Reflections on the Mountain, people and places of the Pacific Northwest
I have known Rainier since I was 15 or so, or to put it more succinctly, 40 plus years. My first trip was with Bob G., a high school friend. My mom and dad took us up to Rainier so Bob and I could go camping with his parent’s camping gear. Mom was very worried on the way up until we got to White River Campground. Seeing the numerous campsites, drinking water stations, restrooms and what can only be described as a very-un-wilderness setting, she relaxed and actually laughed with relief. For me, seeing my folks pull away and leaving us there at the campground, was freedom.
Bob and I spent several days camping, hitchhiking up to Sunrise, and generally messing around, including an unfortunate knife throwing session that tore a hole in his mom’s tent. It was a wonderful experience.
Later, while working as a banquet waiter at the Hanford House in Richland, I met Ken, who became a lifelong friend made strong through our experiences at Rainier. We began hiking in earnest as a break from the tedium of banquets and Richland. In looking back I am amazed at how much ground we covered on the Mountain and environs.
Others joined in the pilgrimage to this most sacred of places, with many enjoyable hikes, evenings around the campfire, and a few adventures as well. Rainier, a uniquely special place of reflection. Many times upon entering the Park I have breathed in the sweet incense of old growth fir, listened to the incantations of cascading waters, gazed upon the glaciated alter, and expressed thanks.
As the years course on their inevitable trajectory, the campfire of friendships may be diminishing, coals glowing brightly in memory but no longer with the energy and intensity of earlier fires. The convocation seems to be wearing thin, as it were. It calls to mind the words of Raymond Carver, a poet and author also from local environs.
Excerpt from Prosser, by Raymond Carver
But everything is forgotten, nearly everything and sooner rather than later, please God – fathers, friends, they pass into your life and out again, a few women stay a while, then go, and the fields turn their backs, disappear in the rain. Everything goes, but Prosser.
And yet in 2021, a year following a year of horror and tragedy for so many, we find ourselves planning a new trip to Ohanapecosh. The Mountain remains but she suffers from climate change, crying tears flowing down from her rapidly melting glaciers. I return to Rainier with my daughter to visit with old friends, capture the breath of her forest and see those diminishing glaciers under cloudless too warm skies. I look forward to companionships, wherever they may be found; they are most enjoyed at Rainier.
Here I dedicate some memories and more recent observations in honor of Rainier, and to those friends, family and acquaintances I have been so fortunate to have spent time with on the Mountain. The period spans 1982 to present. I touch on some special places and some heartfelt themes that the Mountain has taught me.
And what is this thing called Chautauqua? For me I first learned it from the wonderful philosopher Robert Persig and his construct of life, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He introduced the term to me, in my simple construct, a convening of friends around a passion. In his life, a motorcycle trip and more. In mine, a mountain sojourn, and more. So I share this simple concept, a gathering of people around the Mountain, together.
Thank you my beloved wife Susan, precious daughter Claire, my mother and father, Ken, Dan, David, Andrew, Rick, Dave, Scott, Mick, Bob and others I’m sure I’ve missed.
Most of these recollections directly speak to my love of the Mountain and what it taught me and continues to teach me today. I do however veer off this trail in pursuit of other interests and musings. I hope you enjoy.
It’s been almost two years since we travelled to Spain with a couple of close relatives and their friends. We had a great time in Spain and I wrote then about the beauty of Spain, and the challenges we faced under who is now thankfully the (past) president. It seems so long ago, looking back at a time when people could travel and the pandemic and its analog, the insurrectionist cancerous president, were prologue…
March, 2019. We are on a trip to Spain with friends and close relatives. It’s spring in Madrid. I’m struck by the diversity, the beauty of the city and its myriad plazas, world class art museums, street fairs, and above all, its vibrancy. It’s welcoming and seemingly prosperous, comfortable, inviting.
A food and wine loving group, we are relaxing after a long day of sightseeing, sated by Spanish wines, meats, cheese, grapes, fresh tomatoes and bread. Conversation invariably turns to the state of affairs back home. The thought of a possible second term for Trump enters into the conversation with a dull, inevitable thud, sobering the laughter. Could it be possible and what would it mean? We discuss a flurry of potential ex-pat countries. Most sobering is the seriousness in which different living abroad options are weighed and considered. Living through another Trump term back home is the least preferred option, by far.
It is not hard to see why. Under this administration we have seen the avowed dismantling of domestic and international regulatory framework in all facets of government. Politicization of constitutional checks and balances. Vitriolic racist rants and shredding of civil and human rights protections against immigrant – regardless of their legal status – resulting in humanitarian crimes at our southern border and abroad. Corrupt denial of global climate change and our country’s role in its genesis and promulgation, risking humanity and our global ecology. Cringeworthy romancing of despots while shunning historic allies.
The personification of these problems threatening what has been broadly referred to as Pax Americana invariably turns to Trump. In so many ways does he embody and so ably articulate, in his inarticulate prose, the cancerous erosion of our body politic. Arguably he is not a cause so much as a symptom of a nation that refuses to acknowledge the risk to the body politic until the prognosis is too late for therapeutic intervention.
What’s most troubling, to extend the medical analogy, are the supposed experts who have taken over the mass media narrative advising a gullible and worried patient, the president and his followers. These advisors are nothing more in the end than dystopian ideologues who believe in the insane notion that we are all better off with no government oversight in many if not all spheres of our lives. For years they have preached an ignorant and cynical narrative that all government is corrupt, a distortion and manipulation of the healthy historical skepticism that Americans have always held for concentrated government in the hands of a few. Murdoch, Hannity, Limbaugh and friends preach an excoriation of the rule of law and have become acolytes of the rule of man, or at least of their man, Donald J. Trump.
And what should we make of this man who ideologically and practically cares nothing about the news he makes as long as it is about him? To travel abroad for a few days is valuable if only to be away from his news coverage. Like a leaf blower on a warm sunny spring morning, the news cycle is best when it’s turned off. But the rub of it is we can’t turn it off because Trump and his circus, this 2-stroke polluting cycle of noise, is destroying a hell of a lot more than a quiet spring morning.
Most disquieting is that American democratic institutions – designed to preserve and protect our constitutional democracy and ensure the health and prosperity of our nation and its citizens – are under attack not only by external foreign actors but by Americans, who most certainly by and large are not first generation. The foreign actors are more easily understood – they seek to undermine the authority and legitimacy of the United States globally through social media, cyberattacks and other means sowing confusion, falsehoods, and hate, and undermine our democracy by election meddling. Americans from both parties who embrace these tactics show how the cancer has grown.
The Americans who hide under the cloak of Fox and Friends patriotism while gutting environmental, educational, economic, health and safety protections in order to line their own pockets are ultimately more corrosive than the external threats facing us. By many measures, the United States is a crumbling empire and the population is ravaged by corporate greed manifested in opioid addiction fueled by failed regulatory oversight, creaking infrastructure throughout the country, a broken healthcare system, and worsening environmental conditions. These trends are not irreversible but those Americans plundering the wealth of the country to enrich their already vast takings are the greater danger to our democracy.
In a plaza in Madrid on a warm spring night, buses and cars stream by, families with children and babies in strollers, lovers, companions, and tourists like us crowd the street. On this beautiful warm Spanish evening, I cannot fully appreciate how Spain, once a global superpower, is now a democratic country that survived the end of a dynasty, civil war, and authoritarian rule, and yet seems to be in a good spot, relatively. And they’re reportedly the healthiest people in the world, to boot. Not a bad place for a former superpower to wind up.
Perhaps too the end of the American dynasty is inevitable. Idiot rulers have certainly presaged the collapse of empires. Nepotism and cronyism are a sure-fire way to destroy a meritocracy; Pruitt, Zinke, Price, DeVos, et al. (I’m losing count) certainly prove that point. Nicholas had Rasputin; Trump has Stephen Miller and friends.
The elections are coming and surely Trump’s days are numbered? But a travelling companion asks, where will all his followers go? These are people, more than one third of the American electorate I’m told – who reject, even celebrate, the attacks on our government, dispute that climate change exists, express unwavering support for the rule of their man over all others, deny the accusations and established facts, and would willingly sacrifice the very soul of our country symbolized by the Statue of Liberty – immigration. I do not know the answer to my travelling companion’s question. Perhaps demographers have a better answer than I. But I do know that the widespread level of cynicism and hatred of our body politic is a cancer that may ultimately be terminal to the American experiment.
Inexplicably I retain that most American of traits, naïve optimism. Perhaps it’s this beautiful Spanish evening, with everyone out and about in a plaza filled with conversation, laughter, wine and good companionship. Realizing that being a superpower may just be too much for the USA to handle, perhaps we should just chill and watch the whole goddam thing unfold as it should.
As REM sang so prophetically and resonates with me to this day, it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine. Or not.
