Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A summer in the mountains

I don't quite know where to start, other than to say this summer has just cruised on by and I've enjoyed every waking--and dreaming--minute of it. Ah, life in the mountains...

For those who I haven't caught up with in a while, I'm in my second summer of guiding on Mt Rainier with International Mountain Guides. Last summer I was able to work part time on the mountain while still working almost full time at Boeing. That taste was enough to push me to guide full time this year, and see where this path will take me. This summer I took a leave of absence from Boeing. Well, 15 months actually -- two summers of guiding on Rainier bracketing our travels from September 2008 through May 2009.

The experience has been incredible in many ways, and I can't possibly do it justice in words and pictures. But, I've always been compelled to try to communicate and share significant experiences for some reason. I don't know if I just like trying to share a bit of what I've found with others or if it somehow validates them. One thing I do know is that sharing experiences with others deepens them for me, and that's one thing I've found so satisfying about guiding people in the mountains.

The work environment I've found at IMG is special (not unlike my group at Boeing, but kicked up a notch). At some point in the last several years, I discovered that personal relationships drive me in large part. The people I work with are incredibly motivated, driven, friendly, helpful, have lived amazing lives and they're finding their own way with little regard for what is socially expected. Most of all, they're doing what they love. Joseph Campbell said "Follow your bliss", and I've been deeply affected by those three simple words since reading them a while ago. Its infectious to live and work with people who share your passions and dreams, and are having fun doing it. Mountains, mountain towns and a shared love of the outdoors catalyze fast friendships here.

I've worked with lots of interesting people. Andy, a German guy who was a raft guide and dog sled trainer in Alaska for 10 years and who has climbed all over the world. Ang Dorjee Sherpa has spent his life climbing in the Himalayas (12 summits of Everest at age 31) and elsewhere. Ang Dorjee has a major appearance in John Krakauer's book Into Thin Air. He's also one of the friendliest, most down-to-earth guys you could ever want to meet. Eben grew up in Japan and is an incredible guide already at age 24. He'll probably go on to guide all over the world. Ben is an east coast native who graduated college, discovered climbing and hasn't skipped a beat since. Greg coached two Olympic men's volleyball teams --one to a gold medal--before changing tracks and starting to climb and guide. I've learned so much from these people its hard to imagine its only been two summers. There are a few big names in the guiding world who drop in for cameo appearance trips, a few long time guides from whom I've learned a lot, and a bunch of us newbies. Its a fun time for the new guides as we all live in close quarters. Evenings when we're around "HQ" are spent talking about personal climbs, clients, the coolest new gear (lots of gear envy), the latest health issue affecting guides (BPA-free water bottles, vitamins and supplement drink mixes), drinking beer and managing to cook something impressive with a strange collection of ingredients from numerous peoples' food caches.

Many of us live in a bunk room above the IMG office. There are 8 bunk beds, a couple of couches, a communal computer (although almost everyone has a laptop, an Apple, of course), wireless network, a kitchen, bathroom, and laundry facilities. Its a modest accommodation, but one that IMG provides for us at no cost. This is a great deal because most of us are rarely down off the mountain. The beds are adorned with drying gear and clothing and get rotating use, although everyone seems to have their favorite spot. Even though there are only 8 beds and probably 15-20 full time guides, there are rarely more than 4-5 people sleeping at "HQ" on any given night.

Mt Rainier is a beautiful mountain, and its stature as the most heavily glaciated peak in the Lower 48 gets it lot of attention. People come out here with a laundry list of motivations. Some are starting on a long climbing journey for which Rainier is a perfect jumping off point and training ground. Others come to challenge themselves on a mountain of their dreams for the experience of a lifetime and leave either on cloud 9 or humbled--sometimes both. Still others have lived in Rainier's shadow all their lives and finally answer the mountain's call. I often wonder who leaves the most satisfied. Sometimes I think it is the local who has stared at the mountain's upper flanks from countless traffic jams, country drives and family trips for years and finally feels the need to investigate closer, to see what all the commotion is about.
I particularly enjoy taking these folks up the mountain, and somehow feel a stronger obligation to give them a great trip, to allow them to see what the mountain is all about. They seem to have some sort of extended family relationship with the mountain, even if they've never been to Paradise in their 40+ years of living in Puget Sound. They see it differently than outsiders.

Most people do leave Ashford with a great mountain experience, and are usually pretty happy about what they've done. Some folks show that with good tips, and others will pull me aside and say what an incredible experience they've had. Whether it was the quality of the food they weren't expecting at 10,000 feet, walking across the summit crater above the clouds at 6 AM, or the personal interactions they didn't expect with their guide, its very satisfying to hear that you've helped someone have an experience that they couldn't necessarily have achieved on their own.

