I’m woken by Norm shaking me. It’s time. It’s not pitch outside – there’s already a lightening in the air and off the snow at 4 am.
Allen is already up boiling water. Folks wander around camp, headlights bobbing like drunken fireflies. I strap into my harness, buckle gaiters on my boots, drink Chai tea and slurp soupy oatmeal (due to forgotten silverware). In under an hour we break camp, roping in. We’ll be attached in that line for the next 6+ hours. I’m bringing up the rear due to my size – surprisingly I’m the biggest – so I need to be anchor. Plus, if I fall I’m only dragging the guys in one direction.
I have my pack on my back, along with the camera bag on my shoulder. I thought I could pull the thing out and snap shots at will but that quickly became very improbable once we started moving. For one – we have to stay in formation. The rope can’t get too slack or taut. And second, I have an ice axe in my gloved hand. Taking out the camera, removing the lens cap, aiming, firing, and putting the whole thing back away is just not feasible, especially when trying to match Norman’s exact footsteps.
There are some beautiful sights.
As the sun rises it casts the eastern rise of the glacier in orange, and the grim ice wall is in a wonderful silhouette. The crevasses shine in the bright morning.
After a few hours a haze covers the sun and it looks like a dying star on some alien planet, and we’re trekking over a frozen wasteland.
We move solemn for hours at a time, one step in front of the other, kicking boot toes into the ridge. When the slope gets steeper, we tack against the grain, leaning into our ice axes on the uphill side, careful to keep the rope properly spaced, and our steps firm. The pace isn’t fast but it is relentless.
I’m the kind of hiker who surges forward for a flurry of paces for 15 to 20 minutes, then catches my breath while I take in the new scenery. Allen doesn’t roll that way. He’s a non-stop trudge for hours at a time. Still, it’s probably a tortoise and the hare type thing, and Allen’s method comes out on top of the efficiency game.
Halfway up, the summit looks no closer than base camp, but the mountains below us have been swallowed in cloud. The Black Beauts have pivoted beneath us, and now I can see an enormous overhanging snow drift on its north face, ready to avalanche any warm summer day.
We trek through a canyon of crevasses that make my legs quake. The glacier has pushed up and buckled the ancient blue ice into rolling humps. Heaped on top of that is another twenty feet of snow. So we see the cracks in cross section, from white to blue to black, a beauty to it, a transitory and deadly sculpture.
The sun comes back out and even a glimpse of the slope sans glasses is painful. I worry that the thin crack of light above my brow will let in enough UV to blind me.
We pass a few climbers on their way down, faces red with sun, clomping their crampons.
I’m starting to feel the lightest hints of a headache, and even as much as I drink I have no urge to urinate.
As the slope gets steeper Allen has to kick sturdier steps into the snow, so as the back man, I have moments to stand there, lean into my ice axe and contemplate the beauty. The climb isn’t so much cardio as it is leg muscle endurance.
The crater is more pronounced now. I can see the path we take to reach the top. We skirt a large crack in the glacier by a few feet, the snow slushy and loose. Hopping over where I guess the hole to be, my back foot pops into null space. Luckily my momentum carries me forward, leaving only a gaping black hole behind, rimmed in blue glimmering snow.
We reach the crater. The smell of sulfur is intense. I think of a dozen hellish and devilish euphemisms. Around the rim the snow has melted off, leaving crumbly yellow scree. We unrope and take a break, sipping water and peering into the crater. It’s not a Temple of Doom lava thing, just a hole about 100 feet down where the drifts of snow hiss and steam and bellow up in waves.
From here we can see the true summit. The slow rise to the left of the crater normally obscures the true summit, which is a small nipple of snow capped earth to the back of the bulge.
The final push is the hardest, skirting a huge crevice and then traversing above it on 45 degree sloped snow for a good 100 yards, narrow steps kicked into the slush the only thing between our procession and disaster. Our ice axes sink deep on the uphill side and provide poor balance.
