Sunday Quotes: Irony of Mountaineering

I spent some of my sabbath this week living vicariously in yet another memoir of the masochistic sport that is mountaineering which is when I stumbled across this quote. It’s nothing profound, but does bring a simple illumination to something that I believe has a much more profound meaning. Maybe someday I’ll explore it.

From Jeffrey Archer’s Paths of Glory, a fictional account of George Mallory and the British expedition to the summit of Everest:

“It’s one of the ironies of mountaineering…that grown men are happy to spend months preparing for a climb, weeks rehearsing and honing their skills, and at least a day attempting to reach the summit. And then, having achieved their goal, they spend just a few moments enjoying the experience, along with one or two equally certifiable companions who have little in common other than wanting to do it all again, on an even higher mountain.”

Here’s to living vicariously…for now.

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Nothing

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.

“I dunno.”

“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.”

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.