Follow The Rope

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Mt. Adams, Washington, United States
By Ed Abell

“The man who, on such a dangerous enterprise, seeks the assurance of a safe retreat will not deserve to draw near to the throne of the gods” – Gunther Dyhrenfurth

As the plane arched to the east taking me home from Washington, I caught one more glimpse of Mt. Adams. Normally indifferent to us mere mortals, she seemed to smile as her northeast ridge flirted in my direction. We had climbed up the Adams Glacier to the summit in 5 hours. It would take us 6 hours to down-climb that ridge on our return to high camp. All of us had run out of water as we descended in the relentless heat, with the constant dust removing any remaining saliva. We stayed roped together as our serpentine queue kicked stones down the mountain and on each other negotiating the knife edged ridge. More than once I said to myself, “No fuck’n way…”

We were roped together because of safety, of course, but moving tied as one unit can, on occasion, create its own oppressive dominion. We tugged on each other as we moved over what was, for others and me, very difficult terrain as fatigue crept in.

After hours of maneuvering and stumble scrambling in our plastic mountaineering boots, we finally made it to the bottom of the ridge where we found our group resting and we un-roped. Traveling alone now with my new freedom I headed for the first snow patch, I laid face down in the coolness and filled my hat with the icy melting relief.

Horror struck me when I realized I had to re-ascend the increasingly uphill line across the high-camp snowfield for an hour before I could find water. For now, a hand full of snow would have to quiet my inescapable dehydration. I could see the clawed marks in the snow where my other teammates had scraped away the dusty surface and grabbed a fist full of barely temporary relief. Our third guide, Aaron stayed at my side as I struggled up the ever-steeper slope with heat exhaustion, fatigue and a thirst beyond any experience. (This was my vacation?)

My teammate, Randy was our strongest and funniest member. I could see him standing by his tent willing us forward. As the last three of us stumbled into camp he was standing to greet us, “Great job, Ed.” I acknowledged him with as transparent and hollow a thumbs-up as I’ve ever given. Had I attempted to speak, all that would have come out was, “croak”. Aaron graciously filled my water bottles as I folded over the top of my pack. I gulped half a quart in one slug and hobbled to my sleeping pad. My two tent mates heard me and called out, “well done.” As I collapsed into the shade of our abode Paul said, “You better get into your sleeping bag, Joe and I both have the shakes from heat exhaustion.” In moments, all three of us were shivering inside a tent that was probably 75 to 80 degrees. Before we found our needed sleep we took the time to celebrate our success with brotherhood of shared experience…the ordeal had taken 13 hours but we’d knocked the bugger off! It was my third volcano on three different continents, by far the most difficult of the three.

Back to the beginning…

Summit day had started at 2 a.m. We consumed hot drinks and oatmeal surrounded by the surreal environment created by eleven beams of light from the headlamps in the mess-tent and the steam from the mugs. From behind one of the columns of light, Justin, our head guide, announced, “There will be no day dreaming, stay focused. We’ll run an hour and take a break. That will be the point of no return. If anyone doesn’t feel strong for any reason, they can go down. The next stint will be two hours through the most dangerous area.”

Outside the mess tent the guides had placed three parallel ropes on the snow in groups of, 4, 4, 3, with the figure-eight knots identifying the spot to clip on. I decided to climb with our guide Mike Hamill. He had encouraged me during my first day ordeal with the 50+ pound pack as we worked our way to the first camp. He had guided excursions on Mt. Everest and many other mountains across the world. He was the type of person I could trust easily. We were the third rope so I figured the foot placements would be well formed for our use. My inner voice said, “Well, Eddie, here you are…a real climb, breath deep, concentrate and place every step wisely.” I was taking a gulp of air for each step as we criss-crossed up on to the glacier. If I broke my rhythm and forgot to breathe deeply, fatigue jumped all over me.

The previous two days were spent learning rope travel, self-arrest, cramponing, ice climbing, rappelling, safety protocol, crevasse rescue, belay and running a picket line. All the skills we would need today along with about 50 different types of knots…and me without a note pad. We all knew we couldn’t remember everything but we felt well prepared for our summit day.

My world became concentrating on foot placements and staring at the rope. When it moved, I moved. When it stopped, I stopped. I could only rest when the rope did. We climbed for an hour and took a break. Mike could tell from my posture and expression that I felt good and gave me a big smile. Our next pitch would be two hours moving across the 50-degree slope where we were susceptible to falling rocks and ice from the hanging seracs we were moving under. It is the reason we left at 3 a.m. There is less chance for debris to break loose early in the morning when it is colder. We were taught to yell “rock” or “ice” if something had broken loose from above. Once we were underway, I suddenly heard “ice”! I looked up to see many small pieces falling but a brick size chunk bouncing in my direction. I can still hear the swish of the piece as it passed my head two feet away. I smiled to myself and thought, “Live every moment.”

Our second break was near the top of the glacier. We all found spoon-shaped pockmarks in the ice/snow big enough to rest in. We would take off our packs to sit on and don our down jackets to say warm. If I had dropped my water bottle from this perch, it would have tumbled over 3000 feet. As precarious and exposed as this seems, roped together with my teammates, I felt quite safe and very alive. I took some photos and mused; nobody was going to believe this.

