I thought I’d share a story I wrote recently about climbing Mount Rainier with world-renowned climber/guide Dave Hahn (Everest 10 times and counting!)
As most of you know, my good friend Nathan and I just finished summiting Mount Rainier this past weekend. In reflecting on the experience I realized a few things about myself and life in general that I thought I would share with my friends and family.
These were the labored sounds of crampons, an ice ax, and pressure breathing heard in the still darkness this past weekend as I started my summit climb of the 14,410 ft. volcano named Mount Rainier in Washington. What a trip. Only now, a full day after, am I free to think about what the experience truly meant and taught me as yesterday all I could think about was the “chores” of eating, drinking, breathing, staying warm and stepping carefully (so as not to pull my rope team into a 100 ft. glacier crevasse or
stumble on rocks breaking every bone in my body). There are the sheer facts that convey something of the trip: 18,020 ft. of elevation change in 2 days; 14 hours of hiking starting at 2:07am ending at 4:24pm with 7 breaks totaling around 2 ½ hours; a bedtime of 6:30 pm with 15 other men in a shack with wood floors and sleeping pads (no mattresses here!); climbing with a guide that has summited Rainier over 250 times, holds the world record for
successful summits, 25, on Vinson Massif (the highest peak on Antarctica) and the non-Sherpa record for summits on the highest mountain in the world which is ten (for those unfamiliar with Sherpas go here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sherpa#Sherpas_and_mountaineering ). Then there were the breathtaking sights that included an early morning sunrise at 13,000 ft that turned the entire mountain glacier a soft rose-colored red, the distant string of other climbers’ headlamps in the early morning dark that told us we were going to climb – maybe even as high as the stars overhead, and the immense summit crater with it’s rocky rim warm to the touch gently reminding all of the power contained within this mountain. All this would have been enough to make the trip worthwhile, but the mountain that to me has been a hopeful symbol of the majesty of creation and the Creator gave even more than this. It, along with the guide who knew it intimately, taught me lessons that I will always remember.
The first full day of our trip was Mountaineering 101 taught by one of the best in the world, Dave Hahn. He, along with his assistant guide Andy Bond (no relation to James…) set out to teach us the basics of how to breath, walk, and work as a team to ascend a mountain that he kept reminding us was going to be anything but easy. This was not hiking… we needed to learn how to cope with the altitude and danger of the mountain using techniques like pressure breathing , duck walking , rest steps and self arrest . Yelling “Falling!” loudly to signal everyone on the rope team to self arrest stopping the potential death fall into a crevasse was not enough Dave said. “You have to yell it with some fear included”. At the same time, this man instilled confidence in his laid back likeable demeanor. He was the first to fling himself down in the snow with his ice ax, showing us the proper uncomfortable position of a self arrest. This was hard work, he told us, but not to worry… it would get harder!
The next morning was our ascent from the Paradise parking lot (5400 ft) to Camp Muir (10,080) and the first of my life lessons. The previous weekend my friend and I had climbed to Camp Muir as a training hike. We had our packs on filled with weight and were pushing ourselves. I’m someone who likes to go fast and hard, probably more out of lacking patience than anything. My mother always says that my father walks fast and is in a hurry wherever he is going and I too have inherited this trait. As we climbed, we passed a climbing group from RMI (the company we would climb with one week later) that seemed to be going painfully slow. The group was taking each of the small steps that were carved in the snow in comparison to me taking every other step and going much faster. As we drove home, I commented to my friend that I hoped we wouldn’t go that slowly the next week and it would be a challenge for me if we did. Well sure enough, we did go that slowly but the reason was now evident.
“The goal is not to make it to Camp Muir, the goal is to make it to Camp Muir feeling strong”. Dave reminded us of the whole picture, “Most people have a vision of reaching the summit and celebrating, and this indeed is worth celebrating, but you have to have enough gas in the tank to make the climb down safely because it’s a long ways down from the summit”. “I see amateur climbers make this mistake all the time – frantically trying to blaze up the mountain slipping and expending all kinds of energy. They have to stop every five minutes to pretend they’re appreciating the view when really they need to rest”. Well as much as I didn’t want to be patient, I was reminded that this was about endurance and longevity not fast and hard. I have to say this was one of the most powerful metaphors of life I learned over the weekend.
Towards the top of the summit the pace was slow – STEP REST BREATHE STEP REST STEP. Yet something awed me when we finally hit the parking lot at the end the climb and I looked back at this mighty mountain. I couldn’t really imagine that just nine hours before I had been basking in the sun of the summit. This mountain like much of life looked too big, too steep, and too far to climb and yet I had. “How?” I asked myself. The answer contained many things: mental and physical endurance, trusting and having good guides, and the providence of good weather, but most of all this mountain had been climbed by simplifying. The basics of eating, drinking, resting, breathing and the “next step” were the tools I had used and been taught. Nothing more. Oh sure, there was the rope knots, ice ax and crampons, techniques like self arrest, and all the gear, but what got me to the top were the basics. I had climbed the most challenging mountain in the lower 48 states that I now saw behind me simply by stepping and breathing, slowly but surely moving up the mountain. Life needs to be more like this for me. Simplify the complex task; boil it down to the really important things.