Postscript, January 2021. Didn’t see that coming! I mean the pandemic, denial of the presidential election results, and insurrection and all. I knew Trump and his acolytes were cancerous to the body politic; just didn’t realize what form(s) it would take. At the time I felt strongly that we were headed in a terrible direction. After Trump’s election I told family and friends with conviction that it would be a miracle if we survived his presidency. At least I got that right, while double masking on trips to the grocery store and waiting impatiently to get a coronavirus vaccination shot. Cheers.
This recounting of the fable of the monkey of McMicken Island was recently told to me by Scooter McMicken, a resident of Herron Island and the great-great-great-great grandson of Jedidiah McMicken, who was the first to claim McMicken Island back in the 1800s. Rumored to be a summer getaway for Bigfoot family reunions, Jedidiah found several Bigfoot abandoned lairs, scattered with oyster and clam shells, along with some primitive cave art. Today the island is a state park and getaway for boaters, a perfect location for a vagabond monkey by the name of Humphrey. This is his story…
Humphrey was a very unlucky monkey, or was he?
Humphrey was a very smart monkey, that’s for sure. He came from good primate research monkey stock. His research team could trace Humphrey’s lineage to Michael Jackson’s monkey, Bubbles, and even as far back as Ronald Reagan’s monkey, Bonzo.
So you knew when you met Humphrey there was something behind those eyes contemplating greater things for himself.
In the meantime Humphrey had to content himself with life at the University of Washington’s primate research laboratory. Great things were happening and he was the star of a research program that was on the very cusp of enabling chimpanzees to speak. It was very exciting times at the lab and the research team, Drs. Gottlieb, Rottweiler, Dewey, Cheatham and Howe, were breaking new ground.
You see, they were working closely with another research team at the university pioneering artificial intelligence. They had developed a process that, through computer algorithms taught to the chimpanzees, would allow the experimental chimps to speak perfect English. That is, if they could only get the chimpanzees to concentrate.
They had made great strides with Humphrey. He learned basic math as well, and was good with the money he received in the form of treats. And he even got pretty good at picking stocks in the stock market, usually involving bananas and other food item commodities.
Well, anyway, Humphrey (who, by the way, was named after Humphrey Bogart), just couldn’t seem to get the language down. Try as he might, Humphrey did not seem able to make the final revolutionary and evolutionary leap forward to spoken language.
His research team hit on a new idea. “I’ve got it!,” exclaimed Dr. Cheatham one day as Humphrey was reviewing stocks on his online trading account. “Let’s have him watch all his namesake movies, and his favorite actor, Humphrey Bogart.” “Well,”said Dr. Dewey, that just might get him to say a few movie lines at any rate.”
So they sat Humphrey down in the chimpanzee movie theater (donated by the Institute for Simian Research). This is where all the monkeys would watch Monday Night Football and Friday night movies together in between National Geographic and Hallmark films, which they loved. They would usually fling banana chips and apple slices at the screen when their favorite team was losing or if the movie was a dud.
Humphrey started watching the African Queen, Casablanca, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and well, frankly, just about any Bogart movie you can think of. To really help him think more about getting the words down, they bought him a fedora hat just like Bogart wore, although his was a bit less formal.
He really started getting into the role of Bogart, and this greatly encouraged the research team. “Why, just look at him!,” exclaimed Dr. Rottweiler as she observed Humphrey one day pacing back and forth in the research lab’s 2 acre jungle (which had been donated by the Foundation to Advance Chimpanzee Intelligence). Humphrey strolled along, sucking on his pipe in quiet contemplation, “I do believe he is starting to think he’s actually Humphrey Bogart!”
This continued on for months but not a word was uttered from Humphrey’s mouth. He would do his computer labs with the artificial intelligence software, pick his stocks, work on math problems, but, alas, nothing was said.
Time was running out. The research grant (donated by the International Foundation for Monkey Freedom) was almost out of money because the nonprofit was cheap and Humphrey had refused to do an infomercial for them.
So finally the research team had to pull the plug on the project and recognize that Humphrey, as brilliant as he was, would not utter a word out loud even if his life depended on it. “It’s a shame,” said Dr. Rottweiler, tears running down her cheeks as she strolled with Humphrey through the garden on their way to the fully stocked cafeteria (donated by the wildly successful company allthingsmonkey.com). Humphrey nibbled on a banana and an apple and drank a smoothie while they sat by the artificial waterfall (donated by Gorilla Glue, Inc.), each lost in their own thoughts.
November was coming and it was time to donate Humphrey to an animal shelter or wildlife park. After much discussion, Drs. Dewey, Cheatham and Howe proposed to Drs. Rottweiler and Gottlieb that they donate Humphrey to the Olympic National Wildlife Refuge. There were all sorts of animals in the refuge, and Warren Harding’s great-grandson Biff, who was quite impressed with Humphrey’s approach to picking value-oriented stocks, agreed to build Humphrey his own special compound, replete with a cafeteria, movie theater, and Bogart-themed bedroom. The research team unanimously agreed that this would be best for Humphrey.
First they had to make sure that Humphrey would be well equipped for the trip to the wildlife refuge. They got him some rain gear, a backpack with camping supplies and food. Over a few evenings of excellent banana cream pies, lots of laughter, and Bogart movies, they prepared Humphrey for the long journey that lay ahead.
The rains came in November and it was particularly stormy on the day that they loaded Humphrey into the van along with Drs. Gottlieb, Rottweiler, Dewey, Cheatham and Howe. They all wanted to be along for the ride and make their final goodbyes to Humphrey, all wishing silently to each of themselves that he would actually say, “Goodbye.” Because then they would know he could speak and they could turn around and publish their findings and Humphrey would be famous.
But alas, it was not to be for the unlucky monkey. They drove south through Seattle in the pouring rain down to Tacoma, and then Olympia. Heading north up Highway 101 and then Highway 3 they continued in the driving rain and wind toward the refuge. Dr Cheatham had to use a restroom. They found a restaurant in a very deserted spot while the rain poured down, the windshield wipers on full speed, headlights stabbing the quickening darkness, and all around them black, dark, menacing forest.
“My God it’s desolate out here, isn’t it chaps?,” said Dr. Dewey. The doctors piled out of the van and ran into the restaurant to get out of the pouring rain and find the restroom and grab a bite for Humphrey. He was particularly fond of hot dogs and Diet Coke.
But Humphrey had other ideas. Grinning to himself he clambered out the back door, and in the pouring rain headed into the gloomy forest. He knew where he was going since he had been learning navigation skills and using his iPhone maps. Humphrey threw the backpack over his shoulders and pulled his slicker hood on tight. He had some walking to do.
Eventually working his way east he came to the bridge at Harstine Island. Black as the soul of hell itself, the rain pouring down, and the wind blowing ferociously up Pickering Passage, Humphrey leaned into the storm and crossed the bridge onto Harstine Island. No one was driving on such a motherless night and he made his way easily onto the island, stopping only here and there to get his bearings.
As daylight broke the rain and wind abated and he finally saw his destination, McMicken Island. The tide was high, so he sat down under the cover of a madrona tree on the beach and took a short rest. He breathed in the salty sea air and waited for the tide to go out.
After a nap he awoke to bright sunlight and sparkling water. McMicken Island beckoned him and with the tide now at low ebb he easily crossed the sandspit onto the island. There he found a state park and he moved quietly so the few boaters anchored at the state park would not notice him. He then began exploring the island. He knew from his research that this was an ancient Bigfoot holiday spot in days of old. As he explored further, he found what he was looking for; the best hideaway of all the Bigfoot creatures, Sir Sasqautch’s private den. It was very well hidden and he climbed down into the sanctuary and laid his gear down. This is where Humphrey would stay. Outside of the lair was a beautiful view looking east toward another island, Herron Island. Humphrey was intrigued because he could see cabins and people strolling the beach. He missed humans and thought to himself, how might I get over there?
Over the winter months and into early spring, Humphrey taught himself how to fish, how to go clamming and gather oysters, and discovered the best places to go beachcombing for shells and other seashore treasures. On clear days, the water sparkled like a million diamonds, porpoises jumped playfully out of the water, orca whales swam by in their pods chasing salmon, and eagles flew in high in circles above the island.
One day during the following summer, Humphrey was strolling the beach and spied a canoe that had washed ashore after a storm. In the canoe was an oar. Humphrey pulled it up onto the beach and covered it with ferns and branches so no one would see it. That night, under a full moon where the phosphorescence in the water glowed mysteriously, Humphrey left his Sasquatch lair and pulled the canoe out and into the water.
He paddled quietly toward Herron Island. It was not that far away, and on this still moonlit night he could easily find his way. After paddling across Case Inlet Humphrey came ashore by the oyster bay. He could see lights up above in some cabins and he avoided those because he was on another mission. Although he was well fed by the clams, oysters, cutthroat trout and salmon that he caught, he greatly desired hot dogs and Diet Cokes.
