Last month I climbed Mt. Rainier and while I’m glad I did it, it was also one of the most grueling and unpleasant experiences of my life. Strangely, the more time goes by the more fondly I remember it so I wanted to write down these thoughts while they’re still fresh.
I climbed Mt. Rainier because my dad did it back in 1982 when he was 40. I was 4 years old at the time and ever since then I’ve just assumed I’d climb it too, in that distant future (2018) when I’d be 40. I don’t have any special affinity for mountaineering but it seemed like a fun, dramatic way to celebrate that milestone.
What was so unpleasant?
The physical aspects of the climb are the most obvious challenge. Getting up and down Rainier from basecamp takes about 12 hours and for most of that you’re roped together with 3 other climbers and one guide. Everyone has crampons and ice axes and for the most part nobody has done anything like this before except your guide. To give you the best chance of firm snow the climb starts at midnight which means you also (probably) haven’t slept more than an hour or two.
For me, the physical part wasn’t so bad. I’d spent a couple months training for this and while it was strenuous, putting one foot in front of another for 12 hours wasn’t what made this harrowing.
What stands out to me now is that even the rest stops were stressful. Because you’re on a tight schedule and tied to other climbers, the rest stops are the only time you stop moving long enough to take care of personal business like, for example, drinking water (hydration bladders don’t work because they freeze, so you’re stuck with bottles). It turns out there’s a lot of personal business when climbing mountains so the rest stops become a scramble to:
- Change your clothing (adding or switching coats, gloves, hats, etc) to adjust to weather and altitude
- Toss on the giant parka you wear only at rest stops so you don’t freeze
- Drink some water
- Force yourself to eat even though you aren’t hungry (altitude kills your appetite)
- Sit down on your pack to rest your legs and not loose heat to the ground
By the time you’ve taken care of all that you’re left with a few minutes to actually rest before your guide yells “two minute warning” and you have to start stuffing everything back into your pack.
The pace isn’t frenetic, it’s just fast and constant. Like you’re in a mild rush for 12 solid hours. I didn’t end up taking a single photo, for example, so all the ones here come from other folks on the climb. Even though the constant rush can feel dangerous you can’t argue with it because it’s actually done in the interest of safety. The longer you stay on the mountain the softer/slipperier the snow and ice get, and the more risk you have of bad weather moving in.
So it’s hard work done quickly, which is rough, but the experience for me wasn’t just hard. It was overwhelming. That came from something else.
I spent the last 4 and a half years making a game about what it feels like to be overwhelmed so when I encountered that feeling on the mountain I wouldn’t say it was welcome, but it was interesting.
In our game we found that creating a sense of being overwhelmed came down mostly to two elements: (a) emphasizing the power of the forces players were encountering along with their own weakness and isolation, and (b) making any revelations clear and sudden which greatly magnifies their impact.
My experience of feeling overwhelmed on the mountain was quite different. Yes, the mountain was a powerful force (and symbol!) but its aesthetic and psychological impact actually felt pretty minimal. For me, the sense of being overwhelmed didn’t come from any dramatic moments, it came from the sheer volume of new stuff you had to deal with.
New challenges (for me) included:
- Using the ice axe. The day before the climb we had a workshop that taught us basic mountaineering skills like how to walk in crampons or hold an ice axe. Like everything else on this list it’s not especially hard, it’s just a constant low-level cognitive tax. In the case of the ice axe, for example, you need to always carry it in the hand closest to the mountain (which changes at switchbacks), with the tip pointed behind you, and ready to dig in with it if someone on your rope team falls.
- Walking and breathing, but differently. The workshop also introduced us to a brand new way we were supposed to walk and breathe while in the mountains (pressure breathing and rest stepping) having to do with efficiency and altitude. Walking with crampons also takes some getting used to, retraining your brain to go up slopes that would normally be far too steep to walk up.
- Monitoring the rope. For safety, you’re roped together in teams so most folks have a rope attaching them to someone 15 feet in front of and behind them. To keep the rope from yanking other people, or from getting too much slack and catching on rocks or ice, you try to match the pace of the climbers ahead of and behind you. Easy enough on the flats but tricky on slopes.
- Crossing crevasses on ladders stretched horizontally across them. I think the longest of these was about 15 feet wide, with a 200 foot drop. They weren’t all that difficult in themselves but there was some rope work required (clipping your carabiner into a special guideline) and the context switch of walking in a slower, more precise way.
- So much new gear. They recommend / require 40+ pieces of equipment, almost all of which got used at some point on the climb. Carrying three different kinds of gloves isn’t hard per se, but switching them out as conditions evolve and finding them in your pack adds some challenge.
- Unfamiliar landscapes and materials. I don’t spend a lot of time on snow or ice so judging the best place to put my feet or ice axe took some conscious effort.
- Doing all this in the dark, since the first half of the climb is before sunrise so you’re focusing on the small patch of snow in front of you that’s illuminated by your headlamp.
