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Breaking Trail: A Climbing Lifeby Arlene Blum
Under the Porch
Davenport, Iowa, August 1949
The sun is glaring down on me, so I grab my doll and squeeze into a small, dark space under the back porch. I prop Dolly up for a tea party. Between us I spread a lace handkerchief and lay out the blue glass doll dishes Mommy just gave me for my fourth birthday. My Aunts Ruth and Shirley are sitting on the porch above and their muffled words drift down. I pour a cup of imaginary tea and give it to Dolly. I am lulled by my aunts' soothing voices, the cool darkness, and the sweet smell of the rosebushes that surround our house. Unexpectedly, I hear my name. I put down my cup and listen.
"With parents like that."
Tea party forgotten, I strain to hear their words. There's something about Germany. And then:
"Arlene...that child will amount to no good...."
I look up toward my Aunt Shirley's voice and see the dusty underside of the porch. I curl up on the ground, hug my knees, and shake with silent sobs. I hate my aunt's words. I hate my aunt. I hate myself. But she is wrong. I'll show them. I'll show them all.
A Slide down Mt. Adams
Can you keep going?" John handed me his water bottle.
"I'll try," I gasped, taking a sip. We continued upward, my loud breathing synchronized with the rhythmic tap of our ice axes on the rocky ground.
It was September 1964 and we were on our way up Mt. Adams, a stately 12,276-foot volcano in southern Washington near Portland, Oregon, where I was a junior at Reed College. After class the previous day, my handsome chemistry lab partner, John Hall, had asked if I would like to join him and four other guys in an attempt on Adams. The previous spring, John had taken me on my first backpack trip; ever since then I had begged him to teach me to climb. Eager to try a mountain and spend time with charismatic John, I happily accepted his invitation.
We had begun our hike at one in the morning so we could climb the hard snow slopes above timberline before the sun softened their surface. When I first put on my daypack and headed up, I began breathing so loudly that John later confessed he wondered if I would make it out of the parking lot. And now here I was, an out-of-shape nineteen-year-old girl from the flatlands wearing borrowed boots and pack, trudging up a mountain in the middle of the night.
Just before dawn, we stopped to get ready to go up the hard snow. John helped me strap a pair of crampons — the metal spikes that keep a climber from slipping on ice — onto my boots. He showed me how to tie myself into the braided nylon climbing rope, explaining that it would catch me if I fell into a crevasse. I didn't know what a crevasse was, but John was so calm and confident I didn't worry. John tied himself to the front of our rope, I attached myself to the center, and Mike took the end. Fred, Ron, and George similarly tied themselves to the other rope. I liked the secure feeling of this umbilical cord connecting me to these strong, attractive guys.
We began moving up again as the first shafts of light hit the glacier and the hard white snow glittered as though sprinkled with tiny mirrors. Ahead of us was an icefield sliced by long, narrow chasms with walls of blue and green ice — crevasses! Veils of cloud hung suspended above green valleys far below. Carefully placing my boots in John's footprints, I practiced what he called the rest step: Step, breathe, relax. Step, breathe, relax. Slowly and steadily, my body adapted to the unaccustomed exertion and I began to feel peaceful and strong.
Then I felt a tug at my waist, heard the sound of vomiting, and looked behind me to see Mike doubled up over his ice axe.
"Mike usually starts throwing up when he gets this high," John said calmly, walking over to me. "He needs to go down — want to go with him?"
"Down? Me? Why?" I asked. "I love it up here."
John told me about altitude sickness, explaining that many people have an elevation ceiling above which their bodies don't adapt.
"So what's that got to do with me?" I asked.
"Well, you don't want to push it," said John, beginning to look a little uncomfortable himself. "Your breathing didn't sound so good in the beginning."
"But now I feel great," I said. "This is the most beautiful place I've ever been."
"Well, actually, when I asked you to come with us, I thought that by ten thousand feet you'd have had enough and be ready to go down, too," said John. "That way, Mike would have company."
"You invited me to come thinking I couldn't make it to the top?" I tried to stamp my cramponed foot in outrage, but the points stuck in the ice.
"Ten thousand feet's good for a first climb," John said. "I'm willing to go down, but the others haven't been here before. Do you want to keep going with three guys who don't know the route?"
"If it's either that or turn back, I'll go with them," I said. I couldn't bear the thought of leaving this gorgeous place I'd just discovered.
"Okay, okay, I'll go down with Mike. I've climbed Adams lots of times," said John. "I hate to leave all of you up here, but I guess the route's easy enough."
I untied from John and Mike and attached myself to the other rope.
John gave us the chocolate bar he'd brought for the summit. Then he led Mike slowly back down the glacier. As he turned and waved, I felt a pang of regret to be climbing without him.
While John had traversed the steep slopes slowly and rhythmically, my new ropemates headed straight up. Before long I was desperate for air, but forced myself to keep going. Several hours later we reached a rocky point that looked like the top, and I flopped down to rest.
