I’m sitting in a small square of grass near Pikes Place Market, watching the harbor and the late day sun, satiated from a cheap spicy burrito, watching the locals on a beautiful Friday evening.
The flight was to be expected – claustrophobic, made worse by the necessity of wearing my boots and crammed behind a 2 year old, who was just as traumatized by the reality of airplane travel but had yet to develop the mature superego to suppress those urges.
I navigated the modern maze of the airport and took the slick new light rail line into Seattle. The bus maps were confusing however and I never could find bus 55 at 3rd and union – so I hoofed it with the full pack and daypack on my chest the 12 blocks to the Holiday Inn Express.
The air is cooled by the north Pacific and the mountains and the sky is perfectly cloudless, just a haze on the horizon, hinting in blue dusk the shapes of massive peaks and ranges.
After I settle into my room and shower, I change into crocs, loafers and a collared shirt and strap my camera on my back and start walking downhill – towards the gleaming water.
There is interesting green architecture, graffiti that hints at Native American motifs, cool little shops and large artsy monuments to science and rock and roll. There are many young folks with nerdy vibes – beards and witty t-shirts and cute girls that are the complete antithesis of jersey shore – or even NY for that matter. It’s a smart, beautiful city – and these days are its highlight.
Watch the ferries cross the bay, passing in front of the twin totem poles sprouting from the park – one in traditional native shapes of hawks and wolves, the other a mascot of the new native nerds – Mario.
A carnie hipster juggles knives and balances a unicycle on his chin.
A lazy entourage of bikes ride past, through the market, the anti-Tour de France, led by a shirtless old timer with a grey beard and a dazed look on his face.
There are two guitarists with western attire jamming to their own tunes, soaking in the sunshine. Brown dogs sniff the ground, unleashed.
In the distance – the red skeleton of the shipyard, and beyond that – its glaciated sides just barely discernible. The behemoth of rainier.
I walk through the market. The flowers are being picked up. There’s no fish but melting smelly ice. The tourist flocks are leaving. Asian families pack up stands.
Beneath the wharf is a cool alley, the narrow walls of old poured concrete and cobblestone pre-1950. People snap photos: one wall is done up in storm trooper graffiti, the other decorated with thousands of bits of multicolored gum, arranged in patterns and words, the whole thing growing organically from the original trend of a few locals, into a viral meme and now a pseudo-tourist destination.
I find a bar out on the pier and sit on a plastic chair watching the ships in the bay sipping very cold very good local beer and reading a west coast alterna-zine. My horoscope says I should embrace my inner self-contradictions.
I snap probably way too many pics of the sun setting on the bay – until finally it vanishes behind the jagged edge of the Olympics, the sky settling to the lightest purple, ferries still steaming across the expanse.
Then I walk back to the hotel along 2nd avenue, the Space Needle my north star, the din of clinking glasses and interesting conversations, attractive young people, well designed restaurant facades mixed in with classy urban grit, even the requisite Native American bum, the smells of flourishing ethnic cuisine: fried onions, Thai spice, grilled burgers, fish and chips and beer.
I buy the cheapest beer I can find at a place called Wally’s grocer – Milwaukee’s Best – and brown bag it to the hotel in hopes of preventing my buzz from souring.
Last, I take shots of the Space Needle against the darkening sky with the zoom lens, trying to find the right blend of shutter speed and ISO, moving my eye away and resting it on the windowsill to get that perfectly crisp darkened shot of the sci-fi tower.
In the morning, I sit in the lobby of the holiday inn and drink shit coffee and wait for the others to show up.
There’s a girl with backpacking gear. I grunt “hi” and ask bleary-eyed what’s her deal? She’s with Mountain Madness but going to Mt. Olympus. I say Baker.
The MM guides show up in a big van. I greet them but it’s for Olympus. I’m pretty hungry and watch the clock for when the breakfast bar will open.
A few other guys stumble in – Dick and Andrew – a father and son with all their gear. They say Baker. Another bearded guy shows up with a Canadian accent. Mt. Baker he says.
We all get some breaky – eggs and yogurt and toasted bagels.
Allen, our guide finally shows. He looks like Bear Grylls with a Midwest accent. He’s conversationally laid back but there’s a tension in his stance.
We all load up after introductions – muted and nonchalant – we’re all soft spoken intelligent guys sans bravado.
There’s the logistics of loading five bulging packs into the back of a Chrysler Town and Country. But then we’re off by 7 AM north on Aurora to our first stop: Second Ascents for a gear check.
We drive through quiet early morning streets in a nice neighborhood, like Brooklyn, all sidewalks and old trees. It’s almost chilly. In Second Ascents, the walls are completely covered with packs and climbing gear. We explode our packs on the floor – scattering gear of metal and plastic and nylon – and check off the requisite items in order: waterproof jackets, pants, gloves, hat, glasses, etc. We get expedition tents and harnesses, helmets and crampons. The rented boots are too small for me but they rig the crampons to fit my hiking boots. Then we load up again and we’re off.
The drive is quiet, almost stoic, with little bursts of convo about climbing and mountains and places of business. Norman is a teacher in a private school out of Vancouver. Andrew – a natural gas consultant in DC. His dad – Dick – works at an alternative energy firm in Salt Lake. Allen only guides for the summers; he’s on break from grad school in outdoor education.
We drive through little industrial and blue collar stretches of highway, north from Seattle. The state highway signs have George Washington’s silhouette in profile. We stop at the ranger station to get permits, look at the maps and a massive wall print of Mt. Baker from helicopter, our route through glaciers in full view. The thing looks massive. Outside it’s still too foggy to see any peaks.
