13 Apr Secret Places
A friend once told me that she knew why I liked mountain climbing and being in the wilderness so much, “They’re your secret places, that’s why”, she stated as a matter of fact. At the time, I really didn’t understand what she was talking about. How could a place on public land, visible on countless maps, and accessible to anybody who wants to hike there, be a secret?
When Aaron and I met, he hadn’t been hiking much – in fact, he hadn’t been doing much of anything other than working. Of course, I suggested that we go for a hike together, and so on a rainy day, we did a very easy local hike – only 4 miles round trip. He clearly had not been training, but he did great. Naturally, I decided that the only logical next step was to climb a 12,276′ volcano. And so, I hatched a plan for us to climb Mt. Adams – the second tallest volcano in Washington. Upon hearing our plan, several of Aaron’s co-workers placed bets on whether or not he would actually survive the trip.
After a few hours of hiking, we made our camp at “Lunch Counter”, the base camp for a Mount Adams Climb. I had never climbed a volcano with anybody that I’ve been in a relationship with, let alone somebody that I’m in a relationship with who has only had a 4-mile training hike to prepare, so I was slightly concerned that I was pushing Aaron beyond his comfort zone. The next morning, however, we woke up to a spectacular sunrise and the shadow of the mountain delicately touching the valley below. We headed off, Aaron setting a blistering pace up the unrelenting slope, and soon we reached the summit of Mt. Adams on a nearly windless, perfect day. A quick glissade back down to our campsite, and suddenly Aaron had climbed his first Washington volcano, and immediately started talking about wanting to climb more.
Mt. Baker was the next logical choice, since I had already climbed it twice and was very comfortable with the route. We found a perfect weekend in June of 2014, and headed off. After making camp on the “Hogsback” ridge, we departed for the summit at the wee hour of 2:30am. The last part of the climb involves a relatively steep slope called “The Roman Wall” – we started up just as the sun began to rise. I stopped to take a break at one point and looked down at Aaron, who was separated from me by our climbing rope. He was looking off into the distance, excitedly snapping photos of Colfax Peak and the vibrant pink and purple sky unfolding around us. Harnessed together, mutually dependent on each other for our lives and safety, and both completely absorbed in the moment, as if absolutely nothing else on earth mattered.
Aaron told me after we climbed Mt. Baker that it would probably be his favorite summit, because he spent most of his childhood looking at Mt. Baker from Port Angeles, the small town on the Olympic Peninsula where he grew up. The summit of Mt. Baker is a huge plateau, with a small bump on one end of it. When you crest the Roman Wall, you walk all the way across the plateau, and ascend the final 30 feet or so to the true summit. The first time I climbed Mt. Baker, I had never even been on a backpacking trip before, and the experience of climbing a real mountain seemed like the culmination of every childhood dream I ever had. For Aaron, he said he had looked at Mt. Baker for most of his life, and had never even thought that climbing it would be possible. When we took a step onto the summit together, it felt even more special than normal.
We climbed Mt. Baker first, in preparation for climbing Mt. Rainier. I have some history with Mt. Rainier, so I didn’t want to get my hopes up (or Aaron’s!) for a successful summit bid. My friends Brenda and Zak joined us for the climb, which we planned for the end of July in 2014. After an uneventful hike to Camp Muir, we set our alarms for 11:30 PM, so that we could be moving by 12:30am. Once on the glacier, our group immediately fell into an extremely fast-paced groove. We passed two other guided groups, and just before 4:30 am, I asked Zak what his altimeter said, “14,100ft”, he replied. Within minutes, we had crested the rim of the massive crater and we were crunching along in the frozen snow to make the final journey to Columbia Crest, the true summit of Mt. Rainier at 14,410′.
After snapping the obligatory summit shots, our group of four huddled together in the crater to watch the sunrise – Aaron quickly figuring out that standing near a steam vent was the best way to stay warm. We plodded our way carefully back down the glacier, weaving in and out of massive icy seracs and navigating steep slopes, before returning to the rocky scramble of the Disappointment Cleaver. As we descended, we were suddenly bombarded with a massive avalanche of rockfall. With not much cover, we dove to the ground and shielded our heads and necks. A massive rock struck me on my back, flinging me off the extremely narrow footpath – I flailed around somewhat helplessly until I felt Aaron reach out and grab me, and pull me back towards him, to safety. Thankfully, nobody was injured, and with our adrenaline pumping, we scurried off the cleaver and returned to Camp Muir feeling exhilarated and victorious in our achievement.
