Up the mountain with Edward Abbey – II

Posted by Ken Campbell October 11, 2010 0 Comment 736 views


I am first out of the sack in the morning, lighting the stove and getting the water started on its way to the boil. In this regard I am very much like Abbey. In all his stories, whether he was floating down a river or hiking in the desert southwest, he was always the first to rise. For my part, I just don’t like to miss anything. I can’t bear the thought of sleeping through something important, or trivial.

While the water heats up, I walk down to the meadow to look up at the mountain that John Muir called “the noblest” of the Pacific Coast volcanoes. At 14,410 feet, the highest point in Washington, the mountain draws climbers from around the world. Over 80,000 people have scaled this peak, by a great number of routes and at every time of the year. Hard as it is to believe with this history, there is a handful of unclimbed routes that remain, first ascents for some future alpinist to claim. Our route, however, is not one of these. The second-most popular route of all, the Emmons route begins at the foot of the Inter Glacier, traverses across Steamboat Prow, and continues up the lower portion of the Emmons glacier to Camp Schurmann. From there, an easy-to-follow, but numbingly steep path in the ice terminates at Columbia Crest, the summit.

Before going back to camp to make the coffee, my eyes rest upon a family of goats grazing in a meadow a thousand feet above me to the north. It is time for breakfast, for all of us day creatures, and Tony and Dustin are awake now too, up and busy getting fed and packed.

“What are we doing here? Just ordinary people having a pleasant time in a kind of extraordinary place. Except that I don’t know any ordinary people. I’ve never met an ordinary person in my life. But here we are anyhow.”

Edward Abbey, by anybody’s set of criteria, was not an ordinary person. A self-proclaimed agrarian anarchist, he was born into a family of poor Pennsylvania dirt farmers, and raised in a subsistence style of living. A brief and inauspicious stint in the army during the closing months of the Second World War was followed by a series of small-time jobs with the Forest Service and the National Parks before he became a published writer. Five wives, five children. Odd, for a man who seemed to enjoy his own company more than the company of others and who was a staunch advocate of population control. Contradictory, even. But that was who he was, contradictory to a fault. A gadfly in the ointment. A burr under the saddle. His pointed, irreverent manner, his willingness to set ideals that even he found impossible to acheive, and the honesty that compelled him to admit his shortcomings: these are rarities in the modern world of sell out, deception and self-agrandizement. Precisely why most people tend to either respect or despise him. There is not much middle ground.

After breaking camp, we hike the mile or so up the rocky trail to the foot of the Inter Glacier. The moraine, made up of the talus and scree pushed down the mountain by the advancing glacier, takes up the entire valley at this point. Other than shrubs and tiny flowering plants huddled in the sheltered crannies, stunted by their harsh surroundings, and the colorful lichens that paint the individual boulders, this area is almost totally devoid of life. St. Elmo Pass is high above us on our right as we step into harnesses and attach our crampons. As we lay out the rope and tie ourselves in, I am thinking of Ed. I think he’d like it here. The mountain environment is similar to his beloved desert in its harsh beauty, its clean, sharp lines and its demanding nature. True, there is a difference in temperature, but the basic realities are the same: the mountain and the desert both demand respect, neither tolerate the unprepared and, above all, both offer a feeling of solitude. At least at this time of the year.

One foot in front of the other we climb, up the steep incline of hard-packed glacier. Tiny shards of ice fly in all directions from the points of our crampons as we tramp single-mindedly upward. As the heat of the sun warms the surface of the glacier, small rivulets appear, flowing down toward the valley below, cutting channels in the old snow and ancient ice, simply responding to gravity. We stamp our feet, claiming new ground, ever higher. Roped together, umbilically tied, one to the others, for the sake of safety and of unity. “All for one and one for all.” Or something to that effect.

We stop halfway up the glacier. The slope here is still severe, and with nylon webbing, we anchor our packs to ice screws, making sure they don’t take it upon themselves to return to timberline without us. Lunch time. Jerky and bagels, granola bars and string cheese. And, as always, water.

The vista before us includes Sunrise, with its historic, doomed lodge across the empty valley, and the endless view eastward toward Yakima, Spokane, New York, London and Sarajevo. We talk of mountains and women, the kind of conversation men have with each other when there is no danger of being overheard. Male bonding.

“What draws us into the desert is the search for something intimate in the remote.” Abbey could just as well have been writing about Mt. Rainier when he penned those words. As I descend the hundred or so feet from the ridge of Steamboat Prow at the top of Inter Glacier to the deeply crevassed face of the Emmons, I think of why I am here, on this mountain, at this particular time. To find something intimate in the remote? Perhaps. What is more remote than a mountain? I suppose a case can be made for the desert, in terms of austerity and distance from all things human, but there is something about a mountain that is completely set apart, that makes me feel like a traveler in another world. A higher world, not just higher in the sense of raw altitude, but purer, cleaner, completely undefiled.