So he pulled his canoe up onto the south beach and made his way quietly toward a darkened cabin. When he was at the research lab Humphrey had taught himself how to pick locks. Being extremely dexterous, this was not hard at all, so he had a simple plan to pick the lock of a darkened cabin and see what kind of goodies he could find.
In one of the cabins he found exactly what he was looking for in the freezer: a pack of hot dogs. Taking a pillow case off of a pillow in the cabin bedroom, he threw those in, along with some buns and Doritos and Diet Cokes. Content with what he had, he carefully closed the door, being sure not to leave anything amiss, and headed back to McMicken Island.
As fall approached word started getting around Herron Island about a mysterious thief who had a particular hankering for hot dogs and Diet Coke. Other food items went missing too, including candy bars, nuts, chips, and sparkling water. Yet no one was able to identify the mystery thief. Humphrey liked to keep it that way. He only went on moonless nights and by cover of total darkness, where he could see just fine but humans could not. He knew where the dogs were and stayed away from them. He liked the deer and made a special effort to find treats for them, so carrots and bananas and apples would go missing as well.
As the days grew shorter Humphrey prepared his lair for the coming winter storms. He was quite comfortable. One night he paddled over to Herron Island looking for some winter clothes that he had spied on a couple previous cabin searches. It was getting cold and he wanted to make sure to stay warm in the coming months.
He paddled over earlier than normal, right before sunset, because few people were on the island in the fall and it was much quieter. He pulled his canoe up on the beach and began making his way up the trail to the cabin he had in mind. It was a nice little cabin with red trim and a green door and a friendly family with nice friends that he had spied on a few times during his evening adventures. Once, he saw a couple of boys pitch a tent outside the cabin with their father, and he watched them for a very, very, very long time from his hidden spot in the huckleberry bushes.
Drs. Gottlieb, Rottweiler, Dewey, Cheatham and Howe had come out to Herron Island for a Thanksgiving vacation. Their research project was completed. Unfortunately their grant funding had finally run out and they needed new sponsors. So they contacted a friend on the island with a rental cabin and decided to have a mini retreat while they plotted their next research effort. They thought orangutans might be receptive to their research efforts and were in the process of acquiring one who was exceptionally intelligent by the name of Jojo.
Out for a walk on the island one fine evening, they decided to go down to the lower deck of the friendly family nearby. They knew the family well since the mother and father had both worked at the world famous Battelle Memorial Institute in Seattle, were well renowned for their outstanding research and writing skills, and their daughter was the most beautiful, intelligent and precocious girl on the island.
Talk on the lower deck turned to Humphrey. It had been almost a year and all of them missed Humphrey greatly. “So sad,” said Dr. Rottweiler, recalling her lunch long ago with Humphrey. She missed him the most. Drs. Dewey, Cheatham and Howe recollected some of Humphrey’s amazing skills. In fact, they had followed his stock picking closely and made a fair amount of money off the monkey. And of course Dr. Gottlieb pondered his little friend’s fate, hoping that he had somehow prevailed after leaving them on that dark, miserable night.
As the sun set into a glorious palette of deep blue, red, pink and yellow skies over the calm waters of Case Inlet, Humphrey moved silently up the trail. Then he heard distinct, familiar voices. He stopped cold in his tracks when he heard Dr. Gottlieb’s voice, saying “I wish I could hug Humphrey right now.” He approached quietly, overhearing their conversation, recalling what good researchers they were, and how good they had been to him. He moved closer, and then, when conversation paused for a moment, he walked onto the deck and sat himself down at the picnic table.
They gasped as one. “Humphrey!,” exclaimed Dr. Dewey. “How are you, old boy? You look fantastic!” Each spoke out in unison and Humphrey gave them all the biggest grin he could muster.
Once the excitement had settled down a bit, they all sat back down again in a circle on the deck watching the sun finally set over McMicken Island. Dr. Rottweiler stared lovingly at Humphrey, walked over, sat down and put her arm around his shoulder.
Taking in the glorious sunset, happy to be reunited with his research team, looking proudly upon his island home across the water, Humphrey turned to her. He gazed lovingly in her eyes, then said in his very best Bogart imitation, “Hey baby, how you doin’? I’m fine.”
Maybe Humphrey wasn’t such an unlucky monkey, after all.
2nd Climb – each step is a gift (in dedication to my mother)
I don’t remember much about this climb. It was 1997. My mother had died the year before from Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS. ALS is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease that causes the death of neurons that control voluntary muscles, ultimately resulting in total paralysis. The bitter irony is that the mind is perfectly fine, all the way until death. You are mindfully trapped over the course of several years as your body decays until your lungs can no longer sustain breathing. And then you die. A truly wicked fate.
I have often thought about my mother’s disease and wonder if there is any connection to Hanford, now the world’s most contaminated radioactive waste site in the world. She met dad in the late 1950’s after emigrating from Ireland, the oldest girl in a family of eight children from County Mayo, born on St. Patrick’s Day. Her mother was known as Mamie Joyce, her father Patrick Henaghan, a farmer and landowner. Their family survived the Famine; my rough understanding is that they were accomplished and relatively secure. My great grandfather built the church on the Reek, Croagh Patrick. When visiting Ireland my uncles would proudly point out land that had been in the family for generations, bridges and houses built, relatives who were doctors, lawyers, people of prominence.
Mom emigrated to New York in the early 1950s for surely what would a woman of strength and character achieve in what was then an extremely patriarchal culture? Her oldest brother was the favored one, and he became a renowned doctor in Newfoundland. The second oldest brother became a priest who came to America. And what would become of Mary? A nun? A caretaker for the younger siblings? She headed for the United States. There are so many questions I have for her about that courageous and fateful decision that remain unanswered to this day.
Her certificate of naturalization is dated April 6, 1954 (coincidentally the same day as my father’s birthday). My father was at the time a chemical engineer at the Hanford site producing weapons-grade plutonium; mom was employed for GE as a secretary in New York City. Her brother was then a priest assigned to the wilds of eastern Washington. He introduced my devout Catholic father to her while pastor at Christ the King Catholic Church in Richland, and the rest, they say, is history.
My mother Mary raised five children in the hot (sic) southeastern Washington desert town of Richland at a time when the Hanford site released radioactive contamination across the desert, agricultural fields and towns while producing weapons-grade plutonium. After mom died in 1996 my father suffered and recovered from stomach cancer. A brother survived another cancer. The cancers, my mother’s ALS, other chronic family ailments. Could there be a connection to Hanford?
The Mountain has been home to these thoughts over the years on many trails, switchbacks of thoughts leading upward in a search for answers where glaciers now recede under cobalt sky. Thinking of Richland, home is a curious notion.
I have been searching for a home since my earliest childhood. I am a child of the nuclear defense complex, born and raised in Richland, Washington, a city spawned by the federal government for the sole purpose of building nuclear weapons-grade plutonium to annihilate the Japanese in World War II, and then possibly (and God willing, the Richland community was willing) the Russians. The focal point of my existence was atomic energy and fission, the splitting of atoms and communities.
Until I was five we lived in an older part of Richland, “older” a relative term confined to the past twenty years of the town’s existence. My family lived in a ranch house on Cottonwood Drive, World War II tract housing built and paid for by the government to house Manhattan Project and Atomic Energy Commission employees. Like the name suggests, Cottonwood Drive had trees of the street’s namesake, an unusual landscape feature in eastern Washington since the natural landscape is mostly scrub desert and sagebrush. The cottonwoods were planted to shield the town from the dust that blew during construction of the Manhattan Project. Yet Richland is really scrubland desert. The most romantic appellation for the area is a winery in Benton City called Kiona, an Indian name meaning, “Brown Hills”.
I was very fond of that small rambler “ranch house” constructed by the federal government to house Hanford workers and their families. It is there where I made childhood friendships in the cool shade on 100 degree days. My parents, myself and three brothers lived there until my sister, the fifth child, arrived. My father then bought a 3,500 square foot split-level in north Richland that was selling for $30,000 in 1968. With an open floor plan and fighting siblings, I hated it and always missed the ranch house.
The city center—if such a place truly existed, for it was really only a geographic point, not a cultural center—was the Federal Building, where government bureaucrats continue operating the Hanford nuclear energy complex, its new mission now to clean up the massive radioactive contamination. From an economic perspective, I would argue it’s the greatest Keynesian project ever created; irradiate a massive area with radioactive isotopes over a few decades with half-lives numbering in thousands and millions of years, then spend decades trying to clean the mess up. Brilliant economic development strategy.
When visitors came, my father invariably suggested a visit to the Hanford Science Center. There we operated a robotic arm used to simulate the handling of plutonium and were given irradiated marbles as souvenirs. It was a strangely insular town; we rarely visited the neighboring farming and ranching communities that comprise the eastern Washington landscape. Richland had nothing in common with these communities.
Growing up in a suburb without a city, Richland lacked the social fabric normally associated with an agricultural or industrial base, or indeed, any town with any sort of history. When your social history is based exclusively on creating weapon-grade plutonium whose sole use was mass destruction—or today, cleaning up the mess left behind—then simple things like 4H, annual parades, community history, and museums are totally lacking or weak in comparison to an older town that has at least been on the map for 50 years, let alone a century a two.
