Memento Mori and Moderate Mountaineering
Standing in the dirt parking lot of the Barclay Lake trailhead, John and Nick and I peer up through the trees at this rocky mass jutting up from the valley floor, its prominent north face looming 2,200 feet over Barclay Lake. We’ve been talking about trying this peak for years.
Mt. Baring is the third-steepest peak in Washington. It’s the most visually striking of the dozen or so peaks you can see from down in the Snohomish Valley where I live, a sharp sawtooth set at the narrow end of the mountain ranges that funnel your eyes (and your car) east on Highway 2 as it winds its way toward Stevens Pass: Merchant and Gunn on the left, Index and Persis on the right. Some are taller—Index, for sure—but none have quite the allure of Baring. Baring just looks badass.
I’ve always wanted to climb it. We all have. But hopping out of the car in February of 2005 (a year of record low snow), seeing this massive chunk of rock looming above us, it just doesn’t look climbable. The first thing I say is:
“We can’t climb that!”
But we’re going to climb it, by god, or at least we’re going to try. So we start our own little version of group-think self-talk:
“I know, it looks impossible from here,” says Nick, who has probably read every route description written in the last 10 years. “But once we get to that notch”—he points to a narrow gap not far from the summit, the one that separates the north peak from the south peak—“it’s supposed to be pretty straightforward.”
Straightforward! That’s our word for stretches of the mountain that look hellaciously difficult from a distance—say, when you’re 4,000 feet below—but end up being pretty clear-cut once you get up close. Usually routes reveal themselves, either because you see some faint boot path from past climbers, or there are cairns, or, faced with the next hundred yards in front of you, there’s really only one choice. Most climbs, no matter how hellacious they look from the bottom, turn out to be straightforward.
“Yeah,” John chimes in, “there’s supposed to be a couple class 3.2 stretches up there, but we’ll go slow, figure it out.” John’s citing the YDS, the Yosemite Decimal System, which ranks hikes and climbs into five classes. Class 3 is a scramble with “increased exposure,” where handholds are needed and falls could easily be fatal. I listen to what John says about this, because John is the most trust-worthy guy, super measured in his reactions. He’s never too up or too down, just level.
John and Nick are both instructors for The Mountaineers, a local climbing group with branches in Seattle and Everett. They teach classes on how to handle yourself in the mountains and they know the lingo, where you should rope up, when you’d be better off with a helmet. This climb was right on the edge, and we were doing it with ice ax and crampons only.
I get the buddy version of their instruction, without all the bullshit and the night classes. Of course I don’t get to learn the secret handshake either, but the way I figure it, you don’t need a stamp of approval to climb mountains, you just need to know a few things.
We’re not hardasses, we three, at least not in my mind. There’s no bluster, no machismo, though I think a neutral observer might suggest we’re playing out our own kind of tough-guy stoicism, with our “straightforward” and “class three moves” talk. But honestly, we’re not trying to prove anything. We all have families; we all subscribe to the idea that the best climb is the one you come home from.
We’re not daredevils or thrill seekers. That’s what we tell ourselves. We look up to the real hardcore climbers: the ones who free-climb Half Dome or climb Everest without oxygen, the ones they make movies out of and feature in Alpinist magazine. (Nick jokes that we’d be lucky to make Moderate Mountaineering.) But it’s true that we’ve moved past the easy summits, the ones recommended to tourists, the ones you take your kids on. We generally seek out summits that have a bit more of a challenge, stuff that might spook a novice.
So here we are, standing at the base of a mountain that will challenge us, about to expose ourselves to an incrementally higher level of risk than we faced the last time, all because we want the thrill of accomplishment that comes from scaling a mountain under your own power, standing on the top of the bloody world. It’s one of the most intoxicating feelings I know.
The feeling of standing on top of a summit, especially one that not many people climb, is pretty intoxicating ... but I can’t help but recognize that part of what draws me back is the experience of living in the tension that lies between the “I can’t do this!” feeling at the trailhead (my daughter, Louisa, voices it as “Oh fuck no!”) and the “I did it!” on the summit. It’s not just reaching the summit; it’s also encountering and overcoming this peculiar feeling I get standing at the bottom of a mountain that looks too hard to climb.
It’s not quite terror, this feeling, and I hesitate to call it fear. It’s more complex than that. Awe and trepidation are mixed in, and they’re all sharpened by knowing what can happen if you fall on a steep rock face: a sudden slip of the boot, a desperate grab for a handhold, and then a fall of who-knows-how-long? Smashing against rocks? Shattered limbs? If there’s death, is it sudden or does it come slowly, as I wait for uncertain rescue? I don’t mean to be hyperbolic; this is just stuff you know happens in the mountains.
There’s a kind of dread, though not of the work, what Louisa and I jokingly call “the suffer” (she did this same climb with me in 2016). It takes work, thigh-burning work, to get up high, to ascend thousands of vertical feet just for the privilege of reaching the scary parts. No, the dread is knowing that I’ll work really hard, pushing myself to my physical limits, only to come face-to-face with those parts of the climb where I’ll whisper to myself, “focus, pay attention, if you fall here, you die.” Will I have the energy to muster concentration and physical control when it matters most?
I don’t dwell on these dark thoughts because I’m discouraged or don’t want to complete the climb. I’m doing the damned climb! I dwell on them because they make the experience that much sweeter. It’s my own version of memento mori, a stoic meditation on death as a testament to life. It enhances the excitement and wonder I’ll feel as the hike unfolds, helps me anticipate the pulse of adrenaline as I overcome the last obstacles, physical and emotional, and stand on the summit.
And all those great rewards are better for being enjoyed with friends: the Caribunkle Boys or my daughter, Louisa.