky steps away he finds a unisex outhouse clearly marked with a blue wheelchair–and a sign that says CLOSED. “Nooo!” moans Salau in mock horror, posing for a picture beside the sign with his titanium leg bent backward.
Rejoining the rest of the group, Salau sits and begins to undo his prosthetic. Smiley is three feet away, relaxing with a snack. Turning his head in Ed’s direction he grins and says, “Hey, this climbing business ain’t that difficult.””Shut up, Scott,” says Ed, removing his leg. For the first time in more than 24 hours, fresh air hits his stump. “Quit starin’ at the nub!” he barks at no one in particular, and about six people avert their gaze. He chuckles. You work up routines, he says. Necessary routines. You’d be surprised, he says, at how many strangers begin with the leg. “‘What happened to your leg?’ they say, so I just look at them and say ‘My name’s Ed, who are you?'” He can change tack depending on the circumstance. “I was in the Dunkin’ Donuts, and this little kid kept staring at my leg. His mom came over and apologized. I told her not to worry about it. At least little kids are honest about their curiosity. Then as they were leaving, she came over again and said the boy wanted to ask how I lost the leg. So I looked him right in the eye and said, ‘Too much PlayStation.'”
He’s looking the stump over now, checking for hot spots. The stump is rounded off, the leg muscle folded over the end of the bone and sealed with scars. There is some redness, but the skin is intact. To re-don the leg, Salau will encase the stump in a “pull sock”–essentially a nylon bag. After pushing the stump into the socket, he will extract the pull sock through a porthole, creating suction that holds the leg in place without straps. Drawback is, that socket can get pretty ripe. Fishing around in his pack, he produces an antiperspirant stick and waves it in the air. “Secret Platinum–strong enough for a man, made for an amputee.”
Ed tells the rest of the story about the kid at the Dunkin’ Donuts, and says when he finally gave the kid the straight answer, that he got hurt being a soldier, the kid looked at him and said, “I prayed for you,” and he stops talking right there, and for the first time all climb, he has tears in his eyes.
Reaching into the pack again, he pulls out a hunk of yellow construction paper. It’s folded into a homemade card–the first one he received after his wounding. It came from a girl named Elizabeth. He carries it everywhere, and it’s creased some, but the bright red “thank you” splashed across the front remains bold. A Valentine-style heart is centered beneath the salutation and flanked by two smiling faces. Inside is drawn what appears to be a smoking pistol and the following inscription: To soldier’s for fiting are cuntrey. Then another heart. And beneath that, another note: Hope you fell beteter!
“Fell better,” he says. He loves that.
After lunch, Art Rausch Turns into a drill sergeant, marching everyone up and down the slopes to practice rope work and rehearse self-arrest. Over and over, he gives the command to fall, and every time, the climbers call out “FALLING!” so that the other members of the rope team have time to brace. Any falling climber relies on his partners, but for Smiley this will be especially critical. He holds himself humped over his axe while Rausch makes the rounds, yanking hips up and pushing shoulders down, making the same rough adjustments as a football coach teaching the proper blocking stance. Salau is flopping to the snow right along with everyone else. He knows by now that he is going no higher and is in no mood, but he hopes the film Fawley is shooting will advance the program. At one point while he is prone, another climber kicks him in the head. It is understandable, then, that once the training concludes, he takes himself off to be alone.
Some who have lived it say the physical damage of combat is shaken more readily than the psychological. This raises the parallel question of whether such things can be repaired by a walk in the wilderness. Right now, Ed Salau could argue either way.
See him standing there? The Paradise parking lot sits somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,420 feet. Camp Muir is at 10,080. Salau has hiked four miles and 4,660 vertical feet. Divide that by your standard 7-inch stair riser, and he has climbed 7,989 stairs. Should you wish to recreate his experience, it will be instructive to prop a piece of plywood against the garage at a declivitous angle, clamber atop it, tie up one leg, and with the other, execute 7,989 lunges. After the first 5,000 or so, go ahead and drop your 40-pound backpack.
Then see who you pity.