Glacier Peak has always been a special mountain to me. For one, it is a true journey to climb Glacier Peak, because the approach hike is nearly 15 miles long. Years ago, when I climbed Glacier Peak for the first time, absolutely everything about the trip was completely magical – spending several days in the wilderness, drinking water directly off a glacier, and simultaneously experiencing the most fantastic exhilaration and the most brutal exhaustion was completely otherworldly for me. In August of 2015, Aaron and I made the long approach hike to Red Pass, where I proceeded to get violently ill for unknown reasons – I spent nearly 2 hours curled up in the fetal position, wondering if we were going to need to use the “SOS” feature on my emergency beacon. My stomach was in such agony that I could barely breath. Aaron sat next to me on the ground rubbing my back, as I writhed in pain. Finally, I started to experience some relief, and amazingly I was able to fall asleep without incident. The next morning, I woke up feeling a little shaky, but good overall. We had a short day planned – a couple miles to hike to our base camp, so we decided to go for it. By the end of the day, I felt great and was ready to set our on the climb the following morning.
The great thing about doing a climb multiple times, is that it is absolutely never the same – it is always different and always exciting. I truly believe that Glacier Peak is the mountain in all of my dreams – I don’t know how to describe it other than to say that every single time you blink, you notice something more incredible and more beautiful than you could have ever imagined. Aaron and I started our climb early in the morning – the wind was howling and we couldn’t tell what the cloud cover was going to be like. As the sun started to rise, and the world started to unfold around us, our hearts and minds grew into that infinite space – the space that binds climbers together and draws them upward towards the sky, until they can no longer take another step higher. We found a comfortable spot on the summit, sheltered from the wind, and we relaxed against some rocks and closed our eyes before the long hike back to camp and the even longer hike back to the rest of the world.
Mt. Saint Helens was our last volcano to climb in Washington. We had a very low snow year in 2015, and so Brenda and Aaron and I headed out on a bluebird day in February to tag the summit of Mt. Saint Helens. We cruised effortlessly up to the crater rim, and then made the traverse over to the “true summit” (which is really the high point on the crater rim). And just like that, Aaron and I had climbed all 5 Washington volcanoes together.
When I reflect on our five volcano climbs, I can’t help but think that when we stepped onto the summit of Mt. Saint Helens, the journey had only just begun. In the past few years we have climbed 5 volcanoes (+ 1 more in Oregon) and dozens of other peaks, traveled to several countries, hiked on hundreds of different trails, snowshoed, glissaded, retreated to our tent in downpours and been scorched in blazing heat, soaked our feet in alpine lakes and snorkeled in the ocean. In the hundreds of miles that we have walked and climbed together, perhaps no distance was more important than the 40 feet I walked last November, barefoot, onto a white sandy beach in Moorea, French Polynesia. It was after walking those 40 feet that I met Aaron as he stepped out of an outrigger canoe (paddled by a Tahitian warrior, no less), and we took our wedding vows from a Tahitian priest as a ukelele player strummed in the background.
Last night, we were having a pretty ordinary evening at home. I have a necklace holder hanging in our bathroom, and as I passed by it, I noticed a necklace that I didn’t recognize… I stopped to look closer. The necklace contained one of my favorite Herman Melville quotes from Moby Dick, “It’s not down on any map; true places never are.” On one of our first road trips together, Aaron and I had listened to Moby Dick on tape – he knows that it is my favorite book of all time – and I immediately knew that Aaron had bought the necklace to surprise me.
I thought about that quote today, and it reminded me of what my friend said so many years ago – about “secret places”. When I think about everything that Aaron and I have seen and done together over the past few years, it is somewhat overwhelming. We have traveled the country up and down, from left to right, and even flown across the Pacific Ocean. Of course, anybody can do that – the places that we have visited are not secrets at all, but the experiences we have had there – those moments that exist only to us – those are the secrets. That is why I love the mountains so much – because of their ability to unlock the parts of my soul that cannot be reached by any other means than through sharing experiences with somebody that I love. Having the ability to freely express to another person how overwhelmingly happy I feel in the wilderness is a vulnerability that I can’t explain. To share my passion freely with another person, and then to see that they are just as excited about the adventure, is truly magical.
I can write about our experiences together all I want, but in all of the billions of people on the planet, we are the only two alive who can remember exactly what it was like to take a nap on the summit of Glacier Peak on that particular day in August with the wind tugging at our hair. We can both perfectly envision running through the dark by the light of our headlamps in the pouring rain in Wind River Range trying to scout our route for the next day. Even now, I can close my eyes and vividly remember waking up together on my birthday, huddled in our sleeping bags, in a frost covered tent in a meadow below Broken Top peak in Oregon. Sharing our “secrets” together connects us – it binds us in a way that nothing else on earth can. When I think about that vulnerability, I realize that what makes those secrets so special is that in those moments we are sharing not an actual place with somebody else, but our heart. It’s true that mountains and the wilderness will always be special to me, and Aaron and I have a lifetime of trails left to explore together, but I’ve realized that true places really aren’t down on any map at all – they are inside each and every one of us, just waiting to be discovered.