Hidden amidst the towering heights of Washington State is a special place of majesty. If Mount Rainier is the undisputed "King of the Cascades," Glacier Peak must be its splendid bride. At 10,541-feet tall - beautiful, shapely and dangerously alluring - the "Queen of the Cascades" resides within an ancient castle of isolation, protected from her would-be suitors by wilderness alone. In ancient days, Native Americans knew her as “DaKobed” or “Great Parent.” It might be a good idea then to bow or say a prayer before ever rumpling the snows of her white evening gown with your muddied boots, for what mere mortal among us can say for sure?
Truth be told, my greatest fear is not of dying atop a mountain, but of being alone and unwanted in old age. There, I finally said it. Relationships can be difficult for me. The lady of my ultimate dreams still awaited me out there somewhere, always over the next horizon it seemed. Even at my age it seemed feasible that one day I could become a quality family man with a wife and kids and all the trappings of home life; the personification of the American Dream. Perhaps what I had always needed the most is my own family. Who knows?
Meanwhile, fierce was good.
Patience my child, oh patience.
As I sat alone before the fireplace of my sprawling Central Washington ranch home late one winter's evening, it seemed impossible that only a few months earlier I had resided in a miserable apartment in Bellevue, often listening to people burning their tires off in the parking lot. Combat zone. This was in sheer contrast to this beautiful and peaceful place of solitude here in the countryside 12 miles east of Ellensburg, where my camping plans for the next summer began to weigh heavily upon my mind that night.
"If not this year, than when?"
My second climb of this mountain was accomplished solo over the fall solstice - the last day of summer and the first day of the autumn of 1991. After gaining a stunning 8,600 feet in elevation in however many hours of continuous hiking and climbing, by then I couldn't take another single step. I had left the trailhead at exactly three o'clock that morning, and was only now settling in high upon Glacier Peak as the sun set in the distance. Completely spent, after chipping out a platform from the steep hard gray ice, from which I would hang my bivouac sack, I made dinner, then crawled inside my bag and watched meteors rip across the moonless sky all night long. This time I had the place all to myself.
The best thing about camping on a mountaintop, as with Mount Baker or Mount Adams, is that other than lightening, not much is likely to bonk you on your noggin, since above you there is only sky. Not so here.
Silence saturated the night, until the first of several boulders peeled off and fell from a rock wall towering above my campsite, just past midnight. I listened to it as it bounded down the steep slope a mere thirty or forty feet to the west of my bivouac site, then watched as it cast a black shadow against the starlit glacier, skidding for a ways on the ice and then tumbling end over end and off into the blackness toward a maze of crevasses below.
There was really nowhere for me to go, nowhere to run. If it was going to hit me, it was going to hit me. As a Christian, I have never been afraid to die. I just don't want to die stupid.
Even the array of rock shards peeling off as it fell, would have done some serious damage on me, like shrapnel from a bomb. The second stone sailed by half an hour later and like the first, it was a bit larger than your average electric dishwasher. Then a third and final one came forth from the nasty looking wall above - of which I would have to find a way up and over the next day to ever reach the summit.
The rocks were the bowling balls, and I was the potential pin. I've never really been into bowling.
After managing an hour or so of sleep before setting out, purely out of nervousness of what lay in store for me later that day, I had a light snack, clipped on my one-piece crampons, donned my daypack, grabbed hold of my ice axe and struck on out up the glacier.
This is the best of what mountain climbing represents to me. Here was a giant glacier in the predawn hours, an uncertain route, and the click of your crampons against the snow and ice. It seems like everything I do back in the 'real' world - my mundane and safe and regulated day-to-day existence down here - is done in preparation for such free and special moments as these, up there. Although the climb to the summit was an exhilarating experience, there was no emotion involved for me on this one, just lots of hard and dangerous work in climbing the route of mixed rock, ice and dirty old snow. Even on the summit I was emotionless, since getting up a mountain is one thing, and getting down can be quite another.
