The Mountain Climber’s Conundrum

by Richard Schuler

When I quit smoking I needed something to do with my hands, so I bought an iPhone. That’s how I started checking my Facebook status and email every half hour. I used to gauge my stress level by the number of cigs consumed in a day. They were my friends, each and every one of them. That’s right, I burned my friends. No wonder they left me. Now, I check in with my real friends, or at least their internet avatars. At 10:43 p.m. on a weekday night I lit up my Gmail account and found a message from Rayce, the leader of my mountain climbing team: The Climbers Against Humanity. Rayce offered a chance to climb a peak in central Washington called The Tooth, to the first person who responded. He said it was a four pitch, trad climb, with a scramble-y approach, a bit of moderately steep snow, followed by some spicy rappels. It was a 5.4 to 5.6 climb with lots of exposure on a 400 foot block. In other words, it was well beyond my ability. Still, what an honor it was to even be considered. I imagined myself on the summit; the sun shining down on my strong, capable face. If I didn’t take the slot someone else would. Seconds were ticking.  My heart raced a bit when I pressed the send button on the email. I’d said yes.

The purpose of this essay is for me to introduce to what I call the mountain climber’s conundrum, and how I solved it. At some point in their climbing career, every mountain climber will ask themselves the following question: why in God’s name am I doing this? Or perhaps the atheist version: what in the world made me think this was a good idea? Yet another version is the simple mantra: get me out of here. Now. In my case, the mountain climber’s conundrum is particularly challenging for two reasons. The first is that I am afraid of heights. I became acutely aware of this condition at the Shrine Circus of 1974. My family and I went to Busch Stadium in Saint Louis, and it all started well enough. Proud parents and children passed the ticket takers. The smell of popcorn and cotton candy perfumed the air. My mother guided us up a ramp that led to the loge seating. Only a few vertical bars separated us from the street, which got further away with every step. I made it to the top with only a sick feeling in my stomach, but when we ascended another ramp my heart started shaking in my chest. She pulled me by the hand. Up and up we went. When at last we made it to the staircase on the inner circle of the stadium, I looked up and thought, “There is no way in hell, lady. I’m not going up that thing.” But I did go up. The higher we went, the closer to the stairs I got. When we reached the top, I was literally crawling on my hands and knees, grasping at each seat I passed.

When we finally got seated, I noticed men selling toys and souvenirs in the aisle. There must have been pendants, stuffed animals, hats and noise makers. I can’t remember any of it, because to me it was all hideous crap. The only thing of merit was a sword. Evidently, I begged effectively because I got it. The blade was a curved scimitar and the hilt had ruby on each side. When I held the thing in my tiny hands, I felt that life was a good thing because I’d arrived in a place where adults give swords to children. I have no memory of clowns, trapeze artists or animals, because when I pulled the blade from the scabbard, the whole world went black. I was intoxicated, like a teenager with a bottle of pure grain alcohol. How we got home, I have no idea. The next memory is that of my father holding the sword in our living room, breaking the blade over his knee, and shoving it in the trash. My heart died like broken kingdom. The sword was a fake, a toy made of plastic. Whatever it was, it was gone and I loved it.

The next day, and each day until my mother took the trash out, I went to the closet where we kept our can and visited my broken sword. The smell of sour milk, coffee grounds and cigarette butts insulted me. What a loss. I didn’t deserve this. My bottom lip began to stick out. This illustrates the second reason why the mountain climber’s conundrum is so challenging for me. Even though I’m an adult now, and I know how to hide it, the voice of a petulant child survives inside me. If Snow White and the Seven Dwarves were written for me, they would all be named: Sulky, Crabby, Peevish, Sullen, Moody, Huffy, Snappish and Touchy. But when I packed my bag and left for the Tooth, I didn’t hear a petulant voice, or any voice save that of confidence. When I put my foot on the trail I felt strong. It took hours to get to the upper cirque snowfield, but when we did I was ready for it. Strapping the crampons to my boots made me feel super-human. My helmet and the ice axe looked like Bronze Age weapons, like something from a Wagner opera, and the landscape was indeed an epic stage. Dark, Douglass firs pointed skyward, to jagged stone giants. Each one showed its middle finger to the six climbers posing for a picture in the snow. The pinnacle of The Tooth was somewhere behind all those fingers, patiently waiting, but I couldn’t see it. Up we went, over a sun cupped snowfield with red algae stains, and when we reached the edge, we found a big, scary moat. It was so large, the space between rock and snow could’ve sheltered a troop of refugees from a Burning Man festival, but it was empty. I released sigh when we slid down the other side and put a foot on Pineapple Pass. In no way did Pineapple Pass resemble a fruit from Hawaii. It was just a notch in a rock wall, across which lay a slide to certain death, but also a narrow path leading to pinnacle of The Tooth. Rayce called for a lunch break, so I opened my Empire Strikes Back lunch box and had a sandwich.

