The wake up call came around midnight. I had expected waking up to be a shocking experience at that altitude and at that time of night (morning?), but, at this point, I was happy to get permission to abandon my pathetic attempts at sleep.
I scarfed down as much oatmeal as my belly would tolerate and unpacked and repacked again. Our load for the summit would be as light as possible--a few outer layers, some food and water, climbing harness and rope. I laced, unlaced and relaced my boots and finally walked out onto the glacier to join my rope team.
Anticipating the intense physical challenge, we were advised to dress in pretty light layers. While this eventually proved to be great advice, at the moment the frigid air was bathing me in icy regret . . . somewhere in Texas I had a warm bed with a soft pillow . . . here I had total darkness and air so cold that I was ready to measure it in Kelvin.
But, after powering the headlamps, stepping into our harnesses, and roping ourselves to our team, we were ready to set up and up. The first part of the climb took us through the "bowling alley," a fairly flat glacier below some steep cliffs. The name stemmed from the fact that the cliffs sought amusement by spewing hunks of rock at the climbers below. By climbing at midnight, we would minimize the risk, we were told, because the rocks were safely frozen in place. Despite this reassuring theory, our first movements of the day were quickly interrupted by a shout, "Rock!" My training taught me that this was not something I wanted to hear. Following instructions, I thrusted my pack uphill and hoped that the rock was hurtling toward the gap in a split-7, leaving us all alone. The crunching sound of the falling rock grew louder and then suddenly vanished into the darkness. We resumed the hike, just a bit faster this time.
The next five or six hours passed in a blur. My world existed of a tiny patch of snow illuminated by my headlamp, a rope trailing up to Gabriel and another rope trailing behind to the guy who had previously climbed Shasta. We stopped for an occasional break to guzzle water, try to eat some food, and bury ourselves in down jackets to keep our core temperatures somewhere near those of the living. Ceasing motion meant intense cold, so I finally decided I'd rather move than sit still.
The routine continued, and just as light crept over the world, we made the summit. We staggered out to the center of the crater, dropped our packs, and continued across to sign the guestbook and pose for the obligatory victory photo. For that moment, we were lords of the ice ax, masters of the mountains, heroes of the high country.
And then a funny notion crept into my mind . . . we had to go down. Not only did we need to get down, we needed to get down soon before the warmth of the day opened huge crevasses and before the bowling alley became a death zone. This notion was a huge disappointment. It would be like running a marathon and then being told to turn around and do it one more time. I imagine Tiger Woods knocking in a birdie on the 18th green at the Masters. The announcer then approaches him and says, "Good job, Tiger, you won the tournament. But, you now need to play the same 18 holes backwards or you will inevitably perish." In this sense, mountaineering offers a unique psychological challenge--the summit has the illusion of success, but the true victory comes through survival.
I don't think we were ready for this challenge.
While the climb had been a beautiful experience, the descent proved to be harrowing. First, since I was not even close to Gabriel's physical condition, my legs felt as if the bones had been removed and replaced with jello. Second, we had climbed in total darkness--on descent, we learned how scary this terrain was. The slopes of the volcano were terrifyingly precipitous. A good tumble would have meant thousands of feet sliding down ice, bouncing off boulders and eventually plunging into what appeared to be an abyss of apocalyptic proportions.
To make matters worse, we were struggling. The altitude affected Gabriel mentally. His speech became somewhat nonsensical, and he had lost all motivation--asking me from time to time why exactly we needed to go down the mountain after all. I was just exhausted enough that the question seemed fine by me. While intellectually I realized that getting off the crag would be in our long-term interests, it did seem like a sweet spot to plop down and enjoy an epic view. After all, we'd pay some big cash for the opportunity to enjoy the view. What was the hurry?
While Gabriel struggled mentally, I struggled physically. My legs were not pleased with the situation, and they began plotting a massive rebellion. Their tactics included highly unusual pain followed by the occasional spasm. They distracted me to such a degree that I lost track of my main task on this rope team--to keep the rope out of Gabriel's boots. Instead, I managed to dangle the nylon cord in and around his crampons causing him to stumble.
