Alan and I managed to arrive at Base Camp well before noon, despite necessary breaks for me to catch my breath:
Alan: “You’re doing well, Bryn.”
Alan: “You know, it’s funny, your breathing kinda sounds like you’re saying ‘Ohio’…”
And, of course, necessary photo opportunities:
“Alan, please, can we please stop to take a picture? Please? You don’t understand. This is unbelievable. Can we stop now? I just can’t get over these mountains… How bout now? Please…please?”
But we arrived and early enough to save spots for the rest of our group in the shelter. We proceeded to melt snow for water and make some lunch while talking with other climbers at the shelter as we waited for our group to arrive.
We hadn’t brought tents with us in order to limit the weight in our packs, so we would be staying in the shelter at Muir. The shelter was built in 1921 and, due to regular use by sweaty mountaineers who were too happy to be alive to care about hygiene, smelled as though it hadn’t been cleaned since. One side featured a set of wooden cubbies for gear and a metal table on which to cook and melt snow. The other wall was covered by two large wooden shelves, which were in fact used for sleeping.
Sarah, Paul and Tracy showed up shortly before noon and joined us in our preparation. The afternoon passed quickly as we melted snow, prepared our ropes, ate some food and then hunkered down to get some sleep…at four in the afternoon. We would be waking up around ten the night and begin climbing by midnight with the goal of reaching the summit right after sunrise.
With the sun still shining through the shelter windows, we climbed onto the stop shelf with our sleeping bags, squeezed together side by side and attempted to sleep.
I laid down, pulled my hat over my eyes and began counting sheep.
I don’t like sheep, so I counted mountains instead.
I turned to my left side.
That got confusing; I didn’t know enough mountain names. I put on music.
I turned to my right side.
The music was a tad bit too loud.
I laid on my back, turned down the music.
I hate this song, why is Boy George on my playlist?
I turned to my right side:
…too far to my right side. “Oh, sorry Alan.”
I couldn’t sleep to save my life. I tossed, I turned, I counted mountains, I counted to infinity (well, I got to about 87, then gave up), and then I tried it all over again.
So I just laid there and passed the time thinking about the task ahead. This is where being well read doesn’t work in one’s favor. Every tragic story, from every mountaineering book I’d ever read, was being replayed in my head-with myself as the star actor. It was like a cheap horror movie. I saw myself meandering along a glacial snowfield with a cheesy grin on my face right before falling through a hidden crevasse. I pictured a sudden avalanche of rock and snow swooping down the slopes and obliterating me with just enough time to proclaim “Oh my G-“. I imagined one of my teammates running me through with an ice axe after my umpteenth whistled rendition of MGMT’s “Kids”….
None of this was assisting me into a fitful slumber.
It didn’t help that it was around five in the afternoon and it was broad daylight shining through the windows and this was a public shelter in which several other mountaineers were conversing at that particular moment:
One mountaineer: “You guys going up Rainier tomorrow?”
Another: “Yea, did you just come down?”
First mountaineer: “We did, great climb. Be careful though, it’s dangerous.”
“Yea, it’s our first time. I’m pretty nervous. Any big accidents this year?”
“There always are…just a couple weeks ago a guy fell through an ice bridge into a crevasse.”
“Oh man, that’s scary.”
“Yea, the dude was from Ohio…didn’t have a chance.”
I seriously contemplated banging my head against the ply board with the hopes of knocking myself unconscious or perhaps holding my breath until I passed out. I wondered if my teammates awoke and found my unconscious body if they might do me a favor and just toss me down the trail back to Paradise. Perhaps my unconscious self could slide all the way back to civilization where there were no glaciers to steal the life out this I-am-freaking-scared-to-death Ohioan.
And thus the hours passed. I watched as the light shining through the shelter window slowly faded from white, to crimson, blue and finally black. At about that time, I heard Alan move next to me.
“Hey,” he said, “you awake?”
“Uh huh.” I glanced at my watch. 9:45. “I think I’m gonna get going.”
I climbed out of my sleeping bag, ironically hitting my head on the top of the shelter in the process. I clicked on my headlamp and gathered my gear as the rest of my team began to stir as well.
With my pants and jacket on, I stepped outside and slipped into my harness. I sat on a bench outside the shelter and began securing my crampons. I think if a bear ever caught sight us humans attempting to put crampons on our boots, they’d get a good guffaw and certainly feel like the more gifted species. Indeed, it is rather like trying to tie claws onto your feet and I wasn’t having an easy go of it.
