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 USAthe ones at restaurants where they bring you crayons
with the menuoften depict a cartoon salmon jumping over Mount Rainier in Washington
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
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 townsScaleburgers in Elbe, four-dollar chicken at the Highlander in
Ashfordand 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
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
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 wordnovicethat
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
"I'd fit you in a standard-size pack, which usually starts at
Perhaps he misheard. " . . . pounds?"
"Five hundred twenty-five dollars."
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.