A few minutes past 9pm on Friday night I pick up Denara and we head towards the mountain. We’re both nervous and excited, and neither of us got as much rest as we hoped we would before our first-ever alpine start. At a quarter to 11, we pull into the overflow parking lot at Timberline, put on our mountaineering boots, do one last check of our packs (harness? Check. Crampons? Check. Helmet? Check. Should we bring our big puffy jackets or not? Let’s leave ‘em, it’s supposed to be pretty warm…), and hoof it over to the climber’s registration to meet our climb team. This is an official Mazamas climb—my first—with a big 12-person team, pretty much none of whom we’ve met before tonight. We nod at one another and check our packs again, and by 11:20 we’re headed out into the dark black night. “Our goal is Silcox Hut in an hour,” says Rico, our climb leader, “top of Palmer [Glacier] in three hours, the Hogsback in six, summit in eight.”
We’re off like a shot. Rico asks one of the guys to lead, and I’m pretty sure we’re all showing off for one another as we hustle to keep up. Right away I can feel my quads and my hamstrings and my glutes. Oh boy. I put my head down and watch my steps, my headlamp flattening everything into the small space between my feet and the feet of the climber in front of me. I try to step where he steps and improve the boot tracks, but they’re criss-crossing with so many others and the snow is so soft and I’m breathing so hard. We’re at Silcox Hut (Rico says, though I can’t see it) in forty minutes flat, following cat tracks and boot tracks and frankly I don’t know what tracks—I’m just following the feet in front of me. The dark is disorienting. We could be anywhere.
We sit for a moment and rest, but it’s too cold to stop for long. I pull out a granola bar and am unwrapping it when Rico nods at me. “Want to lead?” I nod back and shove a big bite of bar into my mouth as I head up and out, looking for boot tracks to follow. Some of them are clearly made by six-foot-tall climbers, and some lead nowhere. I add my own smaller steps and try to set a good pace. I remember to rest step, finally, locking my knee between every step and shifting my weight to that leg to take the strain off my muscles for half a second. Every once in a while a gust of wind hits while my leg is locked and nearly knocks me off balance. Rico climbs behind me and occasionally quietly guides me in a slightly different direction, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what direction that is. Except for his words from time to time, and the play of shadows from the headlamps behind me, I could be tromping through the snow entirely alone. All I can hear is the crunch of my boots on the snow, my own breathing, and the wind.
After forty minutes, Rico asks someone else to lead and I breathe a sigh of relief. I fall back in line towards the end, which means the boot track steps will be pretty great by the time I get to them, with most of the team having already packed them down. We’re at the top of Palmer (so they say—I’m still lost, to be honest) in two hours. Two hours!
From here we climb in the dark and climb in the dark and climb in the dark. The snow is squishy and icy and squishy again. We climb straight up and then diagonally across the slope and then straight up again. Every once in a while I try to look up and get a little vertigo. It’s just so dark up here. The lights of Portland glow below us to the west.
We start to catch whiffs of sulfur from the fumarole—the wind seems to be blowing it straight towards us. One of the climbers on our team starts to feel really ill, and a few times we stop to wait for him while he catches up and debates whether to continue. He perseveres. We stop to put on crampons and continue up, pausing every once in a while to yell up and down the line: “Hold up!” “Okay!” “Is everyone doing okay?” “Wait!” “You guys okay?” “Okay!” I kick a step for one of my feet parallel to the one already in a nice kicked step so I can rest on both locked legs at once while I wait. I allow myself to feel, I admit, a little impatient. I don’t allow myself to express it, except in small whispers: “What’s going on back there?” “I dunno.” We don’t take any real breaks, though. Rico’s been saying for what feels like ages that we’ll stop soon at “a flat spot up there”—then we accidentally overshoot it. “We’re almost at the Hogsback, though,” he says.
“We need a food break!” I shout up the line, and we take a packs-off break on the steep slope. Food makes everything better, at least for me.
It’s still early (or late?), but now when I look up I start to see the shape of the mountain above us, barely visible against the still-black sky. Slowly, slowly, slowly, the day is reborn. Down below us we can see a line of climbers, their headlamps tiny bobbing dots of light.
