Meeting Myself at the Summit

by Craig Karls

For as long as I can remember, the outdoors have been my friend. Growing up in the St. Johns neighborhood of North Portland in the 70s and 80s, I spent much of my time roaming the woods and meadows of Smith and Bybee Lakes, Hayden Island, and Forest Park—collecting plant specimens and immersing myself in nature. The outdoors provided a welcome respite and temporary sanctuary from a home life that was dysfunctional and sometimes violent. 
The author on the summit of Mount St. Helens on
Mother's Day 2015.

One of the most memorable events of my childhood occurred on a Sunday morning--May 18th, 1980, to be exact. From my front yard, I saw Mount St. Helens erupt in all its glory, burning an indelible mark on my soul. As a young adult, I attended Eastern Oregon University in La Grande and had the privilege of exploring the backcountry of the Blue and Wallowa Mountains during archaeological surveys and geological field trips, as well as on my own.

Fast forward to Summer 2014. I was hiking McNeil Point on Mt. Hood with some friends. We continued past the shelter and up the path that runs along the ridgeline. It was a lovely clear day, we were at about 7,100 feet, and we were looking at the top of Mt. Hood. I turned to my friend, Eric Crowley, and said, “You know, I would love to climb to the top of that someday.” 

He smiled slyly and replied, “I have,” and proceeded to mesmerize me with his stories of climbing Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan.

BCEP team enjoying a fire after a day
at Horsethief Butte. Photo: Kathleen Sciestl
Eric must have remembered our conversation from that summer because I received a text message from him the following New Year’s Eve that read, “Howdy—wanted to see if you are at all interested in taking a basic mountaineering course. I am going to sign up for the Mazama basic course.” I began to barrage him with questions and he gave me the link to the Mazama Basic Climbing Education Program (BCEP). I read everything on that link and began exploring everything else on the Mazama website. Saying that I was interested would be an understatement. Eric advised me to go to the BCEP Information Night to learn more.

So I did. I was enthralled by the people I saw climbing the rock walls in the auditorium. I had never been rock climbing, never been in a harness, and knew next to nothing about the sport. Yet, something about the spectacle I witnessed called to me. I heard a quiet voice inside me, saying “do this, now is the time, you will grow and discover things about yourself that hitherto were unknown.” I listened to the presentation and watched the slides, becoming more certain that BCEP was the right choice for me. I went straight home and signed up online. I knew that there was no guarantee of being admitted into the program. I was told that demand for BCEP often exceeds the spots available--a fact that was reflected by the standing-room-only crowd at Information Night.
The team prepping to climb at Horsethief Butte.
Photo: Kathleen Sciestl

I received an email in early February informing me that I had been accepted. I was delighted, but also a little apprehensive. After all, other than hiking, I’d never done any “mountaineering” sports. Also, I tend to have a lot of social anxiety when meeting new people, especially in large groups. Fortunately, my friend Eric was accepted, too, and we were placed on the same BCEP team: Team 21, led by Amy Graham and Patrice Cook. Patrice organized an introductory potluck at her house before the first class, allowing us to get to know one another.

There we each received about six feet of climbing rope with which we could begin to learn our knots. Some of the knots were easy to master; others, not so much. We were being “shown the ropes,” so to speak. It was both gratifying and humbling to learn a new skill. A properly tied and dressed knot is a thing of beauty! At home later that evening, my knot-tying practice seemed to take on a meditative quality—a Zen and The Art of Knot Tying, if you will.

At the first BCEP class, I learned that we were going to be rock climbing at the Mazama Mountaineering Center (MMC) that very weekend. I was as excited as a freshman on the first day of high school. Later that week, I dutifully went to the Mountain Shop in Northeast Portland to buy all the gear I would need to try rock climbing for the first time. Fortunately, there were BCEP assistants at the shop to help me get what I needed and ease me into the world of rock climbing.

When our MMC rock session came, I had a beast of a time getting my two prusik slings the correct lengths. Patience and determination came through, though. When it was my turn to climb the wall, I felt an exhilaration like none other. Getting to the top of the wall, I thought to myself, “Hmm, I think I may have found my sport.” Strangely, I didn’t have much fear of falling. Also, I discovered that climbing has a meditative quality. My chattering mind became silent and focused on the task at hand. There was something paradoxically relaxing about it. The biggest fear I had that day was belaying my classmates. I wanted to make certain I was doing everything correct, lest they fall.

Our camping and outdoor rock session weekend at Horsethief Butte was the last weekend of March. The weather was excellent and the experience magical, confirming that I had indeed found my sport after 45 years on this beautiful planet. I eagerly went from station to station, climbing again and again. I also discovered another activity I adore—rappelling! And I discovered that while indoor rock climbing is fun, outdoor rock climbing is a blast.

We had our snow weekend in mid April, learning about avalanches, self-arrest, crampon use, roped teams, and pickets. Mountaineering is the perfect team sport because the only one you are competing against is yourself and the climb team is only as strong as its weakest member. Thus it behooves you to help your teammates succeed in any way possible.

When it came time for the final exam, I was amazed at how much knowledge and activity had been packed into such a short timeframe. I am now comfortable with the skills that were taught and my BCEP experience has ignited in me a passion to learn as much as I can about mountaineering. I have already taken the Crevasse Rescue Skillbuilder and intend to take additional skillbuilder classes. I see Intermediate Climbing School in my future, as well. 

I learned a whole lot more from BCEP than just mountaineering skills. I learned more about who I am. I’ve learned to trust others more—life is one big climb and everyone you meet is belaying you in some way. I’ve learned the wisdom of the fool—that is, having a beginner’s mind in learning a new skill can bring so much wonder and joy into my life. I’ve learned patience—what really matters is the process, not the product. Sometimes you will be able to summit a mountain, sometimes not. 

Mazama membership requires reaching the summit of a glaciated peak. I summited my first glaciated peak by climbing Mount St. Helens on Mother’s Day. I’ve seen pictures of the summit many times, but nothing compares to being there. The gods of the ancients always lived on a mountaintop; perhaps they were onto something. It is a spiritual experience to be on a summit. I applied for Mazama membership after the Mount St. Helens climb and received my acceptance letter dated May 18, 2015—35 years to the day when I saw it erupt. What strikes me as astonishing is that I didn’t take up this sport much sooner.

I would like to thank my BCEP teachers—Amy Graham and Patrice Cook—and all the assistants from the bottom of my heart for having the patience, enthusiasm, knowledge, and judgment needed to get this kid-goat started in mountaineering. 

To you, I say, “Climb on!” I guarantee you will find yourself at the summit.

1 comment:

  1. I love this story, Craig. Thank you so much for sharing it!