Thursday, July 11, 2013

Crampons and Tampons, or More Cheese, Less Fiber One Bars

The goal of this post is not to make you jealous of my 4th of July weekend.

Oh wait, yes it is.

Then why does it use the word ‘tampon’ in the title? Just read on, friends.

I flew out to Seattle on July 4th to visit my brother Philip and my sister-in-law Charyl, and also met up with my friend Nick, who is interning in California and flew up for the weekend. We planned the trip around climbing Mt. Baker, a 10,700-foot peak in the northern Cascades. It would take two days, so we had a day on either side to tool around Seattle, which Nick had never seen, and I had never enjoyed post turning 21.

We spent Thursday catching up, eating, drinking craft beers – including Diamond Knot brewery, Phil’s favorite local brewery – and gathering the gear needed for the climb. At REI, Nick and I contemplated dropping $50 to $100 on some snazzy glacier sunglasses, but Philip said he thought we might be able to make do with our own, along with some cleverly applied duct tape. So we rented the necessary gear: an ice axe, a helmet, and yes, the dreaded word … crampons.

Crampons, despite sounding like a portmanteau of the two worst things about being a woman, are devilishly clever devices that mountaineers swear by. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to bear claws, they look exactly like what I picture ripping the lining from the walls of my uterus. And as luck would have it, I felt the beginning signs of my period coming on just looking at them (male readers, get over it). Anyway, crampons clamp onto your hiking shoes (why couldn’t we just call them cLampons?) and provide excellent traction in ice and crunchy snow. Without them, glacier climbing would be a slipping sliding impossible mess.

Charyl laid out a feast of non-perishable, high-protein snacking items, and we each packed about two pounds of trail mix, Cheetos, Fiber One bars, cheese sticks, sandwiches, Oreos and just-add-water hiking meals. Our other gear included harnesses with all kinds of safety knots and clips and ropes that we would later learn how to use, sleeping bags and mats and lots of warm layers. Summer glacier hiking makes for frequent wardrobe adjustments.

“Are you all familiar with blue-bagging?” Philip asked me and Nick.
“Blue bagging? Is that like brown-bagging? Or TP-ing?” I asked.
“Not exactly. There’s no facilities on the mountain after the pit toilet at the trailhead…” he explained. I caught on.
“Ugh gross. Let’s just hope my hyperactive metabolism goes on vacation this trip,” I said, grabbing another cheese stick.

Taking a quick break from packing, Charyl took Nick and me to see her plot in the community garden in Mukilteo. We were thoroughly impressed and inspired by the tidy plants that yield so much green goodness. Her spindly sugar snap pea plants were drooping with plump pea pods, so we harvested-aka-snacked on the ripe and delicious peas.

Charyl and Nick pick peas.

Standing there, surrounded by fresh food soaking up what little Pacific Northwestern sun it can, I was reminded how disconnected I am from where my food comes from. I’d love to grow my own veggies some time, and after tasting and seeing the fruit of Charyl’s labors, I’m feeling a little more empowered.

The next challenge was converting our cheap sunglasses into wrap-around, full-coverage glacier glasses. The glare from a glacier on a sunny day can sunburn your retina, causing temporary blindness, so adequate eye protection is a must. Nick and I envisioned this meaning two very different things, and we attacked our glasses with strips of duct tape. Although they looked completely different, Philip ruled our ghetto goggles acceptable. No snowblindness for us. 

Modeling our Stunna Shades.

Charyl and Philip live in a rare unincorporated neighborhood north of Seattle that allows fireworks, and it being the 4th of July, the neighbors were going to town. From inside the house it sounded like a warzone. Unable to hold back our curiousity any longer, we grabbed a beer and walked outside until we found the best vantage point from which to watch all the households attempt to one-up each other’s fireworks display as the last rays of evening light slid behind the horizon.

We went to bed to dream of mountains, knowing our next night’s sleeping arrangements would be significantly lower on the creature comforts.

On the way out we stopped at the ranger station to pick up the dreaded blue bags, and to check in on the conditions of the route. 

I love 3D topo maps this one. Baker is the
 white one.

We arrived at the base of Mt. Baker around 10:30 Friday morning, and after a trip to the pit toilet – make it count, I thought – we weighed our packs. Somehow I ended up with the lightest pack, at 31.8 pounds. Philip’s read out at more than 45 pounds, but he laughed and called it a training pack, since this possibly-once-in-a-lifetime experience for me would be just another weekend for him. Then we hefted on our packs and hit the trail.