Then we turn onto dirt road, winding up through evergreens and weeds with purple trumpet shaped flowers. Cascade Penstemon. The parking lot is packed.
We unload our gear, ice axes pointing askew from the back of the packs, poles out. Then we’re on the trail, tromping silent into the dusty woods.
It’s well-graded at first, winding smooth through fields and copses of old growth conifers, logs over swampy bogs. The fog grows but there are promising glimpses of a blinding white behemoth through the spruce branches.
We ascend into the deep wood. It’s dimly lit from the thick boughs. There are gaps now and then down the mountain and we can see the range of the Cascades dissolving in gradients of blue-gray in the cloud.
We cross the outflow stream of the glacier – rounded rocks and fine powdery dust and a frothy gray stream. We cross on a chain-sawed log bridge.
When we break tree line we first see snow. Patches here and there in the lees of the sloping meadows. There are tents huddled under mammoth spruces. It starts to rain and we all pull on our jackets – it’s cold and soggy. I’m too enchanted to call it miserable.
Up ahead the trail ascends what looks to be a green ridgeline, small black figures trudging single file in the rain. But as we approach I can see the ridgeline is actually the lip of an enormous half pipe, the top of the moraine wall. One side is gently sloping, colored with patches of snow and grass and wildflowers, the other – a jagged dirty cut into the earth, boulder strewn and steaming in the rain.
The moraine extends maybe a half mile up the slope, and then the glacier begins, and with it the fields of cracking white. The downpour continues, but we keep trudging, wary of the ledge and the fall it contains, even risking water damage to my camera to snap a few shots.
The edge of the halfpipe – called Railroad Grade – reminds me of something out of Dr. Seuss: a lip of grass and flowers curling precariously over the void.
The volcano is now full in view, the cleft peak and the crevassed glacier in a long slope down from the summit. Tiny black figures move imperceptibly among the lower flanks, like a line of ants. The rain is drenching now.
The smell of sulfur is strong and there are even bright yellow rocks among the wet mud. We can see steam rising from the crater even in the rain.
The last of the rocky outcroppings give way to snow fields. Most of the flat spots are dotted with compact tents, red and gold and brown, the nylon rippling in the downdrafts.
Allen jogs ahead to secure us a spot – the very last possible camp spot, just feet from a yawning crevasse.
The rain breaks for a minute and we set up tents. I’m sharing with Norman. We have a strange European expedition tent with the fly perma-attached to the mesh body and only two small poles. It’s not self supporting. We have to attach guy-lines off every possible angle and affix them to heavy stones scattered about.
Its only mid afternoon, so once we’re done Allen tells us to suit up in full glacier gear: harness, carabineers, gaiters, gloves, ice axe. He’s going to show us some skills.
First we just walk on the snow. There’s an art to it – kicking the edge or toe of the boot into the loose layer of snow to make a step. We stomp in the footsteps of the man before us. Allen says to make the step your own – make it better than before.
We work with the ice axe – the proper grip and placement on the uphill side of the slope when walking. Also the method of gripping the shaft and flipping it up into self-arrest position. Then it’s time to take some slides. We push ourselves down the hill all sorts of ways, each time planting the axe and our toes and grinding to a halt. Last we do some glissading – basically sliding down the slope on our butts. It’s pretty exhilarating, and makes me miss snowboarding.
Allen also ties us into the rope line and shows us the proper spacing. The key is to stay well apart so that if one guy breaks through a snow bridge into a crevasse, the others can self arrest before they get dragged in as well.
By the time we’re done, dinner is served. Tortilla soup and chicken and rice burritos. I’m impressed with the cooking. Allen explains he basically lives out here for weeks at a time, so he has to eat well. This makes me rethink my past staples of freeze dried meals and spaghetti.
The clouds open up for a few minutes and we all get photos in front of the mountain. The weather is strange here. There are multiple formations of cloud moving in all sorts of directions, and the peak is obscured or clear every 15 minutes or so.
Later, it’s time to gather water. There’s a waterfall coming off the rocks across the snowfield, so Allen asks for some volunteers to trek over there. Norman and I go. It’s a chance to practice our snow stepping and maybe a big glissade after. Allen says it will probably be too tough to pump filter and to just use iodine. Andrew kindly lends me some.
So we trek over around the lip of the snowy depression. We get close and can see the slicks of water going over the rocks and under the snow bank, the gap of darkness echoing the rush. Allen warns us to stay back. He fills and we secure. One bladder almost slips down the slope, but I stab the loop with my axe. Once filled up, it’s glissading time! It’s a long slide down the hill towards camp, axe dragging behind for stability.
Tomorrow is summit day. Allen says “4 AM. Hydrate. Get some rest.”
I wouldn’t recommend the tent. I can’t even sit up and doing anything in it – rearranging gear, sipping water, etc is a huge pain. I’m trying to hydrate. We’re at 6000 feet and the climb tomorrow will be draining so I need those fluids.
So I sip my camelback through the evening, the bitter off flavor of iodine through the straw mixed with glacial grit.
I finally get up to pee when the light is fading outside. The wind and rain have stopped, and the clouds have dropped below our high camp. The setting sun is behind the jagged Black Beauts, but it has left behind the gentlest spectrum of pinks and purples and lightest blues to paint the snow. Even the wicked crags of Easton’s ice wall look tranquil, the edges of the blue ice like the defining outlines of a Disney matte painting, and I can see clear to the summit, almost quaint. I take some shots of our tents sitting above the cotton sea of clouds, then back to bed.