A breeze kicks up and I think—this is the first time I’ve sweat so much I see it as a biological function of survival. In front and behind me, students and instructors snake out along the hot, dry trail. My pack presses onto my shoulders and hips, uncomfortable but manageable. In front of us, every now and again, we can see the snow covered flanks of Mt Baker.
Thanksgiving weekend last year I found myself drinking wine at a table in Oregon with a group of women. We were friends and friends of friends and had rented a house and headed to Smith with a turkey on our laps, a few ropes in our bags, and the makings of tradition. Some of us knew each other, some didn’t, as it is with these kinds of trips. I was explaining to one of the women I’d just met that, at some point, I had to climb Mt. Rainier. You should look into WAC, she told me. She explained loosely that it was a class similar to the Mountaineers or BoeAlps, but a little more… dirtbag. The schedule looked daunting and the gear list expensive but I figured that would be something to tackle if I got into the class. A training timed hike and interview later I was in and still not really comprehending just what it was I had signed up for. It wasn’t until we drove out to Mt Erie for one of the weekend classes and saw Baker in the background that it sunk in—we’re climbing that thing. Oh dear lord.
I’ve never had ambitions to climb peaks. I grew up mildly afraid of heights and relatively uncertain on snow. When I started climbing, I started climbing sport routes. True, longer approaches never bothered me, but I wasn’t an avid hiker, and I wasn’t a peak-bagger. Then my dad died and my step-mom called me and said, I don’t know how to tell you this, but you have climb Mt Rainier. The funny thing about ashes though—they sit there, quietly, and don’t push a timeline on you. Over the next few years I became a stronger sport climber, I took some ski lessons, but I didn’t really get anywhere close to Mt Rainier. So WAC was a way to get closer—a way to inch towards a mountain that exists on the skyline like a paper cutout some days and some days is completely invisible and nearly forgotten.
The hike in to Baker is usually snow covered all the way past the train head. This year we drove in easily and started on bare dirt. The river was an easy bridge crossing instead of a treacherous ford and at one point the trail was a stream bed with glacier melt bubbling over rocks. Put simply—the trail in is beautiful. Flowers scatter, trees stretch, Mt. Baker provides a backdrop. The sky is the robin blue that looks fake later, super saturated and strangely cloudless. At one point the trail cuts up onto a ridge called the Railroad Grade at the foot of the Easton Glacier. The moraine stretches grey and graveled on one side, the other side is full of wildflowers and brown earth. The difference is unnerving and, when I first rise up onto the ridge, I stop in shock.
Later, at camp, my tent-mate Jenny and I boil rice pasta and rehydrated sauce, making a sticky awful mess of everything and laughing as we stab sporks into it. This is how we learn we laugh. Jet boils are for water only. So much of this class is about the small adjustments. The wrong hat switched for a warmer, smaller one. Boots tied slightly differently to adjust pressure points, strategic sunblock stops while someone else pounds water. Personal preference Shams keeps telling us, shrugging as he easily loops our rope and then shows us how to do it again. He is a wealth of knowledge but casual about it, as if it’s all as simple as breathing. He will lead our rope team, me, Jenny and another instructor Will, up to the summit. We have a photo of Gary, our teammate sitting back in Seattle with a bum ankle, in my pack. Jenny and I talk over dinner and decide that I’ll start out in front. I’m nervous, but I trust my team. We plan to leave at midnight and, at 6 pm, we try to sleep. The sun is bright and the tent, despite being on snow, is unpleasantly warm.
I wake up a few minutes before 11 after choppy sleep. A voice calls out into the night WAC-ers AWAKE. IT’S TIME TO CLIMB! and instantly I can hear rustling tents and muffled voices rousing from various states of sleep. Outside the stars are bright and our camp
glows with the points of headlamps. Our rope is set up already and we take turns peeing in the snow-latrine and stomping our feet, trying not to flash headlamps at each other. We slip on our harness and check our knots. Sunglasses? Water? Crampons? we ask each other, gesturing at our own packs and visually checking everything. Already the rabbit team is moving away from us and the other rope teams are falling in line. I try to get further up the line but we start too far back and end up nearly last. I can look up and see our teams stretched out, head lamp by head lamp. The great caterpillar, creeping. And it’s a creep. We start and stop, start and stop. At one point I’m behind Alex P and we watch the moon rise together, a strange bloody red. This is so cool we tell each other. He calls out the crevasses as he comes to them, and I call them back to Jenny. Over! Over! as we step across safely. I’m tied to Jenny but here, in the front, I am in a bubble of my own light, stepping one foot after the other, following the shadows in front of me.