Our history was recent, but forever changed our future. The cold warriors were still alive when I came of age. The flash of white light in New Mexico and the annihilation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were pages in our grade school history books, recent memories confined to the chilling dust. Eighteen years had passed between the bombing of Hiroshima and the time I was born in 1963, a mere breath in the life of plutonium. But in human terms, the Cold War in Richland was a golden age, Arthurian in its quest for domination over our enemies, a holy war of technology steeped in goodness. We were the sons and daughters of the creators of the most powerful human creation, fission. It engulfed our hearts, our souls, our bodies, even the names of our storefronts.
Radiation was in our kitchen. As mom cooked dinner, dad regaled us with the promise and benefits of nuclear inventions, eyes bright with the telling of newly published research taking place at the Hanford laboratories. It was in our homes, literally. Workers carried radioactive material back in their clothes into their homes or radioactive materials mixed with the dust that blew constantly over Richland throughout each successive construction phase. It became literally a part of us. To this day I can only wonder if Hanford caused my mother’s death from Lou Gehrig’s disease, a brother’s cancer, my father’s cancer.
Radiation was in our churches. In our congregations on Sundays, we prayed for strength and redemption and power against the communists while protecting our way of life.
Radiation was in our stores and our streets. Atomic Lanes. Atomic Dry Cleaners. Proton Lane, Argon. Memorialized war generals on green street signs crossing Richland in a militaristic grid. Patton, McArthur, George Washington Way. Leslie Groves Park.
Radiation was in our schools. We were the Richland Bombers and the Hanford Falcons. “Nuke ‘em till they glow” was an idiom I remember from high school. When your mascot is a mushroom cloud, all others pale in comparison.
I went to Hanford High School. New children from other places arrived constantly during the boom period of commercial nuclear power plant construction in the 1970s amid renewed attempts to continue the military mission. A small contingent of kids were from outlying farming communities but mostly we were the children of scientists, doctors, and lawyers from the American national laboratory complex—Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Savannah River, Brookhaven.
We were privileged as teenagers, bereft of any history or sense of community. The desert offered us places where keggers and parties were held in primitive rituals of bonfires, teenage sex, alcohol and drugs. In the distance away from the glare of the bonfire and the four-wheel drive pickups you could see sodium lights illuminating some of the most sophisticated inventions created in history. Neanderthals with nuclear power.
Growing up in Richland during the 1970s, the glow of what we had burned in Japan was rubbed to a patina, a trophy hung in memory of a great battle won and cherished. Now we had turned the radioactive swords into a plowshare of progress, nuclear energy. In an age of energy crises, inflation, and Malthusian nightmares, we held the candle that would never stop burning, nuclear power, peaceful nuclear energy the Department of Energy public relations staff reminded us. This promise would redeem Richland, make it whole again for sins we would never make whole, let alone talk about or understand in their enormity against people and the planet itself.
And so we feverishly turned our energy to that promise, tried to build five nuclear power plants in Washington State that would show the world what it meant to live clean, free, and beautiful with peaceful nuclear energy. But the dream was corrupted by cost overruns, drugs, Wall Street investors, and a multi-billion municipal bond default, the largest of its kind in U.S history by Whoops, the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS). And then came Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and radiation leaking into the Columbia River.
As teenagers, we were more interested in learning the intricacies of adolescent sex and drugs than the chain reaction of fissile materials in a power plant. We weren’t the workers who died of strange cancers from building graphite blocks and operating the plutonium production reactors. We weren’t the scientists who marveled for the first time at the beautiful horror they had created. We weren’t the generals who righteously unleashed the terror, then replicated it. We were only children living in a desert landscape where Indians once gathered at the confluence of three rivers later discovered by Lewis and Clark, the Snake, Yakima, and Columbia. No longer imbued with the war mission or need to keep all things secret against a by then crumbling Soviet Red Scare, our community, or at least this collection of suburbs without a city, was as ephemeral as the energy it tried to capture.
Richland’s city center, despite highway signs to the contrary, was the Area, the Hanford Site, the focal point for community, life, religion, and community wholeness, and that center was classified as secret, the key to its center held by bureaucrats working at the Federal Building, in turn controlled by their superiors in the nation’s capitol three thousand miles away. Thus the community’s sense of purpose, its reason for being, rose and fell on national security decisions rather than crop yields or factory orders. In a quest to overcome undemocratic control through oppressive centralized government bureaucracies, the United States created Richland and other communities like it throughout the national “defense complex” that were largely undemocratic, centralized government bureaucracies. My father, a supporter of nuclear energy, with his keen sense of humor, also loved Pogo, the cartoon character who once declared, “We have seen the enemy, and they is us.”
In the fight against Reagan’s Evil Empire, we created our own communities where status was defined not by your civic contributions but by the level of your security clearance, where the success of your work was based on your academic success in nuclear physics and political access, not your ability to harvest a crop or build a house. A place where your father could not tell you what he did for a living in fear of violating a security requirement and risking government reprisal, let alone speaking out against the moral outrage of nuclear weapons or waste now threatening Richland itself and the entire Columbia River watershed.
I slowly began to learn what home is. Home is a sense of the land, a place to settle and cherish for what it provides as well as for what is to remain sacred and untrammeled. Home is a sense of community, of people’s lives and contributions to one’s community, stories passed and threaded into a woven history through the generations in oral and written retelling. Home is a sense of a well-built house that acknowledges, accedes to, and aspires to its natural surroundings. Home is a place where you would want your daughters, your sons, and your grandchildren to thrive.
Richland has the vestiges of community, of home. It has service clubs, churches, shops and restaurants, mostly franchises and hotel chains and “big box” retail stores owned by corporations located elsewhere. Today the Richland economy is more diversified; the wine industry is growing, it is a regional center for healthcare, and new startup companies offset the work out at Hanford. That is all for the good.
Yet when I came of age in Richland, the roots were as shallow as the sagebrush and tumbleweeds blowing in the chocolate brown clouds of sand that obscured the desert sky every spring when the doomed commercial nuclear plants were being constructed. Without a true center, there was no community, no natural cultural space to call one’s own, no sense of home in Richland.
Perhaps Richland is the ultimate social equivalent of Carl Sagan’s nuclear winter, not a physical wasteland (as horrific and probable as that may seem today), but instead the place that I grew up in: a place without a true community center, a culture with no culture, a desert in which the brightest flame may burn but which we cannot control or ever safely tend.
My mother began showing symptoms of ALS, this crippling disease, shortly after my wife Susan and I married in 1991. At first we thought is was multiple sclerosis (MS), but it progressively worsened. Stairs became a challenge, then an impossibility. A cane, then a walker, then forever bound to an easy chair while my father wore out his back lifting her into and out of a wheelchair. Dad insisted on caring for her without aid until the family finally convinced him to retire and move to an assisted living facility in Issaquah, where mom spent her final days.
I was with mom and dad at Virginia Mason medical center in Seattle the day of the final diagnosis. A process of elimination – we had hoped (!) it was progressive MS, which was at least manageable. It was not to be. The doctor gave us the final diagnosis in a small hospital examination room. She cried silently as he pronounced her death sentence. Mom passed away October, 1996 while I was preparing for my first legislative session.
Our daughter Claire arrived in February 1997. I had taken a job as a policy analyst for the Washington state legislature the prior summer as a non-partisan committee staffer and had spent a long legislative session trying to learn the ropes in the midst of family trials and grief and illnesses and death. We had moved to Olympia and it was a strange experience after leaving Seattle with a strong support network – don’t ask about the wisdom of this – to find ourselves alone raising our infant daughter. (Advice to future legislative staffers: think seriously about working a legislative session if you have a newborn on the way.)
In spring of 1997 my friend Knox, who I met in Australia, approached me about climbing the mountain through the Rainier Mountaineering Incorporated (RMI) guide service. Against my better judgment I agreed and my wife acceded to the request. Again, Rainier as touchstone, a place to reconnect the pieces. It was especially powerful for me to dedicate the climb to my mother, who had lost all mobility due to her tragic disease. I felt blessed to work out, running and trying to gain strength for the climb, in memory of her.
I could hardly say no. I met Knox as companion Rotary Foundation Scholars in 1986 at the University of Sydney. We took some amazing road trips throughout Australia together along with another Rotary Scholar from South Carolina and a host of other students we had gotten to know at International House, the dormitory where we lived. I admired Knox for his tenacity and desire always to seek out new adventures in Australia. I credit him for some amazing experiences traveling in Australia together and with others. How could I say no?
Knox arrived from Florida. I picked him up at Sea-Tac airport and we went to Rainier and had a short camping trip. We took the RMI classes in self-arrest and prepared for the climb with about 20 others. By now I knew this would be a cattle climb up the Disappointment Cleaver route, referred by experienced climbers as the dog run. It would not be like the first climb, the five of us novices led by an experienced climber. I missed Mick and that team. The DC route as it’s called is not technically difficult though physically demanding as I knew so well from my first summit attempt eight years prior.