No seriously, I had an Empire Strikes Back lunch box. You can call Rayce and ask him. It gives me feeling of levity in an austere place such as a mountain range, and I like the picture of Luke, and Darth Vader flashing light sabers. It was a movie, and in a movie the hero knows the battle is worth fighting. Real life isn’t like that. In the world you and I share, there are just ordinary people who don’t always know what to do. After I closed the lunch box and pulled on my climbing harness, we moved as a team through Pineapple Pass to the pinnacle itself. It was at this point that I realized what a terrible mistake I’d made.

The Tooth was huge. One has to climb about 400 feet to reach the top, but this is only half the problem. It sits on top of a base that rises thousands of feet above the valley below, so the eyes tell the mind to panic, a task easily done. Of the three rope teams, Rayce and I went first. My bottom lip started to protrude. I pulled it in, but I knew there was no way I could go through with the climb. What a loss. I didn’t deserve this. Rayce gave me a walkie-talkie and a cleaning tool. He calmly tied off on the rope and went up the wall, plugging in various anchors as he went. For those of you who don’t climb, an anchor is a do-dad which holds a climbing rope to a rock face. The proper placement of these anchors is what the climber’s life literally depends on.  My job was to follow behind him and remove the anchors as I climbed. The yellow rope trailed behind him like a spider’s thread. For the first fifty feet it looked like some pretty tough going. Then he climbed over a precipice and was gone. In the absence of a visible reality, the human mind will create an imagined one, and that reality is usually the very worst kind. Where the rope went I knew that I too must go, wherever it led. Seven sulky, crabby, peevish, sullen, moody, huffy, snappish and touchy voices told me I could never do it. One voice came through the walkie-talkie, it was Rayce. “The belay is on. Hit it,” he said. To whom should I listen? Was the battle really worth fighting? At what point does discretion become the better part of valor? Even if I got to the top, was it worth the fear it would cost? I didn’t know. For some reason I put my hand on the rock and pulled.

My internal dialogue went something like this: Other people do things like this, but not me. I look like someone in a granola bar commercial and I am clearly not that person. My place is on a bar stool between Charles Bukowski and Dracula. My hobby should be dancing tango with beautiful women in stunning outfits, but instead, my whole body smells like a student’s armpit, and this helmet makes me look like an unemployed miner. For a hundred feet I thought this, until I found Rayce at the first belay station, smiling. My hands were shaking when I handed him the rock anchors. Then the process started again. He climbed up and disappeared. I looked down and saw a scene from a Coyote and Roadrunner cartoon, the one where the Wile E. Coyote drops off a cliff and he falls so far that when he finally hits, it only makes a tiny ‘piff’ noise and puff of dust.  The ledge I stood on wasn’t big enough for two large pizzas and an overweight tabby, but it was soon joined by three other people, who obviously had no problem boogieing up the cliff I just panicked on. When Rayce radioed that the belay was on, I was strangely ready to go higher.

