Earlier this month, I flew back to Ohio to watch my sister of twenty-one years marry the man of her dreams. I was a groomsman in her wedding. I stood by as my father and sister, who had to be the most beautiful bride in the world, walked down the isle. As I watched them moving closer, my father visibly fighting back tears, I felt a sudden weight hit my chest. It was a weight. I’ve only felt a couple times, but one of those was very recent. I had felt it while standing on the summit of Mount Rainier.
Two weeks earlier, perched on the side of Disappointment Cleaver, I had just glanced over the edge and been able to see…well… nothing. As the line tightened in front of me, I thought about how mad my sister would be if I died and thus missed the flight for her wedding.
As my time came to move, I pushed all thoughts of death and eternal sibling grudges aside, inhaled and took a step. We began to ascend the Cleaver.
But that’s when we stopped. Sarah halted in front of me almost right after we’d begun. Communicating on a rope line can be somewhat trying; I asked what was up.
“I dunno,” she said.
“Why are we stopping?” I asked.
“Why are we stopping?” Alan asked behind me.
“I dunno,” I told him.
“What don’t you know?” Sarah asked.
“Why we’re stopping,” I said.
“I don’t know, Bryn…I just told you that.”
I could see Paul up front, looking behind us, and glanced back. About a hundred yards behind us, I could see a line of lights bobbing up the trail: another rope team was gaining on us fast.
“I think we might want to let them pass,” Paul said, “We don’t want to be rushed on the Cleaver.” Actually, that’s what I eventually surmised he’d said. Since he was still a good distance away, his message went from Tracy, to Sarah and then to myself-like a bad game of telephone. By the time I was ready to relay the message to Alan, it actually came out as: “I think she’d fight for some extra gas…we won’t want to be pushed by a beaver.”
“Huh?” Alan said.
“Hey Alan!” Paul yelled from the front, “Let’s step aside and let these guys pass! Then we won’t be rushed.”
I nodded over my shoulder. “That.”
We moved off to the side of the trail and let the rope team behind us pass through, nodding “good mornings” to them as they went. After they’d gone, we resumed our climb, this time following them as they plowed ahead. We approached a line of fixed rope, which hugged a rock cliff as it worked its way around the bottom of the Cleaver. We had been informed by the Park Rangers not to clip into the fixed line or even rely on it because it was loose and wouldn’t do much if we fell (to which we responded “Well, thanks…thanks for the help”). Instead we had to climb along the rock face using our axe for support, the entire time wondering how a self-arrest might work on granite.
Using crampons on sheer rock was like trying to climb up a chalkboard in track cleats; I never felt like I had sure footing, and winced every time I heard the scrape of metal on rock.
“This sucks,” I said.
“Six bucks?” Sarah asked.
“No, this sucks!”
“Woodchucks?” I resolved to refrain from comment until we were within a few feet of each other, or at least weren’t clunking over rocks in our crampons. Luckily, it didn’t last long, and before the final “eeeecccchhhhh” had left my ears we were back on snow.
Then we started going up.
From that point on, my recollections are rather foggy. In the dim pre-dawn haze of my memory, all I remember is that we climbed, and we climbed. The trail was a never-ending traverse, a series of switchbacks. We would tread steadily with our left foot uphill for about forty yards, then switch the rope and go with our right foot. Eventually, we caught up to the rope team that had passed us earlier, and were stalled several times due to their slow pace until they finally got the hint and returned the favor, stepping off to the side of the trail as we went by.
I don’t remember my breathing getting heavier, but I remember feeling unbelievably fatigued. I focused on each step I had to take, and nothing else, staring at the ground in front of me. I resolved not to look back at Alan as much as possible, because every time I did, I would see the mountain falling away behind us and get a feeling in my stomach that said something along the lines of either “oh-my-gosh-your-going-to-die-and-miss-your-sister’s-wedding” or “you-probably-shouldn’t-have-eaten-beans-yesterday”, I’m not sure which.
Alan seemed oblivious (or perhaps apathetic) to this resolution and kept saying things like: “WOW! Did you see that?” which would inevitably prompt me to stop and look in his direction, reigniting the feeling in my stomach.
“What?” I’d ask.
“A shooting star over the summit, unbelievable.”
No, what was unbelievable was not the fact that Alan just saw yet another shooting star over the summit but the fact that while I was concentrating on motivating myself for each and every step so I didn’t slip and drag myself and the entire rope team into oblivion, Alan was taking a relaxed stroll in the park and star gazing. If I had to guess, I’d say he was probably whistling a fine tune behind me as well, and I just couldn’t hear it. Stupid super-human freak of nature.
As we kept climbing, I began to feel worse and worse. The feeling in my stomach evolved to a full blown aching that settled there, then made way to my head. Every now and then I would see black speckles, like watching an old video cassette, and have to shake my head a bit to get them out of my vision.
Then I began to notice a change in the landscape. I saw the blue hue of light coming off the snow slowly brighten, and an orange aurora appear around us. I thought I was just imagining it, until I heard Alan say something.
I ignored him at first: he probably just saw another star.
“Hey guys,” he insisted, “check it out!”
