If you believe we have nine lives, I’ve wasted at least one in the mountains.
I’m afraid of scuba diving, bicycling, and nearly hurt myself bad playing Pickleball (a form of tennis). But I’ve climbed a few big mountains by American standards. That’s because I’m dumb, and cocky. You need a bit of both to be drawn to mountain climbing.
I wasn’t very skilled at the time, but my friend was. The problem with being skilled is you overlook basic things, like ensuring your new cramp-ons are compatible with your boots before starting the trip. You start to think you’re above those details.
We were on Mount Rainier, near Seattle. I already felt less concerned about it than I should have, because I’d climbed it once before, which meant I could do it again, no problem.
The trick with an “alpine start” is to get going in the middle of the night so you can get to the top and descend back down to camp, or wherever, before it gets too late on summit day.
That means climbing up to base camp, getting water ready for the morning, trying to eat, and by the time you get warm in your sleeping bag, well, you need to get out of it again and make yourself crap before you rope up and start climbing.
We started around 10 PM, which was too early for an alpine start. The mountain hadn’t “set,” which means it wasn’t frozen-over enough and was a bit slick, still.
Steve kept stopping every 10 minutes and screwing around with his cramp-ons. We couldn’t tell what he was doing because it was dark and windy, and we couldn’t hear what was happening in the back of the rope line. Every time he stopped, we got cold.
We got off-route because we mistook sun cups as boot track: in other words, we thought we were following other climbers who had established the route the day before, but instead we were going the wrong way, with crevasses in the shadows and dark all around us, going from 10,000 to 14,000 feet.
We decided to turn back after midnight. It was so windy, Steve’s tent was bouncing up and down in the snow, and when he rushed to secure it, he cut a gouge in the side of it with his cramp-ons.
The near-death part happened the following morning. Steve got up, ate some half-frozen pudding, and opened a can of beer.
The options to descend from base camp included going via the glacier, or climbing over a rock outcropping. It seemed like a real hassle to rope up just for a 10 minute segment on the glacier, so Steve chose the rock outcropping, and I followed him.
I got up on the rock with my pack and looked down at Steve, skipping along the rocks below, getting smaller and smaller, singing, belching, farting.
The rock was that sharp volcanic stuff, that crumbles and slides and makes for hard footing. It’s the same rock that forms one of the prominent features on the mountain: a sharp nub called Little Tahoma, basically a chunk of rock the mountain coughed up many years ago.
One of the hard things about climbing at altitude is maintaining your balance with a heavy pack. I felt myself wobble, and my head went black, but I caught my legs and rolled into the mountain, splayed on the side of it like a dead bug. It’s times like these (and there have been many), I see myself for the dumb-ass I am.
I got to my feet and looked down at the glacier, where the others were stretched out on the rope, happily descending. I now had no choice but to continue the hard route, on the rock.
I got down on my butt and crawled like a lizard, like the mindless crustacean I truly was, while the others waited politely below.
The nine lives forgive you, but no one lets you know how many you’ve spent. I’d like to use them all.