2:00 am. Mid-January. Timberline Wy’East Day Lodge.
We fill out wilderness permits in climber’s shack, hiding from the wind, but not the cold. Breath sparkles yellow in the artificial light as Damon chats with another group of climbers about route and conditions. My nose has been a faucet for a year since moving to the PNW, allergies the worst I’ve ever had. None of that matters. Our government jobs (paperwork-wilderness permits) finished for the day, we then safety check avy beacons, grab packs and poles, left foot right foot, into the dark.
Everything’s a shape out here; objects lack the third dimension. We follow the dark ovals of the boot pack into the rectangular, white patch in font of us, one of many shallow gullies tuned ski runs every fall. Wind, overhead, a hollow circle. To our sides, blotchy grey wedges—by day rocky ridges separating the many glacier-carved gullies—point up. I look higher, summit buttress, a headwall full of rime cliffs and chutes in the day, is an acute triangle, tip cut off, bright white on pinpricked black.
I look down again, checking footwork, pace, and posture; still hard to breathe, lungs should have opened up by now. Maybe I’ve been drinking too much beer and eating too many doughnuts, trying to drown my blue-collar pride. Working part-time, minimum wage, sales associate, outdoor clothing. Two hundred resumes, two hundred cover letters, not a single fucking response. Stupid fucking English degree. Stop. None of that matters here. Take a long, full, breath. Push all air out from the bottom of lungs. Stale, tastes like a crawlspace. Repeat, lungs still small and narrow. Begin hiking again. Food stamps. Freelance business dead, broken camera and computer. Sold car and motorcycle to pay rent, then cashed out IRA. No more options, no end in sight, rent fifteen days late, all other bills forty-five days late. Stop. None of that matters here. Maybe I’m a flatlander now with sea level lungs. I’m definitely getting old. Maybe that’s the problem. Stop. None of this will help me climb this volcano, only breath, technique, posture, left foot right foot.
Occasionally, off to my left, to the east, an orange glow. Portland. Over my right shoulder, the Sandy River drainage runs into the Willamette Valley, a vast river valley between two mountain ranges, similar to the Rockies. During daily life in Portland, it’s hard to feel any topographical perspective. Up here, however, Portland is a giant glowing spot far away, in the middle of a massive river valley between two mountain ranges, beyond the further of which lies the Pacific Ocean, the largest geographical feature on the planet. From the Columbia River Gorge to this volcano under my feet, everything about the PNW is massive, stretched out, a grid of peaks and valleys thousands of time bigger than any city. Same as my city life navigating streets and traffic patterns on my way to class or the dog park, birds, elk, wolves, and pine beetles navigate the drainages and weather patterns because of their own biological drives.
Fucking lungs. Open up. Feet are heavy. Maybe I should bail. Stop. Not this time. Not sure when I’ll be in the mountains again.
Getting further and further ahead, Damon’s headlamp flicks on occasionally, zigzagging around the gully, changing it from rectangle to U. I measure myself by it, using this random spot of intense white as my goal, a cat chasing a laser point. Above Damon, big machines grooming, roving cones of light and noise, distance through dissonance. We move up and forward, geometric movement, not linear. Look up, summit’s not any closer.
We crest the gully onto a cat track, and permanently into the wind, gritty vectors and roving spirals. Filled with volcanic sand and rime, the wind knocks us off balance. Extra work for heavy lungs and feet.
“700 feet per hour,” Damon says.
“Sorry man,” I say. Our pace should be 1000-1200 vertical feet per hour. I should bail.
Wind. Needles for two hours, suffocating with my hood up, hard to look around.
Off to my right, west, pinpricked purple, the first light of dawn on the horizon. Mount Hood’s giant white shoulder, a clear boundary between mountain and night. Stop. Look behind and shoulder transitions into layers of shaggy, rounded mountains, then Jefferson, another plate on a massive dinosaur spine. Third dimension is returning. Stars over Portland.
