WSCTE

 

The Mountain is Out

    When it rises like a misshapen moon over downtown Seattle, the mountain entrances me, arrests my attention, and rouses my imagination; it makes me weave on wet highways.
    On early mornings Rainier wakes above siesta-rate motels on Highway 99, above the waterfront's dromedary cranes and the grey dimple of the Kingdome, above the Space Needle and the Columbia Tower and Tokyo-bound 747s and everything that lives and everything that doesn't, as far as the eye can see. Rainier wakes higher than most of the air we breathe. The sight of it has nearly killed me. More than once its spell has been broken by the headlights of an oncoming car bearing down on my southbound self speeding along the northbound lane. The mountain never appears in the same place with the same face twice. It possesses a Cheshire talent for appearing and disappearing at will. From the highest hill it may lie shrouded in mist, only to show itself an hour later from the middle of Puget Sound. People who have lived in the Pacific Northwest all their lives still stop and stare when Rainier reveals itself. The moment crackles with the thrill of Nature being caught unaware, like seeing an eagle snatch a sockeye from the Sound. On clear winter days the Olympic and Cascade mountains flank the trough of Puget Sound like a fence of whitecapped waves. We've got mountains like Iowa's got flat. And yet the local vernacular admits only one "Mountain," and when Rainier rises we tell each other, "The Mountain is out." Mount Rainier is at once the most public symbol of the Pacific Northwest and its most sacred private icon. A friend once disclosed that she says a prayer whenever she sees it. A stranger I met on its high southern flank told me, "You must love this mountain as much as I do," but his reverent tone of voice told me I couldn't. Lou Whittaker, who has climbed Rainier more than one hundred fifty times, told me about returning home from a Himalayan expedition and catching sight of the mountain and feeling it snap his breath clean away.
    Like rain and rivers and trees, the mountain is a continuous presence in our lives, but in our psychological landscape it occupies a place separate and greater than the forests and falling water. We look at Rainier and feel love for a mountain, if such a thing is possible. The mountain inspires in us a feeling akin to spiritual awe: reverence, adoration, humility. We look at Rainier and regard the vastness of God; yet we look at it and claim it as our own. This strange relationship we have with the mountain is romantic, uninformed, even presumptuous. Rainier is a mountain few of us know.

    Mount Rainier is the largest and most dangerous volcano in the United States of America. Its summit reaches 14,410 feet above the sea, and though it was once thought to be the highest point in the nation, now we know better. Outside of Alaska, the four mountains higher than Rainier are Mount Whitney (elevation 14,494 feet), in Califomia's Sierra Nevada range, and Mount Elbert (14,433), Mount Massive (14,421), and Mount Harvard (14,420), in the Sawatch Range of the Rockies. Mount Rainier is more spectacular than all of them. A man who saw it in 1910 wrote: "It is an inspiration and yet a riddle to all who are drawn to the mysterious or who love the sublime." More than two million people visit Rainier every year. Ten thousand try to climb it, and a little more than half of them succeed. The mountain rises 10,000 feet from its base and holds as much snow and ice as the twelve other Cascade volcanoes combined. Its massive ice floes and furious winds so closely mimic Himalayan conditions that the first American climbers to conquer Mount Everest trained on Rainier before leaving for Nepal. Spread an inch thick, its glacial ice would cover the state of Tennessee. A Seattle rock band once wrote a song about Rainier that predicted "It's gonna bloww-wo-wo-wo," but when I asked a geologist, he said it wasn't waiting to explode so much as fall to pieces. Very big pieces.
    On a clear morning the mountain can be seen from Canada to Oregon, from the San Juan Islands to Spokane. On cloudy afternoons its form remains visible on personal checks, decorative porcelain, framed postcards, bottled water, billboard ads, and the license plate of every vehicle registered in the state of Washington. Paper placemats printed with maps of the USA—the ones at restaurants where they bring you crayons with the menu—often depict a cartoon salmon jumping over Mount Rainier in Washington state.
    I wanted to know more about it. I started cutting work to drive to the mountain. I bought a beater station wagon so l could stay there days at a time and sleep in the back. A couple of times I forgot my sleeping bag and nearly froze to death. I fell asleep to the sound of rain like typewriters on the roof and woke to deer browsing at the fender, and almost hit a twelve-point elk that would have mashed the wagon like yesterday's spuds.
    When I had money I stayed in National Park campgrounds and when I didn't I parked on logging roads and hoped the truckers slept in later than I did. I ate in mountain towns—Scaleburgers in Elbe, four-dollar chicken at the Highlander in Ashford—and shared pitchers of Rainier Beer with men who'd lived thirty years without seeing Seattle and hoped to go another thirty before a first encounter.
    I carted a library in the back seat and read Dee Molenaar's The Challenge of Ranier, Aubrey Haines's Mountain Fever, and Edmond Meany's Mount Rainier: A Record of Exploration, by the moth-flicker of a fluorescent lantern. I consumed field guides to birds, plants, rocks, and weather. I tried to read Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, but got so sick of Hans Castorp's anemia that I tossed him in the fire before he had a chance to recover. I got to the end of The Seven Storey Mountain before I figured out that Thomas Merton was more interested in monasteries than actual mountains.