On the day of the climb I was assigned to a rope team with a young guide. Looking at my long ice axe, the guide told me it was not suitable and I would need to rent a shorter axe. Now, this axe had been my hiking companion for years on glacier hikes on the Mountain. Yes, it was more of a walking stick due to its length but I knew its feel by heart – the sweat-stained wrist band and worn patina on the axe and pick gave testimony to that – and I knew I could arrest myself and a rope team with it should we have a fall. The guide was younger than me and my obstinate nature got the better of me. I refused. He grew angry. The lead guide came over, looked at the axe, asked me a few questions about prior experience, and agreed that it would be ok to use on the climb. The rope team leader was not happy and rewarded me with the task of being last on the rope team.
I don’t remember much of the climb – was that glorious sunrise over Little Tahoma on the first trip? or this one? Members on the rope team – one of several rope teams led up the Mountain by RMI – were strangers from around the country. Knox had been assigned to another team. I was alone in my thoughts.
My most vivid memory is, having attained the summit, Knox rested with others while I and a few others unroped and walked across the summit crater to sign the guidebook. At that point my emotions came flooding in recalling the battle that my mother had waged, and ultimately lost. With tears streaking across my face and freezing on my cheeks, I walked across the summit crater dome and found my way to the steel post where climbers sign their name in memory of the climb. That was for mom. The Mountain gave me the best opportunity to pay my last respects, and for that I am ever grateful. Home.
Wake up. By the light of the tent I can tell it’s overcast. Hopefully it’s only the morning mist. Roll out and relieve myself. Turn my head back and try to read the sky. High overcast, no rain…for now. We’ll stay on the forest trails today. Glaciers are misery in a storm. On a clouded day the forest resonates with sound that has been swallowed and muffled. Distances lose perspective, while objects close to the eye sharpen and magnify…a tree branch quivers with life pouring from its needles. A chipmunk’s eyes show acrylic black. The mulch on the ground weaves in patterns, entrancing me as I awaken. Far off a phantom of mist seduces a tree, and works it way down a slope.
We eat breakfast silently. We too are under the grip of the clouds. The whole forest is spellbound by this godlike cloak. It is peaceful, but not pleasant, not unpleasant. It feels like limbo while waiting for either rain or sun. We move with the spirit.
Comet Falls is perfect for such a day. The trail winds, ascends, crosses several boulder fields, ascends once more, and then we are there. We follow the creek upwards toward the Falls, following the thrush of a distant water-thunder. The anthem of the Cascades is falling water. The Falls roar like a lion with his head in a towel. The sun emerges and the clouds clear, if momentarily.
We reach the Falls; it twists and writhes down the rock face then crashes and releases into mist; a roaring life and stunning death onto the rocks, over and over in a pulsating rhythm that has no beat. There is one tree ahead of the trail with lichen cascading from its branches. It seems to be an impressionist of the Falls. Ken takes pictures while I drink from the bota and chew gorp piece by piece. Later we hike to Van Trump Park. The Mountain is veiled again, the meadow is silent. Dew drips from the lupine and beargrass. We descend.
Ohanapecosh and a trek to Indian Henry’s Campground
Ohanapecosh. Crying babies, barking dogs and overzealous wood splitters punctuate the cool morning air. I wake up with sunburned warmth in the chill. A stark change from the hot meadow at Indian Henry’s filled with the constant drone and manic buzzing of hornets, bumblebees, flies, wasps and mosquitoes. The weather was oppressive and alien to my recollection of Rainier. The next day we awoke to blazing sunlight. By 10 a.m. the camp was bathed in a washed-out heat that left the forest a pale tired green. Instead of packing our backpacks we jumped in the truck and drove to Paradise to walk around a drink a coke. The Mountain was bare and dry in a hazy leaden sky. Over the radio I heard the announcer say that it reached a 103 degrees in Portland … I slept in the back of the truck that night, tossing …
The next morning we left camp and drove to Kautz Creek, where the trailhead to Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground begins. The packs were heavy. We moved slowly in the heat up the trail, through silent breezeless forest. The trail became steep. We had to stop more often. We were sweating ourselves into dehydration. I started to curse Indian Henry. By the time we hit the first ridgeline after a series of steep switchbacks my bota was empty; Ken had drank three liters. Every time we stopped the flies would home in on us, so it became unbearable to remain still for too long. I prayed to Sisyphus.
(Finally) we crested the ridgeline that leads below to Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground, a large meadow with an old log cabin ranger station. We stopped at the cabin, where two women from Seattle watched us approach as they relaxed in the shade. One offered me some ice from her Thermos. Can the sensation of ice on a sandpapered throat after lugging a 45 pound pack uphill for 6 miles be described?
After drinking more water from a still pond (Ken had a Swiss water filter) we pushed on, looking for a camp site. We found a flowing stream and ascended the bank to a small flat spot several yards above the water. Once again, the flies and coworkers came calling…
After setting the tent we crowded in and ate some warm, soggy pizza stuffed in the pack leftover from the Wild Berry. A restless night was spent in the still warm meadow.
Next morning we braved the insects, flailing ourselves awake, packed camp and descended in the heat. The glaciers were evaporating from Rainier’s flanks, and rock slides every few minutes were seen with a far-sounding booming seconds later. The heat seemed to be winning even against the Mountain, reducing it to an alpine rock heap.
Later that afternoon we made it to Ohanapecosh and pitched camp among the Winnebagos, dogs and teenagers with frisbees and bicycles. Unless you’re a weekend warrior or an armchair mountaineer, Labor Day weekend is a poor time to camp at that spot.
Outdoor experience. Sleeping in the truck that night sore muscles rebelled against the truck bed, yet the heat broke in the middle of the night, and I awoke to the cool morning air and the anticipation of a hot cup of coffee. Later that day we moved rom H-17 to A-4 while the campers packed up and left en masse.
We walked up to Silver Springs from Stevens Canyon and joyously stretched the legs, stiff from the Indian Henry’s trek. Took some pictures of the Falls, scampering around the rocks looking for the right angle. Spent the rest of the afternoon light at the Grove of the Patriarchs, a virgin stand of old-growth timber, mysterious in their awesome creaking in the wind. Stopped to skip rocks in the Ohanapecosh River…a favorite pastime and one that will be mentioned on my next job resume. Back to camp after getting more ice in Packwood. A good do-nothing-in-particular day.
The coolness has returned. Sitting at the picnic table at campsite A-4 in Ohanapecosh listening to the rive and a stream nearby. Shades of green filter down upon me, giving the coolness a visual quality of sensation.
Like so many times in the past, I’ve come to Rainier for a reawakening of the senses, to feel the stark exertion of a 45 pound pack on a steep switchback, to eat crushed gorp with physical hunger born out of exertion, to drink water clear and cold on a hot throat and splashed on a sweating face, to feel the campfire coals on sunburned cheeks as the evening chill draws a tight cloak.
When I was younger, Rainier was a unique challenge and wonderful promise. It captured my soul on its steep glaciers and rewarded me with newfound strength in body and spirit. I have walked hundreds of miles through the Park with lifelong friends, drawing strength from the Mountain’s beauty and from within.
Rainier has been the focal point through many changes in my life. When I was 18, it was on Rainier’s slopes that I crystallized my purpose to attend college. While cramming for finals or writing term papers, the thought of each step on the Muir Snowfield made me strive harder to succeed with an all-night paper. When cast by doubts about finalizing my college degree, Rainier was a place to reduce the causal foresight into clear objectives. The preparation of a 14 day trip to Rainier and the daily planning for each successive hike around the Mountain provided valuable lessons in planning, purpose, and the reward of sharing and attaining a goal with a good friend.
While studying in Austria, and later, in Australia, Rainier was a source of strong memories of my homeland in countries that were geographically and culturally alien. And in that unique strangeness of living overseas, Rainier was an enduring and physical symbol of last campfires that never died, to paraphrase Schurman’s inspiring words,* as Ken once shared with me. And so throughout the years Rainier has been the rock…
*Last campfires never die,
And you and I on separate ways to Life’s December,
Crawling out to the tent in the early morning is like leaving a womb. The warmth immediately wears off, so quickening steps are used to awaken the body’s heater. Cuts on the hands throb with a sharp intensity. Turning on the stove with cold hands brings the consciousness of sensation – pain – to the sleeping mind. While water heats, a spot of sunshine slides over a comfortable stump, bringing forth crystalline perceptions of depth, color, and contrast. A sapling stirs in a small breath of air. I sit on the stump, and stare at the legs as muscles flex in relaxed enjoyment. The hike will be good…
I’ve settled into the hike. The first exhilaration has passed, the first beauty diminished. The burden starts to make itself felt on my shoulder, my head begins to feel the heat. I have to find the elusive rhythm and pace that can overcome all odds, all barriers, cliffs and crevasses. One foot in front of the other. I am not a religious man, yet my Catholic upbringing leads me to say Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s in timing with my steps. My Irish Catholic mother would be proud of the numerous rosaries I’ve counted steps to.
