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The Leader

Man Versus Mountain

By Brooks Tucker
Reprinted from The Leader, Fall 2002, Vol. 18, No. 1

  Brooks Tucker
  Brooks Tucker on his way to the top.
CONWAY, WASHINGTON —Our journey began in earnest on the well-maintained switchbacks that carve their way through dense forest at the base of Mount Baker, in Washington’s North Cascades Range. Two hours later, laboring under the weight of our 60-pound packs, we left the treeline and traced our way up through mist and alpine flora on a steep, rarely used trail. I caught my first glimpse of the mountain and its snow-covered moat when I crested the last yards of that path.

We had just covered five miles and nearly 3,000 feet of elevation gain. Now above 7,000 feet, we stopped to set up camp on a tree-rimmed plateau. After dropping our loads like millstones we rubbed sore shoulder muscles, slurped water, and surveyed the carpet of conifers beneath us. The valley was darkened by cloud shadows and spotted with lonely, lime-green meadows. A mere hundred yards away, set against a sky full of shifting mist, lay the mammoth toe of one of Baker’s glaciers. Further up, amidst wisps of cirrus above 10,000 feet, lay the pearly snow of her summit.
During our first attempt to reach the top, inclement weather blotted out our intended route. We turned back soon after departing camp. On the morning of our second try, a forbidding mist again obscured the camp in a gray soup that hung a few feet above the snow and reached far up into the clouds. But on the third day we awoke well before dawn to an ink-black sky speckled with crystalline constellations. In the darkened valley below we could see moonlight shining platinum on Baker Lake.

After devouring a hastily cooked breakfast, we gathered our ropes and packs, flicked on headlamps, and quickly strapped crampons to our boots. As we filed along to the snowfields, the steel points scraped and sparked against bare rock. Once each climber had tied the shared rope into his harness the first team methodically began kicking steps in the crusty snow. We followed in trace, our lights illuminating small circles on the frozen ground.

A maze of crevasses criss-crossed our route — shadowy fissures and bold black jaws of depths unknown. Far ahead, the headlamps of the lead team swept the glacier along the circuitous route our instructor was carefully probing and blazing. At one point he announced he was at the edge of a precarious precipice of snow with no way of moving forward. A different team dutifully struggled up another stretch of glacier and found a passable route, sticking wands in the snow to guide us.

Eventually, the sky began to brighten enough that the summit could be seen in the distance. As we crested a ridgeline, stiff gusts that had burnished the snow to a glassy texture now stung our faces with thousands of ice needles. The sun soon transformed black volcanic rock on the adjoining peaks to vivid hues of rusty red and deep orange. Each team paused long enough to catch its breath and snap pictures, then labored on.

Five hundred feet below the summit, and halfway up an imposing 45 degree ice slope, our rope team hesitated. Lee Anne was grimacing and favoring her right leg, grudgingly admitting that she had twisted her foot early in the morning. She winced as we pulled off her boot and examined the tender, swollen ankle. It was clear we would have to descend as soon as possible.

Climbing down as a rope team was a painfully tedious process. Some four hours later, tired, thirsty, and sunburned, we crossed the final snow bridge and reached camp. The mountain had defeated one more batch of would-be conquerors. But we bore it no animus. That night, we marveled like children at a meteor shower.

Brooks Tucker spent 16 days on Mount Baker as part of a NOLS Pacific Northwest 25 and Over Mountaineering course.

Reprinted with permission of The American Enterprise, a magazine of politics, business, and culture.



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