While in Seattle, we made a short day excursion to Mount Ranier National Park. For a while now I have wanted to climb something. Nothing major, nothing requiring technical climbing skills or more than a few hours. I guess what I really wanted was a bit of a hike with some elevation, so I could get to the top and look at things from above. I’m sure a therapist would have a field day with that. In any case, I managed to convince T that it would be fun, and that we were in a sufficiently fit physical condition to manage a 2 or 3 mile hike up a steep hill. After all, he just ran a marathon (something he later confessed to me was NOT the motivator he wanted halfway up), and, if that weren’t enough, he has all this new expensive photography equipment to justify.
Our first mistake was in getting there. I was assured by people I met at the wedding that there was an excellent trail just inside the north west corner of the park, only 40 minutes from where we were. Well, somehow we missed the northwest and ended up on the east side, 2 hours later. But we did see a lovely section of rural Washington, and found a trail anyway.
So we got to the park, and ate some lunch. Of course, since we figured the drive would be less than an hour and the trail a mile or two, it was three o’clock before we started up our trail. We chose a short route up the Sunrise Ridge, which would give us a good view of Mount Ranier. The unobtrusive sign at the bottom of the trail said 3.1 miles. Not bad, I thought. How long could it possibly take? We run a mile in 10 minutes, could walking one be more than 20? Up we went. Not a super steep grade, but lots of switchbacks and some elevation. It was a quiet trail, not a speck of asphalt in sight, very rustic. We met a few people along the trail, all of whom looked far better prepared than we were (they all had LL Bean clothes and big daypacks and walking sticks). The reassuring thing was that those coming down all looked relaxed and barely winded.
It took less than, I would guess, half a mile to feel breathless. This elevation thing wasn’t a Sunday morning prairie jog. The higher we got, the more difficult it was to put one foot in front of the other and haul my body weight up behind it. We trudged on and with each vertical foot, spoke less and less to each other. When either of us did speak, it was pretty obvious that the words were carefully chosen for minimal offensive impact.
After maybe two miles, we started wondering if we would make it to the top with enough sunlight left to get back down safely. No one knew where we were. At more than one point I told T we could turn back, secretly hoping he would want to press on. Thankfully, his male pride wouldn’t let him admit defeat before I did, so we kept going. Whenever we would pass others coming down, I would ask them how much further. One woman, with a baby in a backpack (hey, if she can drag a baby up, I can drag my sorry butt up) said it was a bit futher but totally worth the effort. A German sounding man said we almost had it beat. A tubby, sweaty man said we had a ways to go. I told him I wished he’d lied to me.
Finally, a long long hour after starting, we got to an area where the trees were scrubbier and not as tall. All of a sudden, a clearing between, and a spectacular view of Ranier. We sat a minute, took some pictures, and drank some water. We did some math and figured we were pretty close to the top. I still felt the need to summit, so, despite fatigue necessitating a concentrated effort not to tumble off the edge of the path, we decided to keep going. Not 100 feet further, we met a family coming down. The woman said we had another 500 vertical feet, maybe 45 minutes. But, she said, the view wasn’t a lot better from the top than where we were. Given the hour, our sore feet, and the woman’s advice, we shot a few more pictures and headed down. I was quite satisfied with my effort, and not as bothered by the fact that we didn’t actually finish the route to the top as I thought I would be.
Down took almost as long as up, but I was much less winded. Completely different muscles are used in descent. Although we were fairly cautious, it was nice to be able to look around a bit more. It did require less physical effort and less concentration. We even had a pleasant chat. It was a relief to get back down, but the exhaustion felt good. And I relived it every time I went up or down stairs for the next two days.
Now for the analysis of the hike. I loved it. Possibly the highlight of the trip. I liked the exertion. Ranier is a beautiful park, and so much cleaner and more pristine than so many of the tourist traps we had seen. I liked the scenery and the sense of accomplishment, even though I didn’t make it to the top. And really, it wasn’t the top of a mountain, but a ridge with a good view of a mountain, and I just wanted to get to the top of something (MT, you get your little mind out of the gutter). We figured out that we probably went about 1500 vertical feet and 2 or 2.5 miles. We stared out at 4400 feet above sea level. Mount Ranier itself is 14400 feet.
On the flight home, I started reading “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer, about the 1996 Mount Everest expedition. I have been interested in Everest for a while, since I read about the archaeologists who found Mallory’s body. I have never been interested in climbing it, although I would love to see it, maybe from Base Camp (I’m thinking I might some day volunteer my nursing services with an expedition). To put it into perspective, though, Base Camp on Everest is 17,600 feet, higher than the top of Ranier. Everest is about as high as our jet flew to get us back home. People walk up there. It blows me away.
Anyway, I have no illusion that my little hike was anything near the accomplishments of people who have ever attempted summits like Everest, or even the maligned Ranier itself. But I did get a tiny glimpse into what makes people want to do those things during my little 1000 foot walk. I still have no aspiration to extreme accomplishment; I feel no need to climb anything big, run a full marathon, do a triathlon (well, ok, maybe a small one), go backwoods camping, or run the Great Canadian Death Race. I love the ideas of all of them and have the utmost admiration for those who do them. Sometimes, I even pretend I am those people. When I run a race, I pretend all the people are cheering for me. When I cycle, I pretend I’m drafting Lance Armstrong, a man whose accomplishments probably merit a post in and of themselves. When I flail across a swimming pool, I pretend… well, I’m too busy trying not to drown to pretend much.
But the point is, I live vicariously through the accomplishments I secretly covet, and do my own scaled-way-down versions. I have fun, I stay active, and I gain new perspective with each event I participate in. I won’t denigrate the sport of climbing by calling my hike in WA a climb, but I do want to do more. I want to stand on top of something huge and look out. I want to feel like I’ve come as far as I can. Unfortunately, I live in the world’s flatest geography, so I’ll have to travel (another bonus). But, hey, our new Y, which I am thinking of joining, has a climbing wall. Maybe I’ll learn, and I can pretend to be on the Hillary Step, just below the summit.