The air was fresh and the sky blue when we climbed out of the cramped Dodge Dart and gathered our gear. Four friends and I were about to climb Mount Rainier, a 14,410 foot volcanic mountain in Washington State. Les, Mike, and Chris, college students, and Mr. Larks, an older man interested in climbing. And me. At sixteen, I was youngest. And I was in charge.
I’ve climbed all my life. My Dad taught me how. By the time I was twelve, I was experienced enough to lead shorter climbs. By fourteen, I’d climbed Mount Rainier twice, as part of a team. Would I be able to rise to the challenge to lead my friends up this mountain? I guess we’d all find out.
“Everybody ready?” My voice felt thin and nervous, but I fought to keep it calm and friendly.
“Yeah! Let’s do it!” my companions cried.
The climb began well. We started at Paradise, a visitor’s center 5,000 feet high on the southern slope. After an hour of easy hiking along a paved alpine trail lined with hundreds of colorful wildflowers, we reached the Muir snowfield.
Muir is a huge snow patch on a curving ridge; the only sure footing between two glaciers. After six long hours spent slogging through the deep snow, we were 10,000 feet up, at Camp Muir.
Though Camp Muir is little more than a windswept area of packed snow and granite, I was glad we had reached our sleeping camp. There was a nicer camping spot about a thousand vertical feet higher on the mountain’s slope, but I felt it would not be kind to force my companions further. Though I was an experienced climber, I was tired, and I guessed my companions were too.
We cooked Ramen Noodles and hot dogs in a small pan over my camp stove. It was 7:00 p.m. when we turned in. We had to be up and moving by 1:00 a.m. to reach the summit before noon. By mid-morning, the sun would be hot enough to melt the snow, causing rocks to come loose. This is called rockfall. Rocks falling out of the melting snow could roll right over us, or bump into other rocks, causing an avalanche. I would have to lead the group through the crevasse fields in the dark. I hoped everyone would trust me, even when they couldn’t see.
Our night’s rest wasn’t peaceful. Mr. Larks woke everyone up when ground squirrels decided to use his sleeping bag as a jungle gym. He jumped like a jackrabbit when he felt them running up and down his legs. I helped him out of his sleeping bag and together we shooed the squirrels away. Mike’s sleeping bag was on a gentle slope. He felt like he was about to slide down the snowfield. Every time he was on the edge of sleep, he’d awake with a startled yelp.
Needless to say, none of us got much sleep We woke up slow, fumbled with our gear and started hiking at 2:15 a.m., over an hour late. Even then, as we followed the bobbing glow of the lights strapped to our helmets, we had many delays.
Mike had crampon trouble. He snagged his pant leg with the front point, falling on his face in the snow many times before he figured out how to plant them in the ice. Les kept getting tangled in his harness, and complained when his rope-mates walked too fast, pulling him off his feet.
Chris was headstrong and anxious to reach the top. He wanted to leave the slower people behind.
“It’s too dangerous to leave anyone on this mountain alone!” I cried. Chris backed off but I could tell he wasn’t happy.
I began to doubt myself. After all, I was the youngster on this trip. Was I really sure of my decisions? I needed patience to cope with these difficulties. But they seemed so much bigger than my, I wasn’t sure what to do.
I rearranged the teams, putting Les behind me. I didn’t want to look like a wimp. I was the guide, but I felt that I needed guidance.
We rested near Cathedral Rocks, a jumble of boulders between the Cowlitz and Ingerham Glaciers. Though the sky was clear, we heard thunder.
“What’s that?” Les asked.
“Cadaver Gap,” I said, pointing to a spoon-shaped ridge to our left. “That’s ice falling,” I said. “In the 1930s a three-man climbing team fell from there. Their bodies were never recovered.”
No one spoke for awhile. I hoped my companions were learning to respect the mountain, if not me. Everyone hiked without complaint until Les started groaning.
“What is it now?” Chris snapped.
“I need to stop,” Les said. “My feet hurt.” When he pulled off one of his rented boots, I saw the problem. The ill-fitting boots had made large blisters on his heels.
“That’s it!” Mr. Larks said. “I’m taking him down.”
I looked at Mr. Larks, then at Les. Mr. Larks was obviously angry, and Les looked tired and scared.
What should I do? I didn’t want to lose my temper. Both my patience and my experience were running short. I took a deep, calming breath.
“Remember the crevasses? The snow bridges? The loose rock?” I said.
“We had to rope up to get over it safely. I care about all of you. I can’t let you take anyone through unroped. Besides, we’re a team, remember? We all go up together, and we all come down together.”
It took ten minutes to put tape and moleskin on Les’s feet so he could climb.
“If you had really known what you were doing, you’d have checked his boots before we started,” Mr. Larks grumbled.
“Yeah! You should have been more careful who you brought along,” Chris added.
They were right. I was responsible for them. Maybe I could have planned better.
“Well, we’re here, now. We will get to the top. And we’ll do it together.”
Mr. Larks grunted and resumed climbing.
As we trudged along, I saw that I’d been looking at the wrong things. When we began the climb, my biggest worry had been technical problems¾glaciers, equipment; the “how” of this trip. Now I saw that the biggest challenge was inspiring the group to work together.
Soon the slope in front of us became very steep. It was slippery, too, because the snow had begun to melt. I wasn’t surprised when Les groaned again. I could imagine his pain as each step forced the boots against his blistered heels.
“Hang in there, Les. I’ll pad your feet some more when we reach the summit.”
“I can’t make it,” he moaned.
We were on a steep switchback trail above Disappointment Cleaver. We couldn’t see ahead.
I knew I had to look outside myself to get us safely to the top.
“What we need,” I said quietly, “is to focus on something besides the struggle.”
Les stopped, jerking the rope attached to me and Mike hard. He bent, gasping for breath, looking like he really couldn’t take another step.
At the top of the next switchback was an outcropping of dark rocks.
“Look, Les!” I cried. “See that pile of rocks? That’s the summit!”
Everyone’s mood lightened, now that our goal was in sight.
“C’mon, Les!” Mr. Larks cried. He stepped behind Les and gently pushed him up the steep slope.
When we reached the summit, everyone whooped and grabbed each other in a group hug. Then Mr. Larks, Chris and Mike dropped their packs and explored the crater that had been left when the mountain, now an inactive volcano, had last erupted.
Les sank gratefully to the ground where I’d placed a tarp atop a steam vent. He sighed with pleasure as I added an extra layer of soft moleskin to his sore feet.
Going down was easier, and so fun! We made good time by sliding down steep slopes toboggan-style. Soon we were laughing and joking. The earlier tensions were forgotten.
Every time I climb Mount Rainier, the Universe teaches me something new. This time the lesson wasn’t clear until nearly the end. I pushed, cajoled, and lectured my teams. Until I saw that my experience wasn’t enough. Then I reached outside myself, and looked for a way to inspire.
When we began, I thought it took experience to be a leader. Now I know it also takes faith.