Light now, up icy, white slope, occasional rocky benches to navigate through. Starting to get passed by other climbers now, groups of two and three, staying out of each other’s fall zone. A man in his sixties hikes past me. Greg I think, third time up this year, keeps him in shape for search and rescue, a volunteer. He’s now my hero; I make it a goal to climb mountains when I’m sixty-five. It’s hard to stay mountain-climbing fit living in the city; too broke to leave town to hike at elevation. Food plus gas, minimum forty dollars a trip; that’s a lot of money. Stop. Breathe. Left foot right foot. Watch Greg shrink. I always did the passing.
Contouring and ascending the side of giant snow ridge, a white swoosh called Hog’s Back. To my right and below me, a 1000-foot headwall of rime and ice ridges, mini-gullies turned vertical, at the base of which a small crater sits in the snow, rocky, smoking. Fumaroles. Thousands of feet below me a pocket of magma pushes this mountain into the sky, an inch a decade. This small pressure valve hints at deeper levels of pressure, enough to melt rock into magma. I wonder if Mount Hood could wipe out Portland. Probably not, but Sandy is toast. Humans living on volcanoes and in flood planes. Control is an illusion, pop political-cultural drama needs perspective. Stupid fucking recession. Stop. Breathe. Left foot right foot. None of that matters. Fuck, I’m tired.
On top of Hog’s Back, the sun is bright. We were supposed to see the sunrise from the top of the mountain. We eat and hydrate and put on sunscreen and crampons and drop a layer. We are two hours behind our estimated time. I feel like a wet sack of mashed potatoes. The narrow Hog’s Back is crowded; I can’t stand crowds, too many extra risk calculations. I had tried to climb Mount Hood a year earlier, but I stopped half way up because I was slow then too, holding up the group. Today, I can see the summit routes: the bottom of the Pearly Gates and Mazama Chute. We choose Mazama Chute because the Gates are icy, we lacked ice tools (we each had an ice axe, ice tools are specialized for ice climbers) and ice pro, and there is a line, four or five groups of climbers waiting their turn. Time is running out; ice and rock fall and avalanche danger will begin to increase exponentially as the snow and rock begins to warm.
We traverse left, starting the next pitch, a sixty-five degree slope, kick-step kick-step plant ice axe, kick-step kick-step plant ice axe. Halfway up I trip on a crampon, almost tipping backwards, icy slope, 2000 foot slide, ending in a depression, probably a small lake in the summer. No-fall zone. Got it.
I should bail. None of that matters. Fuck, I’m tired. None of that matters.
We zigzag in small traverses, the slope narrowing into the bottom of Mazama Chute. I watch Damon begin the pitch: 150 feet of 80-degree snow with some 90-degree crux moves. As a summer time, trad climber, I’d call this 5th class. A rope would be nice; however, this pitch, like the last, is still a no fall zone, so nothing has changed except for technique. I move from three-point stance and into four, kick step kick step, plant ice axe, find handhold, breath three points always in contact, moving through the sketchy cruxes quickly to solid rest spots. With every kick step I focus on the spot where I want my foot, feeling for proper friction and support; I see the chute sweeping below me between my feet into the bright white, now a run out of 2500 feet or more.
Last move over the ledge of the chute and summit, glorious summit. Highest point for hundreds of miles. Adams, Rainier, Helens, Jefferson, Three Sisters, Laurence Lake. Columbia River Gorge. Portland. Forest Park. Saddle peak. Nothing matters. So much view.
That was hardest climb of my life so far. There was no glory in it, no beautiful Zen in the climb, only suffering because I was stubborn. Fuck it. Still worth it. But honestly, I was so tired I was a danger to myself physically and cognitively. It had been six months since I had climbed Mount Adams with Damon as my “bachelor party,” and I was looking forward to a big hike, looking forward to blowing out my lungs, looking forward to a proper cleansing of body and soul, looking forward to a reconnection with God. Instead, I only feel more disconnected, worthless, and hopeless.
Two years later, my first term in grad school and I cannot sleep because I cannot breath, which isn’t the first time, but now I have classes and homework and important deadlines marking the path towards hope. I finally have access to healthcare and go to the OSU clinic. The breathing specialist isn’t covered. Fuck it. That doesn’t matter. Forty dollars later, he tells me I have asthma.