Finally – legs quaking – we round the top and see the summit. There’s another party finishing up there and we give them time. Then up we go to raise our arms and axes in victory and pose for photos. There’s not much of a view – the clouds are too dense – but we can see hints of the other ascents – a wicked balancing cornice on the north side, a steep vanishing drop to the west.
Overall I feel pretty good – but my headache grows worse, and still I don’t have to pee. Allen doesn’t let us lounge for long. I eat an apple and a Milky Way, and then glissade and post-step down the summit slope.
We rope back up.
The descent is tough at first, more half-hazard and quick. Instead of the disciplined synchronized trudge of the ascent, we’re all post stepping through slushy melting snow, plunging down the slope three or four feet at a time. On a few big plunges my back leg gets twisted at the ankle and knee. But eventually this too becomes routine and we descend rapidly.
Once the major hazards are behind us, Allen says we should glissade. It’s a big slope with what looks to be a flat run out. We all sit on our asses and Allen drags us, running backwards. We slide a hundred yards or so and then Allen yells stop! We’re probably too tired or can’t hear and keep sliding, Allen trying to yank us to the left. We come to a halt only a dozen yards from a deep and barely visible crack. We all march sideways to try again.
This time Allen keeps dragging us, and Norman and I drift off a little to the left. There’s a cleft in the snow, and further left the distinct blue glow of crevasse. Allen keeps on pulling and we both launch right over it!
From there most of the excitement is gone. We’re all exhausted (well, maybe not Allen) and we trudge without complaint or enthusiasm. My head is killing me, every step rattling my brain. Even worse, I now have to take a terrible shit.
A mist comes up – thick and smoke-like. The sun is still out and refracts through the haze so everything is blinding sans glasses.
Allen doubles back, peering at his GPS. He’s thinks it’s “fun gully”, a bad spot to enter. So we go left and spot some big crevasses that way. We’re very close to camp, but almost impossible to find our way in the whiteout. The GPS and map indicate we should just continue south – and the easiest way is along a rock ridge protruding from the snow. What we think are the same rocky ridges where we are camped.
So we take off the ropes, stow the axes, and descend the rocks single file and close. The camp still isn’t in sight, and we traverse a snowy slope above some ugly crevasses without rope or ice axes. It’s a bit sketch. At last we see three humps out ahead in the haze. Drawing closer, we confirm – it’s the tents. We’ve made it back – a 9 hour summit day.
After a good dump behind the rocks in the mist – utilizing the dehumanizing blue bags – a piss, and an ibuprofen, I feel much better. I strip off my sopping clothes in the tent and change into something dry. The bottom of my feet look like the crevasses of the glacier.
Allen makes potato soup and Asian style noodles and we’re all pretty lethargic, stoned on weariness and accomplishment.
The mist persists. Halfway through dinner, a tiny bird darts above camp, hovering. A hummingbird someone says. It makes a few angular dives and adjustments, scouting our location, and then it vanishes. Just as lost as we were.
The walk out is beautiful. We’re sore but happy to be done. There is an enormous well-defined cloud moving south-east, the bottom flat and dark, the edge like a wall.
We snap photos looking back up at the glacier and the peak from the moraine.
The marmots are out, scurrying between rocks on the snow, like shaggy back-faced cats. Two of them meet in a snow field – unknown whether rivals or friends, howling at each other.
Lower down we pass large groups of kids and families in cotton t-shirts and shorts, the dad maybe carrying a day pack. There’s a hint of pride to come down, our ice axes askew from our packs, unshaven beards, having proved our mettle on the climb.
My thoughts are already onto next steps – what will I do tomorrow, or the night after? I’d rather not spend another 125 on a hotel.