Eat, drink, rest,
and patiently move on to the next step. “FHOOOOO!”
There’s Never Enough Time On The Top…
Getting to the summit of Rainier on a clear day is breathtaking, both literally and figuratively! The last few hundred feet couldn’t come fast enough as I approached the rocky rim that marked the boundary of the volcanic crater. Climbing over the edge, I peered into the vast snowy crater that sat 50 ft below. Columns of steam rising from sections of the rim, dirt and rock that was warm to the touch, and the sight of Mt. Saint Helens off in the distance all eerily reminded me this was no simple mountain but a volcano with the power to blow me and my companions into little bits of ash. It was a humbling thought. As we walked down to the bottom of the crater, the thought of taking my pack off and having a rest was extremely alluring. “Let’s take 5 minutes to eat and drink something and then we’ll head to the true summit.”
Dave’s words reminded me this journey was not yet complete. This was the last thing most of us wanted to hear at that point and time but you don’t climb as far as we did to not go to the true summit. The first stop on the way up was to sign the notebook containing the history of all who have summited. My name is forever inscribed on a notebook destined for a National Parks closet archive, but well worth it all the same. I noticed Dave’s signature, Dave Hahn 9/8/08 – 251. Mine was similar except for the last part, my name 9/8/08 – 1. After everyone signed, it was a “quick 5 minutes to the top.” “5 ‘guide’ minutes or 5 real minutes?” asked someone in the group reacting to the last time report of “only 10 minutes to the top” as we had approached the rocky rim.
At the top the view was spectacular. Even with the haze you could see for hundreds of mile in every direction. The line of volcanoes to the south was impressive, first Adams, then St. Helens, Hood, and finally Jefferson?. To the west were the skyscrapers of Seattle and Tacoma along with Puget Sound and finally the Olympic range. To the north and east were the ridges and points of the North Cascades with Baker and Glacier peak being the landmarks. Pictures were taken and congratulations were admonished and there was happiness ever after… or at least for 10 minutes. Then it was back to our packs to “refuel” and take care of any “blue bag business” we might have (for any questions about “blue bag business” please direct your questions here http://www.nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/things-to-know-before-you-climb.htm or ask me personally if I know you well ; )) After trying my best with the blue bag, eating, drinking, and finally resting what seemed to be all of 2 minutes Dave rounded us up and said, “OK, it’s been an awesome day on the summit and we’re going to start heading down. Remember there’s a long ways to go and we want a safe decent. You may want to strip some clothes off although you need to keep your skin covered and gloves and helmets on.” After struggling with the cold all the way up, we would now be uncomfortably warm all the way down. “Mountaineering is all about being uncomfortable most of the time” as Dave put it.
The descent probably held more dangers than the ascent mainly due to the warmth of the day. This is part of the reason for the alpine ascent of the trip . In the cold of the night, everything that can be dangerous is more secure because of freezing. Rocks, snow bridges which cross crevasses, and the snow being traversed is all much more dangerous as the day wears on. We were reminded of the rocks especially as we neared Camp Muir and saw a rock the size of a small car that had fallen and smashed a path right over our footprints from the night before. Another danger of the descent is the fatigue felt by everyone which results in more missteps and lack of concentration. After all the adrenaline and excitement of summiting, now there is just a giant walk down of 9,000 feet in the hot sun.
This all reminded me of two life metaphors that I struggle to embrace. The first is there’s never enough time at the top. One thing you notice at a high mountain summit, there’s not an abundance of life. In fact most of the time there isn’t any. Life just can’t be sustained at 14,000 ft with the year-round snow, wind, and weather. People live in valleys for a reason. Life is possible there. While a mountain summit is spectacular, you just can’t stay for long periods of time. I often cling to my life “mountain-top” experiences never wanting them to move on or end, and no matter how tightly I grasp the time of heading to the valley inevitably comes sooner than I would like or choose. Secondly, the journey down reminded me that in life getting to those “peak” experiences, just like in climbing, is only half of the journey. I remembered the countless times Dave had reminded us that the goal is not just to summit but “having enough gas in the tank” to get back to the parking lot safely. Finding a way back down from peak experiences in life can be hard and grueling -the time after a honeymoon where marriage really starts, the sleepless nights after a child is born, the hours spent finding a job after graduation. The list goes on. The key is knowing a majority of life is spent living between the mountaintops and “enjoying the walk down”. Without the life-sustaining “normal” valleys of life, the mountaintops would get cold, barren, and even dangerous.
