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.
We had passed a few teams that had gotten turned back because the weather stayed too rough up top, unfortunately for them, they had left too early for the summit. I think around the third rest, my buddy who was on another rope team, had gotten nauseous and gone back with some others who weren’t going to make it for various reasons. The guides were checking each of us by this time, because the next leg would be the most difficult, and it would be very difficult to turn back from that point. In all the hurry at the rest stop, I was never aware my friend had gone back to base camp. I didn’t find out that he wasn’t up there with me until we finally reached the top and it was time for some quick photos.
By now, the sun was beginning to come over the horizon, and it was at about that time we literally busted our heads above the clouds. We were suddenly looking up to blue skies and looking down at the worst storm I’d ever walked around in. The straight up cliff that would be the final hour finish was so steep I was kicking my snow cleats into the side of the mountain to make a step, push up to the next, make a step, and so on and so on, until the ground suddenly leveled out.
We had reached the top, which is the top of an active volcano, so I could feel the heat coming from the ground. We couldn’t stay long, because we still had to go back into that storm all the way to base camp, pick up the rest of our gear and make the nine hour descent to the very bottom. By this time, my climbing legs were spent. Luckily, I had worked out my legs so that my descent legs would also be strong.
I MADE IT BACK TO base camp where I reunited with my friend only to find out we would have to keep rolling right away. This was a serious bummer for me, because in my mind, we were going to hang around for a restful couple hours. It was everything I could do to make it to the bottom. My legs were completely spent. It is an amazing thing your mind can do when your muscles are seemingly not going to take one more step and your mind takes over to make the finish. After all, I couldn’t exactly stop and start crying for someone to carry me down, so there wasn’t much choice.
Once we made it to the parking lot, the shuttle unceremoniously whisked us off to the guides' headquarters. We all reconvened over some dinner that night and had a little awards ceremony and story swapping session. The guide company was posting our progress all along the way, so Mimi was able to keep up with the weather conditions and the decisions that were being made along the way, so she already knew the attempt had been successful. The funniest part of the whole thing was calling her to tell her all about it.
Mimi was back home worrying, so she had to do what she had to do to keep herself sane. She worked day and night with a headlamp on, basically redoing our yard. She surprised me by having a team come out and uplight the live oaks on my driveway and the front of the house for my Father’s Day present. It was perfect, because my flight came in late enough that it was dark when we pulled up to home sweet home. The trees were gorgeous with the lights aimed perfectly at the lower branches.
That was an experience that I will forever remember, and one that I vowed would not happen again. I am more of a hiking guy. My vow to not let that happen again did not last very long. A year before Max graduated from high school, he asked me if I would consider doing the climb with him upon graduation. How could I say no? Once again, the training began, except this time, I would be able to train with my son. I couldn’t imagine anything greater than that.