Back at camp again late that morning, after packing up my gear where I had left it at 1:07 a.m., about ten feet into my descent a crampon popped off my left boot and sent me flying down the solid glacier toward some yawning crevasses. If the crevasses didn't get me, the drop-off below definitely would. Self-arresting with my ice axe I ground to a halt directly above the lip of the first crack in the ice. After taking a fall of several hundred feet with my 60-pound pack, I had to pull the crampon from the calve of my left leg. Thankfully shallow enough that the points didn't hit a major vessel, blood still went splat on the glacier. Just like that day on the summit of Mount Baker with my thumb, your first instinct is to look away.
And so, you see, aspiring to camp on the summit of this peak for an unprecedented length of time suddenly seemed like a daunting proposition while sitting there on the couch that night. Talk about an "armchair mountaineer." When a friendly old cow mooed at me from over a fence out the kitchen window, I headed out to properly introduce myself, slipped on ten inches of fresh snow and plunged off face first onto the ground. Nice move Glenn. The cow didn't seem to notice one lick lick lick as I hit the ground hard.
Lying there in the snow in my bathrobe and slippers, with my smashed ankle folded up beneath me, the pain was enormous. First I threw up on the snow, then eventually managed to get up and back in the house. The cow would have to wait.
Considering all of my mountaineering experiences over the years, including solo ascents of Mount Baker, Glacier Peak, Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens, Mount Stuart, Mount Hood and Mount Rainier, it seemed ironic how my first big slipup had occurred while descending a twenty-inch batch of steps.
Exactly my point.
After a midnight visit to the emergency room of a hospital in E-Burg a week or so later, when my leg had turned a sickly shade of green, it was another five months before I could wear a pair of shoes properly, much less a pair of heavy double plastic climbing boots. Another thoughtless moment like this or even a simple cold or flu on my part could put the kibosh on these plans before we ever set foot on the trail. Such is the nature of a homespun, under financed, under-equipped and undermanned trip into the hills by a true weakling. And yet uncertainty would make this excursion into the outback all worthwhile, for what sense of accomplishment or adventure may be gained when the outcome is all but guaranteed?
August dawned clear-as-a-bell and the weather forecast called for good conditions to hold up all week. A second double check of the house was in order to make sure everything was turned off or unplugged. It's always so strange leaving the familiarity of home when you know your life will undergo a major transformation by the time of your return; if you return that is. While at home, sometimes all I can think about is getting up on another mountaintop. And when I am atop a mountain for a long period of time, often all I can think about is getting back home. It is this delicate mix, perhaps, that keeps me from going off the reservation altogether.
* * * * *
It was one of those beautiful days you wish could go on forever. The fabulous old-growth forest through which my companions and I traveled was alive with activity as birds and squirrels and butterflies squeaked, chirped or fluttered, and all manor of land or air-based critters stretched their legs or spread their wings at summer's zenith. Finely tuned sunbeams found their way through heavy foliage, highlighting this Hobbit-like woodland all the more. This was as good as it gets for the local residents, as for us interlopers.
Our team had reached the trailhead the night before, fully prepared for a ton of misery mixed with a few pounds of ecstatic enjoyment. The most amazing aspect of this story is that these people keep showing up on my behalf for more fantastic, wonderful punishment. I had been on the phone to each of them constantly in the days before, to make sure they were going to be there. Thank heavens for me, five of the seven of them were!
Veins were popping and eyes bulging as we left the trailhead carrying 60 to 75 pounds each. When things get tough in the mountains or even at sea level, you would want a friend like Jon Schlueter - and especially a person of the character of Steve Peterson - in your corner. You would want any one of them in your Tribe.
Please note that I was the weakest link in our group on Glacier Peak, lugging the lightest pack of all.
Before ever reaching the edge of the parking lot and with twelve miles and almost 10,000 feet of elevation gain to go, we were hunched over, already feeling the effects of our loads. We made extraordinarily good time nevertheless on the 4.5-mile journey to Kennedy Hot Springs in only four hours. This first stage of the hike was magical for us in a way, as the beauty of this place is almost impossible to describe. Hemlock, cedar and pine lined the path as did patches of quartz, copper and other metals; fist-sized pine cones busted in a rainbow of scent and color at our feet as we headed out toward Pacific Crest Trail and the base of the mountain beyond.
