Climbing a mountain to gain perspective
By Abigail Sussman
“Falling!” I yell, my feet slipping out from under me. I build speed and careen down the slope, spring snow spraying me in the face. The bits of ice hitting my cheeks are a wake up call. In an instant, I take stock of the situation. My full climbing pack is an anchor, dragging me down the hill towards who-knows-what. All I know is that I can’t see what is below me and I am picking up speed.
“Arrest! Arrest!” Carolyn shouts as I struggle to turn over onto my belly. I have practiced self-arresting many times-my body knows this feeling, and my autopilot takes over. There is no time to think. I am acutely aware of the ice axe in my hands and torque my body and dig in with the pick, lifting my hips and driving my knees into the snow. Finally, I stop. Breathless, I look up slope to assess how far I have fallen. Thirty feet in a few seconds that feel like an eternity. “Your turn,” I holler up to Katie, shaking snow out of my jacket’s hood.
We are practicing self-arresting at 7,000 feet on the glaciated slopes of Mount Baker, in Washington’s North Cascades. Tomorrow morning, we will wake in the dark and start climbing towards the summit. This quick review of self-arrest and crevasse rescue techniques is not so much to study them but to calm our nerves with the familiar feel of tying figure-eight knots, running the rope through a Z-pulley system, and bouncing down this sun-cupped snowfield.
There are many objective risks of mountaineering-sudden white-outs, unseen crevasses, or falling on a steep slope-and we have the skills to deal with them if they should arise. But sometimes knowledge is not enough; no matter the level of one’s skill, the mountains are always in charge. The three of us are all adventurous, competent, and determined. All three of us have known someone who died on this mountain. All three of us have looked into a crevasse and seen it’s endless depths extending into the dark.
I have lived in the North Cascades for close to ten years and worked as a wilderness ranger for the local forest service district for half of that time. My job as a wilderness ranger was to patrol the trails and leave the glaciers to the climbing rangers. I wasn’t allowed to climb on the job because I wasn’t qualified. Over time, it seemed as if my job description came to explain my life: I lived and worked alone, carried heavy packs, and camped in the backcountry for days at a time, but I never went much higher than tree line.
When you work as a wilderness ranger near a large mountain, you get used to two questions: “How did you get your job?” and “Have you summited?” At first, I was embarrassed to say that I hadn’t even attempted the climb, but eventually I grew so tired of the question that I stubbornly decided I didn’t need to climb Mount Baker. Though I had never stood on her summit, I knew her details. These intricacies, morning dew dripping from hemlock needles, bear prints on the silty edge of a tarn, the sound of boulders bouncing down the creek in the afternoon, are small, quiet occurrences found in many places but noticed by only a few. I dismissed climbing this mountain because it began to represent a superficial relationship. The thousands of people who slogged up the glaciers every year understood nothing about the small details I grew to know so well. But, that wasn’t the whole truth. I had not strapped on crampons or gripped an ice axe on these slopes because, despite everything, I wasn’t sure I could.
A year earlier, I had left Mount Baker for another job, and this change jolted me into action. Though my understanding of this mountain was deep, our relationship was not complete. Not only did I want to gain a new perspective on the landscape I loved by standing on top of Baker’s summit, I wanted to look behind my shoulder and see my footprints disappear-indicating not only how far I had come, but how far I could still go.
All of this weighs on me the evening before our summit attempt. The next morning, the alarm wakes us at three o’clock, and I am dressed and out of the tent first. I am glad to have a few minutes alone, just me and this mountain, sizing each other up and reacquainting ourselves. Alone above the marine cloud layer, a starry sky above me, Baker’s icy flanks glimmering in moonlight, it feels as if the magma in the depths of this volcano are flooding my heart, filling it with the heat of both apprehension and exhilaration.
My teammates begin to rustle in our tent, so I fire up the stove for hot coffee and oatmeal. We eat quickly and then divide the last of the equipment and food, shimmy into climbing harnesses, and walk to the edge of the rock to strap on crampons.
For the next several hours, the view expands just as the distance between us and the summit contracts. Our focus is divided between minutiae and grandeur. We turn to watch daylight glide towards us, and listen to the styrofoam squeak of crampons on snow. An excited wave from Carolyn, upslope from me, catches my attention just as steam from Sherman Crater wafts above the peak. The jagged edges of the Black Buttes against the brightening sky entirely consume me with awe until I feel a tug in the rope from the others and remember that I am supposed to be walking.
We stop for a break at the edge of the steaming crater. It strikes me that I am climbing this volcano. I am doing something I never was sure I could-and now the whole paradigm has shifted. The clouds have dissipated, and the terrain from this perspective is at once familiar and entirely transformed. I can recognize the ridges I have walked many times, surrounded by other ridges and valleys that I would have never seen had I not climbed to this point. We continue up the Roman Wall, the last pitch before reaching the wide, flat summit cone. As we slowly gain the last thousand feet, I find myself glancing over my shoulder at the world below us-and it is all within my reach.
Four hours after we left camp, we are standing on top of a mountain that I can see from my porch in town. I realize that climbing this mountain is an exercise in groundtruthing. Just as each contour line on a map illustrates a rise in topography, every step that I take on this glacier represents a deeper understanding of myself. What prevented me from climbing Baker until this moment wasn’t my limiting job description, the physical demands of glacier travel, or even the mountain itself. The only thing standing in the way of me and the summit of Mount Baker-the summit of any mountain-was myself.
We pull out cameras and take pictures, nibble on handfuls of almonds, and revel in the warmth of the morning sunshine. I see Mount Shuksan across from me, dramatic with her shark-finned summit. “Let’s climb Shuksan next,” says Katie. Carolyn nods, and I agree, smiling, knowing not only that I can, but that I will.
The best way to self-arrest-stop yourself from sliding off a mountain if you fall-is to avoid falling, according to the American Alpine Institute. But, for more info about self-arrest techniques check here.