The Mountain – 2004 by Vic Wood

Under a bright morning sun we stomped across the crowded parking lot, gave our backpacks one final adjustment, then made our way up the seven stone steps onto the wide open trail.  It was uphill right away but we were rewarded generously with spectacular alpine meadows and brilliant displays of coloured wildflowers.  From this vantage point the 14,410 foot massive white mountain stood majestically alone in a cloudless sky and I couldn’t stop staring at the immense snow-covered glaciers poised above my head as we continued to climb.  At the Pebble Creek Trail junction we shared a snack break with a marmot and a group of day hikers who were hiking the popular Skyline Trail.  Feeling confident that I was in good shape for the physical aspects of the climb, I began to think about the emotional and spiritual aspects of it.  From Pebble Creek it was a three thousand foot climb though a permanent snowfield to a rocky outcrop wedged between the Nisqually and Paradise Glaciers known as Camp Muir.  This high-altitude moonlike refuge at 10,188 feet consists of a ranger hut, public shelter and a couple of buildings occupied by the guide companies.  We set up our two tents in the gully just east of the ridge among the other tents and I spent the rest of the afternoon in deep conversation with Ed, Daryl, Andy and Jeff.  Like a lot of other adventures in my life this one had begun on a bar stool with a map and a cold beer, which is where I was sitting a week ago when I first met the four of them.  Ed had recently acquired a five person Mt. Rainier summit permit and after one of his friends had recently cancelled off the climb he had offered me the vacant position on the end of the rope.  I suggested that I might be able to accompany them to Camp Muir….they were all quite adamant that I would be with them all the way to the top.  Writing these words almost sixteen years later, it’s no longer entirely clear just how I managed to agree to this irrational proposal.  But after two days of training with them in crampon and ice axe use, self arrest, and proper rope technique they all agreed that I was ready and able to join them in their adventure.  I still had a few doubts.  The answer would come only on the mountain, not just for me, but for all of us.  

Sleep was almost impossible in the overnight bivouac zone at Camp Muir and I was kept awake by the intermittent roar of rock fall and other peculiar noises.  Shortly after midnight the commotion started and after staggering out of the tent I slowly merged into the light of several headlamps.  Lack of sleep, difficulties breathing and the drain of my emotions were really making me skeptical about going any higher.  I had never done a technical climb in my life and at that moment the thought of climbing this mountain, or any other glacial covered mountain seemed ludicrous, but my own history with the mountain remained incomplete.  Ten years earlier in 1994 I had backpacked the 150km Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier and also had completed many difficult day hikes on all sides of the mountain.  Still there remained the summit, the one part of the mountain I didn’t know.  After relaxing for a few minutes by inhaling and exhaling several slow breaths I began to think how much I’d hate myself a month from now if I didn’t go through with this.  I knew this was the opportunity of a lifetime, but as much as I feared being flattened by a wall of collapsing ice, I was even more afraid of falling into a crevasse, a fear that only intensified as I stood there watching the others preparing to depart.  Leaving the safety of Camp Muir I felt increasingly vulnerable and isolated in the dark with each step I took and as we started moving up across Cowlitz Glacier through Cathedral Gap I found it easy to imagine myself approaching the gates of heaven. 

Our crampons gripped firmly into the pressed ice and snow, but sometimes they scraped and sparked badly on the rock.  From the space of the headlamps I could see that everyone was trying to match the other’s pace, well aware that when crossing a shadowy glacier in the middle of the night a tight rope will minimize the length of a crevasse fall.  Except for our headlamps there was no artificial light anywhere, which allowed the stars above to shine with incredible brilliance.  A series of switchbacks took us up to Disappointment Cleaver onto the slopes of Ingraham Glacier and I kept telling myself to keep planting the ice axe into the slope for balance and to be ready to throw myself onto the ice in arrest position should anyone start to slip.  The most important act of a plummeting climber is to yell, “Falling!” to alert his rope team that they have approximately two seconds to stab their own ice axe into the mountain before they are thrown into space.  And if you slip into a crevasse you hope your rope team plants their own ice axes to stop your fall and also to prevent you from pulling them in one at a time.  Jeff was making slow progress now, pausing frequently to rest, and at one point dramatically collapsed to his knees.  We all waited patiently, glad perhaps of the chance also to rest.  What became more frightening for me than the climb itself now was the growing anxiety that I could not possibly descend what I had just come up.  Finally, however, I just focused on my four friends in front of me.  We climbed upwards now as brothers, a ghostly walk in the sky. 