We’re finally at the Hogsback and I am suddenly exhilarated. The Hogsback is a ridge that curves up and up towards the Pearly Gates, through which we’ll pass to reach the summit. As the light increases, my focus widens, but it’s still pretty directional—up up up. It gets steep and I stomp with my crampons, experimenting with the best way to feel secure and efficient at the same time. Sometimes there are lovely steps, but mostly I find that a hybrid technique works best for me—side-stepping with one foot, keeping my crampons flat against the sloping ground (French technique) and digging in with the toes of my other foot to push upwards (front-pointing). It lets me feel fast and powerful as I move towards the summit. Let’s go let’s go!
At the top of the Hogsback, we follow a narrow path around a beautiful snow-and-ice formation to the base of the Pearly Gates, a steep narrow chute surrounded by more beautiful ice that will lead us almost all the way to the summit.
And then, up we go.
We’re just five minutes from the summit now. While we wait for the whole team to arrive, the sky begins to turn pink as sunrise approaches.
When the last member arrives, we shoulder our packs again. “Sorry,” Rico tells the last climber, “this is what’s known as a ‘fuck you’ break. We gotta get that sunrise summit!”
I bet he agrees it’s worth it when we get there.
We take photos, eat cookies (I made a bunch on Thursday and carried them all the way to the summit; people better eat them so I don’t have to carry them down!), pass around exuberant congratulations and thank-yous. We summitted in six hours, which Rico keeps telling us is amazing for a 12-person team. We all feel fabulous and strong (or maybe I’m just speaking for myself). My sit pad flies away in the wind and then is somehow miraculously retrieved by another climber at the summit—I mean, it’s magical up here.
It’s also cold, and soon enough we’re all ready to start heading back down. First I put on sunscreen and dig out my sunglasses. (Lemme tell you about the lessons I learned on Mount Adams last spring.)
Milo, the assistant leader, sets up a rappel anchor at the top of the Pearly Gates with the pickets and rope we would otherwise have carried up to the summit just for kicks. Some folks choose to downclimb, but I for one will not pass up an opportunity to rappel. I’m the second down after Milo, but get caught behind some downclimbing team members at the narrowest part of the chute. That’s okay—I’m pretty comfy looking around and leaning back on the rope with my crampons dug into the snow. When the way is open, I zoom down and then head back down the Hogsback. Tons of climbers are heading up now, and we dodge and weave as we sidestep our way down. In the light of what’s quickly becoming day, we can see sulfuric steam venting from the fumarole—yes, this is a volcano!
Denara, first down, is waiting for us at the end of the Hogsback. We sit down and snack and relax as the sun slowly comes over Crater Rock towards us. When it gets close, I move my things to the other side—the now-sunny side—of the ridge and relish it. We watch climbers head towards the Pearly Gates and towards the Old Chute, our Plan B route if the Pearly Gates didn’t work out. My stomach feels a little upset, so a team member gives me a piece of candied ginger, which helps.
Eventually the rest of the team joins us in the sun, and eventually we continue down. My right knee is aching a bit, and I feel it as we step downwards.
We stop to de-layer and then stop a bit further on, where the snow is very soft, to take off our crampons. We plunge step down and down and down, and the Palmer lift and the lodge and parking lot beyond get slowly closer. The sun is hot now, but I don’t want to take off my fleece because I’d have to stop and I’d have to put on more sunscreen. I add more sunscreen to my face while I’m walking anyway. Every time I think of sunscreen, I add more. I will probably still be a little rosy-cheeked when we finally finish. My knee complains off and on—mostly on. I push on with vigor despite it. To be honest, I’m feeling way better than I expected to. I haven’t even yawned yet. I feel good and strong and damn was that summit amazing or what? Everything I ever dreamed of.
The first step off the snow onto the asphalt is jarring. We clomp individually to the bench by the climber’s registration and sit in a daze for a bit, then make plans to meet at the brewery in Government Camp. By the end of lunch, we’re all fading fast. Denara and I say our goodbyes and head over to the Reed College ski cabin, where we sauna, shower, and nap for an hour and a half or so. I manage to give away a few more remaining cookies, and then we head back to town.