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
Jeff Herr, defeated, just shy
of the Mt. Adams summit

Randy and I adopted a big-minded outlook, that obsession with the summit is childish. What matters is being on the mountain. In subsequent days, however, the worm turned within. We both confessed to mounting frustration, a sense that we were so near, and yet we failed.

The next weekend was Mount Baker, a grand white hook often visible from Seattle more than 70 miles to the south. The night before the trip, final bits of equipment were scratched together, although I was still lacking a pair of waterproof Gore-Tex pants as required by the guides. Instead, I dropped $14 for a pair of wind pants and that night, in a pitiful attempt to make due, stood in my basement spraying them with Scotch-Guard, hoping for a miracle, or at least fair weather.

The next morning I was rolling north with Jason, another willing colleague, whose summer included a week climbing Rainier and other conquests.

We met our Mountain Madness guides, Koby Connelly and Lee Cunningham, along with eight other clients at the Sedro Woolley ranger station. After introductions, we soon were told to dump everything from our carefully loaded packs. They were going to check through all our gear. Sudden panic. The wind pants were my Achilles heel and I hoped for a cursory inspection, feeling guilty and small, a lowly gear sneak. Koby eyed my stuff carefully. My lousy wind pants somehow passed muster and we began loading up. My deception left me feeling guilty so I volunteered to take an extra load from our community cache of food and kitchen gear. Call it trail penance.

Chugging up a glacier
on Mount Baker

The trip to the trailhead was quick and filled with vague thoughts about this summit, and the cursed failure on Mount Adams. The approach to Baker begins with a long series of switchbacks through deep woods and clearings overloaded wild blueberry bushes before topping into sub-alpine meadows. From here the trail snakes atop the Railroad Grade, a long, straight trail. This is a steady climb for nearly a mile--along the very ridge of a glacial moraine--that felt at times like a tightrope walk. On one side, sweeping meadows. On the other, a deep, half-mile-wide gouge in the earth running from the forest below straight up the mountain's foot to the retreating Easton Glacier. The afternoon had already turned dark and it was not yet 3 p.m. Lee told everyone to add a couple thermal layers in anticipation of the paint-stripping winds over the next crest.

An hour later and we were dropping into climber's high camp, a rocky basin at the edge of snowfields and glaciers. As the sun set, I was wracked with cold. Something in my "thermal system" was failing. I dove in my tent and started peeling only to discover that my borrowed Gore-Tex jacket was performing like tissue paper. Inside, my down shell was dripping wet. Time to plunge into the sleeping bag in an attempt to reverse the chill. But soon I discovered that the zipper on the borrowed bag would splay open with the slightest pressure from my iced carcass. Two hours later and it was finally closed. I was now really cold, my brain feeling even colder as I listened to the snow, wind, and intermittent rain lashing at the tent.

Waiting for the weather to break

The next morning we awoke to a flooded, socked-in camp. The next five hours--until just after noon--were spent dozing in our tents, waiting for a break in the weather. Occasional shouts of pent-up energy, and frustration, would peal from tents. Finally, Koby hollered, "Let's go, let's go, let's go. We've got a break." Soon everyone was out and heading up the snowfield for some self-arrest practice. The massive crevasse field above and to the east defied all sense of scale. Huge, deep blue cracks in the ice seemed small enough to jump over when in fact they could swallow up a fleet of concrete trucks and still have room for more.

I now wanted the summit badly, carrying unfulfilled expectations from Adams, and a need to complete the objective. But, again, the worm within the would-be summitteer turned. In a slow burn--as my eyes looked across the now familiar landscape of rock and ice--I felt a sense of peace return, the initial quiet pleasure I experienced when chugging up Adams, before expectations and the fool's need for closure took root. The heavy clouds sweeping into the valley brought new snow and we knew this meant we would not be making a summit bid.

As I stumbled down the mountain, weary and again soaked to the core, I carried with me that peace, wrapped up in a quiet and accepting mood. I had a new handle on my mountain motives. To paraphrase the venerable Everest elder once more, I know I will return to this mountain again because "it is there," standing steadfast, the keeper of my unfulfilled and humble desires.

Jeff Herr is Outside Online's managing editor. He was foiled this climbing season, but will be back, Rocky-like, next year.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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