Present

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.”

Me: “Th-…oooo…anks…hhii….”

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:

“Oommff.”

…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.”

I gulped.

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.

Breath

My parents don’t like profanity. As a child, there was an unofficial list of certain words and phrases which were deemed to be profane or inappropriate and thus never to be spoken in the household. The list was fairly broad, including everything from your usual four-letter suspects to phrases like “shut-up”. Punishments for violations ranged from a time out to a good spanking and a literal washing of the mouth out with soap. For five days after an offense, every breath we’d take would taste like Dove.

My siblings and I realized, however, that the list could be whittled down to minimal restrictions if we simply kept track of the words our parents used in their weaker moments. Then, any time we utilized such vocabulary, we could instantly refute any disciplinary action from our parents:

“But you’ve said that before!”

“That’s not true.”

“Yes, it is.”

“When?”

“When that lady cut you off in traffic the other day…”

(sigh of deep resignation and utter defeat) “Oh.”

Of all the words and phrases we managed to cross off the list, however, “Oh my God”, was never one of them. My parents adhered to the third commandment in its strictest translation and this phrase was considered profanity in the worst way. While I did and still do agree with them, I have also come to understand there are certain moments in life in which God must be addressed as the subject of an unfinished sentence, albeit with the utmost dignity and respect, because there simply is nothing else to say.

After a day of pacing the lobby of Paradise Lodge (and banging my head against the wall) our team of five crowded into our small room and went to sleep. I read for a while by headlamp and then fell into a sporadic but otherwise fitful slumber.

When we awoke and looked out the window, conditions hadn’t seemed to improve. We could still just barely see the trees. I assembled my gear, struggled into my pack, attempted to ignore the dismal feeling of déjà vu and met the rest of the team down in the lobby. Paul and Allen returned from the ranger station to inform us that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the weather had improved and the clouds were moving out quickly. The winds were low and Camp Muir was soaked in sunshine above the clouds.

And so it was decided: we were going to climb Mount Rainier.

Finally on the move, we downed an assortment of leftovers for breakfast and by 7 AM we had begun the hike from Paradise to Camp Muir; this is approximately 4.5 miles with a 5,000 foot elevation gain. The trail to Camp Muir is usually just that: a trail. But this year, with such a cold summer, the snowmelt had been delayed and, instead of a pathway through trees, we were trudging through feet of snow.

Shortly after beginning, it was decided that our group would split: myself and Alan would take what Paul described as “the winter route” and try to get to Muir first, so we could reserve our group some spots in the shelter. The winter route to camp Muir is more direct, with less actual distance, but thus it gains altitude much faster via several strenuous uphill portions. It could take considerably less time, if the hikers were up to it. This seemed like a brilliant idea, except for the fact that on the scale of physical fitness, Alan is a ten and I’m…well…not a ten.

Nonetheless, we split off from the group and diverged onto the so-called winter route. We trudged through the snow, Alan a few paces ahead of me, and my breathing got heavier and heavier. I resisted the urge to look up and see how much higher we had to go; instead I kept my eyes straight focused on each step. Alan’s route became steeper and steeper and with it my breaths increasingly desperate.

One of the many tips Paul had given us prior to beginning was to practice breathing in and maintaining a rhythm. Much like a sprinter in a race, this ensured that breath was constantly being delivered to the lungs and the rest of the body. As I followed Alan’s footprints up the incline, I concentrated all my mental efforts on regulating my breathing, keeping the same time between the big breaths and little breaths. Despite all efforts, I couldn’t help but notice that the breaths sounded very much like my own home state: “oohh…..hhii……oooo….oohh….hhii….oooo” as if my body was telling me “reality check, bubba. You are from Ohio. Mountain climbing is for people from states that aren’t as flat as a table. It’s time to give up.”

But I didn’t. Step by step, breath by breath, I put one foot in front of the other, the entire time staring down at the ground in front of me. After going strong for about thirty minutes, Alan stopped. I was only a few paces behind him and caught up shortly. I was affirmed in noting that he too was breathing heavily, not sucking air uncontrollably like myself, but still breathing heavily.

“We’re making good time,” he said. “Really good time.”

“ That’s….oohh….fan….hhii….tastic….oooo,” I replied.