Greatest temptation is always to move faster or stop, never to relax and go slower without stopping. Stop and go never succeeds; invariably the stop becomes too enticing and the go excruciating. Going faster only brings accidents, exhaustion and frustration, thus defeating the purpose of the hike. Must find that rhythm without wanting it too much!
It can’t be desired; the more you want it the more elusive and fleeting the mode of mind becomes. Have to let it come in tangentially and in a series of transitions: a slowing of the breath, a concentration on lesser objects and reflections, a reduction of goals into manageable bites. Conquering a mountain or any goal always involves crossing a stream, reaching the switchback ahead, stepping over a log, watching the weather, keeping the eyes focused on the trail instead of distant glaciers. In this light, “conquering” has to be replaced by another term. Conquering is too forceful, too antagonistic and alien a word. “Finding” the mountain may be appropriate, but that leads to a passive understanding of the concept. Perhaps “discovery” best approximates the search for the summit that I wish to attain, an active process of learning and openness during all stages of the climb.
We round the bend in the trail, and the first view of Rainier suddenly comes into view. Just as abrupt, the trail overlooks the gnarled trunks torn by the flailing Carbon River, then winds upward along the canyon wall towards Curtis Ridge. My eyes blink out a stinging drop of sweat and gaze at the tremendous captive violence encapped by glaciers and cloud-making peaks on the upper slopes of Rainier. The Willis Wall drops thousands of tons of debris tumbling down the contorted glaciers. The snout of the Carbon spews out milky water, churning up the earth and carving herself a geologic niche in history. The dirt and debris are so mingled on its surface that it shines a glossy black. Far above, the clean glaciers throw a brilliant glare high into the violet atmosphere above. Then farther again, Liberty Cap, Point Success and Columbia Crest form a crown of jewels wreathed by a shroud of mist that tumbles together, lingers, then dissipates toward the east…We continue upward.
Glacier hiking is euphoric. Life whirlpools into one white goal. The snow becomes the center of your life, the sun a guardian on your shoulder. At 9,000 feet on the Muir Snowfield thoughts flew through my mind as free and as actively changing as the clouds.
Glaciers can be hot in the summer sun and the mind starts paying more attention to the protests of the body. Hiking up a mountain like some half-bred descendant of Sisyphus. Life’s a bitch, and then rock falls down the hill. Did Sisyphus ever, if only for a fleeting moment snatched by some vindictive god, experience that fleeting exultation of success?
We are only rock pushers, each fighting the gravity of his or her own mountains. Yet at this very moment I crave the mountains, the simple physical reality of the essential analogy. God give me simplicity; give me a mountain, a glacier, a sea of ice; the sky, an overwhelming blue; a cliff of stone, gray and impassive, a sun that burns the skin and paints the color!
Thoughts tumble like clouds falling off the face of Liberty on Rainier – anticipating the forest of color, the scent of pine and woodsmoke and dusk and stars under the canopy of evergreens.
At Camp Muir I gazed about the Cascades, seeing Adams, Hood and St. Helen as one notices for the first time good friends in a crowded room.
Another hike in early spring… We stop at Panorama Point. There’s still 20 feet of snow at Paradise so we trudge all the way up in snow. Great workout. Our excitement at being on the Mountain propels us up to Panorama in 50 minutes. We stop and rest on an outcrop of rocks, eating chocolate that’s been in the freezer a year. It tastes like a Cadbury’s Tootsie Roll; in a word, heaven.
I feel the sunshine burning my skin and it sharpens my senses. Later that night we have great luck. We pull into a place outside of Longmire Entrance called the Wild Berry Restaurant. All kinds of beer and fantastic pizza. After the meal, I appreciate the hibernation patterns of bears.
I finish lacing up my boots, running the red cord up and around the eyes, and with a flourish of the bow, finish. Today we are hiking up to Glacier Basin and onward to Camp Schurman. It is one of my favorite hikes because it taught me a life-long lesson. I believe it was the August ’82 trip when I first climbed the Inter Glacier route to Schurman with Ken. The Inter is tucked within the Wedge, which separates the Emmons and Winthrop glaciers. It is small but fairly angled – a great hike for conditioning and getting acquainted with the peculiar characteristics of a glacier field.
Ken and I had made good time to Glacier Basin, and we continued on without rest (stopping only to hastily swallow a sandwich) to the lichen-strewn boulders at the base of the glacier. Looking up at the steep slope of the Inter under a blazing midday sun, I felt fear of exhaustion and failure to reach the top of the Wedge. I was (and still am) quite a novice at the time, and had no idea how to joyfully surmount such a goal. It’s amazing how the body can listen to discouraging signals of a reluctant mind at such a time. So, with a resignation of spirit the climb began.
The snow was firm and not overly slushy. At first I went slow, telling myself to save my strength. I resumed my habit of counting steps and almost of its own accord my body fell into a a pace. It was not fast, but it was steady, and I found this to be an invaluable lesson. Instead of going quickly for two hundred steps and stopping with pounding heart and screaming lungs, I proceeded for five hundred steps and felt much stronger for it, while covering a greater distance in the same amount of time. Rhythm and pace placed me on the Wedge. Later that afternoon we stopped near Camp Curtis in fine shape, rewarded with a view of intense beauty.
Many times I have thought of the essence of that hike and have applied it to the hardest daily treks, and the walk of life. Happily, I am still able to sometimes reach a summit or goal without exhaustion.
The beauty of Rainier. It hit me one beautiful summer day as I was lacing my boots in preparation for a climb. The utter magnificence of Rainier Park compressed itself into one instant of pure comprehension and held me spellbound, hands holding the laces. My soul felt washed and clean of all disrupting signals as my consciousness held the fragile moment, spellbound, afraid to grip it too tightly lest it break. And then, like a smoke ring that settles on the palm for a brief pause and then dissipates, so, too, did that moment, into the atmosphere.
And what was that moment? …Staring up through the tall trees at twilight, looking for a star or perhaps wishing a cloud a safe journey away to the east. Later, walking to a clearing where no lights shine and watching satellites weave a meteoric web across the firmament, while shooters pierce holes in the fabric…
…Breaking above the treeline into moraines and then glaciers. Slivers of snow flying before my eyes as I gain a foothold in each new step. I look up at the Mountain, awestruck at the immensity and sheer violence of her volcanic history. Icefalls and rockfalls in suspended animation sweep up to her summit, and the glaciers flow as ivory rivers into the forests below. Seas of crevasses open their troughs for souls brave enough or fool enough to climb them. Clouds shoot for the summit from the west. Some fly by, occasionally obscuring Little Tahoma in a cloud of fog as they crash into the flanks. Others form mysteriously at the top, placing a crown on Rainier’s brow, and then proceed to dress her entirely with a storm…
…At camp the body falls wearily on a stump while the mind recounts the ten mile hike and appraises the body’s performance with detached relief. Eyes focus on an object in the cool shade, relaxing from an afternoon of pure sunshine on snowfields. Legs twitch in stationary excitement like a Ford cooling down, while the heart relaxes its pulse to 55 beats per minute. Later, dinner is made, strength is restored, and darkness brings peace. But for now, the winds shift at dusk, blowing a cool breeze up from the Ohanapecosh River that chills a sun-warmed body. Shivers set in and extra shirts are donned until evening warmth comes. A fire is made, bringing heat and primal cheer. Food is brought out from the ice chest, and nibbling sets in until hunger comes on full-bore and another experimental dinner of powdered food and soggy items from the cooler is made that would normally feed six.
After dinner camp is nominally cleaned up. Peering with wide eyes, the realization comes slowly that dark has been completely cast in the tall trees, and that it is now late in the evening. The stream washes below, laughing deeply on its way to the Pacific.
Above, the trees whisper about the peace of nature and shake their tops at the ground. Weariness sets in slowly, comfortably, and completely. The tent dome glows dully in the night, offering rest and rejuvenation until morning.
We arrived yesterday at Rainier in pouring rain. Going to bed the night before settled down for sleep as the thunder slammed the windowpanes in Seattle. Awoke at 5:00 to hear the rain coming down hard and sullen. Not really a summer storm at all…it was much more wintry and determined. I called Ken at 5:30 and told him that Ipsut would be drenched if we went to the west (wet) side of the Mountain. Instead, we decided to meet at White River. Ken arrived in the early afternoon with Dave and Scott, and we headed on towards the campground, where we made camp and stayed the night. Cold and gray, I am happy still to be here for this Chautauqua under the stars, where friends gather in the wilderness and share the fire, but I bring with me a cold that is just gathering a full head of steam. Morning breaks slowly, and soft sunlight falls on the vine maple, leaving a trace of optimism over a cup of instant coffee.
