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My Spiritual Side of Mountaineering


Mt Rainier NPS

The Path to Muir Camp on Mount Rainier
I climbed and camped in the “high peaks” that summer with a few groups of rock climbing friends from the ‘Gunks. I spent from April through October climbing in California, Washington, Oregon, Wyoming, British Columbia and a bit in South Dakota on Devil’s Tower.
 First I climbed with Will and Dick who I’d led on rock climbs in the Shawangunks.
 They took me to a little climbing equipment shop, Recreational Equipment Inc., in a sprawling second-story room of a downtown building in Seattle where they outfitted me with ice ax, ice hardware, sleeping bag, crampons, headlamp, mountaineering boots and more.
We then set off on a few weeks’ saga. We began climbing at the northern-most Cascade Mountain peaks in Washington up near the Canadian border.
We climbed glacial-clad Mount Baker, my first real mountaineering trek.
It was the easiest overnight on a mountain, for we stayed Kulshan Cabin 4,000-feet up on a corner of Mount Baker. While it was a rustic unkempt old cabin, it was a lot more comfortable than tenting.
Kulshan Cabin Mt. Baker by Norman
Norman’s cousin, left, at Kulshan Cabin on Mt. Baker in 1946
It was my first pre-dawn, roped, snow climb. And my first to begin by headlamp light.
We then climbed Mounts Shuksan and Adams before I was given the lead for rock pitchs.

National Park Territory

We took our time to drive up into a remote region of jagged peaks towards a divide in the Cascade Range.   Cascade Pass and the surrounding peaks have since been turned into North Cascades National Park.
At the time we were there, the only access to the pass was on a rough, abandoned mining road.
We made our way into a spot below the pass to where the road was buried in a deep snow cover. I was in my mettle because we hiked across barely any snow to the craggy peaks where I became the rope-boss.
For the next few climbs there was only one other place where we had to climb rock pitches. That was on the Olympic Peninsula and it was but a couple of pitches on one peak.
By then we had climbed the higher peaks all the way along the Cascade Range including Mount Rainier, then on into Oregon to do Mt. Hood.

Mount Rainier was particularly memorable.

It was the longest day we spent on a mountain. We had to begin our climb a little after midnight on a moonless night.
We ate a hurried breakfast in the Cabin at Camp Muir on a shoulder of Mount Rainier.
I’m not sure why that morning stands out from the many others during that summer. Perhaps it was because we were so cold. We’d slept fully clothed in our sleeping bags, including our boots.
We’d barely got any sleep before we had to get up.
The cabin was literally an icebox. It was fully buried in snow when we arrived. We had to dig down through the snow to find the door.
Once we ate we were off out into the darkness.
Fortunately Will knew where we were headed. And thank you Lord, for his smarts. All I knew was to follow the rope ahead of me. The only thing I could see was the flicker of Will’s headlamp searching the dark ahead of him.
But I could not see him in the black of night.
He said we could take a short rest when we reached the Beehive. Then after another long slog up what he called the “Cowlitz Cleaver” and “Camp Misery,” God forbid, we were traversing out along very narrow rock ledges. It of course was still mostly covered with snow.
But I could tell it dropped off on the left side and there was a wall of rock on my right. I hugged that wall as we moved along.
We could faintly hear each other if we called loud enough.
The first I heard from Will was right after a piercing whizz like the ricochet of a rifle shot.
“Rock!” he shouted.
He hustled us along the ledges. It was altogether eerie. I had never experienced anything like it before.
The rocks occasionally fired past us.
Will said, “It gets worse when the sun comes up. The melting snow loosens more rocks.”
It was still early in the season. But this route is best climbed in winter when it is cold enough to keep the ice from melting and sending a rock bombardment down the cliff-side.
Then, at some point, we stopped. By this time our eyes had gotten accustomed to the darkness and there was a faint bit of first light to help us navigate what seemed to me the most delicate part of our Mount Rainier climb.
Now the trick was to get across a yawning gap of emptiness between the ledge we were on and a steep side of glacier ice across from us, the Gibraltar Chute. We had to climb that steep snow slope now.
Again, my hat was off to Will. He right-away reached his ice ax across to begin chopping a foothold. It had to be good enough to hold him when he stepped out across to it.
I felt enormously awkward belaying him across that black hole beneath us. If I held the rope too tight I’d pull him off while he was reaching across.
If he were to fall I imagined how he’d be hanging down into that hole with God-knows-what to get ahold of.
He adjusted his jumars along his rope so they would be readily available to him should he fall and dangle at the end of the climbing rope. He’d have to climb back up the rope on his jumars while I belayed him.
He stepped across delicately, and leaned across into the glacier where he was able to acrobatically balance himself while he drove in an ice screw to anchor himself, as well as, to belay Dick and me across.
It was a challenge, as we had to stretch across that open chasm to thinly chopped steps in the snow.
We now took turns chopping steps into the glacier snow.
We sweat our way up the steep 40-to-50 degree snow slope to the top of Gibraltar Rock to a place called Camp Comfort where Will let us take our first good, long rest.

