And with mountaineering, it begins slowly, one foot in front of the other, and repeat. Of course, most mountaineering groups aren’t led out by Paige, who no doubt was a Himalayan Sherpa in her previous life. She knew what she was doing, timing our ascent just right, taking advantage of the conditions before the sun came out and turned the snow to mashed potatoes.
In fact, an inversion kicked in and the higher we climbed, the warmer the wind blew. The air felt nearly Tahitian on my face and hands, and that’s when I noticed the clouds gathering below us. It gave the sensation of being followed; every time I looked over my shoulder another cloud had joined in until there was a wall of them, as if saying, don’t even think about turning back now, little man.
Then, a match lit in the sky east of us and began burning back the clouds. The horizon turned a hundred shades of orange as the sunrise snuffed out star after star and before we knew it, we were magically transported into day as if we had just woken up and found ourselves on the side of a mountain.
We began stringing out at this point, as much as for the steepness as for the many selfie-stops and attempts to capture that ancient ritual of sunrise on our phones. The trip leaders organized us into three teams who would go at separate paces. My knees felt good so I joined the front group led by Paige, whose boot prints, I swear, had smoke coming off of them. At this point, the slope was pitching at 30% grades in some spots and it occurred to me that climbing up a mountain, oddly enough, had a familiar pattern of swimming: tuck your head down and go, come up for breath and gauge your position, then submerge again. When I did come up for breath, I’d wonder: where the hell am I? All familiar markers—trees, buildings, roadsides—were absent and if not for the blue sky above and the bed of clouds below, all depth of field and dimension were muted; it was white on white. The landscape above tree line, for someone new to mountaineering, is an alien place, like a milky planet that seems to say, man should not be here.
But, here we were, nonetheless, trying to make the mirage, as the top appeared closer and closer yet always out of reach. One assurance that we were gaining ground in actuality was the wind. On the ridge, small snow devils, mini-cyclones of ice crystals kicked and swirled. Occasionally, a gust would blow so hard that I’d freeze and simply lean into the mountain, anchoring my ice axe into the snow. It would be a long tumble down. That may be one reason why I kept my eyes trained on the heels of Kenny’s boots in front of me as we drew closer to the top. That, and after walking for nearly six hours with the most challenging part upon us, I think I got my first real taste of mountaineering in all its slow, methodical, measured glory.
With an hour of climbing still left, walking up the mountain became meditative. The wind died away to the sound of snow crunching beneath my boots, which gave way to the sound of my breathing, until even that faded to my thoughts, down to a four-rhythm count of steps, and not much else. Conversations, even with myself, were pointless as I had entered that serious country called Concentration, an animal-like place ruled more by instinct than anything else.
Occasionally, I’d look up and notice we were traversing across the mountain, following the switchback of boot prints before us, then, it was as if Paige grew tired of such dilly-dallying and would shoot straight up the mountain to the next false summit.
To write about climbing a mountain like St. Helen’s, a slow haul up a benign enough glacier, lacks the adventure most mountaineering stories thrive on. We wouldn’t be rescuing anyone out of a yawning crevasse, no ledge to toe above a thousand foot fall, no technical decisions that might make or break our necks. We were still in our boots, for goodness sakes, my superhero crampons snuggled up against all the winter gear in my pack I also didn’t need. So, to skip past that last 1,000 feet isn’t cheating you out of anything; it’s telling you what it was like—you crawl out of yourself only before the zenith, recognize what you’re about to do, and get a big fat smile on your face.
So, why does one climb a mountain? I think it’s a bit like asking, why do we fall in love? The answer can only be understood by the person pondering it, and even then, I’m not sure it’s completely understood. These frozen fins of rock have been here long before us and I think there’s something to be said for that. On the way up, I sensed the mountain was as alive as I was, the snow like skin scabbed over with ice in some parts, as smooth as the inner thigh in others. There were the wild moods of wind, warm and motherly below that turned toothy near the top when I had ventured too close. It seems a selfish thing to take off from family and obligations, to put those you love into worry, and it is to a degree. But, to me, mountaineering went in the opposite direction of self-centeredness—it opened me out, giving me consciousness without the self attached to it.
Anne, the other climber older than twenty five (not counting Paige), didn’t make it to the top, but she taught me as much as anything the summit could have. She knew her pace would hold her back, so she stopped and watched the sunrise, and stayed watching it while the rest of us followed the heels of each other’s boots. “And then the clouds started doing the coolest thing,” she told me, “they began funneling up into the air and dancing around. And then I found a rock in the sunshine and took a nap.” Thich Nhat Hanh says, “With every step I arrive at my destination.” Think about that. That’s what mountaineering means to me.
The Summit Series was a three day introduction to mountaineering venture. Participants learned the basics of snow travel, the basics of avalanche dangers, and how to have fun on Mount St Helens. Brent was one of nine adventurers to join us on the summit attempt.