Only two things pierce the human heart. One is beauty and the other is affliction. ~~Simone Weil
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. ~~The Apostle John
Everyone in my climbing group was under forty and in incredible shape. Chris, the leader, is a sub eleven-hour triathlete with a soul patch on his chin, a pony tail in his hair and says dude a lot. It doesn’t matter if it is guy or a girl it is, “Dude, what time is it? Dude, you sure are pretty.” I like him. He is extremely knowledgeable, summited Rainier multiple times, and his constant references to me as Dude indicates, he might be laid back. He will need that disposition because I can be a curmudgeon.
I used to be able to run a sub four-hour marathon, but that was twelve years and sixty pounds ago. I know it was going to be a difficult climb, but I feel I was mentally tough enough. I know how to press through pain. I have even successfully summited several fourteen thousand foot peaks in Colorado. But Rainier is different. It demands a clear-headedness and stamina unlike any other mountain in the country.
People die on that mountain.
Three mountaineering deaths each year occur because of rock and ice fall, avalanche, falls, and hypothermia associated with severe weather. The worst mountaineering accident on Mount Rainier occurred in 1981, when eleven people lost their lives in an ice fall on the Ingraham Glacier. This was the largest number of fatalities on Mount Rainier in a single incident since 32 people were killed in a 1946 plane crash on the South Tahoma Glacier. I let this information caffeinate my judgment and keep me sober as I observe weather and snow pack.
I wrestled my sixty-five pound pack onto my back, snapped my size fourteen rented REI plastic mountaineering boots into the snowshoes and began to tromp through the snow from Paradise at 5,400’ to Camp Muir at 10,188’ slowly and methodically—which is my way in the mountains. I decided to solo up to Muir a day early before the rest of the climbing team so I could have a day to recover before attempting the summit.
It took a half mile or so to get used to the strange duck-like gait it takes to walk in large snowshoes, but I got the hang of it and it didn’t take long for me to feel the thin air force my heart to pump harder than it is accustomed to from behind my desk at my home on the shores of the Puget Sound.
The deep spring snow contrasted brightly against that blue sky made the summit seem close enough that I thought if I squinted my eyes just right I might be able to see black dots of climbers moving like fleas on a white dog. I was wrong. I strained my eyes but my heavy breathing fogged up my glacier glasses; time to move on and get to up to Muir before dark. As I stood there, my heart thumping in my chest, sweat dripping off the end of my nose, I could feel my senses sharpen—as if there were a dialtion on the eye of my soul.
I go to the mountains to discover something new about myself and the Creator-God who carved out the wilderness. I long for a well-marbled and muscular soul. My body is far from that. I am average in intelligence. Emotionally I probably run a bit of an anger-fever. But I want my soul to get deeper and more expansive with every passing year and challenging experience. I fear that after all my years of claiming to follow a gracious God I might indeed be getting grumpier and short-tempered as I age. And so I go to the wilderness to see if I am making progress. The mountain will only speak truth to me about my mental and physical preparedness. But what would it tell me about my soul? Isn’t it our painful experiences that both reveal and remede our souls? Isn’t it in the hard crucible of soul-pain that character is forged?
My boots got heavier with every step and I could feel my pack cut into my hips and shoulders. The first challenge was a six hundred foot vertical wall of snow rose to what my map said was Panorama Point less than a mile from the parking lot. I wiped the sweat off my brow and waddled up to the base of the of snow slope that looked as steep as any un-groomed double black diamond ski run in the state. This will be a good test, I told myself.
There were two lines of boot prints etched in the snow up the incline. The one to the right looked like it had zigged zagged back and forth to take the bite out of the vertical. The one on the left is straight up. Longer and less steep is better I thought, so off to the right I slog. Every step was difficult—then it became impossible when I hit the steepest part of the pitch where, even with snowshoes, I began to posthole up to my crotch. The late afternoon sun was hitting the slope in such a way to soften the snow and to create a convection oven. The heat is unbearable. Such a strange incongruity of physics to be standing on that much ice at such a high altitude and to feel as hot as if I were in a desert standing on sand instead of snow.
