Ashford, Washington is a quaint place. The city vanishes into a lush valley of green with rivers and lakes and other visual pleasures that would have been much more enjoyable had a massive hunk of stone and ice not loomed over everything. Yes, I could enjoy the scenery, but these same vistas constantly reminded me of my goal, a goal resting nearly three vertical miles off the valley floor.
We had reserved a spot in a bunkroom at Whittaker's Bunkhouse, a climber's hotel affiliated with the Rainier guides. The place was wildly stimulating. Climbers who usually stick to crags were testing their skills on a climbing wall or on a tightrope. Others were planning climbs of Rainier as a step toward a Denali expedition. Folks coming off the mountain seemed haggard, and those of us about to head up were wired with anticipation. Nerves were building.
We found our room, picked up the rental gear, and headed to the bunkhouse to sort and re-sort, to pack and unpack and repack, to anticipate and get anxious. Eventually we dropped our tasks to head out for some pasta (carboload) and salad with blackberry dressing before eating some blackberry pie (they grow enormous loads of blackberries in the area, so nearly every dish had been topped with various derivatives of the succulent fruit).
We returned to the bunkhouse to try to rest up for climbing school. As we walked in, we met a guy who was preparing to head out the next morning for his second climb of the mountain. He began a strange rant, what seemed the product of decades of serious experimental drug use:
"You guys goin' up the mountain? It's a huge, freakin' mountain, man. I mean, that is a huge freakin' climb, man. You just got to stick your face in the mountain and don't look down, man. 'Cause if you look down, you're comin' off the mountain, man. You're fallin' down like 'aaaaaaaaaaaaaah!' (arms waving wildly), man. You just got to stick that ice ax in the mountain and keep going up. You look down, and it is over, man, over. It's over. Just look at the mountain."
I tried to dismiss the comments as insane, but my anxiety latched onto his words and the fear mounted.
"So, here's what you need to do tomorrow. You'll go to climbing school, and you'll pay attention. You'll learn what to do, and you'll pay attention, man. Then you got to come back here, and hit the climbing wall. Just burn it out. You have to burn it out. Just hit the climbing wall and burn it out. Just burn it out, man. You know what I'm saying? Just burn . . . it . . . out . . . man. And then you'll rest, you'll sleep, and you'll head up the mountain. Remember to look at the mountain. Don't look down. Just look at the mountain. Then come back down, get some food, have a cold beer, and then hit the climbing wall and burn it out. You have to burn it out, man. Just burn it out. It's going to be awesome, man. Just burn it out."
Sweet. All I had to do was burn it out. No problem. Just had to burn it out. Fair enough. But I was a little more concerned about the "aaaaaaaaah!" part of the climb. Somehow, Gabriel and I extricated ourselves from the deranged monologue, and proceeded to our bunkroom to quietly express our shock and incredulity. We packed and unpacked and repacked and tried to sleep.
Climbing school was brilliantly designed. They managed to take a tremendous and daunting task and make it seem achievable. I was thrilled to finally have crampons on my boots for the second time in my life. I broke out the climbing glasses (old school-style with leather shields on the side), and I was happy to be moving around the snowpack. We practiced arresting a fall, learned how to work with rope, learned that we needed much more sunblock and generally figured out what we were going to have to do. Here is a picture of Gabriel and me enjoying climbing school . . . notice the massive summit looming in the background:
I also learned that I needed to reevaluate my gear situation, something that I love to do. After watching my father over the years, I realize that I am genetically predisposed toward "gear-headedness"--it's a recessive gene that effects some individuals. While a problematic condition, at least financially, I note the genetic advantages that the condition brings. A gearhead often accepts his or her own limitations, limitations, physically and mentally, to what they can accomplish in climbing or motorcycling or hunting or photography or cooking or golf or whatever. Then, the gearhead does extensive research to ensure that their equipment will eliminate as many of these limitations as possible. So, for example, I knew that I was not in condition for the climb, so I grabbed my lightest backpack and proceeded to pack in the most efficient manner possible with ultralight long underwear, ultralight shell, etc. Of course, this also meant an ultralight disposable camera which left the climb poorly documented, but, heck, I needed my gear to work for me because I was definitely not strong enough to do it myself.
Anyway, I had expected my time on the glacier to be a cold experience (gear switch: ditch Smartwool Mountaineering socks). Instead I found myself gushing sweat, massive loads of fluid pouring off my skin. I might as well have been running a marathon on a July afternoon back in Texas (gear switch: use Patagonia lightweight long underwear, switch to a lighter padded Smartwool sock). The side effect of the sweat was the need to constantly reapply sunscreen. It also meant a stream of metallic taste into my mouth, which was less than pleasant (gear switch: Burt's Bees lifeguard lip balm to reduce metallic taste). The intensity of the sun was truly stunning, and the hat I had purchased the day before at Seattle's REI offered little shelter (gear switch: acquire goofy hat with extra long bill and protection for neck and ears).
With climbing school over, we enjoyed the new education. I made some gear adjustments and packed and unpacked and repacked. Gabriel and I headed out for a dinner, a "last supper" of sorts. We felt tired in a great way and ready for the task. I enjoyed more salmon with blackberry topping of some sort, and looked forward to a good night's sleep. We'd need it for the tour de force.