Somewhere along our assent we crossed an 8-foot wide by 60-foot long crevasse on an ice bridge. I’m just following along, mind you, watching my foot placements and the rope. I look up to see a 3-foot wide strip of ice everyone before me has negotiated. My mind said, “Well, buddy, you’re not the heaviest guy…” I stepped onto the bridge because that is where the rope was going. On each side the view was without bottom…

The arc of the topography slowly lessened and we were soon standing on the summit plateau. The acrid smell of sulpher reminded us this was a volcano. At this point the three groups took slightly different paths but we were all together on the top in 30 to 40 minutes.

Handshakes all around and summit photos, we all felt great. I found a quiet moment alone on the summit and released some of my father’s ashes that have been my tradition. The feeling perched on the summit is the motivation to climb in the first place, an absolute reaffirmation of life! At this point, we had no idea what the descent would make us endure.

Other people started to arrive from the different routes up the mountain, none more difficult than the one we took. I’m told people can push a baby stroller up the easiest route. Anyway, up walk three guys. As soon as the first one speaks I recognize the “Wis connn sin” roll, he’s a Cheesehead! Turns out these fellows are from the Green Bay area 70 miles from where I live near Sheboygan. Small world.

The night before the summit push I had nervously waited in the mess-tent until I was alone with Justin Merle, our head guide. There I sat, never having lost the 20 or so pounds I wanted to for this climb and old enough to be his father. I somehow summoned the courage to breach the subject concerning my physical limits with a man who had just reached the summit of Mt. Everest this spring. I understood that this was the correct time to bring the issue up, not half way up the glacier at five in the morning.

I had been the last one to get to camp one on the first day. There were two of us who thought we were the reason we didn’t push all the way to high camp. Because I was one of those people, I told Justin I could get to the top but had my doubts about two major descents on successive days. He looked me right in the eye and said, “Yes, you were slow getting into the first camp but you stayed with the group the second day and you’ve done well in all training exercises. If you are pumped you can do it, 50% of this is,” then added, “The hike back to the cars is non-technical”. He was right, of course, and I made it to the top. All of us suffered on the way down in varying degrees. I was perhaps the only one who didn’t really know what to expect.

Our leaders for the Mt. Adams Glacial Seminar & Climb from International Mountain Guides, Justin Merle, Mike Hamill and Aaron Mainer were exceptional and professional in their dealings with all of us. They were also great teachers, excellent cooks and good comrades, worthy stewards of our glacial adventure.

The 5-mile downhill hike with my still heavy 50+ lbs pack began by sliding 300 yards down the first snowfield on my butt. I took my time clambering over the boulder fields we encountered and I expected my knees to give me the most pain. It turned out to be the bottom of my feet that hobbled me. They are still swollen two full days after the trip from the pounding they took. Aaron was again my wingman and towards the end I ran out of water. I wish to thank him in print for sharing some of what he had left. One has to experience real thirst to understand what a noble gesture that truly is. I was the last man to the cars, arriving to kudos from my mates.

Had I doubled my workouts before the trip, I probably would only have decreased my lag time behind the group and as teammate Jeff J. said to me, “Don’t be concerned with your pace, no worries, keep digg’n, the important thing is to get it done.” In the end we all covered the same distance. All my teammates were younger, more experienced and very supportive. Nobody ever said anything about the first camp and for all I know everyone was tired. I was proud to have climbed with them…all gentlemen and a great bunch of guys.

A few of my teammates knew from conversations we had that my true goal had been to climb the glacier and summit in real mountaineering style, not prepare for the next greater mountain like so many of the others honing their skills for Denali. This I accomplished on a route some felt was more challenging than any they had experienced climbing Mt. Rainer, the bigger brother of Mt. Adams.

After the obligatory never again, however, my mind has already placed my most cherished memories from the trip on the mantle of success and I’ve begun calculating the future possibilities…my visions already include; sherpa, porters or pack animals.

It will be the pain, dust, thirst, exhaustion, adventure and the shared experience with my teammates that I will covet the most because in the end, all I did was I simply follow the rope.

After our return home, many of us stayed in communication and sent photographs to each other. During some of the exchanges I came to a better understanding of how the other team members felt about the more difficult parts of our trip.

In an email from Randy Todd he said, “None of us will ever forget coming down the Northeast Ridge and the last snow-field”…amen to that, brother! Then he added, “I’m a huge football fan…you are what I always thought Packer fans were like; tough, gritty and resilient…” These are very sympathetic words from a kind soul but at the time I didn’t feel like any of those descriptors.

This trip more than any other, including my summit of Kilimanjaro by the Western Breach in ’04, placed me at levels of physical and emotional endurance that went beyond any previous experience. For the guides it was just another day in the mountains. Most of my teammates had all been to volcanoes in Russia, Ecuador or Mexico. This Advertising VP was happy just to survive the moments when I couldn’t possibility take another step but took it anyway because stopping was completely choice less.

Mountaineering is an endeavor to endure discomfort. That is why the joke is, “The mountaineer’s cocktail is a blend of; codeine, Imodium and electrolytes.”

Experience taught me some excellent lessons but the most valuable piece of my education was one that my teammates already knew…it was that the tremendous satisfaction of taking those impossible steps grows to the point where you want to take the “test” again.

“I meant to tell mankind about a new state about which I could tell little or nothing, to teach them to tread a long and lonely path which might or might not lead thither, to bid them dare encounter all possible perils of nature unknown, to abandon all their settled manners of living and cut themselves off from their past and their environment, and to attempt a quixotic adventure with no resources beyond their native strength and sagacity. I had done it myself and found not only that the pearl of great price was worth far more than I possessed, but also that the very peril and privations of the quest were themselves my dearest memories. I was certain of this at least: that nothing in the world except this would be worth doing.” – Aleister Crowley

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