Off to my left two guys were on the straight and more vertical line. They noticed me struggling and shouted that the boot-packed trail they were on was firm. I thanked them and watched as they moved up the slope like they were climbing an escalator. I struggled to get to their trail in the soft snow. An hour later I topped out at Panorama Point, exhausted, angry, and ready to quit. It was taking me much longer than I had allowed. I called my wife on my cell to tell her that I thought I would just come home the next day. But she said she thought I ought to sleep on it and decide in the morning.
I pitched my tent with the door facing east on the Point , ate my freeze-dried Mountain House Beef Stroganoff meal, curled up in my bag and listened to jets fly overhead. I imagined them looking down through a thick window, straining to see climbers on the teacup rim of the summit. But they certainly weren’t looking a mile from the parking lot of Paradise at Panorama Point where I was. I was as discouraged as I have ever been in the wilderness.
It has been said that pain is the friend no one wants. If that is true then pain was my boon companion right there at Panorama Point not even out of ear shot of the touristy voices in the parking lot of Paradise. But the strange thing about pain in the wilderness is that it often awakens deeper parts of my awareness. The wilderness is a primordial portal to the eternal where I am roused from my civilized and over scheduled stupor.
According to Annie Dillard, “We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery.” And the next morning when the sun broke over the high desert of eastern Washington, splashing the mountain with a pink hue and a white carpet of clouds in the low lands that stretched eastward towards the coast I could feel my soul coming alive. Panorama point indeed! The smoothly scooped snow-divots that lay before me on the Muir Snowfield made me wonder at the physics that sculpted this pocked landscape and I adored the artist behind the physics. Was there more to this mountain than what I can see and feel?
I broke camp and began my slow climb up the boot-packed trail towards Camp Muir. I paced myself by picking out bamboo wand trail markers a few yards away and set a goal to hike steady to each marker, rest and then pick out another wand to conquer. That rhythm seemed to work best for me because it resembled my run-walk method of training for marathons. I felt my spirits lift and my legs strengthen. I was making good progress and I found new energy every time I heard the mountain groan and rumble from an ice lurch—if it can be called that—on the Cowlitz Glacier not too far way. It was like the mountain was alive and letting me know at any moment it could shake me off like one of those black fleas.
Camp Muir is a tease. I could see it in the distance and was deceived into thinking it could be mine in an hour or so. Wrong. It is like a mirage in the desert promising refreshment, but just always out of reach.
After hours of being lapped by skiers with climbing skins on their boards gliding up the mountain as if I were standing still; I arrived at the old camp, which includes a public toilet and a first-come-first-serve-stone-hut maintained by climbers and the US Forest Service. Up the hill and across the way, separated by about twenty five yards and a lot of money, is a second private camp with much better amenities. That is for the professionally guided climbs.
I unpacked my gear and ate a Power Bar, sipped some hot orange Gatorade and watched the Muir Snowfield for my climbing team. I could see white-capped Mount Adams to the south like distant pile of confection sugar. And in a distance that is more vertical than horizontal, I can see the black-topped parking lot of Paradise where I left my jeep.
There is the chatter of different languages from the tents that are rooted to the snow like bright colored mushrooms between the public and private stone shelters—German, French, and Italian. They were all there to train and test themselves on the glaciered slopes of this famous mountain.
The sun was warm and I found a protected place out of the wind so that I could lean against a rock and look down the mountain. It didn’t take me long to drift off to sleep. No pain now, just warmth, peace, and sense of being connected to this good earth.
“Dude! How was your hike up?” I jerked awake. It was Chris.
He was moving quickly with orange-flagged climbing wands waving atop his pack as he walked up. Strapped to the outside of his pack was his climbing rope, helmet, crampons, carabineers and snow pickets. I stood up as he unbuckled and dropped his pack. We slapped our hands together, clinching each other’s thumbs and pulling together in a brotherly hug. “It is good to see you, Dude,” he said with a big grin.
