The Alpine Start

*Beep* *Beep* *Beep* “Fuck” I mumble under my breath as I reach to silence the alarm on my phone. The time reads 12:30am, I put the phone down and begin the delicate dance of redressing myself while staying in my sleeping bag; the act alone warms me enough to break the seal and face the morning. I gather the essential items for the summit bid and shove them in my pack- med kit, puffy jacket, sleeping bag, etc. Foot by foot I my boots become one with me yet again. Once up and out of the tent the task of client care starts, get the water started, wake the clients, get them moving, caffeinated and fed before we rope up and start the march up the mountain. 

This scene was repeated many times this summer and still continues not with myself but with the many other climbers and guides who pursue the mountains. The alpine start is a coveted tradition in the mountaineering/ alpine climbing community. Some love it, others dread it. For me it is a love hate relationship. On one hand having the opportunity (day in and day out) to witness the sunrise from high up on the mountain is one of life’s greatest gifts; on the other hand I really like sleeping.

Rope interval measured out, clients clipped in, packs on we start the climb. The crampons crunch in the freshly refrozen snow with each step, the spike of the ice axe provides a metallic squeak as it touches the ground. I try to use those sounds to find a rhythm to help me keep a manageable pace; crunch…crunch…squeeeaak…crunch…crunch…squeeeaak… We move at that pace for an hour to an hour and a half and then take a break (this process is repeated for however many hours the route dictates). The chill of the early morning fades quickly as the muscles (predominantly the legs)  begin to warm. The warmth starts in my quads then radiates outward to finally warm my fingers, ironically by the time this happens its break time. 

I suffer from a combination of raynaud’s and a history of frostbite in my fingers and toes. Being a stubborn teanager and not wearing a jacket in the winter and wearing the thinnest clothing possible when snowboarding was really a great decision… If it’s one thing the Army and the mountains have taught me its resilience, so I suck it up, adapt, and continue to do the things I love. 

Camp Sherman from above
Emmons Glacier Route

I plant my axe into the snow, coil the clients in, and coach them on the structure of the break. “Okay folks, put your puffy on, if you have to pee go before you sit down, grab your snacks and water then sit on your pack.” Once we get closer to sunrise making sure they have sunscreen, chapstick, and their glacier glasses handy become a priority as well. 15 minutes later are packs are back on and we are walking again. I grab my axe and start leading my rope team out again, reminding them to let the rope stretch out properly before walking. Within minutes of grabbing my axe my hand is frozen again. We continue the climb, weaving our way across snow bridges providing safe passage over cravessas, switchbacking up steep sections of the mountain, traversing under massive seracks to the next weakness the mountain provided for us to pass. 

The mountain graces us, allowing us to have a presence on it. It does not matter what mountain, no matter how big or small technical or not. It decides that it is going to allow us to be there and whether or not it is going to provide safe passage that day. This philosophy is especially true on the volcanos I was on this summer. The hazards are many, crevasses, icefall, rock fall, or best or worst case the entire fucking volcano decides to blow…I suggest listening to the Jimmy Buffett classic “Volcano” before stepping foot on to one. I digress we as climbers do not conquer mountains we are allotted safe passage and I thank them every time I am back down safely.

Step by step we slowly ascend, there is a time dissolution that seems to occur; the seconds and minutes fade losing the importance we give them. It’s not until the first hint of sunrise is seen on the horizon that time is brought back to the front of my attention. Living in the cone of light provided by a head torch (as the Brits like to say) or headlamp (Murica’) for hours on end is a surreal experience. As another hour and fifteen pass a safe spot comes into sight, we step out of the boot pack and coil the clients in to repeat the process of the break. This time out on the horizon fractured by the clouds the colors of the day begin to show. Oranges, yellow, and the brilliant reds remind me that B.O.B. (Big Orange Blob/the sun) will be up soon. At the coldest part of the day we begin to see the warmth to come, a physical and internal warmth. 