The Emmons glacier is “the largest, undivided single-named ice stream in the 48 conterminous United States,” according to author Dee Molenaar. Whatever that means. It’s big anyway, with a maze of medium to massive crevasses to be navigated, especially on the portions nearest the rotten outcropping of the Prow. We pick our way gingerly through the field of dropoffs, testing each snow bridge with the tips of our ice axes, hearts and souls palpitating as we cross tiny ribbons of frozen water that bridge deep chasms of empty blue, interminable space. The bottoms of the crevasses are beyond our vision, beyond even our understanding. I know each has an terminus, somewhere down there in the belly of this rockpile, but I just can’t picture it. I know only that I don’t want to go there.

Camp Schurmann is at the topmost point of Steamboat Prow, nestled into the rock almost 5000 feet below the summit rim. This is our hostel for the evening. Time, once again, to unpack our bags, settle in, have some hard-earned chow, and sleep, with visions of snow-capped peaks to provide content to our dreams.

The camping area consists of a number of sites, enclosed by three-foot high rock walls that have been erected by transient climbers to counteract the forces of the winds that are native to this region. There is also an emergency shelter, built in 1958, named for mountain guide Clark E. Schurmann. The building is constructed of heavy steel culvert sections anchored in place by an envelope of cement and natural rock, that ensure this structure will not move. Ever. No matter what. For as long as the mountain remains. This building, because of the rock that is piled all around it, blends in well with the color and shape of the Prow, and can be difficult to see on the approach from below. It has saved the lives of climbers on several occasions since it was built, and is equipped with emergency provisions, bunks, and a radio that links it to the world outside.

The evening is still. A short walk up the rocky ground from our campsite provides us with a view of the Seattle metropolitan area, billions of points of light, man-made constellations in the sky below. Saturday night in the Emerald City. What are the people down there doing, thinking, feeling, right now? One-hundred-eighty degrees from this brilliant display lies the vast hinterland of eastern Washington, providing a study in contrasts. Where the Puget Sound region is positively bristling with lumens, the other side of the mountains is dark as the heart of a fallen angel. Hard to believe I’m standing in the middle of a National Park.

But I am, and the feeling of remoteness I am experiencing is a direct result of my mode of transportation. Ours is a nation that has forgotten how to walk. Ninety percent of the visitors to Mt. Rainier never get further than one hundred yards from their cars. They stick to the paved trails near the Visitor’s Center, or more often, they venture no further than the Visitor’s Center itself. And why not? Why put any effort into the experience? The park convenience zones have all of the comforts of home, be it ever so plastic. Visitors can take a tour of the park by videotape in a mere twenty minutes without leaving the comfort of their seats in the Center’s theater. Hot and cold running liquids, a snack bar with a wide range of virtual food, and a complete souvenir shop with all kinds of genuine synthetic trinkets and rustic carved doodads, constructed of genuine particle board by quasi-forced labor somewhere in China. Anyone can prove to their neighbor they’ve been to Mt. Rainier. Why be uncomfortable in the process?

Abbey’s thoughts: “Why is the Park Service so anxious to accommodate that crowd, the indolent millions born on wheels and suckled on gasoline, who expect and demand paved highways to lead them in comfort, ease and safety into every corner of the National Parks? We have agreed not to drive our cars into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms and the other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places.”

As evening falls, and dinner has been prepared and consumed, our thoughts turn to sleep. It is going to be an early morning. An “alpine start,” as it is called, when you rouse yourself from the warmth of your sleeping bag at some ungodly hour and coax the freezing boots onto your feet, fumbling with laces and buckles and zippers as you get ready to climb. I hear the rumble and thud of falling rock coming from somewhere on the other side of the Emmons, toward Little Tahoma. I strain my eyes, unsuccessfully, to locate it in the dim light. Very possible that the slide was over before the sound even reached my ears. The distances are so vast here, and there is no sense of scale, other than: “the mountain is very big; I am very small.”

Our packs readied for the morning, climbing gear neatly laid out for easy access, alarms set for midnight, we slide into our sleeping bags. We have melted snow to fill our water bottles for the next day’s climb and deposited them in the bottom of our bags. They will warm our feet in the cold evening, and our body heat will keep them from freezing, as they certainly would do if we left them out in the open air. Perfect symbiosis.

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