Musings About Family, Travel And Gardening With Allen Martinson.


If You Don't Challenge Me, I Will

I DO LIKE TO challenge myself. I get a kick out having some private goals that seem laughably impossible to reach. These self competitions are usually nothing major, just a list of things that would be satisfying at the end of the day or week or month if completed. I prepare for these lists as if I’m packing for a trip. I’ll have everything prepared in order to have a chance of getting to the end goal.

I also count steps up flights of stairs. For some strange reason I’ve known how many “I Knows” there are in the song, ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ since I was a kid (it’s 26 per chorus). I don’t announce that I’m having these little one man races in my head. It’s really more like a game to keep things interesting. Plus, if I announced what I was doing, Mimi might have my head checked. Challenging one’s self is one thing, but it’s really different when someone else challenges you.

Right out of the blue one day, one of my best friends asked me if I would care to attempt a summit on Mt. Rainier in Washington state a year from that day. Without really realizing what I’d be getting myself into, I agreed to go for it. I rushed right home to investigate what summiting Mt. Rainier a year from then was going to mean. He had attempted it twice before, once successfully, once not. He knew the guide company to set it up with, so I didn’t have to focus on that part, so I focused instead on learning mountaineering.

I had plenty experience backpacking around in the mountains, so it wasn’t completely foreign to me. It was going to be far more technical than anything I’d ever dreamed of. Mountaineering requires ropes, ice axes, crampons and gear to keep a person warm enough during nighttime rest stops, with temperatures and wind chill below zero degrees. I was very nervous, but also very excited about having something to spend an entire year preparing for.

Training for a climb while living in Mississippi is a challenge. The goal is to get as strong in all the right places, including the lungs, in order to be successful at high altitude. These guided trips are not inexpensive, so I had every intention of going all the way to the top, unless Mother Nature had other plans for me. When climbers and hikers are preparing for a long one, they will do a lot of pack walking because it is the best way to condition your body to be able to carry lots of extra weight for long periods of time. With all the Boy Scouts in Jackson, it’s not too unusual to see Scouts pack walking through Fondren. When you see that, it means it’s time for some of the troops to be getting ready for the infamous Philmont trek in New Mexico.

I did a lot of pack walking, running, weights, and bike riding in that year to have myself aerobically ready for that climb. I also worked on getting myself mentally ready for that push at the summit, and to me, the worst part, descending. Summit day would be a 15 hour ordeal. I was going to have to get through some mental hurdles. Anyone who has attempted a marathon knows all about the mental work that comes when your body is screaming for you to stop… out of gas! You have to get your mind right to overcome that. It’s almost like an out of body experience, and when it works its very exhilarating.

The time had come to pack my bags for the flight to Seattle. I was as ready as I could be. As we approached Seattle, the plane flew right past the giant mountain. Seeing it for the first time was quite startling. The mountain juts up into the sky 14,400 feet straight up. I took a photo of it from that angle and sent it to Mimi, which didn’t calm her nerves much, as she wasn’t loving the idea of this journey. But she also knew it wouldn’t do much good to try to convince me otherwise.

We chugged up to the guide meeting place and got oriented with our gear and the others that would form the rope teams with us. The next couple of days we learned how to use ice axes and ropes, how to fall, and more importantly, how not to fall.

The weather down where we were was perfect. There was plenty snow and good sunshine. The weather up top was a different matter, as the top of the mountain has its own micro climate that can be totally unpredictable. As rope teams ahead of us were reporting back, it sounded like very few were making it to the top. The winds were blowing over 50 miles an hour, and it was precipitating hard. They would wait as long as they could for a window of weather expected to last long enough to make it to the top.

Some groups got turned around within 600 feet from the summit. By this time, I was extremely nervous about the whole thing but was ready to make a dash for it. I wasn’t willing to let all that preparation be for nothing.

WE GOT AN EARLY start on the slow and gorgeous hike to the base camp at 10,000 feet. The alpine flowers were blooming like crazy, and my mind wandered a few times trying to identify the flowers, to the point that I had to play catch up to the group more than once. When we got to the base camp, the winds were getting fierce, and it was precipitating like crazy.

Over the years, the guide company had developed a shelter for the teams to be out of the weather while they waiting on their chance to summit. The shelter is basically a plywood box with plywood shelves that were four high on each wall. Each shelf is big enough for one man and his gear and were tall enough to allow you to sit up during the wait. It looked like our wait was going to be a few days, as the weather wasn’t improving. The winds were steady at 70 miles an hour, and it wouldn’t stop showering all sorts of precipitation. The guides were getting doubtful that it was going to work out. We only had one more day to wait before we would have to call it off so the next group could come in to wait on their chance. We would get bored and stiff during the days, so we would gear up and head into it for short practice runs to get comfortable with the gear and to keep from cramping up.

On our last possible night to make a go of it, the guides busted into the box at 1 a.m. to say he winds had died down to 50 miles an hour with sheets of rain, and anyone who wanted to give it a whirl should get ready quickly. There was no way I wasn’t going to experience this, so I scrambled to get geared up. With headlights on, we snapped on our crampons and roped up to the four other members of the team. We would have to do this climb completely blind because it was coming down so hard. The only way to know you are going at the right pace is to be able to feel the rope’s tautness. If the rope attached to your harness was tight, you’re going too slow; if the rope was loosely dragging the ground, you’re going too fast. And we were on our way.

The march towards the top had begun, it was as wild as anything I’d ever done, but I quickly got into the groove. Every step forward was one step closer to the goal. We would take a rest stop for about 10 minutes every hour. During these rests, your body cools off really quickly. As soon as you get your pack off, you put on the expedition weight down jacket, gulp down as many carbs as you can stomach, gulp down some water and make any needed adjustments, all while still roped up to the team.

When the guide belts out that it’s time to move, you don’t want to be the guy who holds up the team, so everything should be packed back up and ready before he calls out. You don’t want to wait around long, because you’ve taken the extra warm stuff back off, since your body is about to exert a lot energy and heat.