(This story is the second installment that details the latest Expedition Denali training mission to the summit of Mount Baker )
My field of vision was restricted to a bright white cone of light. The beam of my headlamp reflected back the blue-grey footprints of the climbers on lead ahead of me. Overnight the summer slush had frozen to a solid mass of ice that threatened with every step to sweep my feet right out from under me. On the Easton Glacier of Mount Baker at 4 o’clock in the morning my world view compromised nothing more than a coil of rope, the tips of my crampons and the toes of my boots. As I walked through the darkness nothing else mattered but the satisfying “snick” that sounded each time I kicked steel into snow.
It was a walk of faith. Despite the light from our headlamps Billy and Tyree were all but invisible. Last in a team of three I used the rope to pace myself walking just fast enough to keep it slack. Careful not to step on it, never letting it pull tight. “Summit Team yellow!” I yelled the code for our unit to slow us down at a switchback turn. Changing my ice axe to my uphill hand we continued kicking steps. “Summit Team clear!” I was doing better.
Nine of us in three teams traversed a treacherous field of cracks that could swallow a man whole. Blind to the danger each crevasse I crossed went unseen until it gaped underfoot between strides, a black void of oblivion 18 inches wide. My heart pounding over the abyss compulsively I tightened the grip on my axe ready to arrest my fall. And so it went in the hours before dawn as we made our way to summit.
My pace had improved dramatically from two days before. From our last dry camp at the edge of the glacier I plied the lessons I’d learned in the importance of balancing rest with plenty of food and water. With full packs we began our ascent to our next bevy at Crag View, a flat expanse of ice at the base of Mount Baker. But first I polished off a full breakfast of pancakes slathered in syrup concocted of brown sugar melted with thick globs of butter. Washing it down with rich hot chocolate I made sure not to eat less than I should. There were plenty of leftovers for a hardy lunch later in the day. I stashed away what remained in my pack. Weighted down with three liters of drinking water I humped the load feeling a little lighter knowing this time I wouldn’t bonk.
Fed and well hydrated we broke camp and headed out on to the glacier. Covered in snow the long steep climb held the combined challenge/advantage of a path with steps to follow carved by the precarious placement of one slippery foot plunged deep after the other.
“Just swing your leg with the momentum of your boot and plant it. Shift your weight over your foot and rest,” said my teammate Adina Scott. “Take your next step and don’t apologize to anyone for your pace.”
Raised in the Pacific Northwest Adina is at home in the Cascade Range. She learned the art of glacier travel at a young age. Honed over time and long experience hers are skills I truly admire. Despite the heavy load of her pack and the rough terrain she moves with a grace and apparent comfort that’s worth emulating. Perhaps for the first time I seem to recognize the genuine value of a talented mentor to help guide my own practice in climbing. Despite years of experience in mountaineering I realized watching Adina on this trip I still had a lot learn.
Plodding up and along the glacier we marched with a steady rhythm choreographed to each intake of breath, each beat of our hearts. In no time we moved as one, roped together in teams of three united in our purpose to achieve the summit.
“You’re doing much better today,” said our team leader Angela Patnode when we stopped for a rest. “How do you feel?” “Good,” I replied. “It helps to have my tanks full. I feel stupid for not eating the other day.” She smiled sardonically with a nod that said “No shit, knucklehead!”
Returning her smile with one sincere I stood synching tight the waist belt on my pack. At that moment I took great comfort in the knowledge that with her guidance and the support of my team we’d make it to the top. Of that I had no doubt. The following day as we walked into darkness my confidence persisted. With lighter packs our heaviest gear left behind at base camp we clipped our way along a frozen passage that grew brighter as the sun rose behind us from the east. We marched onward into the morning as each step carried us closer and closer to our goal. Then all at once we stopped.
A long line of climbers intersected out path from the opposite direction. On a route from the west popular among commercial guide services, a stream of 20 clients roped in teams of six slowly slumped to the base of the headwall with the unyielding momentum of a freight train on a downhill slope. Despite our fewer numbers and greater speed we allowed them to pass giving them clear access to the narrow near vertical climb over rock and ice to the summit plateau.
Resting there in our tracks we watched as the party went past. Among them was broad array of ages, gender, relative fitness and apparent ability. A thousand feet below the summit they walked with the reluctant lockstep cadence of school children on a field trip. Seemingly a group of strangers I couldn’t help but compare their experience to ours. Surely they would make it to the top of Mount Baker, but each would likely enjoy a singular sensation of individual accomplishment. We climbed and would summit as a team, committed together in the common purpose of inviting others to follow our example.
When the National Outdoor Leader School invited me and several other African-American climbers to train for a summit bid of Alaska’s Mount Denali in 2013 I accepted with the enthusiasm of anyone asked to join an elite group. Hoping to raise awareness among people of color for the opportunities that exist in mountaineering and other forms of outdoor recreation where minorities are disproportionately under represented our goal is to demonstrate that there are indeed black folks who climb.
But in the months since this journey began, 9 months before our climb to 20,000 feet I wakened to many of my own shortcomings and limitations both as a climber and a person. This experience on Mount Baker as part of a team opened my eyes not only the physical challenges that lay ahead but a clear understanding of what it means to work cooperatively toward a shared goal. Though our objective is the top of a high mountain, our mission is to demonstrate that anyone regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, disability, etc can find the same struggle and satisfaction in climbing as an individual as they can as part of a greater whole. Together we all make it to the summit.
And so we did. Our team of three lead the final push to the peak of Mount Baker. We crowded the volcanic dome as each member of our party belayed the next to safety until all nine of us stood side by side. As we stood there, the morning sun on our faces, Adina pulled off her her Gore-Tex shell. Underneath she wore a shiny silver sequined tank top over a puffy down jacket.
“Am I the only one who brought summit bling?” she asked. We erupted in a chorus of cheers, high-fives and joyous laughter. The wind howled with us as it swirled around our dancing feet still clad in crampons. It was 9AM.
Learn more about Expedition Denali online at www.expeditiondenali.nols.edu/
Photo by Brian Fabel
Learn more about Expedition Denali online at www.expeditiondenali.nols.edu/
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