17 May 1997

Mount Saint Helens

May 17th-18th, 1997

Mount Saint Helens represents several firsts for me. My first real mountain climb, my first use of plastic boots, my first camp out in the snow, and in the Northwest, my first climb with a group, and it allows me to become a Mazama. The Mazamas are a very old mountaineering organization, formed in the late 19th century. They have won fame and praise the world over for their dedication to education, conservation and knowledge collection in and about the mountains. They have climbed all over the world.

Signing up for a climb is an organized tedious process. You have to purchase “climb cards,” and hope to get accepted on a climb that you sign up for. My first climb card came back to me in the mail marked negative. The leader didn’t feel I had enough experience. The second one came back listing me as an alternate. But the very next day, I was on the climb! I waited with bated breath, reserving my plastic boots and crampons at REI.

Finally Saturday May the 17th arrived. I reluctantly kissed Kris goodbye and drove north. The last 3.5 miles of road to the high camp were blocked, so I trudged up in boots with a heavy pack. I camped that night with the other party members.

Indeed I had a miserable night! The camp was on snow, and I didn’t bring a ground cover or a Thermarest. A few garbage bags kept my sleeping bag dry, but I shivered uncontrollably for hours. I passed the time by creating mock geographical documentaries with the moonlight-outlined shapes in my tent. “In geological time, this mountain (my jacket, crumpled) rose very quickly…” Why must I learn the hard way?

The other team members were very kind. They all knew each other, seemingly for years. I felt out-of-place, but gradually felt better on Sunday. I was quite honored to have been chosen, since these climbs seem to be get-togethers for friends as much as anything else.

Sunday morning, rising at 5 am, I was more than happy to be on the way. The mountain loomed ahead, the scale impossible to imagine. Would a walking figure on that expanse of snow and rock be a speck, an inch high, or not visible at all? Later, looking down on our camp from the summit, I decided “not visible at all” was the correct choice!

Like true mountaineers, we carried almost everything to be prepared. Plenty of extra clothing, crampons and ice ax, food, headlamps, firestarters, first-aid, gaiters, assorted gloves and mittens, etc. One of the climbers expressed amazement at the often-seen sight in the mountains of scantily clad people, not even ready for a light rain. In my short experience, I’ve already seen the consequences of such behavior. You get used to the heavy pack, and you take comfort in the security it provides.

Two miles through the trees, trekking single-file, moving silently and quickly, the mountain growing larger but more elusive. Then we emerged in a windblown gully, a steep treeless ridge ahead and other climbers checking gear. Obviously the way led straight up. After a break, we ascended the steepest part. I was very glad for the ice ax, and the ad hoc usage lesson given by the leader.

I learned the most amazing thing there. The leader set a very slow pace, resting on a locked knee after each step. We trudged up that hill without stopping, and continued right on at the top. I was so excited about this! Had I been alone, I would have zoomed halfway up, stopping to pant for 5 minutes, then going on for 3 minutes, panting and huffing for 5 minutes again, etc.

We did the whole mountain that way, and this new skill impressed me as much as the incredible beauty around me. I was never tired or weary, and experienced no muscle pain (um, until the next day that is!). Really, the Mazamas know how to ascend!

It felt so wonderful to be walking up steps cut into the very steep snow slope, and looking around at the rock and snow cascading across my vision at weird angles. Every now and then climbers would trade off cutting steps by kicking the snow with heavy boots. The next climber would enlarge and define the step. I spent most of my time in this role, although I did cut steps for a while. I don’t think I did very well, since I was distracted by the view and apprehensive about the steepness of the slope – really the experience was kind of overwhelming!

We stopped on rocky outcrops now and then, quickly chilled by the wind. After a few minutes of joking and eating, we were again underway. Finally we approached the summit after a long trudge where I saw only the boots in front of me.

At the top, a snow covered cliff dropped steeply, thousands of feet to the lava dome below. This dome was steaming in places, looking like a giant chocolate chip cookie. To the right and left sharp cliffs marched. Their attempt to meet opposite me was thwarted by the huge breach in the mountain, where thousands of tons of pulverized rock blasted into now-dead Spirit Lake to the north. I couldn’t go right to the edge of the cliff since we were standing on a huge snow cornice, and couldn’t know how far it was safe to walk out before causing a collapse.

Looking south to Mt. Hood, west to Mt. Adams, and north to the giant Rainier brought home the fact that I was in a Mountain Kingdom, surrounded by huge, intelligent sentinels, terrible with power.

We ate lunch, the leader and others congratulations me on my first peak. Soon I was shivering, and we prepared to descend. The leader showed me how to “wear” a garbage bag, and hold an ice ax for a glissade down the mountain. We walked down a little ways, then found a smooth spot and began to slide, one after the other. Again and again we repeated this, going faster and faster! Before I knew it, we were down, and back in the trees.

Here my right shin appeared suddenly bruised by the Koflach plastic boots. Although I loosened the laces completely, every step became painful. We moved rapidly through the trees, with me shuffling, hobbling, or jumping along, wincing all the way. Also the party had to wait for me because my clothing was all wrong (I had forgotten to put on shorts after taking off my ski pants, leaving me ridiculous in long underwear!). Therefore the walk back to the tents was something I’d rather forget!

Once there, I packed quickly. I wanted to head down to the cars before the others, since I was afraid my new slow pace would make me a burden. “As you like,” said the leader as I hobbled off with full pack.

I continued only by will power. Now both shins were bruised and I had to command myself to walk. I got to the car in just under 2 hours, walking down a winding road covered with snow, the great views of surrounding peaks gradually disappearing.

I just beat the others to the cars, despite my long head start. There we had a beer and a nice time talking and joking. I felt more in tune with the others than I had before, which felt good. The leader and assistant leader gave me a summit card, and signed as sponsors on my Mazamas membership application.

They went to dinner together. I would have liked to, but I really wanted to see Kris more so I declined. As I drove away I felt better and better, realizing that I had embarked on a journey of wonder and challenge.