Mount Ranier

by HUMPHREY Email

Of the various adventures that we enjoyed in the Summer of 2009, the one that stands out as superlative is the Mt. Ranier expedition. We had long talked about it, and I kept putting it off, trying not to think about it. When the day drew near, and I had to face the challenge, I figured I would simply ascend to a reasonable point, and descend from there. Of course if I were constrained by sound reason, I would never have gone with Dieter in the first place. Life is somehow more precious when it is hanging on the very edge.

Looking up at the mountain fills the entire field of vision. We usually take for granted the vastness of space around us, but when a great mountain is blocking out the sky, you realize how small you really are. A wide-angle lens cannot capture the grandiose scenery. It is fitting to share some photos as a Deep Zoom composition. When I was looking up at it, I thought of it as such, with each small piece blowing up to a vast chasm as we drew near. Of course with all true adventures, the best visuals were the ones that were never captured, as we were busy hanging on for dear life.

Click on the Image to Launch the Deep Zoom Composition

We left around 4:00 AM on the first day, after having stayed up past 1:00 the night before. The five of us gathered for breakfast near the mountain a few hours later. The discussion focused on how advanced the climb was. I was a beginning mountaineer, never having used crampons and an ice-ax before. I had rented them from REI the night before. I had skipped all of the training and preparatory climbs that were made in the months leading up to this day. I was still trying not the think about it.

The first part of the hike was easy, except for the 50lb pack. Late in the afternoon, we reached the point where there was no more greenery, just rock and snow. It became increasingly steep from there. It wasn't until dark that we struggled into the John Muir base camp, carved out of a high ridge. As we were sleeping, everyone else was starting their assent. They knew that it was safer to hike at night, when the heat of the day would not be causing the whole mountain the expand, breaking loose large calves of boulders, collapsing ice bridges, and opening up new crevasses in the glacier. Of course we would sleep in, and hike during the day.

The next day, as we stared up at the mountain, it was incomprehensible that there was actually a passable trail to the summit. We had to simply trust that since other people had done it, there must be a way up. The trail snaked around glacier crevasses, rocky ridges, at times just a few feet from sheer cliffs. Sometimes the trail was no more wide than the width of my boot, as I hung on to a safety rope for dear life, and tried not to look down into the gaping ice crevasse as I edged my way along, one careful step at a time. Of course we would talk with the ranger later about all of the people that had died by falling off the trail, but at the point of action, there was no time for talk. Two of our party had carried safety rope and harnesses all the way up, but when the time for them was most needed, they panicked and ran back down the mountain. Lack of oxygen can lead people not to think clearly.

We had met a man coming down the mountain alone, without a rope or harness. We figured that since he survived, we could also. I had never been trained on how to use the ice-ax to arrest a fall. So I got a quick lesson at the last minute. Cody, likewise lacking experience, took off for the summit, leaving Dieter and I to progress at an old-man's pace. When Cody summited, others looked on in amazement, knowing that only expert mountaineers were permitted to summit alone. Of course it was his first time, and he never knew.

I continued slow and steady, pacing myself to make it just to the next bend in the trail. The hardest part was the lack of oxygen. After every few steps, I would have to stop to breathe. Every time a dangerous ice bridge drew near, I would say to myself that I would just go up to it to look, and perhaps turn back. Each time, I figured, ?I can jump this.?, and so I did. Only near the very end did I reach the point where the danger was so extreme as to warrant turning back. We were there at the hottest time of day on one of the hottest days of the year. The glacier was melting all around, and new crevasses were opening up before our eyes. The view was so terrifying, that I had to simply focus on my steps and not look behind me. I told Dieter it was time to turn back, but he would have none of it. So we continued.

As I was gingerly stepping over the soft snow, suddenly my whole body post-holed up to my armpits. I tried to reach out for support, but the surrounding snow pack caved in as well. I was barely hanging on to the edge, calling out for Dieter, when he extended an ice-ax for me to grab on to, as he pulled me to safety. Fortunately, he resisted the inclination to stop and take a photo of me hanging on the edge of the crevasse. Still, we went on.

After several more close calls, we finally made it to the summit. Except for a single tent, nobody else was there (they were smart enough not to hike in the hot late afternoon). I collapsed in exhaustion, and slept on a rock.

Later, as we descended, the glacier was even softer, and I had to run swiftly across melting ice bridges, lunging for the downhill bank in case the bridge gave way underneath me. Somehow I made it back to base camp alive, very tired, to find that our companions who left early in the day had put my things aside, and others had taken my tent flat. Thankfully, someone shared some hot food with me, and a shovel for me to dig a new hollow in the snow to sleep in.

The next day was all downhill, and we enjoyed ourselves glaceding down through the snow on plastic sheets. It was a majestic adventure, and qualified as such many times over, when life was in jeopardy, just feet from sheer rock cliffs and gaping ice crevasses.

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