The four miles from the hot springs to Boulder Basin is steep and difficult in places. It certainly didn't help any that hoards of biting and stinging insects descended upon us at our happy lunch place, a great motivation to keep moving. DaKobed seemed to take on an entirely different personality as we trudged up the hot, dusty, bug-ridden trail above the wooded empire. Reaching a stretch of ground where the route turns more decidedly uphill, where you gain 2,000 feet of elevation over a one-mile stretch, I was fighting personal doubt:
What if I don't make it to the summit? Why did I volunteer for this thing anyway? Oh, that's right, this is my expedition!
At glacier's edge we made camp in a meadow interlaced with streams and raging waterfalls where we settled in for a night of lousy food, uncomfortable camping conditions and a level of camaraderie and enjoyment unbeknownst to most people residing closer to sea level. These volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest of the United States of America are a great place to get down, get really dirty, and have a major connection with nature. Mountains are fun! So perhaps you can appreciate how disconcerting it was for me to realize that by age upward, I was at the very top of the list in our group: a teenaged college student (Adam Bly), a mechanical engineer-to-be (Patrick Boys Smith), an artist (Jeff Batt), a brew master (Jon Schlueter), a warehouse manager (Steve Peterson), and little old me.
August 6, 2000/Day 1
We left Boulder Basin under perfectly clear predawn skies and
reached the summit by 2:00 p.m., in a total of only sixteen
hours of climbing from the trailhead in two days. As we
gained the base of Sitcum Ridge I was barely moving. Every
step we made was incredibly strenuous; we slid back one foot
with every two we tried to gain. I looked up at one point
to see Steve leading us all toward the summit pinnacles.
Patrick led us from there up a final 70-degree pitch and on to
the top. As I left a small landing and went to climb the
final way to the summit
(I was the last one to make it here),
Adam 'The Kid' Bly put his hand on my shoulder and said
something that was as true as it was undeniable: ‘These are very
special moments, Glenn.’
Indeed they were.
One year before, to the hour, I reached the South Summit of Mount Adams. The view is almost too much to comprehend from here; claustrophobic in a way - not something you can entirely warm up to.
August 7/Day 2
Dawn passed unnoticed for us as it was quite cold, and we were all beat from the climb. We didn't have the energy to get up before 9:00 - it was even longer before I had a stove going with food or snow cooking in a pan. They all lined up at my door, where I dumped a glob of warm dog food-looking stuff onto their plate. Then they went away happy as could be.
Later we posed for pictures and wandered the summit each in our own right, as morning wore on toward afternoon. Hours later and all too soon the time came for them to descend. I pulled Patrick aside and asked him to take care of my friends - putting this very competent young climber in charge. We gathered for an emotional prayer, and just like that, they were on their way back down to the world.
I'm alone now with the latest love of my life.
Photo by Jon Schlueter.
August 8/Day 3
Feeling lousy this morning, I cooked up nearly two gallons of water and drank as much as possible. Better this afternoon, the crest of Frostbite Glacier served well for sunset pics. This is a good place to watch your step. It has been relatively warm today and as soft as the snow was, I hoped the entire crest of the glacier wouldn't collapse beneath me.
Returning to the spot ninety minutes before sundown I did more digging, just enough to get the tripod out over the 7,000-foot abyss without falling or dropping the camera. When no one else seemed to be around, I took off my hot down suit and did a jig along the edge wearing only my underwear and boots.
Light faded from distant corners as darkness rose to meet the impending night. Twilight held long in its gaze the summit snows of these wondrous peaks.
August 9/Day 4
An onshore flow brought strong wind surges to the mountaintop just before sunset. I left the tent at 7:30 and hiked to the south summit knoll and set up the tripod and camera. A cold breeze blew up from Chocolate Glacier and over the summit; low clouds raced back and forth in no particular direction, as if they didn't know which way to go. Eventually I crossed back to the mountain's highest point and set up again. After taking a few uninteresting pics I packed everything up and returned to the tent, feeling somewhat defeated.
