Shortly after dawn I was standing on the summit of Mount Rainier, enjoying the first truly beautiful day of summer. It was early June, just three days before the official start of climbing season, and I had gone up the mountain with three of my fellow mountain guides to scope out conditions and prepare the route for our first clients. It had only taken us five hours to reach the summit from our base camp at 10,000 feet, far less time than any of the other climbing parties on the route this morning, and when we arrived at the crater rim we were the only ones there. It would not be a common occurrence once climbing season got underway and we reveled in the solitude by unroping in the crater and cracking a few beers that Ryan, my best friend, had carried up for the group.
Brandon pulled off his helmet and smoothed back his hair with one gloved hand, then looked at the can he was holding in the other. “Coors? Really?”
“Each can is only eleven ounces. It was the lightest I could find.”
“A real man doesn’t sacrifice quality for weight.”
Ryan said, “How about next time you carry the beer?”
“I think it’s great,” Jess interjected. She was the peacemaker of the group. “Especially because there was no way we’d be drinking them if there were other people up here.”
I sipped my own beer. Despite having been wrapped in fleece in Brandon’s pack during the trip up, it was as cold as ice and it made my teeth hurt. If I didn’t know the group better—and if I wasn’t part of it—I’d think we were all idiots. On paper it was an awful idea. Not only did alcohol increase the risk of dehydration and decrease reaction time—it also reduced the amount of oxygen getting to the brain. When you were already at an altitude at which only sixty percent of the oxygen available at sea level existed, drinking on top of a mountain sounded like a Darwinian tactic to thin out the population.
But I knew my friends well, and I didn’t question their skill and judgment in the mountains. We trusted each other with our lives—hell, Ryan and I had known each other for most of mine. It wasn’t something that was easy to explain, but I’d seen Jess lower herself into a terrifying, inky black chasm of ice to seek shelter from a blizzard. I’d seen Brandon slip on a thirty-degree angled ice slope and yell “Falling!” to alert the rest of the team before he even hit the ground. I’d learned that all three of them had scoured the mountain without rest for the three days that I was missing, never losing hope despite what must have looked like an impossible rescue mission. And then I watched them show up, day after day, to participate in every single recovery mission I led over the following weeks—and those really were impossible.
Still, drinking beer at the top of Mount Rainier wasn’t really recommended by anyone. We could get into serious trouble if our employer, Rainier Mountaineering, found out. Which was why we were doing it while no one else was around.
When the first climbers emerged at the crater rim twenty minutes later, we stashed the empty beer cans and pulled out Gu energy gel packets (Ryan called them “goop”), trail mix, Ritz cheese crackers and Oreos. One of the most overlooked benefits of climbing—an excuse to eat like you were twelve years old again. Eventually I decided to make the short trek across the crater to Columbia Crest. Not surprisingly, no one else was interested. It was only a half-mile further from where we were standing and just a whisper higher, but that didn’t matter to this group. When your job took you to the summit of Rainier two to three times per week in the summer, the main objective was energy conservation, not highest high point. Also, I think they knew that I wanted to be alone.
So now I stood alone on the true summit of the mountain. From 14,410 feet above sea level, the world looks nothing like anything that can be relegated to a daily existence. There are no buildings, no highways, no trace of human presence. There are other mountains but from this height their peaks appear to be nothing more than afterthoughts, splinters of rock added to something already long completed. Endless sky stretched around the horizon and the sun was brilliant in the east, its rays penetrating the thin atmosphere like a hot knife through butter. I felt warm, though with the wind chill it couldn’t have been more than twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit.
Willie Unsoeld, the legendary Pacific Northwest climber who died in an avalanche on Rainier, once said that people climb mountains because they yearn for convergence. That from the summit of Rainier, the world is a circle, with valleys and glaciers and rivers and ridges radiating outward like the spokes of a wheel. He said that when you stand on the top of Mount Rainier, you’re standing on the point of union, the place where everything comes together.
And yet here I was, on the top of Mount Rainier, but nothing was coming together. One year and two months later, it still seemed like everything was coming apart.