There’s a certain jock bravado that comes with climbing big mountains. That each mountain is a step on a chain of advancement, a bigger mountain to conquer. That competitive attitude I’ve never felt in the woods, in fact it’s the opposite of why I go into the woods. But it’s very easy to get sucked into that game, of planning the progression of peaks to bag, the next obstacle to overcome, should I go for technical difficulty or altitude next, etc. Since I’m on the east coast it will be tough to play the game, and the mountains can be more of a respite, a breather, an exhalation, than a challenge.
There’s also a bit of envy for Allen – who gets to do this thing for weeks at a time all summer. Andrew asks if I’d want to do it. At one time – yes I said. Back when I was 22 just out of college and had the free summer. But now too many responsibilities. It’s the same sort of feeling at the tail end of the Australia trip, seeing all the backpackers out for months at a time, getting leathery tan. But I’m past that.
We get back into Seattle in the early afternoon, drop the gear back at Second Ascents. I casually mention grabbing a drink with Andrew and Norm later in the evening, and they seem agreeable enough.
Then back at the Holiday Inn express, pull out both my packs, ice axe, walking poles and tent in a big pile on the sidewalk. Shake Allen’s hand and hand him the rest of my cash. Andrew and Dick unload as well, but they are heading south to the airport.
I take a long needed shower, just seeping into the steam and hot water. I make a few calls; commit the mistake of responding to some email, which only brings a torrent more. Talk to Steph, who sent me cute txt of Rhett holding a handwritten message to come home soon.
Once changed I head into the city for a bite to eat and a walk. My legs are pretty sore but it feels good to be out in the warm sun with cool breezes coming off the sound.
I walk to the world’s largest REI store – a three story hulking complex mimicking a cabin in the woods, big logs and trails through a rustic garden, complete with a waterfall. The place is sprawling inside, with every possible implement and tool or article of clothing that anyone could want or need outside. There were even mini whisks! It brought to mind a comment I made to Andrew before the ascent when we were going through gear. “They climbed Everest in the 50s without any of this stuff,” I said. “Most of it’s just marketing, a whole business to sell to us.” I feel a sort of pride going out into the woods without the best gear, with my 15 year old jacket, maybe even missing a spoon – being able to improvise with a toothbrush pick as a makeshift fork, etc. The wilderness isn’t about kicking the wood’s ass with the best tools. It’s about revealing inner resourcefulness by taking us out of the comfort zone of civilization. And further – how civilized can you remain if removed from it. There’s a balance between enjoyment and pain. I certainly haven’t had the best sleep in my life this week, but I was sleeping in truly beautiful places. The day after tomorrow, the creaking back will fade, but the fact and hazy memory of slumbering on Easton Glacier, or Third Beach, the sound of surf pounding, won’t fade.
Anyway, I buy some bootlaces and a spork.
Seattle has that confined urban density on a grid down pretty well, at least for a set of two or three parallel streets along the water. The geography is key to compacting people into that sort of efficient overlap: ever desirable waterfront property demands it. Cities without a defining water feature (Atlanta, LA, Vegas, etc) will just sprawl outwards. So I walk these streets, taking in the late afternoon sun, the cute girls that go from work cloths to hipster threads as the streets get less corporate. Grab a beer and some pizza in a little joint on the corner of 1st and Wall.
The beers do me in, and I stumble back to the hotel, pretty worn out. I stay up long enough for Andrew to give me a call, saying he’s too tired to meet up tonight, but that he and Norm are taking the ferry to Bainbridge Island at 8:45 in the morning. Does that connect with Olympic? I ask. It does, he says, after what seems like a consultation of his iPhone Google maps. Yea maybe, I say. I’m a little unsure if 8:45 is enough time to get way out to the coast by day’s end, factoring a stop at the Port Angeles ranger station and buying needed supplies.
I’ve noticed when I’m stressed my neck starts aching, some unconscious pinching of a nerve there. It’s been pinching this afternoon and eve, even as I lay in bed, watching Bourdain No Reservations – eating disgusting offal from the Philippines. Goat brains, yum…
I pass out on that note, the details of the next day still hazy – car rental, ferry, then what…