She had no secrets to share with me tonight.
August 10/Day 5
This was the kind of day of which a photographer only dreams: calm winds, warm temperatures and a sea of jagged peaks lay out before you like a carpet. I was all over the mountaintop seeking every nook and cranny that would support the tripod.
By late afternoon of only my fifth day atop Glacier Peak I was absolutely exhausted, mostly from all the excitement of camping alone there after twenty years of aspiring for this. Yet if you dream big enough dreams in any walk of life, kids - make a plan and stick with it even unto the bitter end - every now and then they actually come true! And so it was for me there atop this majestic and splendid and unforgiving two-mile tall volcano; I was greatly blessed.
As late as 7:15 pm I sat inside the tent debating whether or not to expose myself to the fierce elements again. The relative warmth of earlier had given way to a northwesterly as a low-pressure center inundated Western Washington and cleared the air. It was extremely cold. There wouldn't be anything worthwhile to shoot that night anyway, so why even bother? Why not just burrow in my warm sleeping bag and maybe make some hot chocolate instead?
Then that hot chocolate, something sweet, brought me sailing right out of my slump. When the sky turned pink over the tent I ran for the door with the camera case in hand. Making my way across the glacier and onto the edge of a massive drop-off my mind just whirred, unable to grasp the scene at first. After quickly shoveling away spindrift and setting up my tripod and camera again, I turned on my little radio, tuned into what seemed like a pretty good station and went to work.
After surviving a good photo session and upon my return to the tent, I promised myself, I would fry up the one remaining can of Spam as a reward.
A million acres blaze at this moment across the West. Some 25,000 courageous fire fighters are now battling to save wide regions of Montana, Idaho, and Washington. They could use another 25,000 people. Smoke from these fires has blanketed the entire Pacific Northwest like it did last year from atop Mount Adams, blotting out the other volcanoes and most of the Cascade Range. The net effect tonight was an unearthly sunset.
Frozen summer, burning sky, sunlight glimmered on the edge of angel's wings.
By the way, the Spam dinner was pretty good too.
August 12/Day 7
Northern Lights shone brilliantly last night in a blaze of ethereal color, as if the paintbrush was held by God's own hand. Sitting in the doorway for over an hour watching this cosmic show, since the wind was too strong to get any photos, I shoveled some roast beef hash (dog food) from a can and into the frying pan, left over from last night's dinner. Backing up the breakfast matter with a sturdy swig of Pepto Bismol, I put on my suit, boots, crampons, etc., hoisted the pack on my back and headed out across the glacier.
Valleys gave up their shadows reluctantly it seemed as countless peaks near and far awaited the first rays of dawn. A sea of mountains, cradled by deep gorges and dark green alpine meadows, scarred and scraped by the ravages of time, waited at the feet of my lovely volcanoes.
August 13/Day 8
The most powerful winds thus far hit the summit last night. This "Bombshelter" tent is flimsy when compared to the Jansport China-Everest tents I used on the other three peaks. Since they have been discontinued for some reason, and my last one was destroyed on Mount Adams last summer, I will need to have another one custom-made for my next summit expedition. This particular brand reminds me of something Nepalese children might use while practicing for the real thing. It has already gone flat on me in 50 - 60 mph winds - and we're just getting started here!
A group of climbers reached the summit this morning. I thought I caught a glimpse of fear in the expression of one of them as they passed me by - I have been unable to purge that 'look' from my mind. It made me wonder if her concern was for herself, or for me? One year ago today I saw the same thing in the eyes of a young climber who had made camp with a friend the day before, near my tent at the third highest point in the Cascade Range. An uncompromising storm had set in over Mount Adams. They departed before sunrise while the mountain was in a bad mood. Before giving me his thermometer, Patrick Boys Smith informed me that the temperature was -4 degrees Fahrenheit. As kind a soul as he is, I wondered for whom he was worried - him or me?
