Six months to climb:
It is cold out. January. On a walk with the dogs in heavy hiking boots I decide to sprint up a hill. It feels good, frigid air burning my lungs. The dogs are excited to run. Training has begun.
Fast forward a few weeks. The seasons have been changing, the air warming up. I no longer need to go out in as many layers. I have begun carrying a weighted pack but it is nowhere near my target load of 40 pounds. Even so it strains my shoulders. I will work up to my target weight I tell myself but I’m going to need a new training pack.
Three months to climb:
I have fallen into a lull of sorts. A comfortable and misguided phase during which I keep telling myself that I am strong enough and training hard enough but deep down I know I’m not in either respect.
Eight weeks to climb:
I am really sick. Unable to train for over a week and nearly bedridden with upper respiratory congestion, all semblance of training stops. I begin to doubt my ability to undertake this endeavour.
Six weeks to climb:
Healthy (mostly) again, I decide to pull out all stops and make a push for the level of fitness I know I’ll need to make it up the mountain. I make a sincere decision to adhere to the training program provided by the guide service. I borrow my wife’s Kelty backpack, load it with 45 pounds (five, one-gallon jugs of blue dawn dish soap), and begin again.
Monday: Strength training, cardio (trail running) and flexibility.
Tuesday: Hill (fast) intervals with 40 pound pack, strength training and flexibility.
Wednesday: Cardio (trail running) and flexibility.
Thursday: Strength training, cardio (trail running) and flexibility.
Saturday: 8 mile hike with full (45 lbs) pack weight
Sunday: 8 mile hike with half (20ish lbs) pack weight
-Headed out for Tuesday hill intervals.
Four weeks to climb:
Wednesday. During a 75 minute run in the woods I feel searing pain in my right calf. I walk for a bit believing (hoping) it is a cramp. I attempt to run again. It isn’t happening. 2.5 miles from home, I limp the rest of the way. Doubt creeps in again. Will I be able to train sufficiently for the climb? Should I withdraw now?
Cardio shifts from running to work on a stationary bicycle. Analysis of my overall health reveals a recurring dehydration issue. I increase water intake and flexibility training. The calf begins to improve and training continues.
Two weeks to climb:
I fall flat on my face. Literally.
While on an 8 mile weekend hike at full pack weight I learned first hand the importance of fueling the body for this type of undertaking. I had to be at work early that Saturday and was forced to do the long hike in the late afternoon/early evening. Each hike would take about three hours as I meandered through the massive trail system behind my home in Northern Delaware.
I hadn’t had enough to eat that day and I knew it. This training hike needed to happen though so I set out. The first five miles were fine as I churned out step after step, an audiobook keeping me company in my earbuds. Suddenly I felt a shift within my body and I immediately knew I was in trouble. Runners will relate to the sensation of “bonking” and I knew this is what was happening. My body was indicating to me that we were finished. Except there were three miles of forest trail between me and home. I pressed on, no extra fuel or snacks in my pack. A huge mistake.
About 1.5 miles from home I see a familiar drop in the trail leading to a bridge. A flash of relief flows over me as I see the end in sight. Just then my boot catches a root and I watch in slow motion, as if having an out of body experience, as I begin to fall toward the Earth. Leading with the chest and face, I luckily avoid a FOOSH (Falling on outstretched hand) injury and instead scrape my face up. I had removed my sunglasses several miles prior to that which most likely prevented a much more serious fall.
I laid there on my belly, audio book still rolling in my ear and 45 pound pack crushing me as I fought back tears of frustration. How could I allow myself to get this fatigued and under-fueled?
Depleted, I press myself up, brush the leaves and dirt from my clothes, and slowly, consciously make my way home. I will never again underestimate the importance of proper nutrition for physical undertakings.
June 17, 2017 Travel day
Bags packed. Ready to go. Two Southwest flights stand between me and Seattle.
And the biggest adventure of my life to date.
-Meeting agenda and packing technique
June 18, 2017
Climb day minus one. Gear Check.
I can’t believe how much stuff is going into this pack! It just keeps going and going and going. There’s no way it will all fit.
-Time to pack
-Fully loaded pack weighs in at about 38lbs (before water, food and shared supplies)
-A Motley Crew
June 19, 2017 Climb Day
We are five minutes into a three day climb of Mount Ranier in Washington State and I am breathing so hard and sweating so profusely that I genuinely consider quitting. If I am having this much trouble so early on then what will the next two days be like?
Hello doubt. I see you.
I press on. One step after the other until a rhythm begins to develop and becomes more and more refined as the air thins. Masquerading as a physical feat, this climb slowly reveals itself as an exercise in psychology instead.
And then it hits me: isn’t everything really an exercise in managing thoughts and inner monologue?
I will have many hours to contemplate this.
Passing 8,000ft we learn the rest step and basic pressure breathing. This helps immensely. Billed as a beginner climb, this excursion is a walk in the park for seasoned and practiced climbers but for me and the rest of the group it is quickly becoming the hardest thing we have ever attempted.
