I remember the exact moment I knew I was going to make it. I sat on my pack, slowly chewing a Butterfinger and trying to hold on to my water bottle. If I dropped it, it would careen thousands of feet down the mountain. I dug my crampons into the ice, fighting against the gravity that pulled on my pack and my lower body.
My guide, Josh, walked over.
“Hey, how you feeling? Ready to finish this thing?”
“Hell yeah, I’m ready.” And it was true. I felt damn good, if not a little queasy from the altitude, and a little hungry, but I knew we had less than 1,000 feet to climb in just an hour or so. And that it would be much, much easier from here after the nightmarish Cleaver.
“Sweet, let’s pack it up and head out,” Josh said. I gingerly stood up, shoved my water bottle and candy wrapper in my pack, and up we went.
By now the sun had risen much higher, fully illuminating the slopes. I could see the steep, crumbly pyramid of Little Tahoma, Rainier’s satellite peak, so far below I thought I might puke thinking about the altitude we’d achieved. The thing about being up that high on Rainier, experiencing mountaineering for the first time, is that everything is so steep, so exposed, and so extreme that it’s very unsettling to think one mistep and you’d plunge, unhindered, for a great distance. And Rainier stands so high above anything around it that the steepness and the height are that much more perceivable.
Mostly, I looked at the ground in front of me. There were momentary pauses in our progress when I could have looked down, but doing so made me feel so off balanced that I was sure I’d pitch over, taking my rope team with me.
After some relatively easy walking, the ice ended and a rocky slope at the crater’s edge began. Realizing we were almost at the edge of the summit crater, the pressure of tears punched at my sinuses. So many months of hard work, of preparations, of thinking about this mountain and imagining it and wondering if I could do this was over. I’d done the damn thing.
The broad bowl of the crater stretched out below me, and in minutes we had descended to its icy trough. Our guides gave the group the option of staying in the bowl or taking a short walk to the true summit, the highest point, called Columbia Crest. They emphasized we’d need plenty of energy to get back down, and that a rest was in order if we felt tired. I didn’t feel tired. I felt elated, like I could do the whole thing all over again right then. I sure as shit wanted to get to the absolute top.
From Columbia Crest I could see the other Cascade volcanoes: Mount Baker and Glacier Peak to the far north, Adams and St. Helens closer by. The other mountains, the ones I’d trained on all summer, were a blur of green waves below a cloudless sky. Another eight hours, a sunburn, and several blisters later, we’d complete our descent, but I couldn’t think about that then. I was on top.
The way down was a bitch. Blisters opened up on my toes, and the relentless sun singed my nose and forehead despite repeated applications of sunscreen. I was hungry, tired, and I needed a real bathroom, not an exposed slope of ice. I thought, man, this was cool, but there’s no way I’m doing this again.
Now that all the bad stuff has faded, the pain of so many early mornings training, the sore muscles, the blisters and the long, long walks in the mountains, I’m ready to do it all over again. They say the mountains and their glaciers lodge themselves in your psyche forever, making lifelong mountaineers of anyone who visits. It’s true, and I’m ready to go back.