So many places to hide, to perch, to be swept away...
Before I popped my head out of the tent on that first morning on the mountain I heard Dallas say, “Nothing to see here. Nah. Not much to look at.” He knew that would light a fire under my bum. Actually, if someone lit a literal fire under my bum I would have been extremely grateful, for I was chilled to the bone after a fitfully frigid night’s non-sleep.
Dallas lives in these mountains. He’s skied off the summit of Denali. He’s worked in remote Alaska. He’s a fearless backcountry skier and avalanche expert. Despite his morning greeting, it became clear in the first hour of knowing him that the views from up on high drive him. Being surrounded by such aggressive beauty, the kind that grabs you by throat and demands you take notice with a wind-driven shake, lures him to slopes day after day. He loves what he does because of where he does it.
I retrieved the boot liners from the bottom of my sleeping bag and began the arduous process of shoving them back into the plastic boots. Getting from there to tying the frozen laces was a laborious task. (Let’s just assume from this point forward that EVERYTHING I touched was frozen.) Every day Philip and I would observe how challenging the littlest tasks were on the mountain. And then shiver at the thought of doing them above 20,000 feet.
Not to mention 29,035 feet.
It was quite appropriate to be on my knees after backing out of the tent for the first glimpse of the Tatoosh mountain range. And the ranges beyond. The thousands of trees covered in fresh snow. The silence. The sky that was 100 shades of white the day before revealed its bright blue lining. We were closer to the clouds, above them and below them. The sun was strong. Without a dash of grace I came to my feet. Then it occurred to me to turn around.
While the Tatoosh range, with Pinnacle and Castle peaks the most stirring, is best described as a gathering of monoliths or megaliths or really massive jagged, rocky peaks that thrust their pointed chests to the sky, Mt. Rainier is like a giant on her back, most proud of her broad, firm pregnant belly that easily balances on it rock faces the size of city blocks. The summit is harder to peg today than when it was a few thousand feet taller, before it blew itself up thousands of years ago, just out of sight from our camp on her lower half. She got naked for us that first morning, tossing off the clouds. And at various times throughout the week. Not necessarily common in the winter months. I made certain to soak her in each time there was a break in the action.
Man, was there a lot of action.
What Dallas and Sarah call playing in the snow I call hard labor. That said, I didn’t want it to end. Day Two was all about building snow caves and avoiding avalanches. Oh, and eating.
With shovels in hand we post-holed (punching down into the snow with our boots nearly up to our waist) our way to a slope near camp to dig out a snow cave. In terms of mountain survival, a snow cave is WAY up there for making it though the night, riding out a storm, or just wanting a quiet little coffin to relax in. Taking turns, we dug down and down and down. Until we could stand in a large square that was over six feet deep. My muscles easily accessed the memory of digging out cars after snowstorms on the east coast. After the first half hour it was like a pool workout. I was in the zone. I didn’t want to stop digging.
After the hole was deep enough to need a helping hand to get out of it, we began to cut blocks of snow out of the back wall by making four incisions with the shovel and then prying the blocks loose before tossing them up to waiting hands to be stacked for later use. The cave entrance was large enough for two people to lay in side by side. But we weren’t done. That was just the vestibule. This was to be a fancy snow cave. One that could protect you from winds and wind-swept snow. After tunneling in we began to cap the T. Laying on my stomach I carved away at the ceiling, snow falling on my face. I tasted it for the first time. Bracingly pure and delicious, one small crystal with enough flavor to fill my whole mouth.
A wedge was not the shape we were after. We wanted an open floor plan. I turned to the left wall and jammed my shovel in the snow until my right arm fell asleep and then flipped on my left side. The ceiling retreated, eventually rising to a level that allowed us to sit up while we chipped away.
Sarah jumped in to help break left at the rear to create a sleeping space far removed from the elements. Terry sent me in to finish off the right. As I used my feet to shove the blade into the snow and my hands to toss blocks to the front for Philip to remove, I became aware of the meditative nature of the task. Instead of six inches of depth I went to eighteen. And could have kept going if I hadn’t been called out.
I bet Eskimos build igloos for fun. Like sand castles at the beach on a warm summer day.
The blue white icy snow was calming, removing any sense of tight spaces and airless places. Sleeping in the snow cave would be like a spa day experience. Consistent with his BRING IT personality, Terry claimed it for the night. He deserved to be there. Philip and I were content to retreat to the tent. But first we had to learn a little bit about the greatest hazard on the mountain. Avalanches.
My biggest fear before leaving for Rainier was the fear of being swept away in an avalanche. When IMG emailed to us the bios of our guides I was totally relieved to learn that they are both employed as avalanche experts working with dogs and on skis, heading into the backcountry to bring out bodies of those who underestimated the power of wind loaded snow. Not only would they be great teachers, but they would also keep us safe. I dearly hoped.
Glancing up I could see tornado shaped whirls of snow spinning off the upper edges of the mountain. The frozen equivalent of white water ripped over the edge of cresting waves, or cornices, at various points on the slopes. The first part of avalanche training is determining where the danger lies. The whole mountain looked like one big avalanche waiting to happen to me. Avalanche terrain doesn’t come with a blinking neon sign, but after Dallas’ explanation of the factors needed to cause an avalanche I felt I could pick out the places to avoid. What was difficult was imagining being able to outrun an avalanche. But that was exactly what we would need to do.
Really? Outrun one in snowshoes with 50 pound backpacks on?
Yes. As if your life depends upon it, because it does. Most people don’t survive being caught up in one.
By the end of the day we were animatedly acting out the steps for surviving an avalanche:
Yell AVALANCHE! Watch for the last sight of anyone swept away in it. Count how many were buried. Pick a leader. Send someone to call 911 if it’s possible. Turn avalanche transponders to SEARCH. Grid your way through the packed snow until you get within a foot of the victim. Take two steps back and drop to your knees and dig as if your child is buried under the tons of snow and debris that raced down the face of the mountain.
You have 15 minutes to save their life.
The perils of being on a glaciated mountain in winter were coming to life on Day Two.
That night as I lay shivering in my sleeping bag wearing three pairs of wool socks, my jogging bra, a synthetic t-shirt, two sets of wool long underwear, a fleece pullover, a soft shell jacket and pants, wool hat, balaclava, buff over my mouth and nose, and my heaviest gloves on my hands, I thought of the cocktails that Mr. Perfect Timing and I shared on his deck. How a casual and impromptu get-together between friends turned like weather on a big mountain as he walked toward me, eyes on mine, and kissed me. How the two weeks that unspooled from that point sent me off with a heart full of emotion, adding a twist to the climb. While The Dudes ran off to class the day I left as if it was any other day, Mr. Perfect Timing knew what I was in for. I felt him thinking of me.
It was the first time in years…and years…that I felt someone reaching across miles and time and space to hold me who wasn’t my Mom. Those thoughts and feelings kept me awake. Long enough to hear the massive slide of snow and rock that began way up there and fell and fell and fell.
Somehow I knew we were safe.
But the next day, on Day Three, I wasn’t so sure. It was then that we ventured into avalanche territory.