At midnight we woke up to our trip leader, Wayne, yelling the phrase we knew meant giving up the comfort of our sleeping bags for a push to the summit. "Let's go climbing." The wind strained and reshaped the form of our tent as we ate and prepared our packs. During an alpine start inclement elements are as welcome to me as a pair of pestering brothers on a long road trip. I zipped open the tent and braced myself for the cold. You learn to pee quickly while traveling on the snow.
I was on Mount Baker as part of the Basic Climbing Class with the Washington Alpine Club. I had been an avid outdoor enthusiast for years, but I knew I would need additional skills before I could begin exploring the mountains and volcanoes in the PNW. The student to volunteer instructor ratio was good and as a result, we were a large group. At 1 am our headlamps dappled the edge of the Easton Glacier as we formed our rope teams and began leaving our camp. I checked my climbing partner's knots, double checked myself and realized I was committed.
After a length of time we walked out of the cloud cover that had formed near our camp. The new moon left a dark environment. The stars and our headlamps were the only source of light. As the fourth out of nine rope teams we had the advantage of seeing the topography in a steady line of headlamps grouped in sets of four. I played connect with these dots as I moved - scanning ahead and behind to try and make sense of the severity of the incline. The dots stacked vertically for a steep climb, zigged than zaged to navigate a crevasse and at times the up became even and each light would disappear momentarily until the person would begin to move above the slope. Looking back was intimidating and fantastic. The soles of your boots seemed to be level with the stars as you kicked each step.
Time and distance are difficult to gauge. Slowly, the horizon began to change hue and our rope leader, Colbi, announced the elevation: 10,000'. The temperature dropped and I realized that my water bottle was frozen solid. I used my axe to chip ice from the bottle and sucked on the fragments while mentally cursing my inexperience and thoughtlessness. Deep slate blue silhouetted the caldera as pink light began to paint the nearby peaks. The first rope team was ascending the Roman Wall. I fastened crampons to my boots, chewed on a stiff Cliff bar and shoved my iPhone into my shirt to try and warm it up enough to turn it on again. My stomach begged for more fuel and my legs ached.
I was expecting a peak. A sharp isosceles piercing the sky. A dramatic and iconic formation that we could set our ice axes in and exclaim, we made it. Instead, the landscape was lunar. A subtle curve extended before me and met the clouds on a bent horizon. Small shards of ice cluttered the ground and shattered when our crampons set. The true summit was to our right a few hundred feet away. Our rope team was above the Roman Wall and all we needed to do was walk a little further.
I could hear every breath leave my body, rapid and deep. The elevation wasn't grand but at 10,781' my lungs had picked up in tempo. My body was beat. I nearly broke down; tears were welling when my brief emotional moment was stifled by the tug on my harness from the rope connecting to our team lead. It was cold, so cold. The wind was constantly flowing around us with the occasional gust ripping at our exposed skin and eyes. I walked. The view was beautiful. We made it. After a quick exchange of phones for pictures, we smiled to each other, I licked my water bottle and we turned around to trace our steps in the daylight.