Needing A Guide
Dave made a comment during the weekend that he wasn’t a “professional climber” wanting to bag as many summits as he could but rather he was a “guide” who loved to get people up the mountain. Throughout the time, I noticed the subtlety of a master coach that definitely knows how to prepare and bring out the best of people. One of the climbers in our group was a strength and conditioning coach who had trained another climber and wanted to experience what his client had experienced. I could tell from a distance after the training day and climb to Camp Muir that this man was somewhat nervous about making it to the summit. He struggled on our summit day as we got to our second break, right after a grueling stretch on Disappointment Cleaver. This is a steep stretch where we traveled up a rocky ridge that protrudes and separates two dangerous glaciers. This is all in the coldest, darkest part of the night with the added trickiness of climbing on rocks with the sometimes slippery spikes of crampons. When we reached the break after Disappointment Cleaver, which is around 12,000 ft., I looked over at this fellow climber. I was struggling at the time with some nausea and trying to stay warm, but he was clearly distressed. He was ready to turn back and was talking to an assistant guide about doing so. Dave calmly walked over and knelt down. As the words came out I had the feeling this was not the first time he had uttered something similar on a mountain, “You can do this. You need to concentrate on your breathing and only the next step ahead of you. I’ll move you right behind me on the rope. We’ll get you up this mountain. FHOOOOO!” Indeed, he did.
Slowly and steadily this man did what he didn’t think he could. When the man came to get his summit certificate at the end of the weekend, feet full of blisters and bloody, he told Dave with emotion in his eyes, “I wouldn’t have made it up this mountain without you,” to which Dave replied, “sometimes people just need to be reminded of what they’re capable of doing.” Now as a mental health counselor (and human being), I notice these types of interactions and they excite me. I was reminded of things that I need in my career, in my life. Dave has a passion for mountaineering, for experiencing all that it has to offer, the challenge, the beauty, and the adventure. Dave also has a passion for bringing out the best in people for challenging them to do what they think they cannot do. I have a feeling that this was a meaningful moment for this man that will be remembered much more than the beauty of the mountain. This was a moment when someone believing in him gave him the power to believe in himself. This is what I want to offer to others.
“Let’s go for a walk.”
I love watching masters work. As a musician, I’m amazed when I watch someone so comfortable and knowledgeable on their instrument that it simply becomes an extension of their being. Hearing Michael Jordan discuss playing defense and the intricacies of every move on a basketball court or Tiger Woods talk about a cut sand shot or hitting a 211 yard fade 6 iron out of deep rough is amazing in every way. These people have enough knowledge and experience that they don’t even have to think to do what they do. They simply do it. What is even more remarkable is someone that is able to teach what they do in ways that aren’t demanding or condescending. This is the essence of Dave Hahn. In his easy-going manner, he would both convey the seriousness and difficulty of the mountain as well as the fact that we were going to climb it, period. I found two examples of his innate teaching especially impacting.
Throughout our training day he talked about the importance of pressure breathing. In high altitudes, the lack of atmospheric pressure causes oxygen molecules to be further apart, making it more difficult for lungs to take in the needed oxygen. One of the ways to combat this is pressure breathing because it forces more of the carbon dioxide out of our lungs exhaling forcefully thus making it easier to inhale more oxygen. This is easy to comprehend although at times hard to remember. Throughout the weekend Dave would gather us on breaks and talk about what was coming. While he would talk, he would often intermit a pressure breath subtlety reminding us to do the same. While climbing on the trail, he would do the same (whether it was out of his own habit, need, or conscious teaching I found it to be a great reminder). What was fascinating was to hear the echo of each man “FHOOOOO!” following Dave’s breath. Soon pressure breathing was ingrained and habitual for every man in the group. Teaching through modeling is a powerful method.
Mountaineering can be intimidating for most people especially the first time out climbing. You have unfamiliar gear and danger, physical demands, and a giant mountain waiting to be climbed. Part of a guides job and calling, I imagine, is to instill calm and convey confidence in everyone while teaching. This can be a hard balance somewhere between overbearing and unconcerned. As we started towards the training snowfield the first day, my ears grabbed hold of the words that marked its beginning, “let’s go for a walk.” Simple, confident, and down to earth, these were the words that often marked the transition from a break back to climbing one of the most difficult mountains in North America. The mantra continued all the way to the end, each time giving me assurance and comfort, expressing an ease and reminding me to focus on the step in front of me. In my current life of transition and change it’s comforting to think of these words. I have to admit, I’ve taken these words over as my own. So the next time I’m facing one of life’s big climbs that is full of discomfort, danger, and uncertainty I hope to think of Rainier’s lessons. Most importantly, I hope to be reminded of Dave Hahn’s mantra, “Let’s go for a walk.”