Day 3 The Climb to Camp Muir
I started my morning at 5:30 AM which gave me ample time to finish my previous blog post, I wasn’t able to finish it the night before because I had to move rooms. Being the genius that I am I only made a reservation for a single night, when I needed to make it for two.
The new room turned out to be a blessing because it had a functional thermostat, and a real floor mounted heater. I was actually able to get a night’s sleep without much of a problem. The Nyquil I took the night before had done its job, and the pending feeling of a cold had subsided. Once I was up and about, I made my way to my new found Saloon down the road to order breakfast. This time when I entered there were a handful of local regulars, who didn’t seem to flinch at the site of someone wearing plastic Mountaineering boots, Goretex Pants, and a Gortex Shell.
We were set to meet at 8 AM near the gear rental shack, and our entire group was on the road by 8:30, our destination was Paradise. Paradise is home to the Paradise Inn which was built in 1920, and the story goes that the wife of the wealthy individual, who financed the Inn, took one look at the area and said she was in Paradise. Later years brought the building of a guide house, which today houses a visitor center, all of it owned and operated by the park service.
As we rode up the mountain to an elevation of 5400’ I was in awe of the various fir and pine trees that frame the road, closer to the entrance they stand like soldiers, tall, lean, and standing at attention. The closer you get to Paradise the trees become, shorter, thicker, almost lazier, the elevation changing their DNA. In the summertime I’m told the wildflowers fill the once snow covered fields with an array of colors that captures ones attention, and stirs child like emotions, I’ve been told that more than one person has broken the rules and stepped off of the trails to run their hands through the palate of color that exists where normally there is only white.
When we pulled into the parking lot of Paradise, I realized that my lack of planning not only caused me to pay full price at the Bunkhouse, but prevented me from enjoying a couple of nights of comfort and rustic luxury in the Paradise Inn.
As soon as we started to get off the bus, it started to rain. I watched as the rain drops created dimples in the snow pack around the Paradise parking lot. From the appearance of high snow banks in a handful of spots near the backside of the parking lot it was clear that the snow was recent, and it had come down heavy.
We made our way with our gear into the large atrium of the Paradise Inn, the place was adorned with furniture and fixtures that reminded you of a ski lodge from the Rat Pack generation, I could almost see Frank sitting on the couch in front of the fireplace smoking a cigar, while Sammy drunk on some expensive scotch would practice his moves on top of the long tables made of fallen pine trees.
This day the tables would serve as our staging area.
Our guides made sure that we prepared for wet weather, making sure our GoreTex shell jackets and pants were put on, and beneath the shells we were told to wear only one layer of clothing, as it would not be long before our body temperatures would more than compensate for the rain, and the wind.
Once each of us proved to Dan that we were wearing precisely what he had suggested, he headed out the door. Dan led our group, and he seems to me to be the consummate hustler. The fact the rain had already started, and the possibility that the rain would change to snow as soon as we reached a higher altitude, seemed to propel Dan’s footsteps.
Like JJ, Dan has the years of Mountaineering etched into his face, yet his complexion makes him look slightly younger than Dan. He doesn’t say much without being prompted, he is focused, and when the switch turns on he’s ready to go, at times I’m sure some people can find him rough, but when the time is right he appears to joke around as much as JJ, albeit with a drier delivery.
His sense of urgency moved us out the door with our gear, and onto the trailhead, he changed the tone of our entire group. What once had been jovial and friendly became very serious and committed. I would not truly understand why he had created such an urgent pace, until much later on in the day.
As we started on the tail towards Camp Muir, it was abundantly clear that this day was going g to be far tougher than anticipated, and the real test would be the waterproof qualities of our gear.
Initially the snow was slushy, every step I’d take would cause my foot to slip, but it got easier after about 20 minutes, as the altitude started to change the snow became harder, it wasn’t as hard as a sheet of ice, but enough that my footsteps would stay in the foothold I’d create.
From Paradise to Camp Muir there is about a 5000’ change in elevation, and the distance on the trail is 3.8 miles, and usually takes 4 hours. An hour into my initial ascent, and I realized that my training regime at home had been inadequate; I should have spent more time running hills with a weighted pack.
We took our first break about an hour twenty into our trek, and the sensation of taking the pack off was like being liberated from a Soviet Gulag. During this break Dan made specific instructions for us to eat a snack, and to drink half of one Nalgene bottle. This is a constant theme that is spread around by the guides, eat and drink it’s the only way to survive at altitude, there’s that and breathing.
