In the introductory meeting prior to our climb of Mt. St. Helen’s, a student leader asked us, “Why are you doing this?” It’s a good question to ask of someone planning to suffer in potentially dangerous conditions when a perfectly good episode of House of Cards waits back home. I looked around the room, at the faces and bodies half my age, and knew my answer immediately. Here I was, forty-three years old, married with two children and a dog, in a room of fit, outdoorsy college students whom I planned on tackling nearly 5,500 vertical feet of a recently active volcano with. I said it straight faced: “Mid-life crises. Of course.” I was being tongue-in-cheek. Flippant. Glib. Something the wise-ass in the room might say. But, I also wanted it to be to clear: to a twenty year old, anyone over twenty-five is ancient and a liability on the trip; this I understood.
I’ve never climbed a mountain before. I’ve never had a burning desire to do so, not really “getting” what it is that drives men and women to cruising altitude on their own two legs. Sure, there’s the thrill of precipice, of life’s co-dependent relationship with death, of putting one’s character to the litmus test, of Transcendental sublime when you happen to be taller than everything else around you for miles on end. But, it’s never been my bag. I like myself; I feel fairly adequate. What did I need to compensate for? At least, those were my assumptions behind mountaineering motivation. So, arriving at base camp knowing we’d be woken up in a few hours at 2am to begin our climb and hearing Kenny, my supposed tent mate ask, “Does snoring typically bother you?” I asked myself again, “Why am I doing this?” The answer was becoming more obscure.
Where we were was Marble Mountain Sno-Park offloading our gear and pitching tents in long sleeve t-shirts. The weather was unseasonably warm for April in the mountains, like I’m not even going to zip up my sleeping bag kind of warm. Like I’m not even going to think about climate change right now and, instead, just bask in the California-like weather without all the Californians. After Kenny’s question, I politely dragged my sleeping bag out onto a comfortable pad of pine needles, curled my toes, and gazed up through pine trees to the pin pricks of stars. If not for the diesel engine of a Ford 350 truck that pulled up hauling snowmobiles with its headlamps cutting the woods in two, I might have gotten a few more winks of sleep before I heard Ted, the trip’s official leader, calling my name, “Brent. Brent! Time to get up.”
Instant oatmeal, original flavor, reminds me of something my children used to make in the kitchen when we gave them free reign of flour and water on a Saturday afternoon. A beige, gummy gruel and always cold by the time you’ve forced down the last three bites, it is a rite of passage when camping and I ate two bowls worth for duty’s sake at 2:30 in the morning, no less. I washed it down with a cup of hot coffee grounds Ted had made in the dark and wondered if feeling strung out like a rock star was an auspicious way to begin a mountain ascent. We marched out of the parking lot for the trailhead by 3am, but not before Tailor’s ice axe fell off her pack and rang like a dinner bell, some type of beautiful revenge for those who stayed up drinking and yapping by a campfire, not to mention my Ford 350 friends.
Let me describe my wardrobe for a second. On my feet, I was borrowing the program’s mountaineering boots, black and clunky, obviously borrowed from Frankenstein’s closet. Smartwool long underwear beneath waterproof shell pants. Thin, wicking shirt. And, that’s it. No beanie. No gloves. No soft shell or water-proof jacket. No jacket, period. No crampons on my feet, as they, along with the snowshoes, had been relegated to our backpacks, because the snow was just right for treading. Not that I was complaining, but there was a slight deflation in knowing this was more hike than climb. What was I to tell my eager children upon return who thought crampons were essentially knives strapped to your feet and that dad was actually not the walking Wolverine of their dreams? But, it was early, so I remained hopeful.
I believe Ted’s rocket fuel, a.k.a. coffee, had its greatest impact on him and Paige Baugher, a colleague and Outdoor Pursuits Goddess, who led us through the woods at a brisk pace. While our zombie army trudged on in half-awake silence, Ted chattered on like a chipmunk, cross-country skiing alongside us, telling of the first time he ascended Mt Shasta when he was twelve-years old. All I had accomplished by the age of twelve was a vast, useless knowledge of ERA’s and homerun stats of pros I idolized from collecting baseball cards. Needless to say, I was pretty impressed.
There comes a time in every person’ s life, no matter their age, when they need to try something new. It’s easy to become complacent with the comfort of routine. Even homework , or in my case grading, can be oddly comforting, because we know it so well. But, and this is dangerous to write knowing I may have future students reading this, sometimes, you just have to blow it off because real education is found not in what we do know, but in what we don’t.
It must have been somewhere between four and five am when we emerged from the trees and onto a snowfield. An expansive black sky absolutely bejeweled with stars surrounded us. We all went into ourselves, forgetting self-awareness, saying out loud, “Oh my God. Just look at them.” Grace and Katie were nearly arm-in-arm. Elizabeth stumbled off as if in a daze saying, “I’ve never seen stars like this before”; if she had had her favorite childhood teddy bear, she would have twirled and danced beneath the sky with him right there and then. Dylan pointed to a mayonnaise smear of stars and asked, “Is that the Milky Way?” and I loved the innocence of that question from a twenty-year old guy. Mitch, well, he went off somewhere to pee. Our leaders were all business, poor things, Marisa, Bryce, Tailor, Ted and Paige, discussing the route, deciding on pacing teams, and I felt bad for them because they had to be so responsible for us kids who were discovering the world all over again.
When I looked around at everyone with their necks craned skyward, and thought of all they had blown off to commit to at least three weekends as part of the climbing series, I saw so much more gained in their educations than lost. I’m in the business of touting liberal arts education, of holistic learning, and preparing students for a diverse world. What better teacher, I realized, than the world itself to do the job.
When the star safari was over, that’s when I noticed another animal looming before us, Mt. St. Helen’s herself. Within the starglow, the mountain was nearly a specter, a hazy white luminescence that rose up like a wall in front of us, and I nearly rubbed my eyes to make sure I was seeing right. Here was the next five hours of our lives; the real work about to begin.
To Be Continued….
Brent Johnson is an English and Creative Writing Professor here at Pacific University. He specializes is Creative Non-Fiction and is also the brains behind the FYS operation.