The email arrived around Father’s Day from Kate and Ben. There it was – a picture of an imposing mountain—Glacier Peak, fifth highest mountain in Washington State at 10,500 ft. The note said: “This baby has your name on it.” Food for thought. Climbing was arguably in my physique, if not in my blood. My legs are like tree trunks and weigh in about 50 pounds each. They need to get out and have been somewhat neglected since Mike’s wedding. A good climb might do them good and the prospect could kick start my triathlon training. How hard could it be? Ben wouldn’t get me in over my head and he was so impressed by my 40-mile bike ride in Sonoma. I’m in, I wrote back.

Ben’s due diligence led me to Cascade Climbers where Charles and Susan had a detailed report on their Sept 2008 trip: three days, one to base camp, nine miles from the trailhead, summit day and one day hiking out. The big story was the decline of the glaciers, dramatically smaller than the USGS maps and the photos in Becky’s guide. Still, you needed to rope up, wear crampons and wield an ice axe to cross the glaciers at the top. Sounded almost exciting and hardly a daunting challenge, mostly a big hike to base camp. I could do this.

So I flew out to Seattle on Tuesday to be ready for pick-up at 5:30am on Wednesday morning. I declined the offer to join Kate and Ben on a two-day climb of The South Brother with a friend of Kate. I poured over the list of gear to bring and enhanced my normal camping gear with a trip to REI for crampons, harness, ice axe and trekking poles. I was psyched and ready.

So you can imagine my disappointment when Ben called late that night to say they were just back from the Olympic peninsula and “they all” thought it best to delay for a day. To add insult to injury, Ben said he needed time to go over my gear. I went to bed annoyed at his entire generation.

After a memorable breakfast at Toulouse Petit the next morning, we spent the day throwing aside most of my gear at unnecessary (my toilet kit, shovel, binocs), or inappropriate (sleeping mat, flashlight, cotton knitted long johns) and on another spend-fest at Feathered Friends.

Food was a peculiar problem. I kept waiting to sit together and devise a meal plan, deciding which of the many mountaineering meals, assorted energy bars and snack we needed to bring. IN the end, all the food was laid out on the table and I was told to take what I need. Ben ordered two large pizzas from Pagliacci, which he said would be great cold for the first day. I was already starting to feel ill and pondered a three day fast that might get me close to fighting weight. Even so, I grabbed what I thought would be more than enough Cliff bars, dried chicken teriyaki and trail mix. I had Cytomax powder for drinking and even some sports beans. Ben and Kate were pushing their favorite flavors of Guu but I just imagined the risk of three-day constipation on a mountain.

An alpine start means out by first light, which in June in Seattle is around 4:30am. That comes pretty early when you don’t get to bed before midnight. I was surprised when Tracy showed up on time and we picked up Peter at 5:10am. All the way to Darrington in Mount Baker National Forest, I thought I recognized Glacier Peak from the photos, not realizing that my first glimpse of this wouldn’t come for another day and a half.

By 8:30am we were heading out from the trailhead for a nine-mile hike to base camp which according to Charles and Susan involved a nice hike through a Cyprus forest along a stream, up the mountain, a traverse, then through White Pass, and up the valley to the base of the route at 7,600 ft.

The first three miles were as advertised but even more enchanting. Summer had arrived and we were sweating in shorts and tees. Mackinaw Shelter was a perfect place for lunch but I was a little surprised it took us three hours to cover the six miles.

I did have the start of a blister and I could have rested a little longer but I was game to press on.

Up the mountain along switchbacks between cascading mountain streams we went, a rigorous hike but doable. That is until we hit the snow line.

I spent the next three or four hours pondering the vagaries of climate change as we trudged through ever more treacherous snow across what was supposed to be a mountain trail but was the traverse from hell, so steep I dared not look either up or down.

Every step an effort and a threat as the snow started to collapse beneath me. On instruction, I had traded my trekking poles for an ice axe which coupled help in the event I need to make an emergency arrest but gave me not help in redistributing my weight to mitigate the effects of the snow turning to slush.

By the time we got to White Pass it was 5:30pm and we had another two and a half miles to high camp, up another thousand feet, crossing a ridge, then up and over a notch through the valley with the glacier lakes. I did not object to the suggestion that we bivouac there for the night. My feet were soaked through my boots, I was tired, somewhat dehydrated and not relishing the thought of dinner.

What I didn’t realize was that dinner would be a highlight compared to sleeping on my new air mattress without any other insulation between the snow and me. In short, I was uncomfortably cold, even with socks, long underwear, pants, capilene, fleece, puffy, hat and marmites. I should have suspected something when Ben stripped down to his gotchies and slept like a baby on his air mattress on top of his new foamy. The alpine start was a welcome respite as moving around in the dawn warmed me up. Our luck went sour when a cloud covered the ridge where we were headed and forced us to hang out while I used psychokinetic techniques to break through it. By 7am, we were off again and made it to the top of the ridge where we could see Glacier Peak for the first time.