“Good to see you too, um, bro,” I replied. (I wanted to sound cool too.)
We talked about the hike up from Paradise, the hut, and the relative strength of the rest of the team while they climbed up the snowfield.
“How do you feel, Dude?” he asked. “You going to be okay to climb tomorrow?”
I told him that it would be difficult but by the looks of some of the group coming up behind him that I thought I would be fine. He looked at me in the eye and asked, “How long did it take you to climb up to Muir?”
“About six hours,” I said.
The look on his face said he was weighing that information and doing some calculating in his head. Finally he looked down at the stomped snow at our feet and said,
I knew immediately that was not the number he was hoping for. Six hours. Should have been three.
The rest of the team arrived. There would be a total of seven of us on two ropes. We would be starting out at midnight. Chris told me I was going to be in the middle of the last rope. My insecurities caused my mind to race to jump to conclusions as to why he chose that spot on the rope. I assumed it had something to do with my size and lack of experience on a rope.
Supper was hastily fixed and finished; then we crawled in our sleeping bags on the wooden bunks in the stone huts and try to sleep a few hours before we began our climb. In spite of my short nap earlier in the afternoon, sleep came easy.
At 2:00 in the next morning, we set out for the summit so we could get up and down before the snow heated up, making the descent more unstable. I was excited. I put on my layers of fleece and goose down, laced up my rented REI plastic climbing boots, snapped on my crampons, checked my headlamp, and double checked my climbing harness and carabineers. I was ready to go. We prayed before we moved out into the cold night air. And I remembered to take care because people die on this mountain.
The pace began steady and nice. I can do this, I thought to myself. With our headlamps lit we set out for Cathedral Rocks looking like spelunkers heading into a cave of dim-white snow, stars looking like the sparkling tips of distant stalactites. It was quiet save for the boot-crunch; clicks of snow pickets and climbing carbineers on our harnesses.
Just below the crest of a saddle at Cathedral Rocks, one person in our party decided that she couldn’t go on. We unhooked her from the rope, exchanged well-wishes and back down the trail she went, looking like a lonely luminescent sprite tracing an imaginary line in the dark. It was the safest place for anyone to return solo.
Up and over the ridgeline of Cathedral Rocks and on to Ingraham Flats we climbed; cramponed boots gripping in the icy snow while the sky turned a purple pastel behind 11,138 foot Little Tahoma Peak off to our right. As the dawn forced the stars one by one to recede into the coming day, we climbed and climbed. The more we climbed the thinner the air. My legs started going soft like overcooked noodles. Then my lungs started burning like I was breathing ammonia.
I kept saying to everyone that if I could just rest 30 seconds it would help. Then I wanted 60 seconds. Where were those bamboo climbing wands that marked out thirty five yard increments that made yesterday’s climb so much easier? The rope tied to my waist kept getting yanked from the flat-bellied climber in front of me. I couldn’t get my breath. I used all my mind tricks for blocking out pain and fatigue that I had learned from running marathons. I thought of my rope being a giant rubber-band tied to the top of the peak pulling me up the boot-packed trail. I started counting in a chant-like rhythm, one, two, three, four, over and over again. It wasn’t working. I was slowing down.
Soon I heard Chris, the triathlete, say that we needed to pick up the pace and get off the Ingraham Glacier. That is when I knew that I was not going to make it. The altimeter on my friend’s wrist said we were standing at 12,241 feet above sea level.
In frustration I yelled out, “Why don’t you ‘man up’ and tell me that I am not going to make it!” As soon as I said it I knew it was the wrong thing to say. He didn’t want to tell the old man he didn’t have what it took to climb the mountain.
I tried to see Chris’s face one pitch ahead of me on the smart end of the lead rope as he looked down at the snow then off into the distance towards the Puyallup River drainage to get a sense of what he was thinking. He let out a plume of foggy breath but I couldn’t tell from the sigh if he was disappointed in me for snapping at him, or for making him force me out of the climb or that he couldn’t think of a safe way to continue up the Ingraham Glacier with me slowing them down. I had put him in a tough place.