Clouds have risen late this afternoon and provided me with the first whiteout of this expedition. Before engulfing the summit entirely, clouds rose and fell and whirred about in random motion. The tent is really banging around now; perhaps I should have buried it half way with soft snow while I had the chance. Now, it is all frozen solid. The good thing is that the 24" anchors are likewise frozen into the glacier - the whole thing would have to tear away for there to be a catastrophic failure of this equipment.
No heavy onshore flow is forecast for the next few days, so I should be all right until it warms up, or until more snow comes to the summit. Snow is your friend and wind is your enemy. Nevertheless, had I used this tent on Mount Adams, I probably would have died in that first big windstorm.
August 15/Day 10
Last night's sunset was as splendid as it was brutal. Freezing northwesterly currents swept up the glaciers and over my perch. Before leaving here at 7:25 p.m., I hadn't been out of the tent in 24 hours. This left me with a sense of detachment as I stepped up onto the ledge - like walking out of a space ship and onto the surface of another planet. Bland shades of white and blue filled the lowlands, accentuated by the occasional jagged black peak. Then the sun seemed to sputter out completely on the horizon.
August 16/Day 11
I shall never forget my predawn walk this morning; photographs
were less important than the experience. The sky was still
muted by CO2 as I hiked across the glacier. A paper moon
hung there as if suspended by an invisible, Heavenly string.
Led Zeppelin's ‘The Battle of Evermore' played over the radio.
I've always loved that song - but it has never sounded so
beautiful as this, and what timing! It was eerie how the
words suited the moment.
The Queen of Light took her bow
And then she turned to go
The Prince of Peace embraced the gloom
And walked the night alone
Oh, dance in the dark of night
Sing to the morning light
The dark Lord rides in force tonight
And time will tell us all
Oh, throw down your plow and hoe
Rest not to lock your homes
Side by side we wait the night
Of the darkest of them all
I hear the horses' thunder
Down in the valley below
I'm waiting for the angels of Avalon
Waiting for the eastern glow
After setting up the camera gear I found a nice alcove in a clump of rocks above a cliff overlooking Chocolate Glacier, to get out of the wind and take a nap. I had arrived there too early as usual. Like the sun this morning, I came around slowly ... wind through the crags below brought me awake. The view took my breath away at first.
Like an exposed sheet of paper developing in a darkroom tray, this image turned to a reverse plate of the real thing. Dodge and burn, toss up day and night, many of us landscape photographers are chasing the ghost of Ansel Adams.
August 17, Day 12
This morning I was maneuvering around in here with only the upper part of my body poking out of the sleeping bag, transferring white gas from a primary can to a fuel bottle. I happened to spill some gas on the snow of the cooking vestibule. I sealed the large can, set it outside and went to close the door. In the process I zipped up a wad of hair and tore it right out of my head. Then when I lit the stove it went POOOF! Fumes from the spilled gas exploded in a fireball torching my eyebrows, beard, and what's left of my poor hair.
I've just had a really bad hair day!
August 18/Day 13
A low-pressure center crept in from the Coast last night as I
took a series of photographs from Glacier Peak's highest point.
Temperatures rose as a dark band of clouds moved in and the last
shades of color faded to black. A storm set in at 9:04
p.m. High winds are still rocking the tent at 9:30 a.m.
Hail and sleet blast the summit in fierce turns - it's
fascinating to me how death is so close, divided only by one
layer of tent fabric.
By then in the expedition, my food supplies consisted of little more than a bag of instant potatoes and some bacon bits.
Lest I ever forget how tough this is, here are some notes regarding my daily routine:
1) Get out or reach out of the tent.
2) Chip ice from the glacier (or use last night's batch).
3) Place in pan.
4) Preheat stove.
5) Light stove.
6) Melt snow into water.
7) Pour majority of water into 1 gallon jug.
8) Wait until the rest boils.
9) Wash hands, then face.
10) Pour water into Thermos with coffee, tea, or hot chocolate.
11) Place instant potatoes in bowl and mix with remaining hot water.
12) Set pan on stove.
13) Spray corn oil into pan and cook bacon flavored soy bits to a golden brown.
14) Dump potatoes back into pan and fry with cooked soy.
15) Flavor with Mrs. Dash.
