supervised the packing of our fifty-five-day supply of food into cardboard
boxes, each of which contained breakfast for four men, four individually
wrapped lunches, and enough dinner for four…
Preparations – Mount Olympus, 1984
With eyes closed, I mentally dressed myself. On top, a floppy sweat-stained beret. For emergencies I had a wool cap that fit me like a beanie and looked like it should have a propeller on top. Covering my torso was the ragged wool sweater I had pulled from a dumpster. Yes, it had more holes than actual wool, and yes it fit a jolly fat man, but with my threadbare red, white, and blue striped polypro, along with several cotton T-shirts, I would be covered. I debated whether to bring the wool navy surplus pants. I looked good in them, although the bell bottoms flared out at almost mid-calf. Beige lederhosen socks would cover my exposed lower leg. Dressed and standing in front of a mirror, I was equal parts Baron Von Trapp, Gene Kelly, and Gaston Rébuffat.
For raingear I had a lava-orange cagoule, which had delaminated and I had ripped it with my crampons on the Emmons Glacier. I threw in a powder-blue windbreaker with the unidentified brown stain down the front. I had four gloves, two of which matched, but all fit. My gaiters were snug and sometimes cut off the circulation to my feet. My sunglasses were scratched, but if I looked at the ground I could see.
My Coleman stove seemed to explode in an eyebrow-singeing whoosh of flame every time I lit a match. The first-aid kit contained one butterfly bandage, some damp emergency matches, a needle, two aspirin, a triangular bandage that had been used for a snot rag, and Wilkerson’s Medicine for Mountaineering. I might not be able to treat an injury, but at least I could read about it.
None of the batteries in my headlamp worked, but I was sure among the ten or so Eveready’s in my food stuff sack a couple still had life in them. Food: noodles and tuna with a pasty-white onion dip; slabs of unsalted hardtack and cream cheese along with a selection of packaged meat substances; cocoa with little marshmallows, the oatmeal variety pack and tea. And a tin of Tang. For the trail I had put together my own special gorp: lemon drops, raisins, peanuts and Lucky Charms.
After much stuffing, huffing and swearing, I stood before my streamlined pack and beamed.
The early-morning drive on the Olympic Peninsula was pleasant. We made rain jokes. People said it might rain in the Olympic Rain Forest. Were we ready for rain? The question hung in the air. As we left Sequim my father chuckled a little too loudly, “If worse comes to worst, we’ll hunker down in the tent.” I looked at my father and said, “Shit, I forgot the damn tent.”
Approach March – Dome Peak, 1974
The well-worn trail along Downey Creek, the first leg of our journey to Dome Peak, put me in the mind of fairies. Carpeted with needles, the rutted trail cut through a cathedral of Douglas-fir, hemlock and cedar, with the verdant understory a tangle of lacy fern, salal, huckleberry, and devil’s club. Splashes of color sprouted from the dense greenery: Trillium, bleeding heart, and gnome-like fungi all illuminated by the sun’s warm…blah, blah, blah, shut up already! I stopped rhapsodizing about Mother Nature’s garden the moment I hoisted my prodigious pack and began to sweat. I couldn’t get Tony Orlando and Dawn out of my mind—Oh, oh Candida— and my blue jeans chafed. Somewhere a chickadee chick-a-dee-dee-deed. It was obvious that bastard wasn’t carrying a pack.
After what seemed like three hours, but was in reality only two hours and forty-five minutes, we reached the confluence of Downey and Batchelor creeks. I had not told Jim but the crossing of Bachelor might be treacherous. Two years prior, Brad had tried to negotiate the slender log that spanned the raging brook and had gone into it up to his waist. He had our lunch. We almost lost it. I did not want that to happen again.
An early summer snowmelt had swollen Bachelor Creek to almost twice its normal size, and the slender log had been replaced by two anorexic sticks. I told Jim to wait while I tested the twiggy branches. I gingerly stepped out onto the tenuous footing. The branches jiggled, but, like Karl Wallenda, I held my balance one step at a time. From the shore Jim asked if there was not another way. I shook my head no and pressed on. Halfway across the foaming torrent I hesitated, lost heart and performed a 180 turn, lurched for dry ground, and toppled into the frigid stream, my pack pushing me under water with the fishes. Like Robert de Niro in Cape Fear I burst out of the water screaming and struggled to shore. My cotton socks, cotton pants, cotton shirt, and cotton hat were all soaked, but the contents of my pack had remained dry. I stripped to my cotton underwear and spread out the sodden garments where the sun did shine, wondering if our trip to Dome was doomed. Jim tromped up the hillside to relieve his bladder. When he returned he looked at the contents of my pack strewn on the ground, at me standing in my underwear and said, “You know, there’s a beautiful bridge about fifty feet upstream.”