In all fairness, Mr. "I Climbed Shasta" sent the rope hurtling beneath my boots on several occasions. This replaced my feelings of exhaustion with pure rage, which then caused a psychological downturn sapping my motivation.
We were descending in every way possible.
Miraculously, we were shocked out of this funk by a terrifying event. To give some background for the uninitiated, glaciers are essentially rivers that happen to consist of ice. They constantly move, albeit really really slowly. In the process of moving, they occasionally pull apart opening chasms called "crevasses." Like people, crevasses come in all shapes and sizes ranging from pretty deep, wide, and scary to extremely deep, wide, and scary. Crossing crevasses is a tricky endeavor. Occasionally they are hidden by thin crusts of snow leaving the unsuspecting traveler to find herself in a freefall (hence the rope team: theoretically the other three climbers would be able to stop the fall). Sometimes, crevasses are so wide that climbers have to wind around them until they can find a safe place to cross. In our case, the season was young enough that many crevasses still had strong snow bridges that could be used to cross.
Of course, there was a catch. Washington had baked under record heat for a few days, and sun-up meant the temperature was quickly soaring. As heat is the enemy of all things frozen, the snow bridges were getting softer and softer, soon to become trapdoors into infinity. To avoid this pitfall, a massive metal beam had been hammered into the glacier at the sketchier crevasse crossings. Before going across the snow bridge, we were told to attach our rope to the beam via carabiner and enjoy the comfort of some extra anchoring.
No problem. Except it became a big problem. Gabriel, as I mentioned, had gone a bit loopy at the altitude. As Gabriel approached the crossing, he inadvertently neglected to hook himself up to the new carabiner. Instead, he managed to detach himself from our rope team entirely, stand up, and march toward the abyss. At this point, his only safety equipment was the ice ax at his side and the helmet atop his head.
Not sure how to respond to this shocking turn of events, I started screaming at him. The words shouted are lost to history and hypoxia, but I'm sure I articulated a brilliant motivational speech because Gabriel quickly snapped out of the funk, tied himself in properly, and began to march down the mountain like a championship athlete (while I credit my speech, Gabriel later attributed his newfound vitality to a sudden awareness of wanting very badly to be home with his wife . . . I'd like to think it was some combination of our efforts, but the reader is free to judge). The funk had lifted, Gabriel was moving in top form, and the adrenaline gave me a needed, if short-lived, boost.
As I approached the Muir Snowfield and the shack that had housed us just nine hours before, I felt slower than ever. My feet felt uncoordinated, my legs felt heavy, and I wondered how I would make it all the way back down to the Paradise Lodge and back to my own special lady in Texas. As we reached the cabin, I removed my crampons only to find that a massive rock had lodged in one of them, which might have accounted for some of my sluggishness. I used the ice ax to jimmy the hunk of stone out of its spiky trap, tossed the rest of my junk in my pack, and began putting an end to this glorious experience with nature.
Freed from my crampons, I tapped into my long experience shredding the nar and used my mountaineering boots as snow skis. This allowed a fairly fast and enjoyable trip off the volcano, even if my ankles would swell to the size of softballs as a result of the strain. In those moments, I no longer felt pain.
We reached the bus which took us to the lodge which allowed us to consume pizza, burgers, chips and beer: all calories desperately needed to replenish our weary bodies. After stuffing our faces, we cruised back to Seattle where Gabriel began his second Herculean effort by boarding an overnight flight to Atlanta in order to be at work at nine the next morning. I collapsed in an airport motel with a fairly good view of Rainier out the window. As I stared at the mountain, I reflected on a high-speed blur of weariness and pain, my mind barely able to remember the scenery, so cataclysmic and sublime.
Fortunately memory is a strange creature, and as time has passed, my thoughts have changed. I mainly remember the joys of the summit (captured in a photograph sitting next to my desk) and minimize the trials of descent. Now, I look at our climb as an ultimate tour de force and one of the greater tests of my life, and I am pretty sure I'm ready to climb again.