It’s easy to lose track of time in the dark. The wind picks up and dies down, strangely warm. The moon rises higher and turns silvery. At one point Shams replaces the batteries in his headlamp and whoops with joy when the beam shines brighter, but we’ve fallen behind and I can’t see the last person from the team in front of us. The footsteps are there, in the snow, and I sweep my headlamp in front every few feet, looking the flags that our rabbit team placed. There. And then again, there. We crest a bit of a ridge and the wind picks up and suddenly, as if from nowhere, there’s another team on my right. My headlamp catches on the reflective parts of their gear but they stand silently, like sentinels. I know that we have another team coming up from the Squak glacier, but these people don’t look familiar and no one calls out to me. I look up higher and see two paths of lights, one to the left, one to the right, and I realize that this is another team, going a different direction. In the dark, I start to panic, uncertain which side is mine. The other team isn’t talking to me and I shout back to Jenny I don’t know where to go but she loses my voice to the wind and whatever she shouts back, I can’t hear. A woman on the other team finally says, I think that’s us on the right and I nod and start to move, thinking I can run parallel to them until these strangers are gone and I can find our path again. But within a few minutes their leader crosses my path and they head left and then are gone. I look up and headlamps bounce on each side, left and right. I don’t know where to go I shout again, and this time Jenny and Shams hear me. I heard someone say Ru’s name right, go right! Follow the boot pack! Shams shouts. Ok, so that is what I will do. A flag, please a flag.
It’s the correct direction, of course. My panic is unwarranted and our team has stopped ahead to put on crampons. We eat quickly, strap crampons on, pee awkwardly in our harnesses and rearrange clothing. We are on the move, until we aren’t. The Roman Wall ahead of us is practically littered with head lamps and no one is moving. We stand, getting colder and colder, one big traffic jam. The horizon is starting to glow with sunrise. Shams radios to the front to find out if the route is safe enough to go two across, and it is, but no one is doing it. Are you comfortable running parallel? he asks me, but I’m not. We swap places and the caterpillar starts moving again.
We are at the base of the Roman Wall as sunrise starts properly. On either side, the buttes catch the first few rays and in front of us, the shadow of Baker against the sky. We are on that mountain I think. And also, this is so beautiful, and this happens every morning, whether anyone is here to see it or not. We keep moving, left foot, right foot. Shams keeps calling back, asking how we’re doing, and we give him a thumbs up back and keep going, left foot, right foot. It’s steep and it blurs together, left foot, right foot, until suddenly the grade mellows out and I think we’re near the summit. Shams stops and shouts back Sunglasses ready! Though it’s still dark the sky is paler by the minute, but I don’t expect the sudden burst of light as we crest. I can’t explain it—like something hitting your sternum without any force but all the force in the world. And then, the summit.
We make the summit as if it were never in question, as if we were always going to be here, hugging each other, windswept smiles and sunrise spreading over the mountains around us, and then we head back down.
The next morning I wake up in a rented bed in a rented cabin with some of my classmates and think, at this time yesterday, I was on top of a mountain. I feel like something should feel significantly different, but it doesn’t, exactly. The house wakes up around me and I feel stupid thinking nothing is different. Here we are, no longer strangers, a map in front of us, planning new trips, our bodies sore from the day before, laughing and drinking coffee. We tumble through the day, swimming in a river, climbing on logs, eventually packing our cars and dispersing back in to our everyday lives, to do everyday things. Already emails are coming in, photos are starting to flood various social media platforms. Our smiles plaster everywhere. Already we’re planning what’s next.