Falling – Morning Star Peak, 1975
Only minutes before I had been lolling in the sun on top of Morning Star taking in the Monte Cristo Group. I had the peak all to myself. Now, standing in the shadow of the summit block, I shivered and plunge-stepped into the snow. My foot skipped off the hard crust, my feet flew in the air and I was butt-bouncing down the snow. I quickly swung around to face the snow and perform the perfect self-arrest. Perfect it was, but I ran out of snow. A fortunate flip and I was back on my butt caroming down the gully. My hand was ripped from every rock I grabbed, and I lost my ice axe. I was facing death alone in grubby tan cut-offs and a brown and white striped T-shirt that made me look fat. I hurtled down the gully too fast to snag anything but too slow to see my life flash before me—there was at least one date to the Puget Park Drive-in I wanted to relive. I screamed “Oh God, Oh something else” over and over again. My pathetic climbing career was coming to a most pathetic end. I could have been on Forbidden, Terror or Formidable, but no, I was going to die on Morning Star. “Oh God, Oh something else.”
Seconds before checking into the Infinity Inn, my pack strap hooked onto a nubbin and stopped my fall. I was alive. I stood at the lip of a bergshrund, which separated me from another snowfield and below that, a nifty little cliff. I had no ice axe, every muscle in my body undulating in constant spasm, but I was alive. Patting myself from head to toe, I seemed to be in one piece; I was bloodied and gashed, but no protruding bones. I was shaking and tried to calm myself by repeating the mantra, “control” over and over again, interspersed with an occasional something else. Gingerly, I climbed back up to my ice axe and limped slowly down the gully to the trail. At the head of the valley, I met a hiker and asked if he had any bandages. As he looked in his pack, I dropped my shorts which took off some of the newly-formed scabs. He turned around with one lousy little band-aid and gasped. I wasn’t sure if it was my bloody legs or the sight of me in my underwear. I thanked him and continued limping down the trail.
When I returned to my Volkswagen, I kissed it. Before edging painfully into the driver’s seat, I surveyed the damage. Both legs were sliced and diced but for the most part my posterior had taken the brunt of the fall. Thank god for my big butt. Driving down the Mountain Loop Highway, I imagined the conversation I’d have with the young woman I was madly in love with. “Yep, I took a little fall on Morning Star today.” Hmm, I’d have to change that to Torment or Mount Horrible.
Tentbound – Ptarmigan Traverse, 1975
I dreamed I was riding in a parade with Dick Cavett and I was waving just like a princess and it was warm and dry. Suddenly I was jerked from the parade and back into the tent. A deafening gale had collapsed the ceiling onto my face. I listened for the crack of tent poles, but the wind died and the tent popped up. “Jim,” I whispered.
“It wasn’t me,” he croaked.
I gasped and said, “That was you, but that’s not what I was thinking. What happens if the poles break?”
Twelve hours before we had been lazing on the summit of Sentinel, nothing but dumpling clouds, blue sky and a soft lenticular cloud wrapped around the summit of Glacier Peak. In the tent, battered by the wind and rain, I now knew that lenticular clouds did not mean “sailor’s delight.”
From the other tent my father and Kenneth snored. Damn them. Kenneth had been a last-minute addition to our expedition when his wife assured him that she could paint the house while he was gone. He would return home to find that his house had been painted by his wife and her boyfriend. And all the locks had been changed.
I couldn’t sleep and I had to make a trip out into the maelstrom to do a #1. Instead, I burrowed deeper into my rank sleeping bag in hopes of returning to the parade. In the morning, the wind and sleet threatened to compromise the tent. It was a Frostline that my father had sewn…badly. I managed to bundle up and pad out onto the hard snow wearing my cool new blue and gold Frostline booties. Now relieved and refreshed, I wiggled back into my bag, snacked on Cap’n Crunch and corn nuts and read Alive, a disquieting choice. Jim tooted, the wind blew, and the rain turned to snow.
