I came to Seattle to climb Mount Rainier.
My mother recently requested that I stop mentioning any activities in which I participate that present the risk of death. I took this as a rather abrasive comment on my cooking. Either way, I just wanted to take the time to say that Mom, if you are reading this, now would be a good time to stop.
Situated 54 miles southeast of Seattle, Mount Rainier tops off at 14,411 feet elevation. Under the classification of a Decade Volcano (the meaning of which I’ll leave you to research on your own) it is considered one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes and is the highest mountain in the Cascade Range of Washington State. Although is only the fourth tallest mountain on the North American continent, it’s topographic prominence (13,211 feet) is greater than that of K2. It is the most heavily glaciated mountain in the lower 48 states, boasting 26 major glaciers and 36 miles of permanent snowfields. These statistics all make it one of the most desired peaks, not just in North America, but also in the world. Famous mountaineers such as Jon Krakauer, Jim Whittaker, and Ed Viesturs began their ascent (pun intended) to mountaineering fame on Rainier’s slopes.
A translation for non-mountaineering folk: Rainier is a big deal.
The prestige of Mount Rainier draws between 8,000-13,000 climbers each year. Of these, approximately half will reach the summit. The reasons for failure are many. It’s prominence is so great that it creates it’s own weather, and it can change in a minute. Sunny days in Seattle can mean gusts of wind above 70 miles per hour on the summit with temperatures plummeting below zero. A clear day spent climbing in a t-shirt can, in a matter of minutes, be transformed into a whiteout comparable to those on Everest.
Beyond it’s unpredictable weather, climbing Rainier requires a great deal of training. The greatest challenge facing any mountaineer is the altitude. Oxygen levels decrease proportionally as altitude increases; air at 12,000 feet has roughly 40% less oxygen molecules per breath. Thus climbing is comparable to breathing with a sock stuffed down your throat or running a marathon with a terrible cold. It takes a serious toll on the body. The days after a serious climb are usually spent recovering with ice packs and ibuprofen, nicknamed “vitamin I” by most mountaineers.
And then there’s this thing called death.
Death is always a risk in mountaineering. As I sat in my comfortable bed on the coast of Maine reading up on Mount Rainier, I was frequently reduced to shaking uncontrollably and wondering if I’d made a huge mistake. Apart from the normal risks due to weather (getting lost, hypothermia, and the random lightning strikes) Rainier has it’s own set of glorious mysteries that may take you from a grinning tourist on its slopes to memory in a matter of seconds. The glaciers pose the greatest risk. Wide cracks, known as crevasses, open in the glaciers and can drop down for hundreds of feet. That’s a fall of several hundred feet deep into the heart of frozen lake. If a climber were to fall into a crevasse, the chance of surviving is on par with winning the lottery, and the chance of finding their body grimmer still. Plus, let’s not forget that it’s a volcano, one that many geologists cite as “extremely active and dangerous”.
So what, you might ask, would I do if I were trudging up Rainier’s slopes and I suddenly felt a tumble beneath my feet followed by the earth’s inner crust burping thousands of gallons of molten lava into the sky just ahead of me? Why, I’d die on the spot, of course. I’d simply pee my pants to death.
Suffice to say, the idea of mountaineering itself is a rather peculiar one. Apart from literally risking life and limb, it punishes the body, requires time and money and an abnormal amount of masochistic ambition. It has often occurred to me that I could get the same feeling of having summitted a mountain by paying someone to stuff a sock down my throat and beat me over the head with a baseball bat for a couple hours. Heck, I’m sure there are people that would do this for free (ex-girlfriends, graduates of east-coast-private-schools-with-European-sounding-accents-on-the vowels that frequently read my blog, my mother whose probably still reading this…).
“Would you ever want to climb a mountain?” I once asked my brother, around the time Rainier appeared on my radar.
He shrugged. “Maybe, if it was small enough, I guess.”
“That’s no fun. I want to climb a big mountain.”
He shrugged. “Eh.”
“What if we trained for one together? Made it a brotherly bonding type of thing?”
I paused. “So we could bond.”
“Can’t we do that in another way?”
“So why spend a lot of time, a lot of money, put yourself through hell and risk your life…just to say you climbed something that most normal humans are content just taking a picture of?”
So this all begs the question, what, in the name of all things holy, was a boy from Ohio (the highest elevation of which is a mere 1,549 feet) doing climbing mountains that obliterate experienced climbers on a regular basis?
The answer? Learning to be human.
Somehow, our society has transformed the idea of being human into something domesticated and routine. It means that we stay inside the boundaries of a postmodern society that simultaneously denies that any such rules exist. The result is a chaotic routine structured around sporadic ideals of “if it feels good, do it.”
Climbing mountains does not help me feel good, at least not directly. But it reminds me that true human nature consists not of anything domesticated or chaotic. Instead it appeals to the creator of our beings who, contrary to having sporadic boundaries or non-existent ones, knows no boundaries. When I live my life surrounded by the cushions of modern living, there’s something to be said for near death experiences. The challenge of something like mountain climbing puts me in touch with the eternal inside of me. In an oxymoronic way, it makes me feel more alive. I’m not sure if there’s a word the completely encompasses this ideal, but the closest I can think of is thrill.
Thrill reminds me that there is something within myself-within everyone- that lives beyond the trials, hardships and deaths of this world. Thrill reminds me that for the briefest of moments, such as reaching the summit of a mountain, I might truly believe that I have no boundaries. It reminds me that I believe this because I believe in a God who created me, who instilled His spirit within me, and He is himself indefinable.
Thrill identifies a gloriously human quality that I’m prone to forget exists. There’s an eternal spark within each of us, and it shines through in various ways. To embrace my humanity means to seek a thrill; it means to let that eternal spark shine through in a way others might find insane.
I came to the slopes of Mount Rainier to ignite that spark, to find that thrill.
To be continued….
(Which in the writing world means please keep reading my stuff. I’m desperate.)
(Also, tell your friends.)