"This is a false summit. The real one's just ahead," said Ron, who had become our de facto leader. "Let's keep moving."
I looked in the direction he was pointing and saw a higher peak far — very far — in the distance. "This is it for me," I said. "I'll wait here." With shaking hands, I untied myself from the rope and the others continued up. As soon as they were out of sight I unzipped my wool dress slacks — the only pants I owned, since, like most women in the 1960s, I usually wore skirts or dresses. I squatted and relieved myself with great satisfaction. I had been holding it for hours, too embarrassed to tell the guys I needed to stop.
Then I sank onto a comfortable rock and looked around. The other Cascade volcanoes rose above the valleys like towers above a medieval city. Turning on my side, I watched, fascinated, as an intrepid ladybug crawled toward me, its red and black wings dazzling against the dark basalt rock. It seemed extraordinary to find a small insect high on this icy ridge, and I realized it was equally astonishing that I was up here. Dozing in the warm sun, I was content, and not in the least sorry that I'd stopped short of the top. Right here were the space and peace I'd always craved.
An hour later, Ron, Fred, and George returned, jubilant, from the summit. Standing up stiffly to congratulate them, I noticed the long shadows.
"There's not much daylight left," Ron said. "We've got to glissade."
"Glissade?" I asked.
"Just take off your crampons, sit on the snow, and slide," Ron said matter-of-factly. "Use your ice axe to steer, and if you start going too fast, roll over and push the pick of your axe into the snow." Ron sat down and gave a quick demonstration of how to arrest a fall. Then he, Fred, and George slid out of sight.
My heart pounding, I had no choice but to follow. I stuffed my crampons into my daypack, sat down with my legs pointed down the slope, and jammed my ice axe into the snow next to me. As I eased it out, I began to slide. Within moments, I was careening downhill, out of control. Terrified, I rolled over on my stomach and thrust the pick of my axe into the slope. I slowed, but continued sliding. I heaved my whole body up over the top of the axe and pushed it down with all my weight. I stopped.
I grinned into the snow and waited to catch my breath before sitting up and continuing my glissade. Soon I discovered how to use the axe at my side as a brake and a rudder. Glissading was fun! Down, down, down I flew for thousands of feet. At first the rough, frozen snow felt cold and uncomfortable beneath me, but soon I didn't notice it.
The light was fading when I reached the lower slopes. The snow was now encrusted with scree — small pieces of volcanic rock — and freezing hard. When I reached the end of the snow, the guys were nowhere in sight. I saw footsteps heading down the scree slope and, willing myself to stay calm, followed them to reach the trees just at dark.
"Over here," someone yelled from the forest. Relieved, I followed the voice to where the others were waiting in the pitch black — all the flashlight batteries were dead. I sat down on a big rock, more exhausted than I'd ever been in my life. After a short rest, I put my hand on the rock to push myself up. My hand felt wet.
Strange, I thought. A wet rock.
I rubbed my fingers together. They were coated with a thick, sticky liquid. I put my hand back on the rock. It was covered with the same substance. Then I put my hand on my behind — and felt raw, abraded flesh.
The small pebbles and scree in the frozen snow had acted like sandpaper and worn away my thin wool trousers, my underpants, and finally, my skin. I hadn't felt a thing; evidently, the ice had anesthetized my bottom. I now understood why the others had leather patches sewn on the seats of their climbing pants.
I hardly knew these guys. Telling them I had shredded my pants, not to mention my rear end, was unthinkable. I grabbed my black pettipants from my pack (for some unknown reason, I'd brought these slip-like shorts along) and pulled them over my tattered slacks. In the dark, no one noticed anything amiss.
"Let's go. We've got to keep moving," Ron yelled, heading off into the dark forest. I lurched along behind him, too worn out to protest. Before long it was clear we were lost. I was so exhausted that all I wanted was to lie down on the ground and go to sleep. After hours of staggering through the nightmare forest, we heard a faint whistle. We all shouted in response and soon John Hall made his way toward us, waving his flashlight.
It was three in the morning, more than twenty-four hours since we'd started. As we drove out the long, rough dirt road, I sat on the edge of the seat and moaned whenever the car went over a bump. I stumbled back to my dorm room and tried to sleep, but the intense pain in my thawing rear end kept me awake. I woke my roommate, Nancy, and asked for help. A true friend, she started picking out the countless small rocks.
"Your bottom looks like a gravel pile," she finally said. "You need to go to the infirmary."
While the doctor pulled the pebbles from my flesh with tweezers, I told him about our adventure and how much I loved mountain climbing.
"It's going to be a while before you do that again," he said. "You won't even be able to sit down for a few weeks."
As I lay on my stomach in the infirmary, I dreamed of glaciers and rocky peaks. I wrote my family a letter: "I just climbed almost to the top of Mt. Adams. It was the most beautiful place I've ever been and the best day of my life. The mountains are where I belong."
Copyright © 2005 by Arlene Blum
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