Pausing often now to catch my breath I continued to feel my chest to make sure my bandana was still hanging there.  Feeling it tied securely around my neck I pressed it into my hand.  I had removed the bandana from Patricia the previous December after she had taken her last breath at Victoria Hospice.  Her last words to me were, “When summer comes again, go back to the mountain you love the best, go back to Mt. Rainier, climb high, I’ll watch from above.”  We were at about 13,400 feet when the sun rose on another stunning day and in the full morning light we climbed in silence.  I found myself leaning increasingly on the ice axe for support, struggling with each step, then at about three hundred feet from the top we were passed by a group from RMI.  They looked fresh.  We cowered on the side of the slope like convicts on a chain gang, and Jeff was now leaning over on his ice axe so far that his forehead was nearly hitting his knees.  Breathing like locomotives we punched our ice axes and kicked our crampons repeatedly into the cold belly of the mountain.  The climbing now became incredibly exhausting, but there was no need to exchange looks, each of us would have read the same determination in each other’s eyes.  At about 9:30 we finally reached the rim of the summit crater and after a brief pause we moved along the rim to stand at the true summit, where we celebrated with macho grunts and ibuprofen.  The piles of broken rock that rim the crater are kept free of snow by the constant wind and the geothermal heat rising up out of the mountain.  From where we stood the amazing panorama included Mt. Baker and Glacier Peak to the north and Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson to the south.   

On top of the mountain I knew very few things, but I knew I wanted to get down and we all knew we had to get down before the sun weakened the snow on the ice fields.  The descent was actually the scariest part of the climb; dangers that were hidden by sleepiness and darkness on the way up were now illuminated in bright daylight.  It became quite precarious as we picked our path carefully across suspect snow patches sidestepping cracks in the floor that dropped into bottomless black emptiness.  Menacing towers of ice were all around us and we had to detour several times to avoid large gaping chasms with snow bridges sagging across their middles.  Looking up at enormous ice blocks from previous falls was enough to unbalance one’s nerves and whenever there was a crack and rumble of falling ice we all looked up in alarm and then at each other stiff with fear.  During the hours since we had started climbing things had warmed up considerably and beneath the Ingraham Icefield, the most dangerous section of the route, teetering seracs frozen tight to the glacier were beginning to melt, as if ready to start rolling.  It was here in 1981 that ten climbers and a guide from RMI were killed in an avalanche that began when a serac high on the edge of the glacier toppled onto the steep slope and triggered a catastrophic slide of ice and snow.  All eleven of the victims remain buried within the glacier.

Step by step Ed led us down the mountain.  He had been to the summit twice before so we were thankful to have him in front of us.  The heat of the day had turned some of the compact ice into slushy snow so we pushed our ice axes in deeper for more stability.  It also made the snow stick to the bottom of our crampons, so we had to keep knocking it out with our ice axes.  All of our movements were carefully considered now as we placed one foot in front of the other, and on two occasions we had near misses from tumbling boulders.  At Camp Muir we took off our crampons, put away the rope and rested for about twenty minutes.  From there we just plunge stepped and slid on our butts as fast as possible; we were now only thinking about the cold beer at the Paradise Inn.  From a landscape of ice, snow and crumbling rock we eventually descended back to a living green world and the heavy foot traffic above Paradise Valley.  Mt. Rainier was not an easy climb; it was an exceedingly long and exhausting one.  Dozens of climbers throughout the years have died on its slopes.  This is not a mountain to be treated lightly.  It doesn’t play games.  It sits there, unmoved.  The reason I climbed Mt. Rainier was rooted more in my mind and my heart than in my physical strength.  I climbed Rainier in a moment of my life when my interest in life was at an all time low.  If the chance had come to me some years earlier or some years later, I’m not so sure I would have reached the top. The strenuous focussed exertion up the mountain liberated me from the world below and gave me a new outlook on life.  Over the years I have taken many hiking groups from Victoria to Mt. Rainier National Park for week long trips.  It is a world class hiking destination and I highly recommend it.

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