I woke up Sunday night in my own bed. I wondered if it had all beed a dream. Had I really been standing on top of a peak twelve hours earlier? Had I navigated a landscape of snow and ice? How is it possible to live such drastically different realities, all in one day.
Hours earlier, as the sun was rising we were headed under the sign that marks the entrance to Mount Rainier National Park and up to the Narada Falls parking lot. The Stevens Canyon road is still closed, so Narada Falls was as close as we were going to get. Our objective for the day: a rocky duo – Castle Peak and Pinnacle Peak. Both located in the Tatoosh range just south of Rainier.
We high tailed it out of the cars and started up the steep slope out of the parking lot, heading for the bench of the road that we could see above us. Once there we had a short road walk to the lakes where we would turn off the road and head up hill. Reflection Lakes are still a mellow bowl of snow, flat and soft, completely unrecognizable as lakes. There was a very obvious boot track leaving the road though, so it was pretty easy to identify where we needed to turn.
Despite a less than favorable forecast the weather was still nice when we reached the road. Pesky clouds roamed the skies, but the sun was shining and we could actually see our peaks, which was a novel experience. The biggest peak around stayed hidden though, behind her cloak of clouds. I was hoping we would catch a glimpse of Rainier at some point, we had some people in the group who had never seen her up close, and she is such a glorious mountain.
Navigating up to Castle, which was our first peak of the day, was a piece of cake. We walked right there on crunchy snow. We pushed hard. We had two peaks to summit, maybe three if we were swift. Once we were above tree line the wind began whipping. We were all blown off our feet a time or two, laughing as glittering ice crystals swirled through the air. It was a beautiful day.
Before long we found ourselves below the rock pitch to the summit. One of our instructors led the pitch and eventually fixed lines and a rappel were ready to go as well. Once again this wasn’t a peak we could all summit together. I headed on up to wo-man the belay station. Students cycled on through, climbing up, crossing the razor-edge of a summit on the fixed line and then rappelling back down to the rest of the group. Once we got the hang of wiggling people in and out of the belay station, which was a very tight spot for three people to maneuver in, things went a lot faster. The summit had gorgeous views and a healthy dose of sphincter retraction.
One of the best things about climbing with a club is that you can set two teams up to switch peaks. After we were all through we left our ropes up and headed off to Pinnacle. Half way there we passed Team Six, who were headed to Castle to summit. Pinnacle is the easier of the two peaks, lacking the actual rock pitch to the summit. We didn’t even hesitate when we got there, we all headed up the fixed line and on to the top. That was when things got windy. Real windy. But as the clouds rushed through and we all huddled like penguins to stay warm, we caught glimpses of Rainier, causing oohs and aaws. Once everyone had gotten on the summit we turned around to head home and the weather started to change.
The students all headed back down to the bottom, half using the fixed line and half using the rappel until they were sheltered in a tiny grove of stunted trees. We stayed to clean the ropes (for those of you who don’t speak climber that means remove all the ropes and protection). The ice crystals pelting our faces were no longer beautiful, they were painful and the wind was bitingly cold, cutting through my clothes as I coiled snowy ropes. We scampered off the peak as fast as we could, heading for the saddle and then down the other side, where the wind eased up. Once out of the clouds things seemed less urgent and we enjoyed a fair amount of glissading back to the road. Although a word to the wise, don’t glissade on top of an icy crust unless it is strong enough to hold you. If you break through and scrape your rear along hard edges you will end up with nasty bruises. Trust me, I would know…
It was a stunning climb, one that really reminded me why I love climbing. There were gorgeous views and undisturbed snow slopes, rolling off in every direction. The mountains were unpredictable and temperamental, they kept us on our toes and I never knew what was going to be around the corner. But in the end, even when I was a little nervous I came through the other side a little bit better.
And then just a couple of hours later I was back in my bed, wondering if it had all been a dream. But then I stretched out my tight hamstrings and touched my wind burned cheeks. The truth of our adventures writes itself on my body, fading with time like a bruise or a peeling away like a scab but leaving behind a light scar. The mountain is with me still, and it stays with me, etching itself deeper and deeper into my skin every time we climb.
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