There is a condition known as high altitude flatulence. When the southern end of me started complaining, I decided to let the northern end join voices. With each report I said, “Yeah. Uh-huh.” *@#%! “Tell me about it.”      @#%! “Oh, I know.” This is how I went up the mountain, grunting, sweating, poozing and kvetching, but I did make it to the top. There was Racye, shoes off, eating a bag of niblinz. He was the Frodo Baggins to my Samwise Gamgee, the Don Quixote to my Sancho Panza, and he said, “Welcome to the top.” I’ve often thought that a mountain range looks very much like the sea when you view it from the highest peak; all the ridges blend into one another, but these were not stone waves I was looking at. This was a concerto, a great staccato upheaval. In such a landscape only fantastic things took place. There were mastodons and Valkyries out there somewhere, I was sure of it. I sat next to Rayce and took off my own shoes. “Frickin’ perfect day,” he said. Climbers call days like the one we were sitting in a ‘blue bird day’ because the sky is so blue. “It’s a good day to be alive,” he said.

“It’s a good day to die,” I said.

His expression asked for an explanation, and so I told him about a Lakota woman I once met at a pow-wow who said the same thing. She explained that to Native Americans, a person wants to leave this world when they are at the absolute top of their form. They want to enter the next world when they have achieved their best in this world. To grab ahold of fear, pure unadulterated fear, when it feels like warm granite, and listen to the voices of doubt as you climb it to the top is only half the battle. When one can hear the voices of fear and doubt, which only say, “You can’t” and not respond with a defensive “Yes, I can,” but instead with the simple words I’m sorry- I’m sorry you’re hurting, that is a good day to die. This is how I solved the mountain climber’s conundrum for that particular mountain on that particular day. Why did I climb it? To pull the broken sword from the trash and carry it home. It was a good day to die.        


120, 100 and 50: Three Milestones for Mazamas

By Adam Baylor

With the climbing season well-underway, it’s easy to remain stoked about exploring the mountains and beyond.  But maybe you need a few more reasons to celebrate mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest!  Here are three unique milestones in our history that you’ll definitely want to commemorate:

First, we can look back 120 years to the summit of Mt. Hood where our mission was set in motion on July 19, 1894.  Multiple generations of mountaineers have bravely ventured into the nearby Cascades and beyond because of Mazama training, fellowship and a shared spirit of adventure.  As we reminisce on our early beginnings, we may ask what sort of challenges do we as modern mountaineers face today?  Certainly the summits of Hood, Rainer, North Sister and the like remain just as difficult but more than a century ago there were major concerns with the protection of our public lands.  Did you know that the Mazamas helped form Crater Lake National Park?  It was through the vision of our first president, William Gladstone Steel, and other Mazama members that grassroots support in Oregon rallied to preserve Crater Lake for future generations.  So what about today?  Is it safe to say that the founder’s vision for protection of public lands remains the same?  Or should we collectively look at yet another challenge that Mazamas can support such as expanding the Crater Lake Wilderness.

The second key milestone in 2014 for the Mazamas is a bit closer to home.  We celebrate the centennial official Mazama climb of Beacon Rock in the Columbia River Gorge which took place on October 11, 1914.  Published in the Mazama: A Record of Mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest (C.W. Howard, 1914, pg. 93-94) a party of 47 Mazamas reached the summit of the 858-foot andesite monolith.  Today, evidence of that historic ascent can be found in the form of iron spikes on Beacon’s Northwest Face.  Where else can modern climbers use 100-year old protection?  Truly, this was an important climb for the Mazamas and to commemorate this nationally significant climbing area we are producing a documentary film about Beacon Rock climbing.  Get inspired and become part of the project by donating to the Beacon Rock climbing legacy!  

Our third milestone in 2014 is the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.  Yes, in 1964 Congress actually did something to protect our wild places!  So what does the future hold for our favorite places to play?  The answer to that question and many more can be found at an upcoming Wilderness Act 50th celebration event at the Mazama Mountaineering Center.  Our Conservation Committee is planning the celebration with a list of guest speakers that range from former Sierra Club director, Michael McCloskey, to Portland-based CRAG Law Center environmental experts.  Join us for the event on September 27 and become part of the inspiring new movement to protect the Pacific Northwest’s wilderness.