“Honey, you’ve been working way too hard recently, I think you need a mancation. So, I contacted this company called RMI that guides climbers up mountains. You are going to climb a mountain in Washington called Sahale. You’ll be out in the wilderness for 4 days. Oh, by the way, you ARE going since I’ve already paid for it all.” This is a true story. I am not b-s ing you. We were sitting in our camp in the Boston Basin in Washington’s North Cascades, the self-styled “American Alps” when Fred related this story about how, courtesy of his wife’s efforts, he came to be part of our climbing team. I admit to being completely flabbergasted by his revelation, although at the time I hoped I did a good job of hiding my reaction.
Fred and I, along with 2 other clients, had signed up with Rainier Mountaineering, Inc (aka RMI) for a 4 day climb of Sahale. For me, this was my third trip with RMI and after doing this sort of thing periodically for more than a decade I basically had all the equipment I needed well before I made the decision to sign up. A brief aside is warranted here: My wife loves to shop and she knows that, generally speaking, I don’t. However, she has also learned that I have one serious weakness and has come to understand that it is dangerous for me to enter an outdoor equipment store of any type. Even so, my purchases for this trip were minimal. Basically, the new thing for me was that I was now bringing my own home cooked dehydrated meals. This had necessitated buying both a food dehydrator and a vacuum sealing system. After years of eating Mountain House I had finally branched out.
For Fred, it was a completely different story. He had never climbed at all, ever, in his life before his wife signed him up. Climbing is not without danger even when you hire a guiding service. They tell you this when you sign a release form basically saying that yes, you understand you might die but it won’t be their fault if you do. But, normally you walk into this with your eyes open since you are the one seeking out the experience. Hearing Fred’s tale made me wonder – exactly how strong was his marriage that his wife had signed him up for this? Was there wishful thinking on her part concerning the possible outcomes?
Fred was good natured about his wife’s “surprise” and completely bought in to the whole trip, literally. Everything was new. Since he had not climbed before, he basically had to purchase everything needed for the trip. His description of getting outfitted brought to mind Bill Bryson’s description of going to REI before he left on his Appalachian Trail hike. The hike up to our base camp was no picnic. We were using a “climber’s trail” to get to the Boston Basin. By this point, I had done a fair number of climbs but this gave new meaning to the term “trail”. It was one step above complete bushwacking. On the way down this same trail 3 days later we calculated that we climbed over 300 downed logs. I do not exaggerate – Fred actually counted them off on our way down to document the condition of the trail. I’m a former member of Trail Patrol for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and this trail would have resulted in a trail report from me of epic proportions. I understand what is meant by “unmaintained climber’s trail”. Still. this set a new standard. Exactly that. For Fred, this was all new so he has the advantage now of having very low expectations for the conditions to be found on other unsupported climbing trails.
Anyway, that first night we sat around getting to know each other. For me, it was an odd experience – for the first time on one of these climbs I was clearly the most experienced client. It was a good (and good natured) group. Tomorrow we would have “snow and rock school” a feature for any climb requiring rope travel. They review with clients how to travel on a rope (without stepping on it with your crampons), how to use your ice axe to arrest a fall down a slope (without hitting yourself in the face with the pick) and how to climb as a team on rock. I’m not an expert but I’ve gone through snow and rock schools over the years at 1 or 2 year intervals so I kind of had the gist of it even if my execution needed fine-tuning. Fred on the other hand, had a lot to learn but embraced it all with good humor.
The next day we awoke at 3:30 AM for an alpine start on the climb. It was great – I had been attracted to the climb because it involved all the major food groups that I love about climbing: We started in pitch darkness, climbing up rock slabs by the light of our headlamps. Then we switched to glacier travel in rope teams with crampons on and ice axes in hand (Fred and I were roped together with one of the guides). Finally, we climbed off the glacier, and switched to rock climbing and after 2 pitches were at the summit of Sahale. It was a spectacular day and a great summit – perfect weather.
The next day was the hike out of Boston Basin back to the trail head. This time we knew what we were getting – a hike on an unsupported trail, climbing over 300+ logs strewn across the trail. It all ended well for our team. But I always wonder, when Fred showed up back home after the trip, was his wife, well, a little disappointed to see him?