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.