Land in the Sky: Scrambles Amongst the Cascades

Scrambles-Amongst-the-CascadesThe other evening, on the way home from happy hour down at Pandora’s Tavern, I drove past the Story Crematorium. You know the place, where they incinerate all the tales that come into writers’ heads but never get written down. It’s a full-service creativity mortuary—they also put the torch to unfinished manuscripts, if that’s what you need.

I have my share of them. One in particular has haunted me for more than twenty years. Probably because it’s in plain sight, right next to where I shelve my mountaineering books. The manuscript is several hundred pages long and I keep it in a wood-grain storage carton. They call it a Bankers Box but it looks more like a little coffin for bright ideas. For me, it also holds a morbid fascination. I sometimes lift the coffin lid and take a peek inside. The pages lie there exactly as they were interred, perfectly preserved, like the body of a saint: Incorruptible. What else should I expect? It’s not like the book is going to finish writing itself.

“What’s the book about?” Well, I’m happy to tell you. I only wish I was as happy to sit down and actually finish writing it. But anyway, in the late 1980s I got this idea to climb all the volcanoes in the Cascade Range—from Lassen Peak in Northern California to Mount Baker in the State of Washington—then write a book recounting my heroic adventures in solo mountaineering. That might sound impressive, but it’s really not. Even though I’ve climbed a lot of peaks over the years, when it comes right down to it I am not much of a mountaineer. Everything I know about climbing comes from reading Edward Whymper. And I’m even less of a writer than a mountaineer, to judge from my output. I’m just a guy who likes to climb mountains by himself—even the occasional one I don’t belong on—and scribble a few notes.

So on August 1, 1992, I loaded up my aging Corolla wagon with my thrift store climbing gear and headed north for the mountains. I spent the next six weeks driving from one Cascade volcano to the next, staggering my way to the top of each one. Many had glaciers and permanent snowfields. I trekked across them oblivious to hazards of serac and crevasse. I carried a single ice screw with me as a kind of talisman to ward off danger. I had no idea how to use it. I picked it up cheap at a consignment shop just before I set out on my adventures. I still have it. I’ve never used it—and still don’t know how—but it looks good sitting there on the mantel. A few of the Cascade summits required some technical climbing. I wasn’t expecting that. I wound up accidentally free-soloing them. Altitude sickness can be a problem on the higher peaks. In the summit register on Mount Shasta somebody wrote: “Long way to come to feel like shit.” Sometimes that’s how I feel when I look at my unfinished manuscript.

By the third week in September of 1992, I had climbed all these Cascade volcanoes: Lassen, Shasta, McLaughlin, Mazama (really a volcano turned inside out and now a lake called Crater, which I circumambulated instead of diving into), Thielsen, Three Sisters, Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Jefferson, Hood, Adams, St. Helens, Glacier, and Baker. The astute reader will notice one name missing from this list: Rainier. That’s because on the day I stopped in at the Park Service office to obtain a climbing permit, the rangers took one look at my outfit—old-style climbing tweeds, deerstalker hat, Redwing work-boots, and rickety alpenstock—and told me to take a hike, elsewhere. Oh well. So a few years later I got myself a pair of Koflach boots, some Gore-Tex, and a real ice-axe, and went back to Rainier with a couple buddies and we bagged it.

If I ever decide to exhume that manuscript and finish writing the book about that long ago summer I spent heroically climbing the Cascade volcanoes all by myself, I might have to edit my buddies out of it. The more likely conclusion is someday I’ll be dropping off my little Bankers Box of a coffin at the Story Crematorium.