We begin at the trailhead in our parking lot at the end of the winding dirt road leading up to Mt Baker, a big white heavily glaciated volcano in the lovely state of Washington. It's a bright, sunny day, and we are eager to get started before the next big stormfront blows in from the Pacific. We certainly feel lucky today because we can actually see the mountain ! And you know what they say around here: "If you can't see the mountain it must be raining, and if you can see the mountain it's about to rain !" But for now, the weather has given us a helpful "window" to begin our little adventure.
So let's get started !
Heaving our 90-pound packs onto our shoulders and cinching our hipbelts tight (don't forget to take that last deep breath !) we set off on our magical journey, colorful in our plastic boots, runner's shorts, and stylish REI polypropylene underwear. The delightful clanking sounds of our assorted mountain gear, dangling like Christmas ornaments from our huge, over-stuffed backpacks, will cheer us along as we tramp merrily up the trail.
Soon we are climbing up, up, up. Ever higher we go ! Occasionally, we pause to admire a lovely waterfall before skipping lightly across a clear, cold, rushing torrent, daintily hopping from rock to rock, our 90-pound packs swaying and bobbing, bobbing and swaying.
Careful ! Don't step on that loose rock...
Good thing you brought extra dry socks. And extra clothing, too ! Ha, ha, ha !
But no time to change now. It's off we go again... up, up, and away ! After shouldering our heavy packs for several hours, we are glad to finally reach our first important milestone: the turnoff marked "Climber's Route" where the trail finally starts to get steep. We are so happy because it means we are now in "climber's country". No more wimpy backpacker trail for us !
Soon we are above treeline and out of the shade of the deep woods. The happy sun beams down upon us with its warm, friendly UV rays, and the apparent temperature soars 50 degrees. Suddenly, we're not even freezing anymore ! It's time to peel a few layers. We pause and hang our dripping REI fleece jackets over the top of our over-stuffed packs. Never mind, the sun will soon thoroughly dry them out... and our already dehydrated bodies, too !
Up, up, up the dusty mountain trail we go ! The peak we have set out to climb looms ahead of us, beckoning us onward. Isn't it curious how no matter how many miles we put behind us, it never seems to get any closer ? It's one of those "mountain mysteries".
Just when it seems like we can't go on, we arrive at our mountain base camp. Hooray ! Now we finally get to relax. Just as soon as we set up the tents, pump and filter water, dig out the sleeping bags, cook, eat, clean up, organize our climbing gear, repack everything we need for the summit climb, lay out the rope, tie our "prusiks" (more on that later), and make final plans for a busy day tomorrow.
At least we get to sit down on the inviting rocks while we eat our delicious space-age dinners of freeze-dried Mountain House lasagna ! "Just add boiling water and season to taste." It's fun eating dinner out of a plastic bag, isn't it ? It certainly saves on dishes... especially when you don't have any dishes ! Man, this is living ! We feel just like astronauts must feel, having the time of our lives, miraculously surviving in an alien, utterly hostile environment.
We are thankful for the thoughtful campers who provided us with a makeshift wall of sharp angular stones for a backrest and windbreak while we gulp down our "body fuel" and admire the sunset. Soon the stars come out, as do the lights of Vancouver in the distance far below. Electricity ? Who needs it ? We have the wind and the stars !
And what an impressive wind, too ! It comes up all of a sudden and rattles our tiny tent while we lie in our cozy sleeping bags, trying to catch a few "Z's" before we have to get up again. Good thing we went to bed early, not long after sunset. That way we can be sure to get a healthy three or four hours of sleep before rising up, fresh and rested, at one o'clock in the morning to begin our ascent.
Of course, that was before the windstorm turned violent and began to shred our cozy little tent ! Oh, well, you know what they say about that crazy mountain weather: "Always expect the unexpected !"
Fortunately, we are prepared for every eventuality. Yes, we brought plenty of that handy "ducktape" along (why do they call it ducktape when it doesn't look like a duck or even quack like a duck ?). After a few minor repairs and several rolls of ducktape the tent is almost as good as new. At least it should hold up for the next hour or so. Now it's time to finally get some sleep. But first we had better step outside to answer "nature's call".
Ahhh... there is nothing quite so back to nature as squatting down over a pile of rocks to return some of nature's bounty ! Unfortunately, the high alpine environment doesn't recycle organic compounds as efficiently as a tropical rainforest, so Mr. Ranger has provided us with a nice blue plastic bag to return with our precious little "souvenirs".
Did you remember to grab the toiletpaper before leaving the tent ?
Back inside, safe and sound, we crawl into our sleeping bag and are grateful that the wind has finally died down. Only the sound of running water, the soothing snores of our tentmates, and the occasional crack and thunder of a distant(?) avalanche breaks the majestic silence. Lulled by the natural sounds of man and mountain, we finally drift off to the Land of Nod.
