Photo credit: Dawa Yangzum Sherpa
“Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me,
I inhale great draughts of space.
Here is the test of wisdom,
Here is realization,
Here is a man tallied.
I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.
All seems beautiful to me.”
Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road.
August 7, 2018.
We take a tally and everyone commits to continue to the summit, even though I have misgivings. My right boot has been rubbing against my shin and I know it is slowly rubbing a hole in me, but I say nothing (I had been cautioned that mistakes below are paid for above). Will I break? “I’m OK,” I assure myself. I watch one of our guides, Dawa Yangzum Sherpa, tighten her pack with elegance, but I struggle to find my straps. It’s still dark, the moon is blood red, and Beatriz points to the Milky Way. Tony looks at me, “Summit day on Rainier!” Billie watches over all of us. He says, “Two minutes.”
Two minutes until we start moving. Two hours to the summit. We are at the top of Disappointment Cleaver (“cleaver” because it cleaves Ingraham Glacier; “disappointment” because many climbers surrender their summit bids here). We were on Ingraham Glacier at 4:00 AM, Cowlitz Glacier at 2:00 AM, and started hiking from Camp Muir at 1:00 AM.
When we had dinner at 5:00 PM yesterday, Billie assigned the rope teams. I had been trying to figure out how the three guides and seven clients would be assigned. Billie, as lead guide, would probably walk the point on the first rope, which would have three clients, followed by two rope teams of three, one guide and two clients each.
I did not know the other clients before we began. As we gathered and met three days ago, I heard rumors that one of us had climbed the Seven Summits, including Everest, and soon realized it was Tony (who never spoke a word of it). He would be a power anchor on his rope team. Beatriz has been on Rainier twice before, but was turned back both times by weather. The weakest climber would lock-in right behind Billie, monitored and protected by a three-man team.
I wondered who Billie had assessed as the weakest link. I had a guess at where he had measured me, here at Camp Muir, 10,000 feet, with five winter summits of “the most dangerous small mountain in the world” (Mt. Washington), and a year of training, ready to prove myself and take this mountain. But, it is also my first time on Rainier, I am fifty-two years into life, and Billie had hiked by my side as we came up the Muir Snowfield, enough time to see me for who I am.
“Chris,” he said, “you are on my team, right behind me.”
I did not really listen to who else was on my team. Or on the others.
“Now go to bed, try to sleep, and I will wake you between 11:30 PM and 1:00 AM. Don’t check your watch. Don’t fret if you can’t sleep. Drink water.”
I went back to our tent. Beatriz slipped into her bag and started snoring lightly. For the next six hours, I checked my watch, fretted, and didn’t drink water. A cold came over me. At 11:30 PM the moon crossed the glacier and landed on our tent.
It was Billie with his flashlight. “Breakfast in ten minutes.”
Dawa filled my cup with oatmeal. “Eat more.” I studied her. Sherpas are a people, not a noun, not a verb for someone who carries your load. They don’t have surnames, so when Nepal took the first census, Sherpas were simply given the last name, “Sherpa.” Their first name is the day of the week when they were born (so just seven Sherpa names). Dawa is Monday. She had once quipped that at 14,000 feet the summit of Rainier is not high – she was born at that altitude. Like all her people, her body is adapted to live in thin air. Already she has climbed Everest and K2 (200 feet lower and significantly harder). She is nimble and alert. I wondered if she struggles at low altitude.
Our climb of Rainier is a fundraiser for the Juniper Fund, founded by two seasoned Himalayan guides: Melissa Arnot and David Morton. David looks like he has lived his whole life in the Himalayas (he has six Everest summits). Melissa looks like a clear-skin model (she has six summits, one without supplemental oxygen, an elite credential). The money we raised will go to support families of Sherpa guides killed in the Himalayas. Melissa and David have both lost friends there.
I stood next to Billie while he looped the rope, secured it to my harness, and did the same to the rest of our team. My new tribe. We will do everything together – climb, fall, prevent anyone from dropping one hundred feet and corking in a crevasse. Our rope is literally our lifeline and it is essential that we keep it secure.
Crossing Cowlitz behind Billie, I tried to keep the rope taut, “but not a guitar string.” His pace was slow and steady and disciplined and I kept catching him, causing slack in the rope. I repeatedly stepping on it with my crampons. “I need you to do better, Chris.” He was right. We all needed me to do better – I was damaging the rope that would hold us if someone fell.
