The Crater Rim
The windows are rolled down and a rush of thick, wet forest air is thundering past our ears and toying with loose strands of hair. We’ve been on the road for more than 1,200 miles by the time we reach the top of Stevens Pass in Washington and step out of the car to feel the dampness on our skin. To us it is luxurious, like standing in a rainforest – we’ve come from the high and dry air of the Continental Divide back home in Colorado. If I close my eyes, I imagine I can already smell the Pacific Ocean just beyond these mountains. I feel giddy to be in this place I have dreamed of, with a name so beautiful – just to say it is a pleasure. The Cascades. Cascades of water, snow, ice, and green, lush forest.
The following morning, we wake early to textured French press coffee and insert our feet into still-damp ski boots in order to chase the few dwindling patches of snow up into the hills where they stage a hasty spring retreat. My friend B and I are on our way out to Mt. Baker, a 10,781’ thermally active volcano – the second-most glaciated of the Cascade volcanoes (after Rainier), Koma Kulshan to the native Lummi Nation. It contains such multitudes of snow and ice that it supports ski mountaineering into the late spring months, and the two of us are driving across the country to meet 7 other climbers and 3 guides (all women) who will join us in a summit and ski descent. We have a 7,000’ vertical gain from trailhead to summit, some with backpacking gear, ahead of us – so we’ve been determined to keep our legs in shape throughout the trip by conquering smaller backcountry ski objectives along the way. We’ve completed tours in Grand Teton National Park, the Bridger Range in Montana, and Stevens Pass, here in the Cascades, where we hoped to find our footing in a new and unfamiliar snowpack.
The mountains have called to me more over the past few years of my life than ever before. I look to high ground for most answers I seek at varying levels of profundity. Much of the time the mountains do not provide resolution at all, and instead pose more questions directly back at me. I suppose I find respite in the contrast between my comparatively minute problems held up against the backdrop of the earth’s most magnificent places. The stress, the struggle, the existential drama that nags many of us – it levitates from our shoulders when we are reminded of our relative size and shape in this universe. Cold air swirls, lifts, falls. The earth breathes in and out. Glaciers move.
Before departure, the twelve women who form our Mt. Baker team gather in a parking lot to strew the innards of our backpacks across the pavement in an explosion of neon fabric and sharp pieces of metal. Helmets, harnesses, boot crampons. Instant coffee, chocolate, peanut butter. Somehow, no matter how many small items you eschew last-minute in the pursuit of ‘going light’, the pack increases in weight with each rearrangement (this is not scientifically verified but is anecdotally field-tested). Everyone in the parking lot is sweating – a near-record heat blankets the North Cascades on this particular morning. We are dressed and equipped for a glacial blizzard, but the 70-degree sun already beats down on the blacktop and it’s barely 8:00 AM.
By the time we leave Schriebers Meadow, it is early afternoon – we’ve driven as far as possible on dirt and joined the string of parked vehicles at the first impassable snowbank. We ascend on skis through dense hemlock and fir forest, armpit and leg vents unzipped to catch the first trace of a cooling mountain breeze. The sound of flowing water echoes all around – spring thaw is an audible process here in the Cascades. Waterfalls burst out of snow. Trees drip and flex their damp limbs skyward. We climb a couple thousand feet towards the Easton Glacier and leave the trees behind, skis gliding forward under the lurch of a heavy pack. We will sleep the next two nights in full winter here on snow – flexing our legs up and down the mountain to stay loose, acclimate, and practice using some of the mountaineering equipment we’ve brought. The group as a whole is fit and ready, but there is a wide range of experience traveling on glaciers, skiing ability levels, and base acclimatization across our ranks. The extra time we have at camp increases the chance that we can make a successful summit bid as a team.