Beep... beep... beep...... BEEP ! BEEP ! BEEP ! BEEP ! BEEP !
Our ever-cheerful wristwatch alarm announces that it's TIME TO GET UP !
Rubbing the last bit of sleep from our eyes (it seems like we only just closed them, how quickly that half-hour flew by !) we are suddenly wide awake. We fire up the stove and start to boil water. A hearty breakfast of instant oatmeal mush will fuel us up for the long day ahead. No need to get out of our sleeping bags. Today we get breakfast in bed ! Who said mountaineering is "roughing it" ?
Want some hot tea with your oatmeal ? Not finished yet ? Go ahead, just pour it right in. Tea, oatmeal, and a few chunks of last night's leftover lasagna... it all just adds to that hearty mountain flavor !
Now it's time to pull on our frozen boots. Funny, those socks never did dry out, did they ? But that's what spares are for... if only you could find them among the piles and piles of high-tech junk scattered around the tent ! Never mind, it's already 2 AM and it's time to get moving.
Once outside the tent, we suit up and stumble over the rocky trail to the edge of the glacier. It sparkles in the light from our tiny headlamps, an icy dreamworld under the stars. But no time to dawdle ! We tie ourselves up to the rope and put on our trusty crampons. For those of you not "in the know" those are sharp metal fangs that you strap to your feet. They keep you from slipping on the glacial ice and make your trek up the mountain as easy and delightful as... as... as climbing a mountain with sharp metal fangs strapped to your feet.
We set off up the slippery slope, headed for the summit, our battery-powered headlamps lighting the way. After having climbed for hours yesterday with fully-loaded packs, it's great to know that the real climb has only just begun ! We have so much still to look forward to ! Higher and higher we go, weaving our way through the many spectacular crevasses that welcome us all along our winding glacier "trail". Here's one we get to jump over... WEE ! That was fun. And here's another... and another... and another...
Here's one that's REALLY big ! It must be 30 feet across and a quarter mile wide. Too big to jump over ! Fortunately, there's a picturesque little snowbridge to carry us over the yawning, icy chasm. My, it certainly is DEEP, isn't it ? Ever been to China ? Thank goodness our little "bridge" didn't choose this moment to collapse ! If it had, we would have what mountain climbers call "a problem". Then we would have to "deal with it".
At least we are prepared. You see, the rope is not actually used for climbing. I bet you didn't know that, did you ? It's really only a precautionary measure for emergency use in case somebody falls into a crevasse. If they're lucky, they can climb out all by themselves using the rope and "prusiks" (funny knotted-rope things) while the rest of the team does nothing much but hang on for dear life. If they're not so lucky, the rest of the team gets to perform "crevasse rescue" and play with all the funny-looking "beaners" and "pickets" and "flukes" and "ice screws" and "pullies" and cool mountain climbing stuff like that while the hapless victim freezes to death. But we're not looking forward to that right now because we are in a hurry to reach the summit before that next big stormfront blows in.
We've been climbing for several hours now and it's starting to get light out. Mister Sun is on his way ! Now we can see the summit better than ever. Notice how it seems to be the same distance away as when we left camp ? Distances are hard to judge in the mountains. You could think you're almost there, yet be nowhere near !
Another crevasse ahead. This one will make a great picture for the folks back home. Time for a real "action shot". We stop for an instant to whip off our gloves and pull out our handy camera while our fearless leader probes the lip of the crevasse with his trusty iceaxe to help him judge whether its "safe" to step there before jumping across. All we need is a couple of seconds to focus and... WHOOPS ! Off we go again as the rope jerks us violently forward and we stumble merrily toward the crevasse ahead. Then its one, two, THREE, and we LEAP across the void... desperately clutching iceaxe, camera, and gloves.
Ha, ha ! There's never a dull moment, is there ?
At long last, we reach the saddle between the summit and a lesser peak. Here we get to stop for a few minutes to enjoy our surroundings and gulp down a half-liter or so of H2O. Tip: the trick to surviving in the mountains is to stay hydrated. Never mind if you're not actually thirsty, or even if the thought of putting down more cold water at the moment makes you somewhat nauseous. Drink, drink, drink ! That will keep your pee flowing gin-clear and help to keep your incipient high-altitude headache from becoming totally debilitating later on.
We also adjust the rope at this point to shorten the distance between us. While crossing the glacier we wanted to stay far enough apart to keep from all tumbling into the same crevasse if one of those naughty snowbridges were to collapse. That would be a bit of a "problem", wouldn't it ?
But from here on we will be climbing a much steeper slope with not so many crevasses, and it will be nice to know that if one of us trips up the others will be close by to hang onto the rope for dear life and, with any luck, not get dragged down the mountain too ! Of course, if that were to happen, you could always attempt what is quaintly referred to as a "self-arrest". No, no, not a citizen's arrest ! A self-arrest simply means rolling unto your iceaxe and attempting to use it to stop your slide before you reach terminal velocity. And if that doesn't work, I guess you have a "problem" and you'll just have to "deal with it".
