I still remember vividly how frightened I was, standing at the base of the summit pinnacle, staring up at that nearly vertical, final eighty feet. All around me there was already massive exposure, standing on a ledge known as ‘chicken point’ that itself was only ten feet wide, and beyond it there was only air for thousands of feet to the pumice plain below. I had gone rock climbing once, four years earlier, but that had been on a crag fifty feet high on the edge of Ogden, Utah. This was entirely different.
I was on Mt. Thielsen, aka the “Lightning rod of the Cascades”, it was late September in 1998, and I was on my own. My friend and climbing partner, Mike, who had climbed the mountain multiple times but was also slowed by a severely arthritic hip and back, was some half an hour behind me. When I say I was on my own, I do not mean that I was alone, in fact there were around ten people on and at the base of the summit, but I did not know any of them, nor did I have rope, harness or the knowledge how to use them, but Mike had assured me that it was climbable without technical gear. Several of the climbers ahead of me were forsaking ropes and seemed to be managing just fine without. I sidled up to a couple of climbers who were belaying others in their group, and asked them for advice, and they told me what Mike had said, that it really was overkill to use a rope, but that a fall would be almost certainly fatal without one. They encouraged me to try, and offered the option of grabbing their line if I felt I needed to.
I still think it is funny that the thing that gave me the final impetus was watching a couple of much bigger, bulkier climbers ahead of me, and hearing the roped climbers comment on how they (the bigger guys) looked like a couple of mountain goats scrambling up the blocks of the summit. Hmmph, I remember thinking to myself, those guys aren’t mountain goats. I am a mountain goat.
What I remember most about the actual climbing up to the summit was just the incredibly intense focus I experienced in each and every moment, with each handhold and each foothold, I just zeroed in on whatever I needed to do at that moment and nothing else. Everything fell away, all the unnecessary stuff in my life that didn’t pertain to what I was doing right then and there was gone, completely and utterly gone. I literally reached a state of satori, that zen moment of pure awareness and realization, but in this case it was a sort of mountain satori. I tested each hold before committing to it, each movement was precise and certain, because there was nothing else to get in my minds way. I was certainly aware of the exposure, but my fear did not rule me, it served a purpose to make me focused.
Then I was on top, on the card-table-sized summit, where literally everything around me fell away for thousands of feet. It was nauseating, at least that first time. My body had no frame of reference to compare it to, and so I gripped the rock and sat down, happy to have made the summit, but frightened to be so exposed and even more afraid to have to climb back down. That particular fear really clouded that first summit experience, I hardly got to enjoy it at all because I knew I still had the serious task of getting back down. I did take the time to peer over the north side, because Mike had told me how epic it is, and he was right, the north face falls away in a sheer three thousand foot drop. (On a later climb I would drop a stone from here and it took nine seconds to hit the Lathrop Glacier below.)
I think I stayed maybe five minutes on that first summit. All I really wanted at that point was to get down. Climbing up was one thing, but scaling back down those near-vertical rocks was not a task I was relishing. I was scared, so rather than delay, I chose to face it.
Once more that Zen awareness took over, perhaps even more so on the descent. In truth, I remember almost nothing about climbing back down, except feeling anxiety in the chimney section, which is the most insecure part of the climb, but I managed to get past it all, and returned to the relative safety of Chicken Point. The roped climbers congratulated me and told me I looked like I belonged up there. Pride washed over me to hear their words, and I don’t know if I realized yet how much my world had changed.
The rest of the day was a long one, much longer than I had anticipated, so much so that I returned home to a near-panicked family who had already called the Sheriff’s department. Despite having to sleep on the couch that night, I was elated, and for the next week I was in a state of post-satori bliss. I had never experienced anything like this before, and by then I knew I was hooked.
I wasn’t able to climb any other mountains that year, but I began to buy my first climbing guides and my imagination saw in these books something incredibly alluring, and from that a new path unfolded before me: The path of the mountaineer, of the voyager, exploring these high, great peaks because they are magical, and the road to them is magic too. I picked out a few peaks for the next year that I knew were easier novice peaks – Mt. McLoughin in southern Oregon, South Sister, which, despite being the third highest mountain in Oregon, had a summer trail to its summit, Diamond Peak and many others. I read everything I could get my hands on about mountaineering. I was obsessed. I began to plan.
I had been reborn. I was a climber now.