“We’ve gained some altitude,” Alan said, and nodded behind me. I looked back.

Actually, the correct way of phrasing it is: I looked down. The entire time we’d been plodding along, we’d been trudging up a hill. Having been so concentrated on my breath, and in a dense fog, I hadn’t noticed how high we’d come. Behind me, the “trail” (i.e. our footprints in the snow) gave way to a steep slope that dropped down about 30 feet from where we stood and then disappeared into the fog.

I peered into the oblivious drop-off nervously.

Attempting to sound as manly and totally-not-scared-of-anything as possible, I asked Alan what would happen if I, say, lost my footing at some point and fell back down the hill.

He shrugged nonchalantly: “You’d stop eventually.”

This was hardly comforting; a skydiver whose parachute doesn’t deploy “stops eventually”. But I put on my tough facade and shrugged in as nonchalant a manner as I could muster, all the while wanting to whimper like a frightened puppy.

Without further adieu, Alan turned and continued hiking, and I resigned myself to staring at the ground in front of me trying to forget that if I did happen to fall, everything was okay because Alan had promised me that I’d “stop eventually”. As content as I was focusing on the pain of sucking breath rather than the prospect of a hundred foot free-slide, my body was in complete disagreement with me on the matter:

Body: “What are you doing? This is hell! Stop it!”

Me: “We’re…oohh…almost…hhii…there!”

Body: “Um, that’s a lie. The only almost we are, is dead on the side of the mountain. Give up.”

Me: “Shut….oohh…up.”

Body: “You’re never going to make it.”

Me; “I…hhii…said…”

Body: “And when you get a chance, look down again. That’s a long way to fall.”

Me: “I ha-…oooo…-te you.”

Body: “It’s mutual, buddy.”

Alan: “Who are you talking too?”

Me: “Talking? I wasn’t talking, you must be hearing things.”

And so the morning passed. We trudged on and eventually the trail flattened out a bit. I was still immensely focused on the ground in front of me, so this time when Alan stopped I didn’t notice until I almost collided with him.

“Time for a water break,” he said then nodded over his shoulder. “Check it out, we’re above the clouds.”

I looked up.

And that’s when it happened. As my eyes lifted from the ground in front of me and beheld the newly revealed scenery, I slowly, reverently and quiet literally exclaimed:

“Oh…my…God.”

Ahead of me, standing tall above the clouds, was the most beautiful mountain I had ever seen. From it’s white crater, to the streaks of black rock down her sides, Mount Rainier stood before me with a sense of menacing invitation. She glistened in the early morning sun with fresh snow, majestically reaching into the sky as if her summit could touch heaven itself.

“Alan,” I said, “That’s unbelievable.”

He took a gulp of water and nodded. There really wasn’t much else to be said. It was the type of moment that literally took my breath away. What was left of it, that is.

We continued the rest of our hike in relative silence, occasionally passing along a word of encouragement or embracing some brief conversation between breaths. The only difference was my focus shifted considerably from staring at my feet, to stealing any glances possible at Mount Rainier.

I couldn’t get past the beauty of the mountain. My sense of awe skyrocketed well past cloud nine when I turned and looked back, and not only could I see the summits of Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens, but I could also see the peak of Mount Hood on the horizon over 150 miles to the south.

I’ve attempted to make it clear that I believe in God, that I believe He created the world and it is He who controls it. As I finished the hike to base camp that morning, every upward crane of my neck brought with it- from the only breath I had left- the proclamation: “Oh…My…God…”

My God, you are beautiful. You are magnificent. You’re glory is more than I can comprehend, more than mere words can capture. You’re beauty is infinite, it defies comprehension and eludes the imagination. You are as sudden as an avalanche and as terrible as a volcano, more powerful than I can grasp. But you are also the peace of a snowflake beneath my shoes and the incomprehensible love of the summit in my foresight. You are the very means by which I breathe, breathe each labored breath.

The Majesty in which I believe; this is the God I try to serve. He is the God of the mountains, the God of the blue sky beyond their peaks, and the infinity of treasures between their bases and summits. He is the God who can take my breath away when I’m convinced I have none left to take.

Oh my God, you are God.