We (humans, if you are one) have worshipped the sun as far as our recorded history. The alpine start has shown me more than anything else the reason for that. There is a warm, happy, loving feeling that overwhelms me every time I see the first hints of the sun. I have questioned regularly this summer is this innate feeling present for a reason? (There is ample time for philosophical thoughts in mountaineering.) Now I could be reading way more into the sunrise than I should be and the warm, fuzzy feeling I get could just be excitement of actually being warm shortly there after; regardless, it’s a fantastic feeling and one I wish upon every human (and even nonhumans, I’m talking to you Lizard people). 

Rowan coiling in for break
Sunrise from high on the Emmons route

“Five minutes folks, we’re walking in five. Start getting yourselves ready.” The stretch right after the sunrise has a different feeling to it. Capturing the first rays of the day has revitalized us, new energy to tired legs. Everyone seems more lively, though we keep the same pace it seems more fluid. Everyone in lock step to the rhythm of the pace crunch…crunch…squeeeaak…crunch…crunch…squeeeaak… we chug along. I can vaguely hear the clients amazement as they can finally begin to see the landscape we have been navigating. Gasps of “Oh My God, Whoa” and even the occasional “Shit that’s big” when they peer down a crevasse previously shrouded by the night. I chuckle to myself, smile, and keep the pace; I know the next stop is the summit.

The SUMMIT! The all important summit. Over the past year I have been experimenting; I haven’t truly summited (stood on the highest point of the mountain) a climb while working. “WHAT?” some might ask. First when the conditions allow we (the team) make it to the top I’m still a goddamn guide and do my job, I Just don’t go to the tip top. I am testing out my hypothesis (science nerds I didn’t say theory aren’t you proud) that by purposely not reaching the top when it is within my reach when I fail to reach the top, because of conditions or not being fit enough for the challenge, it won’t hit the Ego as hard. See for me the summit isn’t the important part of the climb; I learn nothing from the summit, I learn everything trying to get there. 

We crest the crater rim, Columbia Crest (Mt. Rainier’s high point) sits one hundred yards to our right. “Congratulations everyone, we made it!” “Drop packs, grab some water, come out of the rope, and we will walk over to the true summit.” Sighs of relief, chirps of excitement, and gasps of astonishment are echoed across the rope teams. The view is stunning, the fractured clouds low in the valleys allowing the minor peaks to just penetrate through. Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams to the south as majestic as can be. Pictures taken and smiles shared it’s time to head back down. The top is only the halfway point.  

I prepare myself for the descent, find my happy place prior to starting down. I fucking hate walking down hill…especally if I got the timeing wrong and the snow is still firm. Every step down my knees scream at me; “Why do you do this to us?” they ask. Though only 34 I’ve put my body through a lot; backyard ‘Rastlin, ample amounts of snowboard falls, a combat deployment, and climbing large mountains with heavy packs puts wear on the body I guess. Allora, I find that happy place and prepare for the aches and pains while hoping the snow softens up sooner rather than later.

Happy crew on the summit of Mt. Rainier

The descent takes roughly half the time the ascent did, gravity does the work if you let it. The relief of softer snow comes just five hundred feet below the summit. “Nailed it!” I exclaim to myself thinking about the timing, my knees are slightly happier with me. We continue down the route we came up, crossing the same hazards. It’s not until just before camp that things really change. The snow bridge we crossed on the way up has begun to collapse; I start to find a way through through the broken up glacier, prodding the snow bridges with the spike of my axe checking both the thickness and density (sounds scientific right? It may be, but I just wing it). Through the last hazard we walk back into camp, derope, and replenish calories and water. The next order of business… NAP! We Catch a few hours of rest, make dinner and go back to sleep, the next morning we go back to civilization.

I love my time in the mountains, work or personal. I always learn something new about myself; sometimes profound, sometimes not. I find that I quite enjoy that balance of self discovery, one trip learning what values I hold dear and what I want in life and the next learning that Backpackers Pantry cuban coconut blackbeans and rice is delicious buuuttt makes me shit myself. The mountain provides those lessons…wow I digressed from my main intention here, Oh Well! I hope it was entertaining.

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