It's taken about five hours to get to this point, but we feel pretty good right now and optimistic about our chances of making it to the summit. There's no obvious stormfront approaching (that we can see), we haven't fallen into any crevasses, and nobody is puking yet. And it's a good thing we all feel so good, too, because we have only just gotten to the hard part... what mountaineers like to call the "crux of the climb". The "Roman Wall" rises up before us, a steep slope of ice and snow that leads to the summit 800 feet above. We're practically there ! It seems like we can almost reach out and touch the summit. Yet we know better, don't we ? This is Mt Baker's very own "Heartbreak Hill", the place where so many summit attempts end in dismal failure.
But we're up to the challenge ! It's summit or bust for us ! Up we go, sidestepping our way up the mountain "pied a plat" (that's French talk for "walking flatfoot" and its only one of dozens of fun French phrases you get to repeat over and over when you take up mountain climbing !). Merrily swinging one foot over the other, we attempt to bend our ankles into all sorts of unnatural positions in order to get all the points of our crampons planted firmly in the icy slope. Even though it may feel rather uncomfortable at times (did somebody say "excruciating" ? let's not overdo it !) it's absolutely vital that we do so. Otherwise we might "blow a foot", and then we would have a "problem" and we would have to "deal with it".
It seems to be taking forever, but we know we are making good progress up the mountain. Besides, it's really too late to turn back now. This is not a convenient place to stop and rest because at the moment we are "exposed" (to use more colorful climber lingo). Roughly translated, that means we had better move along and "get the hell out of here as soon as possible before something bad happens and we have a problem and we have to deal with it."
So on and on... excelsior ! Isn't it remarkable how time seems to stand still in the mountains, especially when you are in a big hurry to get somewhere ? Kind of spooky, isn't it ? Remember that one episode of the Twilight Zone where the guy finds a magic watch that stops time at will, so he gets away with murder, but then one day he drops it and it breaks and... YIKES !
We're rudely awakened from our little reverie as our buddy in front of us has just stepped on the rope that we were supposed to be watching closely to keep precisely that from happening. But is it really necessary for him to curse at us that way ? We're only holding his life in our hands ! Jeeze !
Looking down, we can see just how far we've come up the Roman Wall... almost as far as we've got left to go ! You could say that we're halfway there, except that would only be in terms of the actual number of steps (519 so far, but who's counting) and wouldn't take account of the fact that the effort involved in climbing a mountain isn't properly represented by a linear mathematical function, but is better approximated by an exponential function of time: e.g. W = exp(Ct/h), where W is work (energy), C is the slope gradient, t is time, and h is Planck's constant. Meditating on the meaning of this equation and it's finite solution helps to keep our spirits high when it begins to feel as though it will take an infinite amount of energy to get to the top and we have completely run out of it.
Up and up we climb, slowly but steadily converting kinetic into potential energy, until (thank goodness !) we reach the crest and discover... well... another slope. But this one isn't quite as steep, so it really isn't that much harder than the one we just climbed, at least according to our fancy exponential formula.
It just feels that way.
Rounding the next crest, and the one after that (and the one after that) at last we arrive at our destination.
We are standing on the summit plateau of a real Cascade volcano ! It is big and broad and certainly feels "way up there", an eerie landscape of windswept snow and ice. And speaking of wind, WOW ! Time to break out the Gortex ! But we don't dare sit down yet, because we still have several hundred feet to go to get to the true summit (did I say we were there yet ? sorry !)
Lurching forward into the howling wind, we stumble along toward the small hill that marks the highest point. Just a few more steps now and it will all be over. One last push to the top and... YES !
The Summit !
We have finally arrived ! What a breathtaking view ! Mission accomplished !
We shake frozen hands and pose for a picture or two, utterly exhausted, yet excited and exhilarated, too. We are "high on life" right now (and the cumulative effects of prolonged oxygen, water, and sleep deprivation). We are so high, in fact, that we are almost oblivious to the howling gale that threatens to sweep us off our feet and send us tumbling back down the icy slope toward Home Sweet Home.
No, it don't get no better than this ! This is a glorious moment we will treasure and remember always. And it's a good thing, too, because we really don't have time to experience it right now, seeing as we are rather exposed at the moment and it's high time to get the hell out of here.
So with one last glance at the surrounding mountains, down we go, back the way we came. At least it's all downhill from here. It's a great feeling knowing that no matter what happens now (most climbing accidents happen on the way down) we have the satisfaction of knowing we made it to the top.
And if by chance, many hours from now, we do make it all the way back to our car, safe and sound at last, we can say something that few can say with such conviction.
We can say that today we did more than just live.
We can say...
WE SURVIVED !