Yesterday we loaded the packs and headed for Glacier Basin. Ken, Scott, Dave and I form the hiking group this year. Dave and Scott are close friends and all of us seem to be having a great time, except for this nagging cold of mine which scratches my throat, turns my nose into a faucet, and generally leaves me feeling a bit fatigued. Still, it’s a good hike today. We made it up to Glacier Basin early yesterday evening and set camp, got water fro the river, and made a reconstituted freeze-dried dinner. Later we played poker with gorp (M&Ms worth 2 peanuts or 10 raisins). This morning the rain and clouds passed and we headed for Camp Schurman, up the steep Inter Glacier. My cold was bothering me, but the sun and Starburst candy helped. We made it to Camp Curtis by 3:00 and headed back by a much quicker form of locomotion. I threw on the rain pants, mittens, and tucked everything in as best I could for a rapid glissade on my butt. Very exhilarating – may be too much so – Ken and Dave were following close behind and told me that I punched open a crevasse during one of my human bobsled descents. Incredible how much ground we covered doing down in a matter of seconds that took the better part of an afternoon to ascend.
Returned back to Glacier Basin to camp overnight, occasionally passing marmots sunning on the rocks or running around. Lots of deer up here – all are does who don’t mind us a bit. Came back with a total feeling of spent exertion and exhaustion accented by the cold. It’s a beautiful evening, and I lie here in my sleeping bag in the tent relishing a full recline on something soft after a day of pounding up and down over rock, snow and ice.
Like last year, I’m fighting ghosts in my dreams. The night before last it was a work dream that came to visit. Last night it was a dream about a brother. So clear and memorable, I spend the next day trying to re-piece them together, or reprieve my soul through a process of anger, denial, frustration, acceptance, or a simple apology in my own heart. So much of this trip is tied up in future direction and purpose, in a way clearing myself for newness and direction, when last year was caught up in trying to preserve what had been. So saying, I continue an almost penitential purpose on this trip, and welcome it. Scott and Dave return with boots and water sack full from filling up down at the river. Time to clean up and prepare for dinner and evening.
Back to White River. Woke up this morning, grateful that my cold was departing, if slowly. We ate a Sierra cup of oatmeal and packed for the descent. Two-thirds of the way down my left toe began crying – a large blister had formed and then broken. Back at our new site (A-3; old site was A-6) there was a lot of blood on the sock, but I think it will be OK. Ken, Dave, and Scott got fresh sunburns on the snow. Only my nose and ears reddened because I used sunscreen so I look a bit funny but no damage done.
That afternoon we headed into Randall for lunch at the Mt. Adams cafe. A meal to remember: onion rings, salad, Mt. Adams Burger, and chocolate mile shake. Stopped by the store in Packwood later for beer, burger, and the necessities, including zinc oxide for the climb. Returned with a beautiful clear sky and music on Ken’s car stereo enveloping us in energy, pure and simple. Stopped just a couple miles west of the 410/123 junction to take pictures. Now it’s time to begin preparing for the climb. Only two days to go and I am simply daunted by the prospect. It will be tough no other way to look at it. More on that later…hopefully before the climb.
Awoke next day to a semi-overcast day that progressively worsened. No rain, only a cold chill and high overcast that shrouds the upper ridges of the White River Valley. We drove up to Sunrise and took a walk up to Frozen Lake, where we turned back as the fog descended below 6,400 feet (Sunrise elevation), funneling through ridge openings and sweeping down over Yakima Park.
Ken caught my cold, and is trying to battle it quietly. Dave and Scott are doing great, and I’m feeling better, but the weather has, like everything else, dampened our enthusiasm. There is a lot to do to get ready for tomorrow: food to pack, gear to sort. I hope Ken’s cold gets better fast; it would be foolish to push for the summit without having everybody and everything in top order. It’s going on for 4:00 and everything is still pretty much in limbo. After these thoughts I’ll make an attempt to do some packing.
For now, it’s nice to sit here sipping hot coffee and staring at the familiar grays and greens of the old familiar forest. A few more minutes to collect my thoughts. I’m not sure what tomorrow will bring – it’s a challenge that depends on three factors: myself, the group, and the weather. Full of hope, I wish for more energy on this cold day; I hope that the group works well individually and together, and I hope the weather turns to our favor. If not, we’ll have to figure out alternatives and go on from there. Tomorrow begins the big day and according to plan…can we do it? I don’t know. Let’s give it a go. As I once wrote to a friend when I was living in Australia, wherever you find yourself, well, there you are.
Woke up at 5:00 am on the 21st. Ken was very sick. In the midst of packing we went in turns to talk to Ken in his tent, trying to figure a way that would enable him to join us. It was obvious that Ken was too sick to go, and the sheer disappointment was hard for us to bear. It was very sad for me, after so many years of beholding the beauty of the summit, the planning, the cups of coffee and the dreams, to come so close, and not to have my hiking companion on the climb, not able to bear our loads together, holding the rope in the team, setting that final crampon step on the summit together.
We packed and finished breakfast hurriedly. Rick had joined us the night before; his cousin Mick was going to lead the climb. Rick took off in his Impala to meet Mick, a seasoned climber who had made 30-odd summit climbs on Rainier and three ascents on Denali. Later, Dave, Scott and I drove up in the pickup and we arrived at Paradise a little after 9:00. About 10:30 we hit the trail, feeling the weight of the pack and the long summit climb ahead. It was cloudy and cool, perfect for hiking. Later we saw some climbers descending, who told us that the cloud cover broke at 8,000 feet, and that it was clear from there.
Higher we ascended in smooth, even steps over the soft summer snow. Mick was slow and consistent, not pushing hard, but not wasting any time. We had a total of four water breaks. When we broke through the clouds I was feeling the weight of the pack, and was having difficulty keeping pace. Dave and Scott were holding up well, and Rick was glued to Mick’s heels. After a short rest stop prior to the last push to Muir, I was counting steps and saying Hail Marys and Our Fathers intermittently, one step (“Our Father”), another step (“Who art in Heaven”), a third step (“Hallowed”), another step (“Be thy Name”), and on in prayer, step after step, until I must have said an entire Rosary on the Muir Snowfield.
When almost there, the steps became excruciating, not enough oxygen in the leg muscles. I was counting 100 steps between red wand trail markers, and there were only six to go! but the stone shelters on the island of Muir, a harbor of rest and water, was still far away.
Time and distance were so mutated at that point, and stayed that way for the rest of the climb. I stopped to take a picture – more of an excuse for a quick rest, and let Rick, Dave and Scott pass. When we landed at Muir, I stared past over a sea of clouds below, where Adams, Hood, St. Helens and the steel gray pyramids of the higher Cascades rose above. Climbers were descending from the summit while we rested on the rocks and the light breeze cooled my sweat-soaked shirt. I drank deeply from my bota. Everyone around me seemed to move as light as air, and I felt like lead.
A group of Rainier Mountaineering Incorporated (RMI) climbers were packing their belongings for the descent to Paradise, and I thought, will I be able to go where they just came from? At that point I was full of fatigue and anticipation of what was to come. Mick wanted to push on to the Ingraham Flats to camp for the night, but I said I was tapped, and wanted to camp at Muir. The Ingraham Flats is about 1,800 feet higher in elevation from where we were on the ascent, and we would have had to ascend a scree slope with full packs. Rather than gain the distance now and be ahead of the other climbing groups, I opted for setting camp and getting some food and rest. Everyone else went along with my suggestion, and it made me happy that the group was supportive. Mick was pleased by the decision and told me so as all of us sat resting, because I was honest to tell the group I was tapped, rather than killing myself and possibly blowing the climb in the morning due to sheer fatigue.
We then set our tents in the snow. Mick told us that he had climbed Rainier 33 times (!) prior to this ascent. It was obvious. He and Rick had their tent set, stove set, snow for water, and dinner ready while Dave, Scott and I were still setting our tent. I had brought the MSR stove and a 22 ounce fuel bottle. It took us four hours to boil approximately two gallons of water for drinking and cooking. Mick made sure that we were drinking water because dehydration can cause acute altitude sickness. We spent hours digging snow and squatting over the jet engine of the warm stove flame there in the harsh sunlight that swept over the cold ice and rock. My thoughts wandered and concentration on simple tasks became difficult. I bridled the urge to run back to Paradise before dusk.
Life took on stark stark reality at Muir, sharp as the rock, the sky, the snow, the sun; the simple chores of making water, packing the daypacks for the climb, cooking a very simple freeze-dried dinner, and getting ready for sleep required as much stamina and strength of will, of purpose, of being, as the day’s climb to Muir. At 8:00 pm it was time for some sleep. I crawled into my bag for a few hours of sleep, an eternity and all too short. Outside was warm (relatively, just above freezing) and a very light breeze – perfect weather for an ascent. Next to us were some people who built an amphitheater in the snow to watch the stars come out and drink brandy. I fell asleep quickly but lightly, occasionally waking to hear the breeze push against the tent or other climbers settle for the night.