I stand at camp on the second night, brushing my teeth and gazing northwest across the glacier, where the Sherman Crater puffs a plume of steam just barely visible from here. It’s still about 5,000 feet above us – a distance we will close the following morning, waking at 2:00 AM to zip, clip, buckle, and start the final ascent. I am impatient to go. I’ve been fixated on this goal all winter long, and its immediate proximity is all-consuming. The plume I watch up high on the peak beckons. I barely sleep at all on the mountain – perhaps two or three hours total. I lie awake most of the night, in a special purgatory between sleep and waking, lucid dreams backlit by moonlight and the sound of the wind whipping against the tent walls. My sleeping pad isn’t sufficient to insulate from the snow, so an icy cold permeates up through the layers of fabric between us. I attempt to envision this as the mountain seeping inside me through osmosis, emboldening, galvanizing. I am wide awake and shivering when the guides call us awake to begin the uphill push.
For several hours, our footfall is lit only by the pool of a headlamp and the rising daylight on the horizon. We stop to put on ski crampons along the way, for the previous day’s slushy surface has hardened back to concrete-firm overnight. The sound the crampons make, lightweight aluminum scraping against ice, is cowbell-esque in concert with the team. Our pace is rhythmic, methodical. At sunrise, Mt. Rainier is lit orange behind us, as is the Olympic Range further in the distance. The soft palette of colors on snow in this moment is beautiful beyond the capacity of language to describe. To cage it in words would only diminish it. The Sherman Crater is just above us, the edge of the volcano, a gaping maw of the earth. Our legs are reaching the point of exhaustion, and we shove calories into our mouths, hoping for quick conversion to energy. My water reservoir hose is frozen solid. I eat snow instead.
At the crater, there is a moment of transition before removing our skis for the bootpack. We walk as close to the crater rim as we can do safely, the tips of our skis hanging over the edge. I stand in awe, watching the steam ebb and flow from mysterious depths beyond view. There are fissures and cracks that lead ever further into the abyss. The earth feels very much alive, mid-exhale. Tears prick the corners of my eyes and the wind blows them in salty streaks across my face. Beauty and power of this scale, the way the earth can enrapture us with its magic, this is my truest religion. Standing here on the crater rim, the rocks around me vault cathedral-like into the air, and I am struck silent in reverence.
From here, it is only 800 feet of stair-stepper rope-team bootpacking up the Roman Wall to the summit plateau. At the top, the wind whips so fiercely that it threatens to spirit away our skis into oblivion while we fiddle with them in the gale. In the team’s summit photo, we all wear brightly colored tutus, an irreverent statement piece on propriety and gender roles that is subject enough for its own discourse (to be continued). Not only did we successfully reach the summit as a team, but we also fundraised $20,000 over the winter for the Wild Skills youth program through SheJumps, a non-profit dedicated to increasing women’s participation in outdoor adventures and activities.
From the summit, we skied a delirious 7,000 feet back to the trailhead, leg muscles liquefied by fatigue. The temperature rose with each foot down closer to sea level, and the snow turned from frozen crust at the summit to sugary slush near the bottom. My feet marinated in sweat, blisters blossoming under each arch, trapped by the heat and pressure of ski boots. I was overcome with a profound feeling of sadness that it was over, the looming goal of the summit behind me. After the last high-fives had been exchanged back in town and our damp piles of gear were hung to dry, I slept for nearly 12 hours in my friend’s Seattle basement. I woke only briefly to venture down to the pier for oysters. I wanted to stay out in the Pacific Northwest and will myself out of exhaustion, to climb every volcano in sight, to avoid returning to my reality: professional drift, existential uncertainty, a nagging ennui with all things not readily found on mountaintops.
It’s now nearly June, and back in the Colorado Rockies, winter has yet to abate. Snow falls from heavy clouds today in protest of spring, and my mind is wandering back to the rugged expanse of the glacier. For now, my feet relish the chance to breathe free of ski boots – to sit and watch the snow fall without always having to chase something in its aftermath. And yet, if I close my eyes and picture that sunrise, with the wind on my cheeks and the crater below, I am certain that I’ll return to the Cascades in pursuit of summits once more.