“We should do something this summer, Dad, we never hang out anymore.”
As the “Cat’s in the Cradle” started playing though my head, I paused mid-discussion with my 27-year-old son, Patrick, and acknowledged that it had been a long time.
I was thinking a blues festival or a backpacking trip. “Let’s climb Mount Baker!” he said, sensing he’d set the hook.
At 54, I hadn’t thought of doing a technical alpine climb since I was his age. Though I don’t consider myself in “bad” shape, I’m certainly not the solid physical masterpiece of human mountaineering that he has become.
“Just 10,781 feet - it’s really just a trudge up; you can do that, Dad,” Patrick said, noting that he could borrow the climbing gear I’d need.
So, I had nine weeks before July to somehow get in good enough shape to not let my son down. I needed to get ready to trudge up a mountain upon which I could fall in a crevasse, gore my leg with a crampon and bleed out, or otherwise die. No problem.
I live on a hill with 50 steps up the front yard. I worked up to carrying nearly 50 pounds of water in preparation for thousands of steps up Mount Baker.
To spice the physical demands, Patrick later learned that an access road had washed out. “We are planning to borrow a mountain bike for you and some bike trailers and we are going to pedal in the 7 miles to the trailhead.”
I didn’t even think to ask about the elevation gain on the bike leg. Perhaps it’s best than I learned the hard way about the 2,400 feet of ascent on wheels BEFORE the climbing started.
To mess up the old man’s mind even further, Brian, the other experienced climber on the trip, suggested we should ski down after the summit. “It would be so much faster and easier.”
I thought this through carefully: “I don’t like out-of-bounds skiing … I’m not that confident … I’ve never done that … I’ve never skied on that type of skis … I would have to carry them up the mountain!”
Then I said, “Uh, OK.”
Next thing I knew I was in Seattle and the “boys” were gearing me up. The next day they took me to a glacier for my crash course in Mountaineering 101. I lacked a lot of necessary skills, but was convinced they had them mastered. At least I could be assured they would pull my frozen body out.
By noon, we were at the glacier camp on top of a ridge and I learned of “not straying” outside the “probed” area footprints, building wind shelters, boiling water from glacial snow, drinking more hot punch than I thought that I could possibly consume, and ice-ax golf!
The guys crawled into their sleeping bags about 6 p.m. with hours of summer sunshine left in the day. My difficulty going to sleep was aggravated by the occasional ice falls loudly rumbling down off the face of the peak two miles away.
We were awake at 2:30 a.m. Somehow, in the dark, Patrick picked the route, kept us from stopping in the slide zones, got us across snow bridges and crevasses, and up we climbed.
We lightened our loads and left our skis at an icy saddle in a howling wind above gaping crevasses and continued up.
Topping the last pitch, Patrick’s pace was steady, my legs were questioning and my lungs searched for oxygen.
“Dad, don’t be a slacker and don’t be a jerk,” Pat had said matter-of-factly, emphasizing in a teasing way how to be a safe rope-mate.
“Too much slack and the momentum of a fall would build too quickly … Don’t let the line jerk on the guy ahead - he has his own work to do.”
We reached the summit at 9:40 a.m. on July 1.
I would like to say that I was elated and overjoyed. We were there and it was spectacular! But, in honesty, I was very tired and anxious about skiing back down the mountain,
My tutors honed my glissading techniques as we started down: “Use you ice ax as a brake.” Brilliant!
We recovered our skis and, with another safety briefing about technique and routing absorbed, I clipped into the bindings and tried to remember how to ski.
We were back to the camp too fast. I wanted to ski more, but under a heavy pack, I also found myself wanting to ski less.
Working our way down, across the snow bridges and over crevasses, my technique wasn’t perfect, but my skiing wasn’t horrible. The guys had made a good call: skiing was so much easier than if we had needed to trudge down through the soft, afternoon snow.
Off the glacier and into our recovered approach boots, we hiked down a trail, then biked the 7 miles of road with smoking-hot brakes.
It took a few weeks for me to process the entire journey this trip had represented. I’ve been “The Captain” for a very long time and here, on this climb, I passed the controls not just to a climbing guide, but to my son.
The essence is in these last lines of a longer poem I wrote about the experience:
To come to trust and recognize
The son’s a man, such skill he has.
And so the mountain top it was
Part of the journey one might say.
To risk, to love, to trust OK
He knows you dad, it’s safe let’s play.