    I picked the mountain apart bit by bit. My curiosity intruded upon geologists, volcanologists, glaciologists, entomologists, botanists, wildlife biologists, and a large-animal toxicologist in Utah. I talked with priests, monks, and New Age healers. I walked with park rangers and mountain guides. I took to driving around Mount Rainier, always looking for a new way to understand it. When I couldn't stand to sleep in the car anymore, I began walking around the mountain clockwise like a pilgrim. After a year of circumnavigation I went higher, to the climbing camps nearly two miles in the sky. And when that wasn't enough, I walked higher still, pursuing the moment when I would know the mountain as perfectly as myself.
    I kept wishing I had a good reason to go to the mountain, but the truth is I didn't. In a perfect narrative world, the woman I loved would have left me and I'd have run into the hills seeking the consolation of wild things. As it happened she waited until the mountain sickness had me in full fever before telling me she couldn't take it anymore. One day at the trailhead she said, "We've got to talk, and ten minutes later we had talked. I stayed up that night watching infomercials and an old Gary Cooper movie and considered moving to Montana. By morning I had ruled out Montana. I decided to quit my job and pursue whatever it was I was pursuing at Mount Rainier. Now I had the time.
    Over Christmas dinner I promised my grandmother I would never go to the mountain alone. I spent the next two years breaking my word. I walked alone above the Emmons Glacier and watched the sun turn its ice nine shades of blue. I walked alone through the Ohanapecosh forest where lichen the color of cucumber meat dripped from absinthe cedar boughs, and sword ferns and maidenhair ferns and bracken and salal grew out of a carpet of clubfoot moss, and the light dappled through so many emerald filters that I felt I had landed on the planet Green. I walked alone to glacier snouts and waterfalls and mining camps and snowfields. I walked alone into lakes so cold they made my veins pop out like licorice.
    There is something extraordinary about being alone on a mountain. Vulnerability sharpens every sense. Fear visits the body with a physical coldness. Moments of bliss are intensified and made melancholy by the realization that the moment will be yours alone and never shared. Only solo do you understand the indiscriminate power of the mountain and feel to your humble bones the insignificance of a human voice raised upon it.
    Mount Rainier is on the North American continent, in the United States of America, in the state of Washington, in the southeastern corner of Pierce County, sixty miles from Seattle but a two-hour drive because the roads are so twisty. In 1899 the federal government established 235,O00 acres around the mountain as the nation's fifth national park, an action the chief benefit of which, a century later, turned out to be the protection of the area's billions of square feet of old-growth timber. Over the years engineers have dreamed of building a road encircling the mountain, but it has never been done; high mountains are one of the few geographic entities through which engineers can't blast and pave.
    Mount Rainier National Park's most popular destination is Paradise, a 5,400-foot-high alpine meadow that overlooks the Nisqually Glacier and upon which sits an architectural abomination of a visitor center, a wood-and-cement spaceship that landed in the mid-sixties. Paradise was named in 1885 by Virinda Longmire, wife of the mountain's first white settler and namesake of the site of the National Park Inn a few miles below Paradise, who rode a horse to the high meadow and exclaimed, "O, what a paradise!" The nearest thing to a town around Mount Rainier is Ashford, population 600, whose points of interest include P.J.'s Unique Boutique, Mierke's Mobile Home Park, the Highlander Tavern, the Ashford Country Store ("Since 1905"), and Whittaker's Bunkhouse, where Lou will chat with you on his coffee break before getting back up to fix the roof. If you leave Ashford to go deeper into the backwoods, you get into real Deliverance country. My mother, a Pierce County librarian, sometimes works bookmobile runs in mountain towns where patrons browse the shelves while their animals wait outside. And I'm not talking about cats and dogs.