Each trip up the mountain has a distinct character to it. We've had some crazy weather (almost all of June) and some great bluebird (almost all of July). The storm in early June brought extreme winds and lots of snow. I was on the Emmons Glacier during this storm, and we spent two nights and days in the tents at Camp Shurman rather than climbing. We spent the first night digging the tents out. I got out of my tent at 2 am, looked across camp, and could only see the top 12 inches of the clients tents. The rest was buried in snow. We dug for over an hour and barely made any progress. Went back to sleep, but we were awakened by our own tent collapsing in on us. Our 4 person tent looked like a 2 person, and it was getting smaller by the second. I was watching the walls cave in on me. We got out and dug again for another 2 hours and built more walls and snow catchment trenches to stave off the wind deposits. The group spent the rest of the day fixing up camp and hanging out in the cook tent drinking hot chocolate and talking about what a crazy experience it was. We didn't even get a shot at climbing the mountain. The funny thing about a trip like this is that people love it. One of the guides says "It doesn't have to be fun to be fun." Climber's amnesia is the only thing that keeps most coming back. You forget the pain and some of it is even transformed into a strangely comfortable memory. Usually all that is left after a few days are crisp memories of the good things on the trip. The mind is truly amazing.

Other memorable trips have included a strong electrical storm during which the time between lightning and thunder almost went to zero and there was nothing we could really do about it.

A couple weeks ago on a trip up the Kautz Glacier route, we did a sunset climb, arriving at the summit just as the sun was casting its last rays over Puget Sound. The moon was full, the sky was clear and the shadow of the mountain was covering what seemed like all of eastern Washington. To say it was sublime up there is all I can do. We camped at 13,000 feet that night, and there was no wind. We could have slept outside in a light sleeping bag.

During one stretch, I spent 7 days above Camp Muir. We call it a layover. I was on 3 trips, but stayed at Camp Muir instead of returning to Ashford at the end of each. Each trip would arrive as the last was heading down. It was like a mini expedition for me.

A benefit climb for disabled veterans called Camp Patriot was held in early July. It was truly inspiring to see these 3 veterans challenging themselves and overcoming obstacles. It was also satisfying to be able to help them out even a little bit -- we dug tent platforms, dug out part of the route to assist their climb and melted snow for water for them. There were close to 100 people on the summit that morning. The weather was great, and it was totally humbling to watch these guys come over the summit rim. One guy had a prosthetic leg fitted with a crampon, and another was blind. There are photos on the website linked above of their climb. On the morning after their summit, two F-15's performed numerous low fly-over passes above Camp Muir in a salute to their achievement. The whole thing gave me shivers down my spine.

My schedule has been pretty busy, and with all the guiding I haven't had much time for personal trips. There have been some fun ones, though. Liz and I skied at Chinook Pass for the first time in late June. Its fun to have a lazy mid summer corn ski day on a couple of nice peaks overlooking Mt Rainier, and be able to hang out on the car bumper and drink beer in the sun at the end of the day. Liz came down to Ashford for several weekends and we did a few nice short hikes that we probably wouldn't have done if we had to drive all the way from Seattle. We sat around the picnic table at HQ and ate good, fresh food -- a real luxury. Its somewhat of a role reversal when she comes down here. I'm usually the one pushing to do some long exhausting weekend trip. This summer when she came down to Ashford she was the one pushing to go out an do something and I just wanted to hang around and be somewhat lazy. Its been interesting to see us in different light.

Preston, Liz and I spent the early hours of July 4th climbing to Camp Muir in a stiff wind after deciding against our original objective. We arrived at Muir at 2:30 am and decided to "take a rest" before continuing up the mountain. The rest turned into a couple hours of fitful sleep in the cold meatlocker that is the public shelter at Camp Muir. We awoke from shivering fetal positions and decided the weather wasn't going to improve so we just headed down the Muir Snowfield. The skiing was terrible -- bullet proof suncups in a whiteout. It was the kind of conditions even an east coaster wrinkles his nose at. But it was still fun. Somehow. Heck, it was July 4th and we didn't have to work and we were in the mountains with friends and we were skiing. Nothing can be better than that.

Just yesterday, Dan and I managed to sneak up and ski down Mt Hood. We had other plans that included Mt Baker, but the weather was going to be terrible. The forecast for Hood was slightly better and we figured we could manage to climb and get down before it got ugly. Well, that almost worked. We planned to climb a line on the north face of the mountain that would test both of us. As it turned out, there was no snow left on the face, and this made a great escape for me since I wanted to back out as soon as I saw it. Anyway, this allowed us to choose a more mellow glacier to ski. Luckily we'd packed the skis "just in case". Just in case came in real handy on this trip and we selected the Sunshine Route up the Eliot Glacier as our new plan. It ended up being an incredibly fun trip. We left the Cloud Cap campground at 1:15 am and made our way up the glacier in the dark. A strong wind made climbing up high difficult, but once the sun made its appearance spirits were lifted as always. The saying about it being darkest right before the dawn is so true in climbing. We made our way through some challenging terrain on the upper Eliot Glacier headwall, cruised up to the summit, and the weather finally caught us on our way down. We had about 45 minutes of tenuous navigation in whiteout conditions before we found our original uptrack and managed to pop below the clouds again. Feeling relieved, we made some fun turns amongst the seracs on a funky double fall line. This time of year, the snow is rarely good, but skiing in late July on a peak I'd never climbed before was definitely fulfilling.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Holy S&!t you cut your hair!

Excuse the profanity but come on, that's what you're thinking!!

It's late and I need to get up at 3:00 am tomorrow to leave for Anchorage. I'll be back in a month! I'll write more when I get back. Until then, enjoy the pictures!