Volcanoes and Ancient Philosophy


A panorama from Disappointment Cleaver

The weekend before last, I tried to achieve a life goal of mine– #21, Climb Mt. Rainier.  I didn’t.

Here’s what happened.

On the night before we started climbing, everything looked good.  I had been training for months.  Practice climbs, classes, reading mountaineering guides in my free time.  The usual.  I had a team I trusted and liked.  We were all in shape, healthy, and eager to go.  Our bags were packed, gear checked, double-checked, and we even left on time.  Most fortuitously, after we reached base camp on the first afternoon, the rangers said that even though there was some avalanche danger, they were optimistic about the weather– a gift, given five days of storms, high winds, fresh snow, and no one summiting.

Unfortunately, neither did we.

One the second day of climbing, everyone gets up between midnight and 5 AM to try and reach the summit and make it back to base camp before the heat of the day and the weather changes.  We were on the trail by 2:30 AM.  I’m not a morning person, but I wake easy for alpine starts.  We set out across the Cowlitz glacier up towards the imposing Cathedral pass in the dark of night.

A few hours later, we were nearing the base of a giant rock formation that splits two glaciers– the Disappointment Cleaver.  One group– some firefighters from Seattle– had been ahead of us the whole time, and as we crossed the snowfield to the cleaver, we watched their headlamps bobbing up, and then, down the side of the cleaver. We met them at the base– the bottom of the lower part of the rock, on a 45-degree snowfield that bottoms out a few hundred feet below into an enormous crevasse.  It wasn’t the sort of place you’d normally want to spend more time than necessary, but the other group had kicked out little seats for themselves in the snow and were resting up. “How was it up there?”

“Eh, no way up.  You can try; we’ve got no idea.”

I looked up.  They pointed a way not to go.  “Well maybe I could try below that shelf.  How long are you guys going to be here?”

“Dunno.  We don’t know if we’re going to make it up there.  And here is where the rangers said there was avalanche danger.  Not sure we’d want to be coming through this mid-morning.”

Oh yeah.  Avalanche danger.

At the cleaver's base

At this point, the rest of my team had brought in the slack in the ropes and we were all within earshot of the guys.  Another pair of climbers was right near us too.  Some of us were studying the cleaver.  Others looked at where we were standing.  Will was digging.  A few minutes later, he set an anchor and called us over.  “Look at this snow!”  We did.

Six solid, icy inches of snow on top of a foot of soft snow on top of more hard, icy snow.  Textbook avalanche conditions.

It was almost 5 AM.  The sun would be rising soon, and it would be hitting this face within a couple of hours.  There’d be no way we could get to the summit and back before this snow had started warming– and became unpredictable.

We weren’t the only ones who noticed it.  “I don’t like this one bit!” one of the other climbers in the two-man rope team called.  Later, we found out he had a number of first ascents on Himalayan mountains.  He was a pro, and didn’t need to analyze snowpack to sense conditions were wrong.

Those two turned around soon afterwards.  The firefighters had already left.  The tour groups on the glacier below us had stopped for a while, but were turning back too.  It was just us up there.  No one was summiting.

We ran through our other options, but with a low-pressure front coming in that evening, a clear, sunny day ahead, and avy danger only increasing, we decided to turn back.

It sucked.

* * *

I’d like to believe that when I put in everything I can to achieve something, I will make it.  I’d like to believe that when I train for months, reading day in and out about this stuff, and do everything right, conditions will follow suit.

I’d like to believe to believe the universe will meet me halfway.

But that’s not the case.  And it’s especially not the case on the mountain.  Boy, we think the universe owes us something.  It owes us nothing.

I was pissed off when I had to turn around and walk down that mountain.  I’m better now, but not by a lot.  But here’s what I was thinking.  I got home and took a long shower, and I thought to myself: “What would be different?”

If I had summitted, the water would be just as cold.

If I had summitted, I’d be just as salty and sunburnt.

If I had summited, I’d be exactly the same person, only with an extra mile under my belt and an extra peak to my record.

But what is that?  What is that really? Ain’t much.  Not at my core, anyways. Who I am is in no way dependent on what mountains I’ve climbed.  The fact that I failed to reach that goal means nothing in terms of my worth.  That’s what the stoics said– the ancient Greek dudes.  Back then, a hero wasn’t someone who was dealt an awesome hand and used it.  No sir, the gods were too capricious, and you couldn’t blame someone if the gods played rough.  A hero was someone who showed up.  Worth had nothing to do with the cards you were dealt.

The Christians did them one better.  I’m not sure where stoics would say my worth comes from.  Christians would say it’s from my being made in the image and likeness of God.  That somewhere in me– and everyone– there’s a tiny diamond of the divine that can’t help but illuminate every other part of me.

You know why philosophy and religion have been whispering these uncomfortable truths in our ears for thousands of years?  Because they’re so easy to forget.  If I don’t stop and reject these thoughts, I’ll think that the award I earned means I’m better.  Or that my good grade or raise or compliment or nice car makes me more awesome.  Or that Rainier made me worse. But that’s a lie.

I talk a lot about success on this blog.  Ooh-rah.  Same old.  I think it’s worth mentioning a thing or two about failure as well.  The universe didn’t come running out with open arms this time.  It’s nothing personal.  But this story isn’t over.

Rainier, she don’t give it up easy.  That’s fine.  I can respect that.  But you should all know: I’ve got a one-track mind.

I’ll be back.

Sights worth seeing twice.


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