This weekend, friends Zack, Ted and I decided to climb Mount Hood. However, after a week of unseasonably high temperatures, the weather forecast said there might be five feet of new snow on the summit. So we decided to look at other options and drove to the North Cascades National Park near the Canada border. The forecast was for less inclement weather. The mountain we picked to climb was Sahale Peak.
I'd been before but in late summer, so I was excited to climb in spring and imagined we'd have a good ascent in pristine snow conditions on one of the most beautiful peaks in Washington.
As it turned out, we arrived to find the gate closed 3.5 miles from (and 1400 feet below) the trailhead. After a 200 plus mile drive, we were a bit frustrated, but decided we'd sleep near the gate and start the climb from there. This was asking for a big day really, because the distance to the summit was about ten miles (and the elevation gain close to 7000 feet). Nevertheless, we woke up at 3 a.m. - made bad coffee and set off.
Even the walk up the road involved stepping over obstacles: rock falls and six-feet deep snowbanks. We were a bit surprised by this. We reached the trail-head just after dawn and within a few hundred yards were already finding snowbanks. So we switched running shoes for boots, stashed our shoes and restarted the hike to Cascade Pass.
The trail is scenic and smooth - usually. However, today in the steady rain, we walked a few hundred yards, climbed a snowbank and crawled over (or under) a fallen tree and repeated this exercise over and over again. No big deal really, but falling on a six inch splinter of a huge tree that the wind snapped like a matchstick, is a bit like falling on a bayonet. It would go right in you. And if you were really unlucky, the tree might fall on you as well - and finish the job. So after about the dozenth time of doing the tree and snowbank obstacles, we were starting to get tired. To add to the challenge, we were completely soaking wet from rain. It was running down my face on the outside and there was sweat dripping out of my gore-tex jacket sleeves from the inside (they really don't breathe well). Our sense of humor was high and our pace was pretty good. We'd gone from under the clouds, to in them - and we wondered if we'd break through into the sunlight. It was up there somewhere.
As the hours went on, we became more fatigued as a result of the underfoot conditions, the steady rain and our packs, which were getting heavier each hour as they took on water. Through the mist we could hear rock fall and avalanches falling above and around us and we crossed two avalanche debris fields before reaching Cascade Pass. Again no big deal because a debris field is often - as it was in this case - a good place to walk or climb because the danger has passed because the debris has already fallen.
We stood there in the rain on our pile of jumbled snow, cracking jokes and making fun of each other. It's good to test the fun meter in these conditions, just to see that it's still working - no matter what the circumstances dictate.
I'd been walking up the hill trying to write poems, a daily exercise for writing - I'd written a Haiku (7,5,7 syllables) and as we were standing eating some snacks, I shared it with Zack and Ted.
Trees are bones. Reaching
out from the planet. Holding
us all together
Ted exclaimed, "It's no good. No, nope. It doesn't work. It doesn't work".
I laughed and responded - tongue in cheek, "Fuck you, Ted." followed by, "You're breaking my heart".
"Yeah - that's five syllables. Now you're getting it!" was his smart response. I smiled to myself and had a moment of gratitude. To have friends you care about and who care about you.... That's no small thing - on or off a mountain. We were the only three people up there - and we were all we needed - a solid team.
Zack looked at us both, expressionless, then shook his head and announced, "I'm going down".
And - that was it. No high-fives, no debate, no questions, no chit-chat. When you know what to do - you know what to do.
And as we walked off down the pass, another unseen avalanche boomed around the valley as it fell to it's end. As if the mountain were saying, "Away with you now. No visitors today".
We had been only a few hours below the summit. I wanted to get to the top. I really wanted to go up there. I always do and I doubt that will ever change. It's the pull of adventure, the opportunity for a challenge, to test and be tested. I crave it. So I felt surly at the prospect of not getting my way. To go up though, would have meant shouldering an increasing list of unacceptable risks, possibly descending in the dark -- and breaking promises to loved ones, that we'd call and check-in before the end of the day.
Cold, tired and wet, but contented - we'd gotten what we'd came here for - a chance to exercise our spirits and bodies in a beautiful place that looks like a scene from 'Lord Of The Rings', but is actually real. With the exception of the bears, wolves, marmots, deer, grouse and the other animals out there - we had had the mountains and valleys to ourselves and it was time to go home.
As we descended, a proverb came to mind; "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear".
Today the mountain was the teacher.
She - was training us.