Five minutes in, I thought what the heck am I doing? How is this fun? My calves were already burning and my arches were straining under the extra 1/4th of an Olivia strapped to my back. But after a $500 plane ticket with the express purpose of climbing a mountain, I wasn’t about to complain. I chose my words carefully.
“Man, my calves sure are … engaging on this gentle but significant incline! Whew! Feels great! The way fire is…great.”

We soon came to a river rushing over a massive rock field that traces the path of the glacier down the mountain during the winter.

“That river wasn’t here two weeks ago,” Philip commented, noting it had still been covered in several feet of snow.

A narrow log stretched across most of the river, almost connecting with a large flat rock, and a few planks connected the rock to the other side. A few branches provided minimal hand rails until the last 10 feet of wet, skinny tree trunk. I stared at the “bridge” with apprehension. I hadn’t counted on going swimming this trip, and neither had the iPhone in my left pant pocket.

But with the aid of Philip’s trekking poles, we all made it safely across, and I beamed inside at conquering the first hurdle, and spent the next mile congratulating myself about facing my fears, just as my stomach cramps set in in full force, taking my mind to a new source of pain.  

The trail transitioned into patches of snow, and then only snow and no trail. We followed others' footsteps and slogged up a steady incline through the woods, with brief glimpses of Mt. Baker.

Finally the trees gave way to a wall of rock, which we scrambled up to reach the high trail. The wall of rock is known as a moraine, and it mirrored another wall several hundred yards away, making a U-shaped valley carved out by the glacier. Its right side dropped more than 100 feet nearly straight down into the ice and the left side dropped slightly less steeply into a snow-covered meadow.
Hiking up the moraine.

We were left with a trail no wider than our backpacks along the knife-edge cliff , which we followed for a mile steadily up the mountain. I was enthralled by the danger and even more surprised by my own cavalier manner. It would be pretty bad if you fell right now, my brain said. But my feet said, nah we got this, so I marched on and took in the full view of Mt. Baker, with a wisp of sulfur smoke coming out of the crater of the active volcano. 

Depth, distance and slope are incredibly deceiving in the snow, so I had no frame of reference to judge just how challenging the next day’s climb would be.

We stopped for lunch at a large rock at almost exactly a mile in elevation. We continued hiking until the moraine blended into the glacier and the scenery turned entirely to snow. We set up our tent on the flattest spot we could find, which is to say we set up tent on a hill.

“It’ll be fine, we’ll just put our heads on the uphill side,” Charyl said.

It was only about 2 o’clock when we made camp, but the snow conditions were deteriorating with the prolonged sun exposure, and Philip didn’t feel comfortable advancing much higher because of hidden crevasses that could swallow our camp. So we laid out our sleeping bags and staked out the tent. 

Nick and I sat on a rock and took in the already breathtaking views of the northern Cascades on all sides until a cloud moved in over the summit. Soon more followed, reducing our visibility to 50 yards from the tent. Philip instructed us on how to maneuver as part of a rope team, covering all the safety procedures in case one of us fell on the snow or plunged into a crevasse. Mountaineering takes a lot of trust, communication and coordination between team members.

We boiled some snow to cook our hiking dinners, and I froze my butt cheeks dealing with my feminine problems. Then, with nothing else to do, we went to bed at 5 o’clock, in anticipation of starting the summit-attempt at 2 a.m. This is typical with glacier climbing in order to take advantage of the best snow conditions before and soon after sunrise. Since my body was still on Eastern Time, this was slightly an easier notion for me to handle, although the ambient light streaming through the still thick cloud cover sent me mixed messages. I slid into my sleeping bag, and kept sliding to the bottom of the tent.

Apprehension about the climb threatened to take over and rob me of sleep, but eventually I settled into a series of light naps with bizarre, vivid dreams of finding myself anywhere but on top of a mountain at 2 a.m. and desperately trying to get back. Around 9 o’clock (technically the middle of our night, but that was hard to grasp), we all found ourselves awake, and looking out the small window in the tent, realized the clouds had disappeared, leaving the summit gleaming in the sunset and the craggy peaks to our left rimmed in glowing orange. I took in the view from my cozy sleeping bag, then buried my face inside to again block out the sleep-defying light.

Our destination at sunset.