-A short rest/hydration/fuel stop on our way to base camp
The rhythm continues.
“Purse your lips and force all the air out of your lungs”, the guides tell us. This creates a negative pressure differential which forces new air into the lungs thus oxygenating the blood at high altitude.
Hour long climbs between rest breaks become hour long meditations.
I put my head down and step.
Suddenly, thoughts of a dying friend pop to the forefront of my mind. The last time I saw him he was curled up on his couch in the fetal position, writhing in pain as cancer wracked his insides.
I decide that he may be unable to exert himself physically but I certainly can and I press on inspired. I suddenly have a new perspective and motivating drive.
Because I can.
-The Peak Brothers preparing for a long night of no sleep.
The first night at base camp was spent in the bunk staring at the ceiling. Not a wink of sleep but they told us this may happen. “It is fine because you are still resting and many many people have climbed this mountain on no sleep”. I was very glad the guides made a point to express this. Otherwise I am sure I would have been fretting all night long. Instead I was able to relax and just contemplate the entire experience.
Previous personal experience at high altitude had prepared me to expect some semblance of discomfort the second or third day. And like clockwork, my symptoms checked in. All present and accounted for.
Nausea, headache, bloating, gas, shortness of breath, constipation.
-The shitter at Camp Muir. Photo credit: Brian Crawford insta: kaizenav8r
Training day at 10,000 ft was absolutely miserable physically. Overcome with nausea due to altitude sickness, all my meals were an exercise in brute force. Knowing I absolutely had to consume calories I choked back food at breakfast and snack breaks. I chugged water like mad all to no avail. I was utterly miserable. I had come this far though so I just kept my head up and did my best to enjoy the experience.
-The author and climbing teammate John roped up and ready
Afternoon arrived and we roped up for the short climb to high camp on Ingraham Glacier. Doing away with the hiking poles, we donned crampons, helmets and avalanche transceivers. Roped together by threes and armed with our ice axe, we headed up the snow covered trail and through wet volcanic shale on Cathedral Gap.
-High Camp on Ingraham Flats 11,000ft
Looking around while at high camp you suddenly realize you’re on a glacier overlooking the edge of the world at 11,000ft on an active volcano. Inspired and in awe, I choked back another cliff bar and chugged some more electrolyte water. All the pressure breathing and positive thinking in the world couldn’t phase the discomfort I was feeling. Added to the mix now though was a dull ache in my brain.
I know you’re still here.
I need to decide if you’ll keep me from attempting the summit.
As day two progressed, the wind continued to blow stronger and stronger. The summit push would be a last minute decision.
-Tent with a view
Night two was spent staring at and listening to the inside of the tent as it rattled incessantly in the wind. It blew nonstop all night long as I tried to relax and breathe the discomfort of altitude sickness away. At some point in the night I couldn’t take the headache any more and finally took 200mg of ibuprofen. Thankfully it worked. I drifted off to a place of not quite sleep where the rattle of the tent in the wind and the delirium of altitude sickness made for a surreal experience.
Shaken from my restless fog, I heard a commotion outside the tents. Another group of climbers, already geared up for their summit attempt had stumbled through our camp in search of the Cleaver. An ominous sign indeed.
When our guides made the call for us to begin preparing for the summit at 2:15am, I was laying there awake.
June 21, 2017. 2:15am Summit Push
“Okay guys, it’s 2:15am. Water is on and will be ready in 15 for breakfast. Start preparing for the summit!”
A surge of adrenaline coursed through my veins. I was awake. I felt great. And I was scared to death. Added to that… I needed to pee.
Venturing out to the pee marker during daylight was one thing. But doing it in the dark was something different entirely. Our camp had been probed for crevasses and was safe within the marked boundary but stumbling beyond these markers in the dark or off the side of the glacier would have been quite simple to do. Emptying my bladder safely became the first challenge of the day.
Reaching the safe pee spot, I see my buddy Rob about thirty feet away in the “igloo” about to try his hand at the “blue bag” experience. Picture a blue doggy bag used to clean up after your pup at the park within a larger clear bag. The mission is to remove the blue bag, secure the clear bag and included twist ties, all the while holding on to your trusty roll of TP. Then comes the magic of actually refining your aim and strategically managing your balance as nature takes its course. Suffice it to say, this humbling experience lends one to appreciate a commode back home.
As I finish up my death defying morning urination, I simultaneously hear Rob scream, “Shit!”, and something stick to my left thigh. I look down and see that in the 40mph wind, Rob’s clear bag had blown free of its anchors and collided directly with me! What luck!
Teamwork at it’s finest.
Breakfast of instant oatmeal and hot apple cider was pleasing to the belly as we all huddled in the meal tent, a subtle tension permeating the group. Waves of nausea hit me as propane fumes from the camp stove waft around the cramped space.