Scott Smiley is in bed by 9 p.m. Two hours later, Art Rausch is tugging at his sleeping bag. “I’m not so sure I’m into these alpine wakeups,” chuckles Smiley. Everyone assembles down by the cookstove. Two more guides–Andy Kittleson and Andres Marin–have joined the group. Kittleson will lead Smiley’s team (with Rausch and Fawley fore and aft of Smiley), and Marin will lead the second group of writer, photographer, and Micah Clark. The teams gear up by the light of their headlamps. Little light-pools jerk and slide about to the tune of clinking carabiners, the zup! of harnesses being tightened, the crunch of boots in hard snow. Ashley Garman makes the rounds with beef stroganoff, making sure everyone is fully dosed. The guides review gear one last time, then the teams step off around the cliff-sheltered bowl of the upper Cowlitz. Several other groups have already departed. Their headlamps dot the distance like abbreviated strings of Christmas lights.
The Cowlitz is a walk in the park, and then it’s steeply up the switchback scree of Cathedral Gap. There is no snow here and Smiley can hear his crampons grinding against rocks. He’s angled forward at the ankles. Already his calves are burning. It’s doubly tough never knowing how his foot is going to land. While everyone else tilts their headlamps to the trail and picks their way, Smiley is walking blindfolded through a room full of bowling balls, none of the same size.
After the scramble up the gap, the Ingraham Flats are a relative stroll. Three-quarters of the way up, Rausch calls the first break. The heat of the climb sweeps away in a pressing wind. “Get your parkas on,” says Rausch. Smiley feels a little something in the pit of his stomach–if that was an easy stretch, what’s to come? “Parkas off,” orders Rausch, and Kittleson leads out. A vertiginous smattering of constellations shifts in the sky above.
The easy part is over.
Thousands of people attempt to climb to the summit of Mt. Rainier every year, and roughly half of them are successful. There are many more technically difficult mountains in the country; Kittleson will be taking the most popular route to the top, and the good July weather is likely to hold. Still, conditions on Rainier are famous for going to hell in a hurry, and every year a handful of climbers perish on the slopes. It’s no Everest, but it’s enough.
In 1981, right where Smiley is walking, a wall of snow and ice broke loose and buried 11 climbers forever. Fawley is guiding him across a series of crevasses, talking him right up to the edge, then having him reach across to gauge the distance with a ski pole. When he has the breadth in his head, he takes the big step. Anymore, he will tell you, he lives much of his life on trust.
After the crevasses, Kittleson paces the team up through Disappointment Cleaver, and Smiley is shortly believing the stretch is aptly named. Half the time he’s nearly knee-walking, feeling his way up the rocky spine. Rausch and Fawley patiently coach his every step, their headlamps trained on his feet. Kittleson is constantly on guard, ready to drop and lock at the first sound of a slip. So early, and already Smiley is suffering. “My calves,” he tells Rausch during a break. “They feel like they’re about to blow up.” “Tweak your foot placement,” says Rausch. “Displace the strain to other muscles.”
The team emerges from the Cleaver two hours later. Smiley is whipped. He sinks to the snow. Rausch and Fawley wrap him in his parka, and the three discuss the situation. “I don’t think I can make it,” Smiley says. “My calves…” Behind him the sky is becoming a bandshell of light, the rim of the earth molten orange. Smiley thinks he should turn back. “It’s your decision,” says Rausch, “but I really believe you can do this.” Gentle but insistent, the guides have seen this before. “The Cleaver is your first real taste,” says Fawley. “It’s a psychological thing.”
“One more section,” says Smiley finally. “See how I feel.” Overheated on the climb, he’s shivering now. One of the climbing party eases up beside him to describe the sunrise. Smiley listens–what choice does he have–but you can see his head is elsewhere. Barely begun, and it’s no fun anymore. In pushing Smiley, Rausch is making a calculated gamble. The ascent is going much slower than he and Fawley hoped, and long before you make the summit, you must contemplate the descent. There is only so much time to get off the mountain. All signs are for a sunny day–that sounds good now, but melting ice and softening snow lead to dangerously unstable conditions and Smiley is less stable than most.