- Altitude sickness which can creep up on you. I felt totally fine until I didn’t.
On their own, none of these challenges were all that noteworthy but each chips away a bit at the mental energy you have available. The high physical and cognitive load combined for me to create a sense of not just this-is-hard, but oh-my-God-this-is-hard that was overwhelming.
And yet, for all that, it still felt doable. Harder than I’d expected but knowing how many people with no more experience than myself climb up and down the mountain every year I had faith that I could do it too.
In a few milliseconds, that changed.
A Little Bit of Terror Goes a Long Way
About three hours into the climb I experienced a moment of terror.
We were crossing a rocky, snowless section of the route called Disappointment Cleaver, scrambling with our crampons over boulders and loose gravel. There was a small ledge ahead of me, maybe 5 inches square, separated by 2 foot gaps on either side, requiring you to gently hop on and off to progress. On the left was the mountain, on the right was a steep slope that descended several hundred feet below us. Our ropes had been shortened to about 5 feet between climbers to keep the ropes from snagging on rocks, making it even more important to keep pace with your neighbors. And it was still dark so the only light was your headlamp. I jumped onto the ledge and heard / felt the ledge and the gravel under it slide a little.
It’s not that I felt like I was going to die but at that moment I did feel like a tiny miscalculation would have been enough to make me fall and potentially pull the rest of my rope team with me. The whole thing was over in a few milliseconds but the effects lingered.
I’ve been meditating for a few years and one of the nicest benefits has been an improved awareness of the way my mind responds to events (ie metacognition). This was the first time I’d experienced terror where I was able to perceive both the immediate and subsequent changes it had on my thoughts.
After that moment of terror it was like I was watching the same movie but with the volume turned way up. Physically, the biggest changes were that my heart started beating faster and I had an urgent need to relieve myself, which added tension of its own and wouldn’t be practical to take care of for another 3+ hours, when we reached the summit.
I would have expected to feel a sense of paranoia but instead what I felt was more like a surge of jittery energy. It’s not so much that the conditions felt more dangerous but that I never again felt calm. Manageable, but not the best state to be in when climbing a mountain.
Things came to a head for me about an hour later when I was trying to clip the carabiner on my harness into one of two carabiners attached to a guideline running across a crevasse. I got the carabiners tangled up and couldn’t figure out which ones I needed to unclip and which ones I needed to reclip. In the end, I had to ask our guide for help.
It dawned on me that my thinking had become seriously impaired and not in a way that I was conscious of. Even though I felt mentally alert I’d just failed a pretty simple cognitive challenge. I’d become like the drunk who can’t see how badly he’s driving. At the next rest stop I told our guide I needed to turn back because it wouldn’t be safe for me or for the other climbers if I continued.
He nodded his head slowly and said “Yeah, you don’t have a choice.” Our guides had always emphasized safety as their number one priority so the situation seemed pretty clear. The mixture of sadness and relief I was feeling took a sharp turn when he added “…the previous rest stop was the final place to turn around. From this point on everyone has to summit.”
And so I did. Our guide told me to breathe more forcefully and that helped with the effects of altitude, as did the simple necessity of having no other options.
It also got easier a few minutes later when the sun came up and the final stretch turned out to be a mind-numbing series of icy switchbacks that didn’t recover a lot of thought, just effort.
A few hours later as we were coming down I was surprised to find that the ledge which had produced my moment of terror was pretty unremarkable by daylight. It was precarious, but not dramatically more so than several ledges before and after. I just saw it at the wrong time, in the wrong light, in the wrong state of mind.
Kind of like bootcamp
Another factor that increased the tension was the bootcamp mentality of the guides, by which I mean they have high expectations and do a lot of yelling. Some of this is purely practical since time is short, issues can be life-threatening, and people are bundled up for the cold so higher volumes help intelligibility.
Still, I’m not used to being yelled at. Especially for skills I only learned yesterday. For example, when other climbers had difficulty understanding how to clip their carabiners to the guidelines at a crevasse the response from one of the younger guides was to scream “guys, this is f***ing simple!” and then help them.
Or when I asked my guide for confirmation if it was OK to take our gloves off if we got hot his response was “No! We talked about all this yesterday in training!” It’s been a long time since I’ve been yelled at for asking questions.
It’s hard for me to tell how much of this militaristic attitude is simply cultural (they could be called “trips” but instead they’re “expeditions”), and how much is actually for our benefit. As my friend Mike put it, “Their job is to get your ass up to the top of the mountain.” And whatever methods they used, they succeeded. Lord knows that getting nine guys, most of whom had never held an ice axe before yesterday, up to the summit and back safely wasn’t easy for any of us.
Why I’m Glad I Still Did It
By nature, I’m an explorer. Curiosity drives me to constantly seek out new food, books, movies, and experiences. But a consequence of having such easy access to new things is that the bulk of these end up being relatively shallow, brief experiences. The kind that are more likely to teach you than to change you.