Unfortunately, we could also see some storm clouds that quickly turned into whiteout conditions.

Our plan for the summit thwarted, we hit on a plan to rescue the trip. In these whiteout conditions, who would know if we didn’t summit. Why not stage a summit celebration with pictures and a video to mark the conquest. All you can say is that it was dramatic and our spirits were temporarily lifted for the trip back to camp.

Once at camp, the drama played out in unexpected ways. It seemed that Tracy was adamantly against extending the climb for a day to let the weather clear. She had not prepared her boyfriend for that eventuality and he was sure to freak out when she did not show Saturday night. Ben spent most of the next hour conspiring and scheming until he hit on a plan: Peter would go back with Tracy and we (Ben, Kate, and I) would go on our own.

I’m not sure how I felt at that point: the weather, the traverse from hell, the sight of the actual summit climb ahead, all had given me new respect for the effort and difficulty we had in store for us. So I had to reflect when asked if I thought I could make it.

Reflect I did and came up with two key points: I was not going to be the one that caused us to turn back; at the same time I was not able to judge with confidence weather I could make it given that I have only a vague sense of what lay ahead.

Ben was clear, he thought I could make it but Kate was concerned about safety. Without a second rope team, we would be on our own if something happened and I was unschooled in basic emergency procedure. She came around only after being assured we would teach me z-pulley techniques and practice my self-arrest.

So we said goodbye to Peter and Tracy who headed back across the traverse at almost high noon. What we did not know is that Tracy would take a hard fall and tumble down some forty feet before arresting. Fortunately, she was able to stop and except for being badly shake, she was okay and made it down the rest of the way okay.

As for us, we decided to move to high camp to where we should have been per Charles and Susan’s directions. I also came to know that Charles and Susan were not some anonymous climbers but good friends of Ben and Kate’s and somewhat legendary for their intensity. Charles had been with Jake when he came out and did Buckner and Sahale, a three-day trip that he said was the hardest thing he had dine in his life.

We made it up and over the ridge then down a very steep slope to the valley of the glacier lakes. It was a rigorous hike but nothing like the day before and we made it almost to the head of the valley.

We camped by a moraine, which is a pile of rocks where we could eat of the snow. After dinner we had to practice our z-pulley and I learned how hard it is for even the most experienced climbers to remember some of the more sophisticated techniques. I decided to pray we did not have a black swan event and at that point it was better to take that chance than freeze to death practicing how to deal with it.

Another night on that snow and I woke up for our 4:30am start with a peculiar cough deep in my chest. I realized that all night I was generating as much heat at I could with the hope and expectation that I could warm up my mattress just like my thermaperfect sleeper. In fact, the cold glacier-like earth was sucking away all my core heat with no discernable reaction. I was never at real risk of hypothermia but I will say I played up the uncontrollable shakes until Ben and Kate were well aware they might be underestimating my discomfort. The cough was also pretty convincing too.

I was happy to be getting started, eating granola and looking out on a perfect morning. The old girl stood out with nary a cloud around her. Crampons, summit packs, ice axes, trekking poles and we were off. A team of Mountaineers got the jump on us until they realized they had dropped a rope on the trail.

We went up a steep ridge then through a long valley up a ridge onto the glacier. Almost to the base of Disappointment Peak we decided to follow Charles and Susan’s route and go to the right then up the ridge. There was even a boot path to guide us and we followed it until we decided to rope up. Being roped up for the first time we had to find a rhythm we could all be comfortable with so as not to trip over the rope and cut it with our crampons, something I took some time to get used to. We had a good rhythm going when we realized we weren’t going up but down and had almost made it to Chocolate Glacier, way off our intended course.

Realizing our mistake could throw our summit attempt off schedule as the weather warmed and the snow softened we tried to make haste to retreat our steps, mushing along Kate who had the lead until she cried uncle and insisted we slow down. In 20 minutes we were back to the ridge we were supposed to ascend and Ben took the lead. It was hard to keep the heart rate from going anaerobic and I had to call for frequent stops to get back into my aerobic window. Ben kept saying 60 more feet when in fact it was more like 600.

At last, we took a break in the beginning of the Cool Glacier and prepared for the summit push. It was exhilarating. The views were spectacular. The air was thin and you had to eat and drink whatever you could keep down to give your muscles what they needed to recover. We still had a good distance and a steep climb to the summit but it was seductively close relative to where we had been and summit fever was setting in.