Comparing my Paleo snacks, to the Snickers, cookies, and other fast carbs around me, the only thing I could think was, “FUCK!” The one time its okay to eat a fucking Snickers and I bring Paleo Treats. Nice job douchebag.
During the second stage of travel the wind picked up, and the rain transitioned into sleet. Wind on a mountain sucks, it makes it hard to hear, it makes it hard to see, and it makes it hard to move, add sleet to the mix, and it’s like having BBs thrown at the side of your head.
As I walked the sleet bouncing off of the hood of my jacked reminded me of the sound of popcorn being popped in another room.
Our group traveled another 90 minutes. It’s during this stretch of work that I found my mind drifting into negative thoughts. When the group would traverse a steep ridgeline, I’d have images pop into my head of falling or sliding off the edge. I don’t know where this comes from, is it just a result of years of negative programming, the years of failure, and self loathing, or was it some intuitive mechanism that was attempting to preserve my life?
It was hard to clear my mind and just focus on my steps. I had to work at it. What’s great for a neurotic person like me is that in Mountaineering you have to move one foot at a time, you don’t look back, and don’t spend too much time looking at what’s ahead, you move, one foot then the next…you just go.
For a guy who dwells on the past, and constantly tries to manipulate his future, it’s strange that I find myself gravitating towards an activity which is always and forever will be about the now.
As we continued through the sleet, my hands were exposed, and the wind gusts picked up, which caused a couple of fingers to go numb. It wasn’t long after losing the feeling in my right fingers that Dan decided on our second break. With the winds going 20+ mph it was tough trying to get my fleece out of my pack and onto my body without losing it. It was twice as hard to get my Gore Tex shell back on, because it wanted to take off like a kite. I had to get one arm in, while keeping the other arm near my body and then roll in the direction of the wind, using it to help me get dressed.
Learning to work in the wind is apparently another skill in the Alpine environment.
I could not believe how much warmer I felt just adding one layer of clothing, it felt like I’d gone from wearing shorts into a down pair of pants. As we moved up the third phase of travel the sleet slowed, and turned into snow. I could tell that the weather change was a result of altitude, because the snow we hiked through became more stable, like it had been falling for some time.
We traveled another 90 minutes, and reached a point where the altitude was about 9500’, this was a quick rest. During this rest, the weather started to clear, and it was the first time we’d had a chance to look down, and see Paradise. The view was spectacular. The Paradise Inn was smaller than I recalled seeing that morning, and the adjacent mountains seemed to embrace our efforts, for just a moment I got a taste of what I’d been missing in my life for years.
We spend so much of our lives trying to reach what CS Lewis Calls the “inner circle”, that exclusive club that we feel we are not a part of, so we work harder to gain acceptance into that club only to realize that there is an even more exclusive club the inner-inner circle. It’s an illusion which seems to be a part of being an American.
Faster, faster, better, better, more, more.
I am just one sinner among many, standing at 9500’ looking back down at the snow covered valley below, I was humbled, all other things in the world seemed trivial, and the inner circles that I strive for in my life seemed as significant as the Paleo Crunch crumbs which fell out of my mouth. A handful of birds ate what I dropped further showing me how pointless some of my aspirations had become…
The final push after our 3rd break was a 40 minute climb through the Muir Snow field. It stopped snowing, and the win subsided. It was a miserable climb; every step that I took gave way, and caused me to either slide, or stutter step. We could see the shelter as we climbed, regardless of how many steps I’d take it never seemed to get closer.
Having a target to approach actually hurt more than it helped; I would break from taking the rest steps which we had learned the day before, and just try to move faster so I could get into the shelter. I was no longer thinking about the now, but the future, and how great it would feel to take off these fucking boots.
I was cold, wet, dehydrated, and now I was cranky. I tried hard to focus on my footsteps, but it was hard to keep focused.
When we got to the shelter it was like we were home. This four walled wood shanty might as well have been the Four Seasons in some warm beach climate. It was felt great to get my pack off, I can only describe it as that sensation you get from holding a poop during a long car ride and that great sense of relief you get from unloading when a bathroom appears. I was done, my poop was out.
We had climbed for five plus hours, when it normally takes four. Unloading my gear that afternoon felt like I’d won the lottery, and hot water to cook my freeze dried food was the Ferrari I just bought with my winnings. The rest of the afternoon and night was spent getting rest, and warming up.
End day 3 here…