Tuesday, July 12, 2011


My first sight of Takoma (the mountain aka Rainier) was from the PCT in 2005. It was love at first sight and I knew someday I would climb it. Fast forward to 2010. After living in the state for 2 years I decided to visit the beautiful volcano to the south and I backpacked the entire Wonderland Trail...taking in the amazing views of the mountain and the wonder(!) of it's creative power on a landscape. This year was to bring me to the summit at last.
A headlamp refracted by impenetrable granular fog creates a white noise that is all enveloping. Pair this with the relentless rhythm of booted feet rest-stepping relentlessly upward on a snowfield and you have the night of my 30th birthday–and a perfect chance for reflection. I became aware of the beauty and purity of an alpine style ascent: There stands a mountain. Aloof, majestic, living, and impervious to the desires and methods of those who seek to achieve the summit. There are humans–who cannot resist the enticement of the challenge–the mystery, the inarguable beauty. Some will try to siege the mountain and reach the summit through out-waiting and outmaneuvering. Then there are those who approach with the all or nothing chance, willing to accept whatever may come. No matter the style the mountain is enthralling. Yesterday I found myself approaching the mountain with the honesty of an empty pack–devoid of siege materials–and hoped the mountain would receive me with open arms.

The fog gave way to ice crystal snow glittering through the headlamp and cutting like so many diamonds as the wind hurled it from the sky. I remembered why I was here on the side of Takoma. I wanted to experience the mountain. I had no desire to conquer, only take the gifts offered. Those gifts happened to be challenge and denial. There was no attitude of spite. You cannot strong arm mother nature into giving you what you want. She and Takoma are elements with no cognizance of personal desire. You come to them to learn, not to take. I wanted the summit. I wanted to be comfortable. That is not what was offered. I chose to accept the challenges of the night and rejoice in them. To realize that the best destinations in life chose themselves.

Around 9,000ft I realized my climbing partner's headlamp was infinitely brighter and then he spoke, "It's clearing up." With a click my beam vanished replaced by the glow of the butter colored moon–naval of the night–slung low on the cloud-shrouded hips of the horizon. Stars sparkled across the sky. Below was nothing but silent, breathing, rolling whiteness. Around our feet lay the marred surface of the Muir Snowfield–suncups and footprints pocked the white with moonshadows. The Nisqually Ice Field folded and gaped, wrapping itself through the rocks. Anvil Rock and Little Tacoma stood black against the navy sky. Headlamps peeped at us from Camp Muir–still 1,000 ft higher.

Above us Takoma shone.

The beauty of the Mountain–white and rock and round and steep–beckoned. It was perfect and silent and glorious. I knew that that moment was why I was there. It was the gift of the mountain–not the chance to stand in the crater.

I remembered that this is what it means to be me. All the random moments of beauty and perfection that came through serendipity into my life–as long as I accepted them–crowded my mind. I was reminded that although I challenge myself and try to attain (sometimes I succeed) the rewards often are what come through the challenge and not simply the result. Accepting those moments for what they are was the lesson Takoma re-taught me last night.

By the time we reached Camp Muir we were 1.5 hours late. We'd lost a lot of time low on the snowfield, unable to see more than 5-8 ft. Difficulty finding the route in the inclement conditions had cost us. There were gear issues and by the time we were roped up and ready to proceed into the technical ascent, dawn was near. We knew that it would be dangerous to continue and be on the upper mountain late in the day–especially with the Ingraham Ice Fall loitering with deadly intent above the route. In the long time spent stopped I became so cold that I could no longer shiver and had become very nauseous. I had to spend half an hour in a borrowed sleeping bag to start shivering and regain the feeling in my hands. Once I could stand without needing to vomit and had regained dexterity we stepped outside

Into glorious dawn.

The eastern line was red and the clouds below were gold, blue, white, and lavender. Mt. Adams and the Goat Rocks peered at us from the distance. Behind, even the summit graciously allowed a daylit glance. As we descended into the newness of day clouds piled high on the mountains in the distance and Takoma was swirled into oblivion again. We glissaded riotously down the snowfield impervious to the thick mist.

As I flew through the twists of a steep and long glissade chute I was nearly thrown over the bank as momentum launched me into the air and I laughed.

For the first time in months, I laughed with genuine joy.

Thank you, Takoma, for the greatest birthday gift of my life: a reminder of who I am.

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