Why do people want to go to high places? Why do I like going to high places? The answer offered, often in jest, and usually attributed to George Mallory, “because it’s there”, is really, I believe, pure bullshit. For myself, I at least can offer a better explanation, perhaps not why but when. That is, when I discovered that I wanted (needed?) to go to high places. It was 2003, I was 49, and was spending a week in the Pacific Northwest with my best friend from grad school, Guy. My wife had given me a week off from parenting duties with our 2 young daughters and I had told Guy that I was interested in hiking in Mt. Rainier National Park. I believe I told Guy that I was interested in having a “full mountain experience”, or some nonsense equivalent to that. We spent 4 days at Paradise Lodge and did a series of day hikes in the Park. The Cascades are special, incredibly accessible to a major metropolitan area like Seattle and at the same time, remote and impressive. I went out there having no real idea of what we would do or what I would see or feel. On the next to the last day we hiked up Plummer’s Peak, adjacent to Pinnacle Peak, a much more serious hike than Plummer’s. But, to me, it was all new. On our last day in the park we stopped in Ashland, rented crampons (Guy supplied the ice axes) and returned to Paradise for a hike to Camp Muir. Guy was planning to climb Mt. Rainier later that summer with RMI and the climb up to Camp Muir from Paradise is the first leg of the standard climbing route on Rainier. For him, this was a reconnaissance mission. I would later see the Muir Snowfield hike to Camp Muir featured in Backpacker Magazine as one of America’s 10 most dangerous hikes. But, I’ve never understood why. All I knew was that I ended up in a magical place. It was my first time on a glacier, my first time wearing crampons, my first time with an ice axe. For me, climbing up the Muir Snowfield, crampons crunching, ice axe in hand, I felt, well, transformed, transported.
I had no idea what I was doing of course and relied entirely on Guy for route finding up and down as well as making sure we were properly prepared (and safe). We arrived at Camp Muir, the furthest up Rainier one can go without an actual climbing permit, in the early afternoon, in time to see a few summiters getting ready to break camp and head down to the Lodge. Their day had begun much earlier – probably around 1 AM. I was completely smitten. I’d fallen in love before, with a woman. This was not really that much different. I looked around at where I was, at 10,000 ft, and there was a sense of excitement but at the same time, peace and calm. The perspective was entirely different from what we normally experience. I was surrounded by high places, and it seemed that they went on forever. You might get that sense, a bit, when you are in a plane flying over the Rockies but here, there was ground under my feet and a wind in my face, and I was seeing it, seeing it all. And, at the same time, I had this urge to keep going up. I remember looking at the climbing huts and the part of the climbing route that I could see leading out the backside of the camp and up, and thinking, “I want to keep going, I must …”.
On our way back to Seattle, we stopped in Ashland to return our crampon – I visited the RMI sales office and picked up a brochure on their guided climbs of Rainier.
I had fallen in love.