For now, temperatures remain frigid. Andres Marin is parsing his team around the fissured blue maw of a prodigious crevasse, spreading them out along the rope as they approach a vanishingly narrow ice bridge. Stepping meticulously, Marin eases across the abyss and sets a picket, to which he secures a line so that the other climbers can clip in for the crossing. Clark is next across. Kneeling to unclip, he loses hold of his ice axe. It rattles across the ice and does a slow-motion gainer into the crevasse. Smiley and his team have caught up now, and after the axe drops from sight, everyone remains frozen for a beat, ears cocked for a ping or clang. Nothing.
Fawley clips Smiley to the fixed line and begins to coach him across the span. For fear of overloading the bridge, the two guides have to let Smiley go solo. The ice axe incident has left everyone a little edgy. Smiley puts one foot before the other in super slow motion. “Keep feeling that uphill edge, Scotty,” says Fawley. He tries for an even tone, but Smiley detects the tension. When he lost his sight, his fear of heights went with it, and it’s a good thing. The ice along the chasm lip is heaved and tumbled, and the aquamarine void beneath him seems cut to the very core of the earth.
He makes it across to a relatively flat traverse and everyone exhales. There are no more rocks or crevasses between here and the summit. Just snow. But from here on, it’s unrelentingly upward, and the air is getting rare. Five minutes into the next leg, Smiley and the other unacclimated members of the group are huffing like emphysema patients, and Smiley is back to suffering. The constant stress of having to balance without visual cues has spread to his abs and back and arms–everything taut and sore–and now the thin air has put his pulse to pounding in his head. Think through it, he tells himself. My feet, he thinks. My calves. And more to the point: Why did I say yes to this? Break after break, he is sure he won’t continue. The pitch is so steep Fawley and Rausch have warned him not to set his water bottle on the snow or it will slide off to some couloir thousands of feet below. Each time, he catches his breath just enough to tell Rausch he’ll go one more. He is on autopilot.
The sun is well up when Marin’s group summits. Turning, they drop their packs and sit, watching for Scotty. He will be hidden until the final switchback. Last they saw him, Smiley wasn’t talking, all his energy devoted to putting one foot before the other. Another party of climbers celebrates boisterously, but Marin’s group is quiet, eyes fixed on the final switchback. At some point during the climb, each person has closed his eyes for a step or two, just to get a sense. The vertigo comes on fast, like a shove on the shoulder. Your hand shoots out, you drop your center of gravity, your eyes snap open. Given a sliver of Scott Smiley’s life, you opt out.
And there he is now.
“Y’got it, bud!”
He comes on steady, just as he has since the trailhead at Paradise. Twenty yards…15…10….The persistent pace, the strong, implacable face. Kittleson and Fawley coil the line as he closes the gap, but they do not pull him. Down at Muir, Smiley had taken Rausch aside: “Make it or not, let me climb this thing myself. I don’t want be a football.”
“You made it, Scotty,” says Fawley, and he guides Smiley to the ground, where he sits with a big loose-mouthed grin, his tongue at a comical loll. Smiley came of age in nearby Pasco and spent a good chunk of his Army career at Fort Lewis, so he carries a clear image of Rainier and can conjure a picture of himself atop the blazing white peak, high above the curve of the world. Turning to the video camera, he says he loves his wife, and he says he is thinking of Ed. He says he would have given up if Art hadn’t pushed him.
The sun is brilliant. Down below, the melt is on.
It’s time to go.
The descent is a whole new sort of trouble. In the time since Smiley summited, the snow has gone slushy. After the first couple of switchbacks, it clogs his crampons and turns his boots into size 10 1/2 snowboards. “Jam your foot heel-first in the snow,” Rausch reminds him, but it’s tough, not being able to read the angle of the slope first. He falls, then falls again. Nothing spectacular, he just drops to his knees, but then he has to lurch upright, reposition his ice axe, get oriented, and take the next step. Jam, jam, slide. Jam, jam, slide. He senses all of the free-fall air to the downslope side and worries that one of these times he will plunge and drag the entire team down with him. At every switchback, he swaps his axe to his upslope hand, repeating the position of self-arrest until it becomes reflex.