    I had as much business going into the mountain as I had harpooning my own whale. My experience on mountains was limited to groomed ski trails except for a sojourn across a precipitous ridge on Alaska's modest Mount Alyeska with my parents and my sister in the early seventies. The harrowing memory of that trek is forever seared into my brain. I'm just no good with heights. Chairlifts scare the devil out of me. I shrink from the edges of sharp cliffs. Recently I climbed a peak in the Tatoosh Mountains directly south of Mount Rainier. At the very top, where the rock dropped away two hundred feet, my partner bounded across the apex while I dropped to all fours and stuck to terra firma like a limpet.
    Despite my acrophobic tendencies, I was determined to encounter the mountain up close. I joined the ranks of the REI Army, that legion of gear-obsessed soldiers who suit up every weekend and drive into the hills to hunt down and kill their God-given portion of wilderness transcendence. Enlistment began with the purchase of a five-hundred-dollar Gore-Tex jacket and rain pants at Recreational Equipment Incorporated (REI), the outdoor goods cooperative whose funky Capitol Hill store sucked every ounce of fat out of my slender paycheck. REI considers its mission the celebration and conservation of the great outdoors, but I couldn't help feeling cowed every time I stepped through its doors. Beneath the happy-face of local outdoor culture there lurked a possessive territoriality that kept outsiders out and insiders in. At REI a humorless sense of moral superiority seemed de rigueur, fostered by the belief that those who stomp the natural world under their Vibram soles are healing Gaea, while the rest of the world tears her asunder.
    In this world I was a rank outsider. During the equipment sales that fumed REI into a bedlam of beards and fleece, the company offered discounts to the customer with the lowest co-op number. Few baubles in the Northwest command such instant respect as a low-numbered REI card. The co-op's membership began with No. 1 in 1938 and now runs into the low four millions. Jim Whittaker, the first American to climb Mount Everest, is No. 647. 1 am No. 3,538,286. I bear the shame every day of my life.
    I asked a friend who had hiked across Spain for advice on equipment. He told me to buy the best backpack I could find. Spare no expense. So I visited McHale & Company, a custom backpack shop that outfitted many of Seattle's world-class mountaineers. Dan McHale, an intense climber with the compact body of a wrestler, made the gear in his shop near Seattle's Fremont Bridge and tested it on summit runs up Rainier and other Cascade peaks. His customers were on intimate terms with K2 and Everest.
    Dan McHale was not thrilled to see my bespectacled visage darken his door. He came out from behind the shop counter to see if he could direct me to wherever it was I really wanted to be, whereupon I announced that I intended to encircle Mount Rainier and was shopping for a pack that was up to the challenge. He sized me up in a word—novice—that he had the tact not to spit at me, then began filling one of his high-tech rucks with every object of weight within reach. Dumbbells, sleeping bags, boulders, tents. After adjusting a half-dozen straps, he let me go. I stumbled, regained my balance, and stood with my legs scissored for structural support. The act of not toppling strained every muscle in my body. "Take a walk around, see how it feels," McHale told me, before retreating to his shop. I took three steps, fumed, and squatted like a nineteenth-century gymnast. I repeated the routine, desperate to look as if I knew what I was doing. Weight feels good there. Excellent lumbar support. I began to perspire. McHale peeked around the corner and eyed me as if I had disrobed.
    "Um . . . why don't you try it outside?"
    After a toilsome stroll around the block, I told McHale it felt terrific. "Yeah," he said. "You go to REI, some kid will tell you his pack will adjust to your height, but"—let me add that I'm six feet four and thin as a stork—"this one is designed for a frame like yours." I asked how much it would cost.
    "I'd fit you in a standard-size pack, which usually starts at about five-and-a-quarter."
    Perhaps he misheard. " . . . pounds?"
    "Five hundred twenty-five dollars."
    Oh.
    At REI some kid told me his pack would adjust to my height, and it more or less did, and I bought a purple-and-black backpack whose model name I hoped would eventually match the attitude of its owner: The Renegade. At six pounds ten ounces The Renegade boasted forty-eight hundred cubic inches of interior space, and though I had no idea what that meant, the phrase "forty-eight hundred cubic inches" sounded impressive and powerful in the way that "dual exhaust and twin overhead cams" does. A buyer's guide mentioned The Renegade's excellent load-channeling and weight-transferring abilities, but it needn't have bothered. I was sold on the name alone.
    I also purchased a pair of boots that were, I think, made in Germany, because they were called "der Wanderschuhe." Der Wanderschuhe hurt der feet, so I broke in the stiff leather by rubbing waterproofing wax into them and walking around town. Since I live in Seattle near the Space Needle, my hiking is often limited to concrete trails. I strolled to the waterfront and watched a couple of guys who spoke Spanish reel a rock cod out of the junkwater of Elliott Bay, and ate some fish and chips at Ivar's, and continued south to the Kingdome, where my father works. I showed off my boots and told him I was going to hike around Mount Rainier, to which he replied, "Why don't we climb it?" and I thought, Uh-oh.
    When I walked home I raised a blister and my boots squeaked.

            Bruce Barcott (Seattle)
            Copyright ©

  "The Mountain is Out" is the first chapter of the author's book, The Measure of a Mountain, published by Sasquatch Books (1997).

 

 

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Last updated: April 27, 1999.