The summit climb was memorable for being harder than I could have imagined but I never felt it was near impossible until we got to the last fifty yards. It was getting close to 2pm. The sun was hot and was melting all the snow and my 220 pounds was starting to fall through. When I would sink up to my hip there was almost no way to get out. I know I would be stuck there if I couldn’t distribute my weight spider-like across the snow but Ben and Kate were holding me suspended by the rope and started discussing my fate as though I wasn’t even there. Why don’t we belay him, Kate asked. I envisioned humiliation and delay, two very unwelcome partners and I persuaded Ben to let me come up spider-like as long as I held my ice axe in the proper position to be able to arrest if necessary. I agreed to placate him but felt that arresting in snow that was like quicksand was the least of my worries. In short order, I scrambled up the remaining summit, up came Kate and we were on top.

The summit was glorious for the views, the elation and the sheer glory but it was far from nirvana. There was no chalet, no hot cocoa, and no cable car to take us back. In short once the celebration and snack were over, the photos, the congratulations, it was cold and windy and there was the descent, which somehow refused to fit my minds eye. You see, it took us 7.5 hours to get to the top and I was hoping to return in half the time. After all, it was mostly downhill.

The problems started right at the top. We started plunge stepping down and I plunged right into the glacier, which seemed to want to eat me alive. Buried up to my hip, Kate had to come dig me out. I had to christen another climbing technique, the spider plunge step. Easier, it was but virtually all the way had we were either trudging through knee-deep snow or crossing scree that gave you little footing.

Seven and half hours later we were back at base camp, the hardest day of my life. Fifteen hours and forty minutes we had hiked and climbed but had made it and dinner never tasted so good.

But what was truly life changing was the modification in sleeping arrangements. I was still in the middle, my head at Kate and Ben’s toes but Ben gave me his foamy and I had insulation from the snow.

What a difference. I still had my full outfit but I was toasty warm. By dawn, my cough was better not worse, and I felt I could face the return, even if I still dreaded the traverse from hell.

By 7am we had made camp and were headed across the snow again. We made great time down glacier lake valley and up the ridge but once over we had a long steep traverse to get back to the venue of our first base camp. But in two hours we were ready to face the traverse from hell and there was a group ahead of us to break trail. This turned out to be our most pleasant surprise. In the two days since we came across it, the traverse had shed most of its snow revealing the trail beneath it and unveiling the most incredible display of alpine flowers. The warmth and the moisture from the melting snow had triggered the spring blossoms and they were radiant yellows and reds all up and down the slopes.

Once we made it back to the switchback trail, the flowers were even more explosive. It was like a gift from the mountain to reward our perseverance. Kate bedecked herself in flowers and I insisted Ben take pictures of everything as my camera had run out of batteries about one hour from the trailhead.

We stopped at the Mackinaw shelter where we ate the last of our provisions and made a fire to dry out our socks.

We spent a delightful couple of hours philosophizing and relaxing.

Speculation turned to when Peter would show up at the trailhead. Ben had arranged for him to come at 9pm but we all agreed it would be good to get there by 6 and hope he would decide to come early.

As we packed up and I reclaimed some of my thing that Kate and Ben had insisted on carrying, I thought about the three hours it had taken us to get there three days earlier. Could we really be three hours from the trailhead? What kind of pace is that? What kind of miles these? Couldn’t I jog a 10-minute mile?

In the end, it was a good 2.5 hours but that includes repairing my backpack, which gave out to Ben’s delight. Kate came to the rescue with some plastic ties and I only allowed myself to reflect momentarily what might have happened if it had given out at a more precarious moment.

Still I consider the internal structure backpacks a fad and still remember buying one of the first they made back in 1977. Anyway, I digress.

We made it to the trailhead around 6pm some 80 hours after setting out, roughly half of which was spent hiking or climbing. Peter showed up around 7pm with a six-pack and we all went to dinner at the Tex-Mex place in Darrington.

In all, Glacier Peak was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, displacing the 330-mile, four-day bike ride Ben got me into in 2005. I will never forget the challenge, the beauty, the thrill, the camaraderie, and the intensity. Almost a month later, I still have nerve damage and numbness in my feet but that is healing. I am running and swimming but I still can’t do a long run, perhaps because DC is having the hottest summer on record. The photos from the trip have made the most dramatic slide show I have ever made and together with Cat Stevens hits like “Miles from Nowhere,” make me tear up every time I see it. I even showed it to Charles so he could see how much snow is still on the glacier now. Ben has climbed several more mountains since then and I am looking forward to driving cross-country with him as he moves back east to go the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Kate has moved to Austin where she is studying art direction at the University of Texas. Best of all I showed Jake my show and reported that Kate and Ben evaluated his climb at 80% of Glacier, so I still have little edge over number 4.

Bring on the next mountain.