By the time he reaches the ice bridge, it has deteriorated to the point that Marin has cut a new path between two monstrous parallel crevasses, one of which calves a chunk of ice the size of a city bus right when the team is strung out on the rope. Smiley can hear the chunks breaking loose. It is a nerve-wracking stretch, and just when Fawley tells him the diciest portion is past, he hears a distant rumble. Rausch pauses, and Smiley, feeling the rope go taut, stops. The rumble is swelling–an avalanche? Smiley can hear Micah Clark, hollering from several hundred feet below.
“Scotty! Scotty! The jets!”
There are four F-16s, formed up tight, carving a vast curve around the mountain. Clark arranged the salute, and up to this minute he wasn’t sure it would happen. Flat gray and solid in the sky, the jets hiss past at what seems eye level or a little below, and then they are gone, and a raven drifts up the Emmons Glacier.
The fly-by gives everyone a boost, but soon it’s back to the slog. The snow is ever slushier, and when he walks close to the crevasse edges, Smiley can hear the trickling melt. Time and time again he falls to his knees, time and time again he stands and resumes hiking. Two hours into the descent, Kittleson stops the group.
“Disappointment Cleaver, Scotty,” says Rausch. As he starts down, Smiley remembers he was ready to quit here. It seems a week ago, and maybe he relaxes a little, because suddenly he is sliding and his feet shoot out and there is only air and just like he trained he announces, “Falling!” Only he says it in that young boy voice calm as if he is excusing himself from the dinner table. He whirls and tries to get into self-arrest position, but when he comes to a stop he is sideways, suspended in the vee of the rope, ice axe scratching the snow.
“Okay, Scotty, okay, we’ve got you, you’re good.” Rausch and Fawley are holding rock-solid, but there is a pitch to their voices. Smiley is dangling 500 feet above the next switchback. A few stones have rattled off and scattered across the snow far below. With Kittleson on anchor, Rausch and Fawley reel the big soldier in, draw him back to the trail, help him to his feet. And then Kittleson leads out again. There is no shortcut home. No survivable shortcut.
Ed Salau has been scanning Cathedral Gap for hours before Smiley appears. When news comes ahead that he made the summit, Salau is elated. An hour later, everyone is circled up, sitting on packs and snowbanks, jabbering. Smiley removes his boots and socks and says it’s the finest thing he’s felt since leaving camp. Describing the Cleaver descent to Ed, Smiley says, “I guess I fell in a trough or something,” and the other climbers hoot when they realize he has no idea. Ed tells the best one-legged story ever, about the time he went out wearing shorts and sandals and his cosmetic leg–the one made by the same people who do dead bodies for CSI, the one with actual toe hair shaved from his right leg–and when this drunk lady kept pestering him he surreptitiously hit the swivel button and walked a complete circle around his fake foot while it stayed planted, at which point the woman barfed and ran from the bar.
Apart from the group, the guides are visibly relieved. Fawley says this is the most memorable climb since his first, the one with his father. “These guys…” says Rausch, and then he can’t continue. It takes him a while, then he says, “I don’t carry anybody up that mountain. But to see them…” He trails off again. “I’m in the Reserves. I got deployed in 2004 to Qatar. I’ve never been in harm’s way. These guys…it just cuts me up. I’d carry…I’d carry everything for them.”
The descent to Paradise remains. Fawley and Kittleson will escort Smiley down tonight so he can make his plane, and Salau will descend in the morning. More of the same, in reverse. But at this moment, the group vibrates with the shared euphoria of hazard and hardship overcome in a place far removed from civilization and its various complications. Adversity runs a sliding scale–elective nature hikes at the low end, Ed’s leg and Scotty’s eyes at the unthinkable high end–but even a hill climb such as this one can kick irony in the slats and give despair the raspberries.
Mt. Rainier is a volcano, of course. Ed didn’t get there, and Scotty couldn’t see it, but the summit is a vast white bowl. A crucible, you could say, from which hope might be forged.
Mt. Rainier was Michael Perry’s first mountaineering trip. Based in Wisconsin, he is the author of Truck: A Love Story and Population: 485.