On Climbing the Sierra Matterhorn after Thirty-One Years
Range after range of mountains
Year after year after year.
I am still in love.Gary Snyder
The summer between my junior and senior year of college I took a mountaineering class. I needed one more physical education credit to graduate the following spring, and climbing mountains seemed like a good way to get it, so I signed up and spent a portion of my summer attending Wednesday night lectures and going on Saturday excursions to the mountains.
By this time I had several years of hiking and backpacking experience in the Cascades and Olympics and wanted to add to my skills. As a lover of the mountains I had always envisioned myself getting to the tops of those lofty peaks. From various vistas I would gaze at those mountains that rose in the distance and imagine what the view would be like from their summits. I wanted to go there.
On the first Saturday we went to a park in Seattle where we scrambled up and down a climbing rock and learned some basics of rock climbing, including belaying down the rock wall, something I found exhilarating, pushing against the rock with my feet and letting the rope carry me safely down to the ground as if I were floating.
We used our new rock climbing skills the following Saturday to climb Pinnacle Peak near Mt. Rainier and on the way down from that peak practiced glissading and self-arrest with ice axes. I started to feel smug about getting college credit for sliding down a snow covered slope on my back. It was much more entertaining than my nursing courses.
All of that changed the following week when we practiced the fine art of leaping into crevasses. It did not help that a childhood friend had been killed the previous summer while leading a climb on Mt. Rainier and falling into a crevasse. His injuries had not been serious, but he succumbed to hypothermia before they were able to extract him from his icy tomb. This got my attention, and leaping into that cold darkness held no appeal whatsoever. I watched while my classmates leapt into the depths with various war whoops like “Geronimo!” I felt no such need to utter anything other than “Help!” and that rather feebly. This climbing thing had ceased being fun and was now simply terrifying.
Climbing out of the crevasse was even more challenging. This was accomplished by means of three small ropes attached to our wrists and to the climbing rope. Prusik knots were supposed to enable us to slide up the rope with ease as we dangled in the darkness. I had tied mine too tightly so it took considerable effort to move the slip knots up the rope, and my hands were cold which added to the difficulty. My boyfriend Bill was on the the other end of the rope at the top and got tired of waiting for me so finally grabbed the rope and pulled me up like a sack of potatoes when the instructor was not watching. I had passed the Prusik test albeit by cheating a bit. I lay face down on the snow and vowed never again to leap into a crevasse. I was beginning to rethink this climbing thing.
The “final exam” came the following week when we put our new skills to the test and climbed Mt. Baker, a 10,775 foot volcanic peak in the North Cascades. We arrived in our forested base camp at Kulshan Cabin the night before the climb, arising well before dawn so that we could get onto the snow covered slopes before the heat of that August day created too much loose snow on the glaciers we would traverse. I was the last person on a three-person rope with my boyfriend in front of me and a professor who had come along for the climb at the front. I was happy about being the last person on the rope. I reasoned that if there were a crevasse to fall into one of them would do it first.
Nevertheless, I was doing fine until the final seven hundred feet of the climb, which required ascending a nearly vertical slope and digging footholds into the steep slope with our ice axes. Since I was near the end of the climbing party, those footholds had been dug into place by climbers that preceded me, and they were all a good deal taller than myself, so making those long steps from one foothold to another was not an easy task, and by that time I was struggling with a nearly overwhelming sense of lethargy and nausea, something I now recognize was most likely altitude sickness. Every step required a Herculean effort, and it did not help that I periodically was drawn to look down from whence I had climbed. It was a long descent.
I learned some things on that vertical slope, and I remember the moment when I longed for the certainty of a dirt path, one that would not slide out from under me, one that did not hide crevasses, one that was surrounded by wildflowers and led to a lovely campsite by a stream. At that moment that was all I wanted. All I needed to do was get to the top of that mountain, and I was absolutely convinced I would be done with this climbing thing forever.
After what seemed like an eternity we approached the summit and were dismayed to find a wide crevasse between the saddle and the true summit, partially covered with loose snow. The climbing register beckoned on the other side of that crevasse, but I was terrified of once again dangling in the dark and cold, relying on my poor knot tying skills to extract myself from the icy depths. I watched as the professor crossed first and sank to his ankles. Bill came next and dropped waist deep. It was then that I resolved to get to that ten thousand foot summit and I would do so without falling into a crevasse. I lay down on my belly in the snow, distributing my weight evenly with my arms and legs flayed out to the sides like a frog. Bill and the professor simply tugged on the rope and pulled me safely across. I had passed my version of the test and climbed Mt. Baker.
I learned some climbing skills in that class which were useful, but most of what I learned came on that vertical slope. It was enough to be on a mountain trail, to feel the solid earth beneath each step. What I loved about being in the mountains did not require snow and ice and complicated knots. Over the years I ascended various peaks while on backpacking trips. I climbed all of the three highest peaks in Wyoming, all of them rock climbing expeditions, none requiring technical climbing skills.
There was another important lesson I learned that summer in my mountaineering class. I admit there was a fair degree of ego investment in ascending high peaks. I wanted to be that tough woman who gets to the tops of things, who fearlessly dangles from ropes. On that vertical slope and across many miles of hiking on dirt trails, I learned another important lesson. I was tough enough.