All afternoon we had practiced what to do if someone fell into a crevasse or slipped and began to slide down a 2,000 foot snowface. “Falling!” means you drop, dig the pick of your ice axe into the snow, and drive the toe spikes of your crampons into the glacier. Then hope you hold against the momentum of whoever has fallen. We did the drill a dozen times.
In the darkness on Cowlitz, my world was a ten foot bubble, defined by the reach of my headlamp. Against the star spattered sky I saw dark masses – a wall of rock, a serac, Billie’s back. It was quiet. Our pace was slow, steady, rhythmic. Step, rest step, breath out hard, breath in deep. Billie said we could adjust to the thinning air by forcing out the CO2 and sucking in the O2.
We developed a cadence check-in. Billie initiated, and we answered in order, “OK, Good, Great!” We crossed over a ladder with a crampon-pocked board. Billie said we were walking over a crevasse – keep the rope taut, but not a guitar string. I caused slack, stepped on the line, created a guitar string and jerked Billie backward.
Now at the top of Disappointment Cleaver, we are at the moment of our inception. I accept that I am the weakest link. I am not essential to our success (that role is for Billie, finding the path, setting the pace, assessing our strength), but I am essential to our not failing. If I break, we break. “I’m OK.” Dawa’s pack is secure. Beatriz is ready. Tony looks past me toward the summit. And Billie says, “Let’s go.”
I find confidence in my footwork. Small steps. Deliberate. All of my sole against the snow so the teeth of my crampons bite. A rest step with each step. It’s not a sprint, a slam dunk, a crowd cheering. Just thousands of little steps over the hours. It builds to the summit.
A banner of red flames begins to appear against the darkness. I see other mountains, lesser summits than Rainier, part of the ring of fire, the Cascades, the volcano archipelago. The sun rises and expands my bubble from ten feet to thousands. We are on the upper parts of Ingraham Glacier, switchbacking on a thirty-five degree angle, with a 2,000 foot slope. Here I understand the wisdom of rope teams. If you can’t stop your fall, your team can. I know the drill: “Falling!” Drop, pick, drive in my toes.
Billie calls to check-in. We respond: “OK, good, Great!”
Don’t break Chris.
I count my steps, in one hundred-step sets, look up, see above us the crest – a gradual arc, moving just ahead of me with each step – bow my head and count another hundred. I am not getting the altitude headaches I expected, but I am running out of endurance. I have nothing to prove and no one to prove anything to. It is easy to say to myself that I have done enough and why not just rest here for the long descent. I stop, the rope goes taught, and Billie keeps moving, jerking me forward. I’m part of a rope team; it’s more than me; I can’t break. I count another hundred and the crest continues to elude me. I practice Billie’s high altitude breathing – strong breaths out, deep breaths in – to make my body feel like I am at sea level, not 14,000 feet.
Billie calls to check-in. We respond: “ok, Good, GREAT!”
I am reduced to counting ten-set steps, then five, then one. “_ _, Good, GREAT!” The crest finally disappears and a bowl appears – there is no more up, so this must be the summit. I celebrate by stopping, sitting on my pack, and resting. I watch Beatriz – she is elated, joyfully walking about the summit crater, as though looking for a buried treasure. Tony celebrates. Dawa smiles. I watch steam drift from a vent. We are sitting on an active volcano.
In a way, the summit itself is a false summit. The real summit is the trailhead, the safe end of the climb, the ultimate destination, but I’ve never seen a team posing there with raised ice axes. Although people sometimes turn back on the way up, but never turn back on the way down, it is on the way down where most accidents happen.
Again, Billie is in command. “Two minutes!”
The slopes that were behind me are now ahead of me. I am exhausted, not just from the climb, but from not sleeping. I let gravity be my guide. The views extend endlessly and it is easy to lose myself in the beauty.
Billie calls, “Falling!!”
My only thought is, “Why a drill here?” I just want to keep descending, get to the bottom, stop, drink water. Tony falls for the drill, immediately dropping and driving his pick and toes into the glacier. Dawa does too. The third person on their line slides down the slope – all part of the drill I think – and stops as the rope goes taut. Just below is a crevasse. They stand, adjust, and continue down. It was not a drill. I just stood and watched it unfold.
