When I look deep inside myself to remember why I joined the Mountaineers climbing club, the only reason I can come up with is that I’m cocky. It may be a male-thing, too. I had already climbed Mount Rainier, which gave me the attitude I could do anything. My partner and I had even schemed about Mount Aconcagua in South America, the kind of mountain where you pass corpses because they don’t have the resources or interest to remove them, and then find more when the snow melts out.
The Mountaineers is a club in the Pacific Northwest that offers a number of different courses and organized outings, including kayaking, snow-shoeing, and mountain climbing in different levels of difficulty.
I took the alpine scrambling class, defined as anything you can do without a rope. It sounds like it should be safer than rock climbing or glacier travel, where you have to rope up.
But I followed an instructor who seemed to get off pushing the limits, and doing things that shouldn’t be done, and I liked that. I also liked the fact he was in his 60s but looked about 40, had a crude sense of humor, and wore cotton T-shirts even though the club insisted that cotton is a killer because it doesn’t wick moisture right. He had the kind of beard that wasn’t planned or maintained, started half-way down his cheeks, and went around both sides of his neck.
Steve always gave the impression of knowing where he was going, which is a good quality in an instructor. We’d meet at the trailhead around dawn, groggy and farty, and he’d describe the route with uninspired gestures, sometimes pointing at a far-off ridge or valley with his ice axe, giving the impression he’d done it a hundred times before and was a bit annoyed he had to talk about it again.
I liked that the others who signed up for his trips were nut-balls, too. There weren’t any slackers or whiners except possibly me, and I kept that to myself. The trips had brief descriptions you could read about in small newspapers the club published, or online, and there was a rating system used to categorize the difficulty as one number, and the distance as another. The hardest trip would be a “5 – 5.”
We met in an old mining town in the North Cascades in early April for my first outing with Steve, a peak called Mt. Baring, a “4-4.” I was the only student as all the others had graduated or had more experience, but I had climbed Mount Rainier, so there. And I really didn’t understand it’s just as easy to kill yourself on a 6,000 foot peak as it is on a 14,000 one.
I was shooting my mouth off about something, giddy with testosterone having led most of the way up a steep ravine that wasn’t a trail but more, required pulling on roots and dry-tooling with our axes, when I went down and realized I was falling fast across the snow, and flipped my body into arrest mode, aiming to drive the adze into anything that would make me stop and find purchase.
Instead, I bounced off a rock and hit a woman in my party who was down-wind of me, training for a climb in the Himalayas, possibly injured now and unable to do that trip because of some jackass student on some dip-shit peak in the North Cascades.
News about my fall made it up to Steve, who had gone off with another climber far ahead to assess the avalanche conditions as we broke above the tree-line. I don’t recall him acknowledging the fall or asking me about it, and it was the one time in my life I felt true adrenaline, my body humming with fear, insensate, unsure if I was really hurt because my body had gone somewhere else.
We set up to cross an avalanche area, a large open bowl with steep rock faces and twisted couloirs above, the technique quite simple, basically spread out, go fast, and keep an eye on everyone. You spread out in case someone gets taken out, so that everyone else can go dig them out.
Most people in the party summited that day but I wasn’t one of them. I stayed back with the woman I hit when I fell, and we bundled up in down jackets and watched the others as they turned the size of fleas on the snow and disappeared into a dip, then wrapped around the backside of Mount Baring, to the top.
We stayed behind because we knew getting down was going to be much harder, and it had been a weird day already. One of the guys would later crack his head on a rock, and we had to diagnose if he had a concussion, by having him count backwards from 100 in increments of four, which is hard to do as-is.
He was the classic Mountaineer nut-ball, who modifies their gear in the most geekish of ways, in this example, creating a fixture to block the sun from his nose, a piece of cardboard taped to the brow of his sunglasses, yielding a Tusken Raider look.
When we finally all did get down and collected ourselves in the same spot in the parking lot, we agreed to go for pizza and beer in the town of Sultan, and shuffled our way through the dining room, some still wearing our muddied gaiters, shown to a room in the back where no one would see us, and the guy with the Tusken Raider nose-block had dried blood matted in his hair, and it wasn’t worth pointing out because he wasn’t the type to care.