“Take it off. It’s all fucked up”. My guide isn’t satisfied with my harness. I have improperly buckled my leg loops which would have proved problematic should I (or one of my teammates) fall. Reset and properly put together I step into my crampons in the dark. Feeding the strap through the plastic guides and through the buckle, I cinch down tightly around the boot before closing the velcro of my gaiters over the excess strap.
I feel confident in my gear, in my guides and quite profoundly in myself. I am most definitely immersed in the NOW moment. There is exactly nothing else on my mind but the task at hand.
-A glimpse of sunrise as we ascend Disappointment Cleaver in the dark
Twenty minutes in to the summit push I am holding on to the edge of a snow covered volcano in the dark, my guide clipping me onto an anchored rope for a steep section of Disappointment Cleaver.
I can see the sun far far away as it begins to peek its way above the horizon, losing sight of it soon after though due to the sheer intensity of climbing at hand. Following my guide I keep stepping where she steps. Inserting my axe into the snow where she does. And yet I couldn’t help feeling that I was going to fall at any moment. I realized that I was so terrified that I was basically climbing on all fours instead of upright. “You’re stooping all the way over. Stand up straighter as we climb” my guide called back. I genuinely felt like I would topple backward down the mountain if I did that. I did the best I could and we kept moving upward.
In the dark.
Only the next step illuminated by my headlamp.
“I stepped on the rope!”, I call up to my guide when I realize the slack in our line directly beneath the spikes of my crampons. We had been briefed to tell someone if this happened. The rope was still intact and not damaged so we continued.
In the middle, roped between my guide and another climber, my challenge was to balance not going so slow as to pull on the guide ahead and not so fast as to pull on my partner behind. This may have been billed as a beginner climb but I sure didn’t feel like knew what I was doing.
Pure adrenaline pushed me further and further up the mountain.
As fear and doubt and terror floated through my psyche a mantra developed.
Nearly paralyzed with fear I focused on each individual step as though it was the most important thing in the world. And for me in that moment, it was.
Zig zagging on switchbacks up the cleaver, we met with other groups already descending in the dark. Probably the team that had stumbled through our camp that morning. I had contemplated this situation before but brushed it from my mind as something to be dealt with in the moment. Much to my relief, the other groups yielded to us by literally stepping into space and nearly off the side of the mountain, their crampons and ice axes the only thing keeping them suspended off the trail.
We pressed on as the wind continued to howl. At times I felt the wind begin to take my body and it was all I could do to brace by bending my knees and lowering my head, ice axe held in a death grip as my only source of control.
“I shouldn’t be here”
“I am going to quit”.
The nausea, headache and altitude sickness is gone. I am firing on all cylinders able only to focus on the present moment. Moving beyond fear I enter a flow state.
One of pure awareness.
I decide that as a member of the team, I had committed to making it to the next break and that when we did finally reach the top of the cleaver, I would bow out gracefully and retreat to high camp.
Finally the top of the cleaver came into view and the wind picked up even more. Leaning into it we slogged the last hundred feet or so where we removed the packs for the first rest stop of the morning. Turning around to sit and mustering the courage to tell my guide that I wouldn’t be continuing, I was awestruck by the most spectacular sunrise I had ever seen. This photo is unedited and brings tears to my eyes every time I see it. Thanks to Brian Crawford for taking such a magnificent shot.
-Sunrise atop Disappointment Cleaver. Photo credit: Brian Crawford insta: kaizenav8r
It was all I could do not to cry.
I chugged some water and inhaled some shot bloks. The lead guide called to mine asking how her group was doing. I began to raise my hand to say that I wanted to quit but she quickly flashed him thumbs up and said, “We’re good!”. “Go on ahead then” he called up to us. I wouldn’t be quitting after all and in hindsight I am so glad I didn’t.
-Sunrise Traverse. Photo credit: Brian Crawford insta: kaizenav8r
Pressing on, our team of three stepped up the snow trail above Disappointment Cleaver at a comfortable pace. As the sun continued to rise I kept feeling waves of pure bliss come over me, overcome at times by the sheer beauty before my eyes.
I am so glad I didn’t turn around early.
In the end we did turn around before the summit. We were actually forced to as the wind was just too strong. Stopping at 12,800ft on our way to 14,411ft was still quite an accomplishment and I don’t think anyone in the group questioned the guides’ decision.
I certainly didn’t.
What I learned from Mount Ranier:
1. Goals are necessary to trigger genuine action.
2. Teamwork is an individual endeavour. If you are unprepared, the rest of the team will suffer. Prepare as though the lives of your teammates depend upon it.
3. The most powerful thing you can do in any given moment is focus on the NOW and take the next step.
4. Life’s most valuable experiences often sit just beyond the most trying circumstances.
5. Doubt and fear never go away. We just learn to adjust our attitude toward them.
6. Life really can become one big meditation.
7. Everything becomes easier when you know you’ve spent time at your limit.
Special thanks to the amazing folks at Alpine Ascents in Seattle, WA for a World Class, life changing experience.
Josh – Brian – Rob – Ranier – Summer Seventeen