Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Liberty Ridge - part II
(Hooman Aprin on the approach to the Carbon Glacier)
The drive was wretchedly scenic; after three highly caffeinated hours of traveling through ancient forest and rural delight all I could think about was a destination. Any destination will do just fine. A guilty notion fell upon me that like the comfort of a stolen blanket: I just should have just grabbed a bottle of Maker’s Mark, skipped over the Canadian border and went climbing with the guys up in Squamish. But I made a commitment to my climbing partners that we were going to climb this Ridge, and dammit there’s no turning back now, no matter what.
Wearily arriving at the moonlit park entrance gate, we now had a decision to make. The hope of obtaining our climbing permits disappeared with the setting sun hours ago. If we wished to stick to the original plan, that is to arrive at Glacier Basin Campground by this evening. Then we must do it without permits, without setting a pen point to a registration book and without any authorative knowledge of our existence on this mountain whatsoever. We must move like ninjas and live like outlaws among the glacial moraine; lurking in the shadows throughout our entire expedition. This would be a gamble that would fringe the realm of utter and absolute stupidity. Therefore, this notion was entertained for approximately thirty seconds before being shot down like a slow moving goose from a September sky. We made the safe and sound decision to wait until the following morning. The reasoning was simple really: climbers register for their own safety. When it gets heavy up there, and when it seems like you have just seen your last sunset, these rangers are very often your only way off a mountain alive. After all, they’ve got helicopters. Do you have a helicopter? I didn’t think so. And the purpose of the thirty-dollar climbing permit, you ask? Where do you think the money comes from for those life-saving chariots that fly to your rescue? The other purpose is poop removal. Nearly five tons of human waste is removed from Rainier’s high camps annually via 55-gallon drums also tended to by climbing rangers. Poor bastards, it’s not enough that these guys have to save yahoos like me from imminent danger on a routine basis, but they also have to clean up our excrement. The least we can do as responsible members of the climbing community is wait one day to buy our permits.
We turn the car around, and made our way back to a Mexican restaurant we all cravingly eyed up en route a few hours before. Time for a round or two of dos-equis, burritos and a few laughs. We found ourselves some accommodations and decided to sleep late the next day. Seeing how it is going to be an easygoing three and a half mile hike from our starting point at White River Campground to Glacier Basin, we may as well rest while we can.
June 27 – Day 2
We ambled into the ranger’s station late in the morning, to cross our little t’s and dot our standardized i’s. And after the forms were properly completed, the ranger raised his head from his suspicious proofread and scanned our meager climbing faction from left to right as if still analyzing my discernible scrawl. After what seemed like a ceaseless amount of time of eyefull scolding, the khaki clad operative firmly threw us some words, “So, Liberty Ridge?” Remembering how many frivolous citations I’ve received from park rangers growing up back east, despite my leave-no-trace ethics I so religiously practice, I suddenly felt as if I were trying to plead my way out of a speeding ticket. My confidence melted under the heat of his sobering glare, my nerve was completely lost. Pointing at Hooman I jibbered, “He was an Exum Guide!” That would surely pacify this man’s desire to squash our plans. After all, Hooman has led more than his share of Himalayan expeditions, two of them being on Everest. The word Exum carries much clout in ballpark we play in. And Hooman is our climbing partner, our team member, our ace in the hole. There’s no way this khaki monster can take this Ridge away from us. No way! My inner dialogue screamed, ‘You wanna play hardball, let’s play Ranger Bob.’ As if sensing the angst and disorder that seemed to be coming to a boil beneath my skull, the Ranger warmly replied, “So, you guys are in for some beautiful weather, let’s get you some beta.” It seems I’ve had way too much coffee.
The man rose from his swivel chair, gave me one last odd glance and motioned to a man on the other side of a flapping door. A lanky figure wearing a big toothy grin beneath a long squiggly beard, he introduced himself as one of the climbing rangers who just took a poke at the Ridge few days ago. Looking at this long-limbed, bearded fellow I think to myself that I must have met this guy on Phish tour somewhere in the green hills of Vermont at one point. But feeling sheepish at my previous outburst I decline to make the statement.
Gesturing towards a poster of Rainier’s formidable north face, The Ranger excitedly dished out some of the best beta we’ve come across since researching this climb. I read from his encouraging demeanor that he is every bit as confident in our abilities as we are. With eyes wide and ears open, we absorb the information like sponges reclaiming the tide. He explained in great detail every life-saving nook and cranny that can provide an emergency bivy to wait out certain ferocious events that may or may not happen. It’s no secret that brutal weather has a tendency to come in fast and hard; clamping it’s ugly jaws into your hide when you least expect it. Then pointing at a dark, chossy triangle at the top of the Ridge proper that appears to be neither nook nor cranny, he made it clear that this is our last oasis if the “shit really hits the fan.” “The Black Pyramid,” he grins, “though incredibly exposed, is the safest location between the Ridge and Liberty Cap.” I instantly imagined being marooned on that cold lunar island of chunky volcanic debris, sandwiched between two active avalanche chutes from east to west, then shivered. The ranger followed up with more hints and tips until our minds were fully quenched and dripping with new found knowledge. We thanked the generous man and shot back to the car in order to gear up.
It’s an inevitable, no matter how many countless hours you spend packing, unpacking and reconfiguring your backpack at home, its’ contents will always be purged and dumped haphazardly in a trail head parking lot. More energy bars will be added, cookware will be traded, extra pairs of rolled-up socks will disappear, fuel will dance from pack to pack. And if all goes well, ounces will be traded for grams. Knowing this ritual is indeed inevitable; to this day I still load and balance my trusty 55-liter Gregory until the wee hours of the night until every single precious piece of gear prioritized to perfection. Again I ponder my coffee consumption and vow to invest in a duffel bag.
We finished up our parking lot juggling act, laced up our Koflach boots, donned our packs and headed to the trail. The warm sun fell on our backs while wafts of soil and pine filled our snouts. That’s when I noticed that the gray spongy handle of my trekking pole suddenly became warm, sticky and vividly crimson. Peering down at the five little suspects, I began my interrogation. I poured contents of my Nalgene on their heads until at last one of the little piggies squealed. Gawking at my torn flesh, “Shit, that’s a hell of a flapper!” shouts Jared. “Yeah, must’ve been the Koflachs, I guess they’ve got a bit of an edge on them somewhere.” I replied through gritted teeth. The drippy wound ran deep under my left pinky’s knuckle. Luckily, I always keep some swatches of duct tape wrapped around the bottom of my water bottle for such an occasion. I quickly dismissed the thought of how this lesion will later become an unbending menace when the temperatures take their inevitable evening plunge. I plucked the dead skin as one would a swollen tick from a hound then quickly dressed the wound. Coming for a closer look, Jared asks, “So, what do you think he meant when the ranger said, when the shit hits the fan?” “Ahh, he was just giving us the worst case scenario, we’re in for great weather for the next few days! It’s gonna be smooth sailing, don’t worry about it a thing man.” I didn’t know who I was trying to fool, Jared or myself. But satisfied with my response, we gave a nod towards the trail and let the sunlight carry us deeper into the park.