On the other hand, I think giving yourself a hard shove out of your comfort zone, especially in a direction that requires learning a whole new set of skills, has the potential to open up starkly new perspectives and insights.
This is partly a result of the experiences themselves and partly because of the heightened state you’re in at the time, where your perceptions and memory operate differently. For example, even a one-day workshop on mountaineering skills has a way of coming alive for you when you know your life is going to depend on those skills tomorrow.
In other words, the difficulty of climbing a mountain is a key part of what makes that experience so rewarding because it changes your behavior, your perceptions, and your memories.
Climbing a mountain is also a beautiful aesthetic experience. Here’s a few of my favorite moments:
- Being roped together and learning to move with the rest of your team. It forces you to pay attention to your own movements as well as those of the climber in front and behind you and how all three affect each other. It’s like dancing with a partner. When the climber in front pauses a moment before a 2-foot gap and then leaps across it, you feel that same motion echo when you, then the climber behind you do that same action. It’s beautiful. If there wasn’t such an obvious practical reason (catching someone if they fall), having ropes between you would feel like a very on-the-nose theatrical expression of human interdependence, like something in a Becket play.
- The clinking of ice axes stabbing in and out of rock and snow. The axes have long, hollow metal shafts with lengths that vary based on the height of the climber. The effect is a bit like if each climber carried a single note of a xylophone that they pounded with every other step. It’s a surprisingly delicate background sound for those harsh conditions.
- Getting accustomed to walking up seemingly vertical slopes with your crampons. Having spikes strapped to your feet drastically changes how you’re able to move. It’s bizarre both to find yourself with this new magical power and to realize how quickly you grow accustomed to it.
- Dawn coming up on the slope of the mountain. There’s a grandeur to dawn on Rainier that I have not experienced elsewhere. It’s like a stage curtain rising on an entirely new world of clouds and distant peaks above them and not one human element in the world except your tiny band of climbers.
- Getting to know our guides, who were profoundly good at all this mountaineering stuff. Our primary guide Brent Okita had previously sumitted 547 times and holds the record for Rainier. It’s like getting your first violin lesson from Mozart. Although Brent was the most colorful, all the guides were fascinating characters unlike anyone I’ve crossed paths with before.
The whole experience was also a great reminder of what I value and what I don’t. I love learning and finding new perspectives but external marks of achievement aren’t important to me. In this case, it surprised me to discover how little I cared about actually getting to the top of the mountain.
When it felt like it wouldn’t be safe for me to continue I had no trouble (trying to) turn back. What mattered to me was feeling like I’d tried my best and not letting others down, but beyond that I felt no need to push on to the bitter end just so I could stand on the very tippy top.
The climb reinforced for me the tradeoffs between appreciating and achieving (ie journey vs destination). I like pushing my limits but in my heart-of-hearts I’m a meanderer. My favorite times were standing on the side of the mountain and gaping at the landscape around us. But there’s no time for that when your eyes are always on the summit.
Rainier was a pretty stark example of what to me felt like the drawbacks of focusing all your energies and hopes on a goal. The actual summit is a crater about 1500 feet across so you go from stunning panoramas on the way up to, once you’re at the top, being enclosed and seeing nothing but the lip of the crater. Of course you have the satisfaction of being there but for me that turned out to be less important than I’d expected.
And yet the lure of reaching the summit was what made all of this possible. It’s what brought my dad up there 36 years ago and what convinced me and two friends to reserve our spots last summer. Having a clear, concrete goal gave the experience its shape. It’s important and maybe even necessary but it isn’t what I really care about. It’s like the plate in a restaurant vs the food on it. Sometimes it can be hard to separate what’s structural from what’s essential.
Even after sumitting I still felt like a bit of a wuss being so exhausted and shaken up afterwards. It was comforting to hear that all the other members of our group had roughly similar reactions, along the lines of “Oh my gosh, I’m never, ever going to do that again.” The guides didn’t mind. They said a lot of people felt like that right afterwards, but the odds were that some of those same people would be back to climb the mountain again next year.
I don’t expect I’ll be among them but who knows. The way our memories respond to traumatic events is mysterious. Like the way mothers seem to forget (most of) the agony of childbirth. Or how the turmoil surrounding four and a half years of working on a videogame recedes enough after a few months that you start making plans for a new one.
When I find myself thinking fondly about the days we spent on Rainier I try to remember how my friends described their experiences. My friend Mike, who had bought a bunch of new gear anticipating that this would be the start of many years of mountaineering ahead told me that as he neared the summit he was adding up in his head how much he could get for selling all of his new gear on eBay.
And my friend Dan nicely summed up the bittersweet satisfaction we felt that day when he said: “It’s more than just having done it, it’s never having to do it again.”