Whiteout – Johannesburg, 1980
Two miles before the Cascade Pass parking lot a gate blocked our progress. Bruce and I would have to walk the last two miles. We hadn’t prepared for that. It was another bad sign. Gray fingers of mist reached down and grabbed us in damp embrace. Weighted down by too many nuts, carabiners, ropes, and slings, we made our way around the maze of mud puddles that was the road. The last stretch was particularly steep. I remembered, with a shudder, that my Aunt Laura’s RV had almost caught on fire on that incline in 1975. Thank god Uncle Meade carried a fire extinguisher.
We reached the empty parking lot at road’s end in the gloom of oncoming darkness. It was eerily quiet: The lot did provide us with a spacious sleeping platform but no cover from the elements, except for two picnic tables.
I pulled out my bivy sack, spread it out under the table, crawled into my sleeping bag and tried to sleep, but I was drawn to the mountain across the way, just beyond the clouds: Johannesburg Mountain. Bruce and I were going to attempt its northeast ridge. True, there were no easy ways up Johannesburg, but we still picked a harder one than we could have. Our playful banter belied the uncertainty that both of us felt. Were we ready for this mountain? Suddenly an ominous rumbling and in the dark I saw sparks, boulder hitting boulder, as a rockslide cascaded down our route. Something didn’t seem right, and then I discovered my bivy sack was upside down.
I slept fitfully, hemmed in by the wooden seats mere inches from my sack, and underneath them, gum, lots of gum. We were enshrouded in clouds; the table frame became a straight jacket. Fighting back claustrophobia, I willed myself to sleep only to be wakened by rumblings from the mountain. I sat up and whacked my head on the bottom of the picnic table, a nasty knot swelling up on my forehead.
In the morning I awoke to find water beading on my bivy sack. I couldn’t see beyond the next picnic table where Bruce slept. I called to him, “We can’t stay here. We must go down.” Bruce grumbled something that sounded like wuss, but to stay here another day meant only one thing: we would get really wet.
Forty-five minutes later my car appeared out of the mist. I looked back up the valley toward Johannesburg. The mountain had won this time, but I would be back.1
Journey Home – Mount Stuart, 1980
The sun broke through the clouds as it edged toward the western horizon, our only sun all day. Chris and I sat on the summit of Mount Stuart and looked down into the swirling clouds, hoping to catch a glimpse of the West Ridge, the route we had only guessed we were on for 10 hours. Chris held up the R.O.I.F.2 pennant and I snapped a picture and the sun was gone. I stood and turned in a slow circle marveling at the mountains that had to be out there somewhere, perhaps with climbers looking back, and if there were no clouds we could wave to one another, but there were clouds and so our waving hands stayed in our pockets. I suddenly felt desperately alone, as I often did with Chris. This granite monolith was no home, only a way station on life’s climb.
Retreat down the West Ridge promised a long, cold night huddled in a gully. We scrambled, instead, down the standard route, glissading the four thousand feet back into the valley clouds. As shadows merged into darkness, we found the Ingalls Creek Trail and started the trek back up to Ingalls Lake. So complete was my exhaustion that I was able to put one foot in front of the other only by relying on memory. In the chilly dark the trail disappeared under snow and we guessed our way toward the lake. At one point when it began to drizzle, I shouted to Chris that we needed to stop and huddle underneath a tree and head for the lake when we could see something, but Chris was determined to sleep in a tent. He coaxed me back up and the march continued. At our most disoriented, the clouds parted briefly to reveal the shelf on which the lake rested. At midnight we had reached where we thought the lake was, but all around was rock and snow. Step after laborious step and still no lake. Suddenly I had an epiphany.
“Chris,” I said, “I know where the lake is.”
“Where,” he asked.
“We’re on it,” I said.
Anticipating a crack, a splash, a gasp and a glug-glug-glug, we tip-toed the fifty yards to what we believed was solid ground. We crunched across the snow, occasionally stepping in up to our thighs, flopping forward, oofing loudly, face smooshed into the snow with a whined epithet. Where was the damned tent? Around a rock, and another, and then another, the shadow of our two-man dome tent finally appeared. I threw my rope and helmet on the ground, tossed my pack into the vestibule, and collapsed into my bag and fell almost immediately asleep, only to be awakened by a marmot outside the tent. I sat up, hit the tent, and the marmot waddled off. I fell back and the marmot came back. I started to sit up, then said “screw it” and fell into the sleep of the dead.
I awoke five hours later, face down and half in my sleeping bag. I had never slept on my nose before and it hurt. I crawled to the tent flap, looked outside and saw that the marmot had shredded the inside of my helmet and chewed my rope in half.
1—I never went back.
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