At 1 a.m., Philip woke us all up, and we slowly emerged from our cocoons. We’d all slid into the bottom of the tent, and crawling back to the top with legs entangled in sleeping bags was a challenge. I finally emerged and shoved my feet into my boots, desperately needing to relieve myself. I stepped out into the cold, and the stars took my breath away. The Milky Way arced in a distinct band from horizon to horizon, and millions more stars than I’ve ever seen shone down in the moonless night. The mountain rose out of the sky, its white smooth surface reflecting the faint light. I peed in awe, trying to identify any familiar constellations, but all except the Big Dipper seemed crowded out by these new unknown twinklers.

We layered up in the cold and donned our packs, much lighter now with only water, food and spare warm layers inside. With headlamps attached to our helmets, we clipped into the rope and took our positions, Charyl leading, Nick and me taking the middle, and Philip bringing up the rear as the most experienced member of our team.

We trudged up the slope, picking our way carefully to give crevasses a wide berth when possible, or crossing sturdy snow bridges if necessary. Every few minutes I gasped as I remembered to look at the stars. Hundreds of feet in elevation above us, we glimpsed other headlamps marching up the glacier in neat little lines of three or four. I felt a sense of solidarity and community with the other mountaineers. A meteor streaked across my field of vision, seeming to crash into Mt. Baker’s summit. I wanted to bottle up all the beauty to take home to Ohio, but knew it would never fit inside the camera, and I’d have to preserve it in my mind.

As we marched on, the night shifted to grey which blended into yellow and pink. Taking a brief rest, we all turned to watch as the mountains behind us caught the first rays of a sun rising on the far side of the mountain. I munched on a Fiber One bar, passing up the cheese for the comfort of chocolate.

You can see the shadow of Mt. Baker on the horizon at sunrise.

Every time I turned around I was amazed by how much more we could see, and how high we’d risen, but the summit seemed no more attainable than before. Soon Mt. Rainier peaked a sliver of its shiny summit over the horizon. After more than four hours climbing, we reached the crater, which is nestled between Baker’s two peaks – Grant and Sherman, with Grant our destination. A ledge of soft, sandy rock provided a nice seat, and peering over the other side, an amazing view inside the crater, and our first taste of the sun, no longer obscured by the mountain. No, there was no bubbling lava, but there was a steady stream of sulfur smoke curling toward the sky. Huge impassable walls of snow streaked with sulfur and slightly ribbed from the freezing-melting cycle swept down into the crater, held up by the sharpest rock faces. We marveled at the beauty, and took the opportunity to fart freely, knowing the mountain would take the blame.

Approaching the crater.

Sitting on the edge of the crater.

Looking into the crater.

Another Fiber One bar down, we set out to conquer the Roman Wall -- the last 1,000 feet of elevation and the steepest part of our climb, cutting our own switchbacks to lessen the incline. With every upward step the view got more amazing. Mt. Rainier was now fully visible hundreds of miles to the south, and the Puget Sound, with all its islands, lay to the west. Finally we reached the summit, and with no trees or rocks to provide shelter, we abandoned dignity for much-needed pee breaks. By now my diet was starting to catch up with me, but I told it to keep quiet and determined not to use the blue bags. 


View from the top looking back into the crater.

We unclipped from the rope for the first time since starting out six hours ago. It was now 8:45 a.m. and the sky was crystal clear, with almost no wind, even at 10,700 feet. We snacked and rested our legs before starting the long climb down.Nick and I were both more concerned about the return trip than the trip up. My evil crampons were compressing my middle toe on my right foot, and I knew the continued downhill stretch would exaggerate that, and Nick has a bum knee.

Suddenly I had a realization.

“Wait a second, why have I been eating all these Fiber One bars? I should be eating StopMeUp bars! Where’s the cheese?!”

But it was too late. On top of my aching feet, and running out of water, the whole trip down was a battle between my will and my … let’s call it natural impulses. As the sun got higher, the snow got slushier, and we slipped and slogged down the last 1,000 feet of elevation until the welcome sight of our bright red tent appeared. I ripped the crampons off, and panting, swallowed half a liter of water in one gulp, along with my pride and dignity, and grabbed the blue bag and ran to a semi-private location just over a hill of snow.

Ahhh, sweet relief, I sighed, happy that me, my crampons and my tampons had all made it safely up, and back down the mountain.

Hours later, back in civilization, we settled in for a delicious pizza and beer before the best night’s sleep of my life.