At 11:45 pm Rick came by and we arose to a clear night of stars and a stunning half moon that was brighter than many full moons seen down below. We hastily boiled water for oatmeal to which I added gorp. Then on with the crampons in the moonlight, gaiters, gloves, hat, and daypack. We threw the gear in the tent, and I took a long sip on the bota of hard-earned water. Then we roped up: Mick, Rick, myself, Dave and Scott.
The ascent was a dreamscape, climbers in long lines behind us with headlamps that blinked and bobbed like an arctic parade in the moonscape. Mick pushed us hard to get us over the scree slope and ahead of RMI’s group so that we wouldn’t kick rock going over them getting over the scree slope on the Cowlitz Cleaver that separates the Cowlitz Glacier from the Ingraham Glacier. It was a steep pitch, but nothing compared to what was ahead. After working our way down onto the Ingraham and on towards Disappointment Cleaver, we were going strong. We started the ascent up over the rocks. Later Mick told us it was a 70-80 degree pitch in places. My only difficulty was a rope harness that kept loosening, aside from the interminable steps that never leveled. Several times I swayed with a giddy sense of vertigo, and balanced myself by focusing on the snow.
At about 13,000 feet Dave got cold and began to falter. Mick said push on we can’t stop now it’s tool cold we’re too exposed on the glacier. Dave yelled out again later. He didn’t look good and a distant glaze had settled on his eyes. At this point we were close but didn’t realize it. Mick had told us that a good estimate for reaching the summit from Muir was 8-10 hours. Dave began to freeze just before dawn, a dawn that went on forever, a band of color to the east that grew slowly and became fixed in my mind as a permanent feature of the vertical landscape, with a brilliant half moon falling to the west.
We stopped for a minute. I coughed up a little blood – more shocking than anything to see the crimson in the snow in the dawning light. Since we had left Muir at 1:30 am, it was about four hours since we’d been ascending. I think we all figured that with only four hours down and four hours to go to reach the summit that we were in bad shape. But Mick shouted back to us as we faltered, “C’mon! There’s the false summit right there. We are only ONE HALF the distance from where we were since our last break!” So we pushed on, heads down. I was worried about Dave, but if we stopped we would freeze. A 20 mile per hour wind with a still temperature below freezing can freeze a body fast. The water in my bota was turning into ice. We were on a steep slope and it was either move upward or lose it all and go down. Counting steps between wands, we pushed on, and again, like the climb on Mt. Adams, I found myself by surprise on the (false) summit.
The sun had risen in a brilliant pulsing red in the middle of the spectrum of light to the east that had seemed so permanent and enduring. The slope leveled out from the false summit on around the crater rim, and we hiked up the edge of the crater, past the steam vent, and onto that number that held me for nine years: 14,410 feet (in the October edition of National Geographic I now find that the elevation is actually 14, 411.1 feet – oh well). At the summit Dave threw up, kind of poetic justice for his exertion. We walked around the crater then down across the crater back to the false summit, where we stopped for a short rest. I felt a bit nauseous but overcame it by pressure breathing. We then started down. Dave threw up one more time but made it down no problem – a strong person.
The descent was in some ways more harrowing than the ascent. Sheer giddiness came over me several times looking down on Little Tahoma, further down to Glacier Basin, where we’d been only days before (light years away), below us to Gibraltar Rock, Camp Muir, and galaxies away, Paradise. We stopped often on the way down, but Mick didn’t mind, in fact, he seemed amused by our water breaks, our putting on or taking off clothes, adjusting crampons, anything to relish the view, or more to the point, a stationary platform, if only for a moment. Mick may have been somewhat at a disadvantage as well – one of his crampons broke and he had to rely on one foot for the descent. The guy was incredible – we still went down at a fast pace.
As we descended past Disappointment Cleaver I was stunned at the ascent we had made in the moonlight and the glaciers around us, seracs and twisted crevasses contorted into natural sculptures like Michelangelo’s prisoners wrenching out of the stone to be free. And the sheer pitch!
As we were coming around and down Disappointment Cleaver, we stopped as Mick pointed out the Ingraham Glacier. I took a picture and we went on. Seconds later Scott and Dave cried out, “Rock!” I looked up. Straight above me two boulders had broken loose from the cliff above and were coming down fast. Slow motion – a squared off boulder on my left twisting and revolving upon itself as it bounced down the snow; on the right, a round boulder picking up steam fast and showering snow. Being roped up, I couldn’t move far in either direction without pulling Dave or Scott into the oncoming path of either boulder. Besides, the boulders – each about the size of a cabinet speaker – were coming too quickly, only thirty feet above. So I gauged the direction of the boulders. I remember the two large boulders coming for me in that strangeness of time expanding; there wasn’t much room to move forward or backward without pulling Dave or Scott into the oncoming boulders, or much slack in the rope to do other than scrunch down and hope for the best. I moved backward a couple paces so they would pass by my, one on each side. Amazed, they did just that, missing me by a few feet on either side. Snow showered my sunglasses as they tumbled past and one of the boulders glanced over the rope, stretching and plucking it for an instant. Dave and Scott shouted Yes! We looked at each other with surprise and relief.
Then they were gone over the edge of the trail and down the cliff below and into the crevasses. Mick said quietly, “You would have been gone if you’d been hit.” The sheer impact of any of those two boulders would have killed me, let alone bowling me over the cliff. Thank you Jesus, thank you Lord. We were safe. Then Mick said, “Let’s get out of here.” It was dangerous to be descending so close to the rocks with the sun loosening the ice, the cement that held the rock and snow together. Mick thought it was dangerous for any party of climbers to be on the slopes then.
We returned to Camp Muir at 9:45 am; five hours up, a little over three hours down. It was a very quick ascent, even with everything going for us – an experienced guide, perfect weather, and no physical mishaps. The gods smiled us on that day.
After a short rest we packed the gear and the tents we had left behind at Muir for the climb. It was a difficult descent to Paradise. I was overdressed, and as a consequence, started to overheat. I was also very thirsty, and aside from one packet of oatmeal, some gorp, and a breakfast bar, had not eaten anything substantial. Yet after pounding down at midday in wet snow, sweating with zinc oxide over a week-old beard, I felt a strange sense of exhilaration and exhaustion passing the day hikers, as if I could take anything.
We finally hit the Skyline trail. My body clock was out of whack; it was 1:00 pm and it had seemed like 6:00 pm for the past six hours. Pounding my feet into oblivion on the asphalt paved trails, my head started to roll thinking only of water and rest out of the noonday sun. But it was nothing! We had climbed the Mountain! In fact, on July 22, 1989, we were the first ones up and the first ones down. My greatest disappointment was not sharing the joy with Ken, the person who is a great hiking companion and friend, and who in large measure made the climb possible. So this climb, this success, is dedicated to Ken.
Later that evening I feel the sore muscles and blisters and simple fatigue and welcome all of it. I am alive, and that is good. I feel the wondrous pleasure of having achieved a goal, one that can be shared and cherished. In all of life’s vagueries and confusion, the Mountain calls me to a stark and clear and honest reality – and that is good.
On Sunday evening we were joined by Dave’s mom Maita, and two other people, Susan and Gloria, who work with Ken in Spokane. Out of their car came the food: 10 cooked chickens, baked beans, potato salad, and on and on. On Monday we awoke to clear sky and alive forest green, and went for a long walk to Silver Fall, the Grove of the Patriarchs, and back to the campground.
On the way back I felt the exertion after effects of the summit climb; sore muscles, blisters, and a light-headed feeling that washed over me in waves of recollection and immediate perceptions. After the walk we drove to Paradise. While the others wandered, I took a shower from a coin operated machine (five minutes for a quarter). This removed any and all the energy left in me, topped with a gin and tonic in the bar at Paradise Lodge.
Afterwards we drove to the Wild Berry in Ashford, just outside of the Longmire/Nisqually entrance. Wonderful dinner to top the day. Lise’s lasagna and blueberry bombardiers beat oatmeal with gorp hands down anytime. We headed back to camp. The truck gas tank was riding on empty and we were 30 miles from Ohanapecosh. We drove to Elbe but the station was closed. Ken, Maita, Susan and Gloria were following in the Prelude. Scott and Dave were with me. If we ran out of gas we could always go back for the truck in the morning, although thinking about it now, it would would have been a real feat to get seven people in Ken’s Prelude. So we drove on. Ken thought the gate to Ohanapecosh closed at 11:00; it was 11 by that time anyway so we were in no hurry to get back and walk the last half mile from the gate to the campsite.
It was a clear, starlit evening, full of shooters and satellites. We pulled over at Reflection Lakes for pictures, and saw lights go on and off at Muir – I felt a wry sense of satisfaction watching comfortably below. We returned to camp at 1:30 (the gate was open after all), and stayed up until 3:00 am, talking around the fire, joking, laughing, enjoying each other’s company.