Going Places: Tales from the road: Confessions of a summit slave, cont.

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Confessions of a summit slave
Self-arrest, a potentially life-saving maneuver when traversing glaciers

Just a problem or two stood in the way of me getting from my ergonomically correct chair to the summit. The first was my own body. I had to be ready for the physical demands imposed by steep, glacier-covered climbing routes.

Haunted by visions of angry fellow climbers on a rope team, jerking at the rope as my carcass slid behind like a clubbed seal, I began a simple training program: run three miles every other day as fast as possible. Ultimately this neglected body was thrown up trails on foot and mountain bike, and down neighborhood streets, feet slapping pavement in the quiet morning hours. And within a few weeks, the miles started coming easy. There was hope.

The next problem loomed: gear. Mountain Madness sent along a

To acquire all these items would likely cost more than $1,000 to buy and rent. Only one thing to do: sponge.
lengthy list of specialized equipment required for our jaunt above 10,000 feet: Gore-Tex outerwear, wicking thermal layers, mountaineering boots, gaiters, crampons, ice ax, large backpack, four-season tent, and a warm sleeping bag. The list was more than a page long. To acquire all these items would likely cost more than $1,000 to buy and rent, or many times that if I wanted to run with the boutique crowd. Only one thing to do: sponge. Friends and neighbors were soon confronted; gear was borrowed. And the budget was blown on desperate purchases as climbing zealots warned about the dangers of cutting corners on gear, "just to save dollars."

Soon, the mountain of equipment in the office and living room started to grow. So did my vague concerns. How difficult would this be? Would a summit bid be turned back because of weakening will or body?

Time for a test climb.

I found a colleague and friend willing to tackle another of the Cascade's summits. Mount Adams, the second highest peak in the Cascades after Mount Rainier, stands 12,276 feet tall. The absence of crevasses and serious technical elements on the South Spur route make this a fine--albeit tough--slog for the rookie, we learned. The hike to the summit is an eight-mile, 7,000-vertical-foot forced march up glaciers, including some that are quite steep. A hearty day trip and, in straight numbers, more difficult than Baker. So on Labor Day Sunday, Randy, his girlfriend Julie, and I set off for Adams.

The bigger the step the better

After a long drive and short sleep, we headed up the trail at first light. In less than two miles of switchback, the trail broke above tree line and began a rocky scramble to the first glaciers. Higher up, summer had just arrived and every lupine clump was blooming. Every few minutes, the cool air was pierced by the high-pitched whistle of a marmot on alert.

By the time we reached 10,000 feet, our spurts of climbing energy seemed to last 20 seconds, followed by 20 seconds of rest. A dull and deep headache developed as I moved on to the steep face leading to the south summit. At times, we could only manage 10 seconds of labor before pausing.

Obsession with the summit is childish. What matters is being on the mountain. In subsequent days, however, the worm turned within.

To the west we spotted a bank of clouds moving in from the Pacific Ocean. Rain was in the forecast, and we knew that if the weather hit before our 2 p.m. turnaround time we would be forced to turn back.

Another hour of slow, chugging steps and we were just below the false summit, a distinctive wave-like cornice breaking to the mountain's leeward side. By now the dark skies and winds churned up little whirlwinds of snow, spindrift that took on phantasmic shapes like serpents and dragons, drifting across the ridge ahead. It was now 2:15 p.m.--just past our turnaround time--and the clouds started spitting out the first snow. At 11,500 feet we turned around.

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