My rope team is building confidence. We reach an especially large crevasse and our anchorman offers to set a belay. I do not know what this means, but Billie thinks it is an excellent idea. The anchorman takes the lead, sets the belay, and the next man draws in the rope. I cross the crevasse. Bille says, “That is excellent rope work!” from across the crevasse. I am confused, but want to contribute. I am not sure what to do, so I jerk the rope, pulling Billie toward the crevasse. He looks at me with an expression of dismay and says, “Don’t do that.”
The lower we get, the warmer it gets – the snow reflects the snow – and I begin to silently dehydrate, a new element adding to my delirium. Billie has stopped asking us to check-in. I continue my cadence of catching him, causing slack, and stepping with my crampons on the rope. We reach another crevasse, which I cross, and stop. As our third man approaches, I jerk the rope, pulling him toward the crevasse. I hear Billie. “Don’t do that!”
For the rest of the descent, through snow and dirt and dust, I follow Billie, wondering how long to our red team tent, which holds a large container of cold water. “An hour,” he says. I don’t believe him because I can see Camp Muir, but he turns out to be exactly right.
I reach our group tent, step up, and see Melissa, who is effervescent. I’m happy to see her, but she stands between me and the water, which is the only thing in the world I care about. She reads the moment and soon I am drinking like a dog. The rest of our rope teams arrive, sweaty, dusty, tired. No one celebrates. Everyone sits. We are not even done – we have four more miles (two through the snowfield, which, now that we are no longer roped, we will scatter upon, slide down, and treat like a playground) to the trailhead.
We celebrate with an outdoor dinner, set aside from others, as we are still unbathed. We are no longer rope teams, the hierarchy is over, and our sea level personalities slowly emerge. Beatriz is beaming. Tony is humble and quiet. I can see Billie is relaxed – he is no longer responsible for us. He quietly tells me I did OK. Dawa reaches her phone to me, showing the screen. A postcard perfect picture of a silhouetted climber on the Ingraham Glacier ridge as the sun is rising. “Chris, that is you.” That is what she says.
In my mind, her words shuffle into a new sentence. I hear Dawa say, “Chris, you did not break.” And that means the world to me.
After the climb, I spent a night in Seattle with friends (sleeping in the most comfortable bed in the world) and then took an Uber to the airport. My driver knew Rainier was a mountain, but he knew nothing about climbing it. On my flight across the country we cruised effortlessly at 35,000 feet. I took an Uber from the airport home. This driver did not know what Rainier was. My memories seemed progressively less real, but I know I was there because my shin and ankles have bleeding chafing wounds.
Rainier is a quintessential climb, a peak summit for many and a testing ground for the few headed to the Himalayas. I do not know if I have reached my peak or passed the test to bigger mountains.
For the sake of a clear narrative, I did not describe all twelve people on my trip. My rope team, led by the powerful lead guide Billie, had me, Mike (who had climbed Rainier before) and Mark (who had climbed Rainier and Denali, and who I think might be the person in the postcard photo above, not me). The second rope team, led by Dawa, had Devon (a tech entrepreneur) and Tony (a South African venture capitalist who has climbed the seven summits). The third team was led by Alan (who stayed by my side on the summit and delivered to me dozens of acts of subtle kindness) with Richie (who hiked the Annapurna circuit with his wife) and Beatriz (from Spain and living in Seattle).
More than the mountain, I miss the team, who we became, and how we worked together. I am humbled by our guides, who carried heavy loads, set up our tents, and cooked our meals. They made the decisions that kept us safe and led us to the summit. I trusted them completely.
I am grateful to Melissa and David, rock stars of the mountaineering world, who began the Juniper Fund, give back, and pay it forward. Hiking with them was like playing basketball with Michael Jordan, but with kindness and humility.
And finally, a deep bow to Dawa Yangzum Sherpa, the funny, tough, empathetic mountaineer. If she is not already a great name in the high altitude world, she will be.
If you are thinking of climbing Rainier, do so with guides – your life is worth it. And if you do climb it, consider doing so with the Juniper Fund. You’ll make a difference in your life and others.
Photo credit: Richie Altig. The Muir Snowfield. Summit in the background. From left to right – David, Tony (hiding), Mark (far back), Dawa, Mike, me, Billie, Devon, Alan.
Photo credit: Alan Davis. Upper Ingraham Glacier. Beatriz and Richie.
August 16, 2018
Christopher P. Kriesen is the Founder and Principal of The Kalon Law Firm. He lives in West Hartford with his wife and daughter, who attends Brandeis.