False Summit following False Summit

As I recall, the climb from that point, was not particularly dangerous, though Will later told us he had to maneuver us by and around dangerous crevasses. It was mostly an arduous trudge up steps we kicked into the snow.
We slogged up over “false summit” after “false summit” until we reached what we assumed to be the mountaintop. We shook hands and began celebrating, when Will let us gently in on the truth.
We were on the rim of volcanic crater and the rim opposite us is the true summit. Hence, we had to climb down into the frozen crater, trudge across it and up the rim on the other side to sign the register.
And of course, in mountaineering you are never allowed to rest for long on the summit. The longer you tarry the greater the risk of meeting an avalanche on the way down.
We descended a longer route down the Ingraham and Nisqually Glaciers around on another side of the mountain. We had a much longer way to go down than we did going up that morning. We had to go 4,000 feet down past Muir Camp and on down the prior day’s 6,000-foot climb from Paradise Lodge.
I frequently wanted to stop to take pictures. The crevices, gullies and glories of the sculpted forms of the glacier were extraordinarily beautiful. But Will would have none of it, pushing us on to get past avalanche danger.
While it was a nine thousand foot descent, our joy was in glissading much of the way.
Glissading is like skiing in bare boots, without skis, using your ice ax to both steer you away from dangerous rock outcroppings and break your speed when necessary.

The Deeper Side

I’ve been speaking of our route up and down Rainier as though that was all there was about it.
There’s another aspect though that clings to memory far more than the climb.
Now, fifty-seven years later, it stands out in mind as maybe the most significant event, if not of that entire climbing summer, but of all I learned since I entered into undergraduate school a decade earlier.
Let me put it in perspective.
As a youngster, whenever adults asked me, I always said I wanted to become an explorer when I grew up.
To me that meant doing what my boyhood heroes – Scott, Perry, Frank Buck, even Lindberg and Amelia Earhart – were doing, seeing vistas never seen by humans before.
Well, that night on Rainier gave me fulfillment of that dream. I say “night,” for it was my experience on our long climb during the hours of darkness before first light of day that gave me that “glimpse into eternity as I like to think of it.
As tired as I had been when we had at last dug our way down through the snow to the cabin door at Muir Camp, after hauling our packs up the four and a half mile, 4,500 feet climb from Paradise Lodge, I still could only reluctantly lie down to try to get some sleep.
I was even more resistant to rising at midnight for our climb.
But, once outside in pitch blackness, heading up the trail I was lifted into a trance state that stayed with me, step by step, up that mountain, all the way to Camp Comfort when dawn lifted the day glowing upon all the clouds below us.
My experience until then is really inexplicable.
Nothing dramatic occurred. Nothing mystifying. Just a pleasant feeling of oneness with all around and in me.
There was a “knowingness” in it – that it was exactly where I wanted to be and it was precisely where I was supposed to be.
There was no further yearning, not even a desire to sustain the feeling. There was just bliss in being.
While it did not stay so fully with me after the dawn, there were contented remnants of it all the rest of the climb to the Columbia Crest, the true summit of Mont Rainier at the other side of the crater.
While a bit dimmer, they were also with me much of the way back down to Paradise Lodge.
As remarkable as it was, the experience had no demands, no call to return to it. But it has always been welcome whenever it does again peek its nose into my heart.
And there were times later that summer when it did return, giving me a truer sense of the essence of who I am.
These few weeks with Will and Dick were my initiation into the “high peaks” which I so appreciated. It was a perfect indoctrination to serious mountaineering, a great start for my mountaineering summer.
I also got initiated that summer to another one of those experiences, dealing with true wilderness, in more dangerous mountains of British Columbia. I’ll get into that in my next post.

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