A FEW ARTICLES BACK I told the tall tale of the Mt. Ranier climb. I mentioned that although I enjoyed the technical stuff for something new, I guess that I’m more of a backpacker at heart. I would rather walk through the mountains with a house on my back than to deal with the ropes and the speed and the necessity to keep moving because there’s always someone or a storm or something coming towards you all the time. I want to be able to relax when I want to.
When Max approached me about doing the climb with him upon graduation all that went to the wind, of course my answer was “yes,” Max was 17 and about to head off to college and then on to who-knows-where? Max was in Boy Scouts and I was an assistant scoutmaster from the time the was 11 until he earned his Eagle rank so we had taken a lot of cool mountain trips together.
Even after Scouts we made it a point to have one big trip a year. We went to Glacier, Montana, Trout fishing in Arkansas, New Mexico for a hike, the mountains of Tennessee. I sensed that our father son trips would probably be coming to a close at least for a while so I’d better make this one happen even if it hurt.
Mimi was excited for us until we told her about some plans we added to the end of the trip back to west coast. Max and I decided that when we were finished attempting the summit of Ranier I would fly home but Max would be staying. Max was up for attempting to make it all the way home from Seattle via train, bus, hitchhiking, sweet talking his way back to Mississippi. This would give him a chance to spend two or three months exploring those states between there and here. He would spend time in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Colorado where he had it perfectly planned out to wind up in Boulder for a Grateful Dead show later in the summer. Now Mimi was cautiously excited about our little plan, that’s a long time for someone to be on the open road alone. She also knows the value in letting someone turn their brain on, completely on their own to make the next decision.
I felt like it was a perfect thing to do before we released him into the culture in Starkville. He would have to begin making decisions that would affect the rest of his life in a place where the college culture teaches that partaking alcohol is expected of you by the students and parents alike but you’ll go to jail or have a wreck if you are one of the unlucky ones. He would have to start using his head and separating himself from the herd, might as well wake up to that before he gets dropped off into that scene.
Max and I had about a year to get ready physically and mentally for the climb. We would leave work together to put our packs on while we climbed the steps up and down countless times to get the right muscles ready. It was looking a little too easy for him to me so when he wasn’t looking I added about 25 pounds to his pack, I don’t think he ever noticed. He was still living with us at the time so sometimes we would strap on our weighted packs and walk to work, about eight miles. Any time we could do anything to get aerobically ready and to build muscles in our legs, he was killing me. It was like nothing to him. It reminded me of the time that our daughter Mia challenged me to run the Black Warrior race in Alabama, a 16 mile run through the mountains of Sipsy, Ala. It was nothing to her to win in her group. It was huge for me that I finished. It’s really about getting to take these trips with my people before they are gone.
Our hike to base camp was good and snowy, making for easier walking. Once we got to base camp we began hearing from other rope teams that the weather was being a bugger and turning teams around before they could reach the top.
AFTER TWO NIGHTS AT base camp waiting on a good weather window it finally came at 1 a.m. on the summit day. The skies were clear and it was very cold which is a good thing, that would give us something firm to get our ice axes into and it makes it more secure for the crampons to dig into while we step up to the top.
We were on the same rope team. Max led with two people between us. I brought up the rear. The stronger climbers wind up in the lead position. I tell him the smarter climbers wind up bringing up the rear. We compete a little. We had a great climb with no precipitation. When the sun came over the horizon we were around 13,000 ft. We had about 1,400 feet to go and could turn off our headlamps for this last part.
The gang at the nursery had gifted Max with a Go Pro right before we left so he was decked out with some great photography and got some of the climb on video. He says he can hear me breathing pretty hard on the video. I tell him it’s the other old guy on our team. When we reached the top Max was unfurling a flag that he thought to make in case we reached the summit. It said “I Climbed Mt. Ranier With Big Al.” That brought tears to my eyes. That is a big moment. It honestly gave me the strength to go the 10 more hours to the bottom.
As I’ve said before, going down is the hard part to me. When we got to the bottom we were shuttled back to the guides headquarters to hang out with the other rope teams and get a bite to eat. That was my second and last time to climb Ranier, I think by the time I have a grandchild old enough to challenge me with that hopefully someone will stop me.
When we got back to Seattle one of my best friends who travels for a living had set Max and me up at a swanky hotel and restaurant that made all our sore muscles feel much better. Nothing like a splurge after a hard climb. The next morning I shook Max’s hand and told him I’d see him in a couple months. “Good luck!”
Max would let us know where he was from time to time. Many of the places were still under ice in Montana and Wyoming so he was forced to stay relatively low on those hikes. By the time he made it to Colorado he got up as high as he wanted to. Most of the snow had melted and hikers had made the trails plain to see. Max met some wonderful people along the way. People who lived in their vans and campers picked him up along the way. Carloads of hippies gave him rides and he did some long waits for a Greyhound bus in some remote areas in Idaho.
That’s one of those journeys that has to weighed out over the years. Once you’ve forgotten the lonely times and the frustrating waits and not having anything but what’s on your back, you can try to put a value on getting away all by yourself, completely alone. It’s so rare. It’s also not for everyone. If you want to know the truth, I ask myself what kind of crazy idea was that? I like to jump towards any opportunity that comes my way that might make life a little more special and memorable. Sometimes that comes along with taking chances.
I am hoping that you are successful doing whatever challenge level that you are comfortable with, making the most out of life.