Paul stopped ahead and we all turned back and saw it. The sun was rising off to the east; it’s orange curvature emerging over a line of fog.
“Wow,” Sara said. “That’s just awesome.”
And it was.
But I still felt dizzy.
Paul turned and began climbing.
“Paul,” I yelled ahead, “can we take a quick break? I need some water.”
Paul appeared puzzled wondering why I’d just asked if we could “get baked” because “I need to be hotter” but Tracy translated for him and the confusion dispersed. I was bracing myself for the sigh of frustration from the group (“freakin’ Ohioan”) but was somewhat relieved when everyone else nodded in agreement. We sat down. Well, everyone else sat down. I collapsed in a miserable heap that greatly resembled the star of Disney’s Flubber.
I took a sip of water and looked to Alan who was standing next to me.
“How much further we got?” I asked.
He stopped whistling and removed the GPS from his pocket. His face brightened a little. “Looks like we only got, eh, 400 vertical feet to go. We’re almost there!”
Compared to 14,000 feet, you would think this would be good news. But it really wasn’t. Four hundred feet is still that, four hundred twelve-inch vertical steps, each one demanding that I hoist my flubberish self up with it. My head felt light, my lungs empty, my stomach like it needed a good hurl, and my legs as though they would never forgive me. For the first time that trip, I began to honestly wonder if I could make it to the top of Rainier.
Alan seemed to read the expression on my face and looked down at me.
“Hey,” he said, “it’s only 400 feet. You got this.”
I nodded. Paul gave the word and I hoisted myself up and well before I had any desire to move, we were on our way.
400 feet, I told myself, I can do it. That’s just 399…398…397…
We came to the next turn in the traverse and the climb flattened out. I looked up and was suddenly confused. It appeared as though we were approaching a large flat portion, but that couldn’t be…
“Mr. Clark,” I heard Alan say behind me, “You are about to summit Mount Rainier.”
I looked back at Alan and he grinned. I was confused: That definitely wasn’t 400 feet.
I looked ahead and saw Sarah crest the hill in front of me, then raise her ice axe in the air.
“What?” I asked Alan.
“It’s the summit!” He said.
And then it hit me. I took another step and I was on the crest, overlooking a large crater filled with snow. We never had 400 feet to go. I had made it.
I was on the summit of Mount Rainier.
I saw Paul smiling, holding a camera, and heard him telling me to lift my ice axe. I obliged. I saw Sara unclip herself from the rope and run (well, clop, one can’t really run in crampons) up to me and give me a hug. I turned and saw Alan emerge over the crest and give me a smile that said “Gotcha”, and I couldn’t have been more thankful for that stupid, super-human liar.
And then I felt it-the weight.
In case your curious, the instances in which I have cried in the past year have involved little other than slicing an onion (to cook mussels), the night the Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl and perhaps a girlfriend breakup that also coincided with realizing I wouldn’t be seeing my favorite sweatshirt again. The point is: I don’t cry often.
But as I walked across the summit of Mount Rainier, I had an uncontrollable urge to simply break down. Indeed I did, though I didn’t really cry (I think I was too dehydrated to spare the tears). We reached the side of Columbia Crest, the actual tallest point on Mount Rainier, and I sat down. I put my head in my hands and I didn’t move.
I was dizzy, my head throbbed and my stomach ached, but that wasn’t why I sat down. I sat there because I felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of something I couldn’t comprehend. Here I was, twenty-one years old, standing on the top of a mountain, some grand personal achievement, and I felt as though a hand had reached down from heaven, tapped me on the shoulder and told me “Hey, this is great and enjoy it. But let me tell you: this is nothing.”
Two weeks later, as I watched my sister walk down the isle, I felt that weight again. This time, I was neither exhausted, nor did I have altitude sickness, but the weight felt exactly the same. It was like a small voice whispered in my ear “Hey, I know this is amazing, but trust me…this is nothing.” Once again, I had to make a controlled effort to hold back tears.
The question then became “this is nothing…okay…but compared to what?” But in both these instances I never asked this question, because I knew. I knew somewhere deep inside me, just who the voice was and the “what” to which He was referring. I knew that as I reached the summit of a mountain or watched my sister walk down the isle, these were truly climactic life experiences, but they were nothing compared to what was eventually in store somewhere between now and eternity. The weight of this knowledge, the weight of this morsel of comprehension, was what reduced me to a near-wreck. It’s what C.S. Lewis called “the weight of glory” and it’s something I, as a human, simply could not bear, even if I wanted it.
Eventually Sarah put a hand on my shoulder.
“Hey,” she said, “You okay?”
I nodded, and stood up. I was shivering but couldn’t stop smiling.
As my sister recited her wedding vows, and the pastor said “You may now kiss the bride”, I found myself smiling again.
In two weeks I was blessed to see the sun rise from the summit of a volcano, and watch my angelic sister walk down the isle in a public declaration before God, friends and family. I posed for pictures with an ice axe and my rope team, then in a tuxedo with the other groomsmen. I laughed, I climbed, I danced, I collapsed like a blob of flubber. Both these events took my breath away; both of them will forever be seared into my memory. But at the same time there was a weight on my chest and a voice in my head that reminded me:
“Trust me, Bryn. This is nothing.”