“I can’t do it at this pace,” I said. “I am calling it right here. Sorry Chris”
“No worries, Dude. You gave the mountain a good run!” he yelled down at me with a big smile.
There it was. I saw the part of my character that needed my attention. I let my frustration with myself for not being physically fit enough leech over to my friends and blame them for not climbing slow enough for me. What does that say about me? Was my ego is still a driving force in my life? I was arrogant without cause. I was slow to see the truth about my physical limitations. I wondered where else I might be blind to my faults and wondered if I ever would be able to see them clearly enough to change. What would it take back at sea-level to show those flaws of character? I shuddered to think.
Another climber was ready to go back too so we roped up together and descended to Muir. Twenty minutes into our descent my feet began to hurt. My flat, size 14 feet, were being destroyed with every heel-first plunge in the unforgiving plastic boots. Apparently climbing didn’t bother my feet but every step down the Ingraham Flats caused excruciating pain. I could feel the blisters boiling in spite of the mole skin, Vaseline, spit, duct tape and sock liners.
I pulled off my boots in the hut at Muir and discovered blisters the size of small trout had formed where most people have arches. I cursed REI’s name. I still have to get to Paradise tomorrow! I stared at my swollen, bloodied feet and imagined my friends’ high-fiving at the summit. Can I say it? I felt a tear form in my eyes. After a bowl of Top Ramen I crawled in my sleeping bag and fell asleep.
The next day when we set out for home after the successful summit of Chris and the others, I slid on my arse as much as possible and stepped carefully down the Muir Snowfield. Ascending climbers would ask me if I summited and I would say, “I just went ¾ of the way.” I got tired of saying it though. Wished I could say something else like, “I was only going to Muir anyway.” But then how do I explain the helmet, climbing boots, harness and crampons? So every time someone would ask me if I made it, my ego was bruised once again, which only intensified the pain in my feet. Then I decided to “man up” and began saying, “Nope. I didn’t put in the training this mountain requires. The mountain doesn’t lie.”
Theodore Roethke has a line in his poem The Waking that says, “I learn by going where I have to go.” I can sit in my living room watch T.V. and eat Doritos and say I am a mountaineer, I can read books about mountaineering, I can watch youtube videos about climbing Mt. Rainier—but 14,410 revealed the truth about me as a 52 year old mountaineer-want-to-be: All I have in me is 12,241 feet.
What’s more, I want to be a man who resembles the grace-filled Jesus who walked in sandaled feet in a distant and dusty land, but the truth is I am a work in progress. I am a long ways from the man I intend. So, I climb on.
I hobbled into Paradise, loathing the name, and the giddy disposition of the noisy tourists in the parking lot. I took my boots and socks off carefully as if I were changing the dressing of a burn victim, threw my pack in the back of my jeep and headed to Bellevue and REI to return my gear.
“Did you summit?” asked the guy behind the counter with a rosy grin when I handed him my stuff.
“Not this time, but I got closer than last time,” I said. “And that is the point, right?”
“No,” he said, “the point is to enjoy the mountain and to make it down safely, because people die on that mountain.”
“That is true,” I said.
I limped up the stairs got into my jeep and drove to my condo and my soft couch to admire my blisters.
The wilderness brings out the best and the worst in me. It is like a stress test cardiologists give patients whom they suspect might have some pathology in their heart. The test shows the condition of the heart. Rainier tested me. It was folly to try to be something I can no longer be—young. It is equally foolish to stop climbing. It is in the climb I see the truth about my physical condition and that in turn reveals pathogens that need a heavy dose of the antibodies of grace and truth. For graceless aging is as unattractive is blistered feet.
I can’t do this interior climb on my own. I need to be roped up with someone who knows what they are doing; who knows where they are going; who is relentlessly patient with me and who can climb at my pace.
I have found my guide. He, too, climbed a mountain.
A Dude named Jesus.