Sarah sat down next to me.
“Isn’t this unreal?” she said.
“D$#@& these $&- huh?” I replied.
“This,” she said, motioning her arm towards the scene stretched before us.
And indeed it was.
The night was perfectly clear and a bluish glow hung over the entire mountain. I found its source: a crescent moon hung on one side of the mountain. Despite it’s light, the stars still blanketed the sky, as though this were all a dome and the stars themselves holes opening to reveal light from heaven itself.
Just as we were looking out from Camp Muir, south towards Mount Hood with Mount Rainier on our right, a shooting star streaked across the sky. It lasted so long I thought I’d imagined it.
“Bryn…” Sarah said, “Did you see that!?”
A shooting star across Mount Rainier; one can only be so blessed.
I finished putting on my crampons as well as the rest of my gear. The rest of the group had moved outside and were either putting on gear or grabbing a bite to eat. I retrieved my jar of peanut butter from my pack and downed a couple scoops. Just that was difficult; maybe it was nerves or maybe it was the altitude, but my stomach did not feel good. We all went to the bathroom one last time, then placed on our packs and moved to the start of the trail. Ahead of us in the distance was a black wall, a rocky section of the climb called Cathedral Pass.
And so it began. We all attached ourselves to the rope in the manner we had rehearsed with Paul and Allen the day before: Paul in the front, followed by Tracy, Sarah, myself and finally Alan. By the light of headlamps we began our climb.
It was hard to see much in the distance beyond our headlamps, except for the sky. I was so focused on not stepping on the rope and keeping my breathing in rhythm that I rarely looked up. I studied the snow in front of me with each labored step. All I could think about was the next step, then the one after that.
In a time of my life when the concept of “future” is a prominent discussion point, there was something beautiful about being wholly focused on the present. As I breathed to the tune of my home state and focused on not stepping on my lifeline, I had nothing on my mind but the task at hand. All my unpaid bills, all my unfound jobs, unplanned prospects – they were all far from my mind. All the worries of every day life disappeared. All I was focused on was what I had to accomplish in that moment, each step I was going to have to take next.
I didn’t know it until then, but my life had been screaming for it. My soul had been asking for a break from time, a step outside the confines of a human invention created just so we could understand eternity. For a brief moment, I wondered if that feeling, the feeling of being so focused on the presence of now, was what God knew. I wondered if He knew what it was not to be tied down by the future, past or present, but to be completely and wholly existing within all of them at the same time.
Paul stopped up front, gathering his rope to bring us all in closer to him.
“Okay guys,” he said, “we’re coming up on Disappointment Cleaver.”
Disappointment Cleaver is known as such because it is the hardest and most technical part of the climb, hence the spot where most of the climbers turn back in disappointment. For my purposes, I figured it was so named because it’s where pipsqueaks from Ohio disappear and everyone is disappointed because of all the gear he took with him.
“This is one of the steeper parts of our climb,” Paul continued, “and also one of the most dangerous.”
I gulped again, the cheap horror movie started playing.
“So pay attention to my instructions as we go through here, okay?” Paul looked at us for a moment, saw our nods and with that turned and began climbing again. I glanced back at Alan, who seemed rather un-phased by the increasing danger of our climb, probably because if we happened to fall, we would “stop eventually”.
I turned back and watched as Tracy, then Sarah, began moving forward, towards the sheer black wall in the distance. I shined my headlight down to the right side of our trail. I saw a steep wall of snow, for perhaps five feet, which then faded off into nothing. Whether this was due to darkness, or a sheer drop off of thousands of feet, I could not tell, nor did I care to ponder. Whatever the outcome, I was there. I was present in that moment, with every ounce of my conscious self. And despite the anxiety, the fear and the potential pee-my-pants terror of a fall that would “stop eventually”, I was there, and there was something glorious in that.
The line in front of me grew taught, signaling that it was time for me to move. I took a deep breath (Oohhiiiooo) and took a step. And that’s when….
…that’s when this post ends. For those of you who have been reading, this will be the last post about Mount Rainier (for now). I promise I will finish this story someday. But in the meantime, I hope you keep reading, and recommend this blog to at least one ex with whom you continue to talk and swap blog recommendations. Even if they still have your sweatshirt.