16) Dump back into bowl.
17) Force down throat.
18) Repeat two times daily.
As snow falls furiously outside, goose down is flying around in here from a tear in my sleeping bag and sticking to my greasy hair. I decided to cook up my only Jiffy Pop to celebrate. It burned. I'm a real mess in here, and loving every minute of this. As a song plays through the headphones, today is a time of play and replenishment of sleep in this wonderful environment.
August 19/Day 14
Several feet of snow fell overnight. I awoke before first light with the tent in my face. At first I wasn't even sure where I was. Shoveling snow was a brutal experience this time around - it's strange doing so in summertime. Returning inside a second time in awesomely strong winds, my heart was in my throat - any sort of mistake up here could easily kill me. By the time I awoke again after sunrise the shovel was gone, buried deep in snow. Without the shovel I could be done for. It took me nearly an hour to find it.
While I was out on another shoveling mission after sunrise, clouds cleared from the summit entirely for less than a minute and revealed a renewed, sugarcoated mountain. Then it all closed back in again with blasting snow and sleet. Temperatures have risen at the noon hour and it's really quite warm - in the low twenties. I have one tent door open at the moment, watching snow fall as the wind has died to only an occasional gust. Scant amounts of snow are angling pleasantly over my Gore-Tex-covered legs in stark contrast to last night's battle for the mountaintop.
As snow crystals fall across my burnt and blistered lips and face, fluctuations of light pulse overhead. It is as if I have passed through a veil and into another dimension, one devoid of the warmth of human companionship.
Rain may fall
Children will play
Still the thought of her not lingers
But clings to each new day
August 20/Day 15
An intense storm hit at 10:20 p.m. As torrents of snow and hail pounded the campsite, I became concerned when the tent bent close to my face in a prolonged wind gust. At this latest storm's height it would have been fatal for me to get out for whatever reason. Besides freezing to death, I might have slid away and gone on an unscheduled, grand tour of the North Cascades. My primary concern, though, was that the tent fabric would peel away and finish me off sitting right here.
Other than that, it was a really nice night.
August 21/Day 16
Clouds cleared from the summit this morning at 4:30, ending an 81-hour storm. Like a rag doll I emerged from the tent and made my way over to my perch on the south cliffs. While changing lenses and a roll of film, I became almost too light-headed to stand upright. My hands were shaking badly from eating little more than instant potatoes for the past five days. Returning to the tent I went ahead and opened the can of roast beef hash I have been saving and looking at longingly for the past week. In a grocery store a few weeks ago, I hardly gave it any notice. I'll divide this between tonight's dinner and tomorrow's breakfast, lunch and dinner.
A canvas of low clouds decorated the foreground; Mount Rainier and Mount Adams adorned the southern horizon. On this day God's blessing was upon this, and all of Majestic America!
August 22/Day 17
The bees are back! This is a sure sign that high pressure is in place. They tend to leave the area about 24 hours prior to the onset of bad weather, so they don’t get their little butts in a bind. One of them stopped by inside here a few minutes ago, not intent on stinging me - he just seemed curious. More than likely, they had heard from their buzzing buddies that there's something awfully stinky on top of Glacier Peak that's worth checking out!
Last night I felt extremely ill with flu-like hot and cold flashes, but still in want of a good sunset. As I was really dizzy, it seemed reasonable that this was not a good time to be standing on the edge of a slippery cliff with a camera. I stayed home. Loneliness ruled the night.
August 23/Day 18
This morning I blew a primary gasket in my lower back. I managed to dig a new platform from the headwall of Frostbite Glacier and was barely able to return to the spot later for pics.
August 24/Day 19
I choked down the potato mix, put on my suit, boots and Gaitors, and was able to get out the door but not onto my feet. Unable to stand - much less pick up and carry the pack - the pain in my hips is incredible. It makes me rethink the importance of getting sunrise pics this morning.
Tomorrow will surely be a better day.
August 25/Day 20
Last night was a restless one; full of disconnected dreams of places I have never been and people I have never met. What a relief to have returned from the pain farm. Clouds streamed by as I stepped onto the ledge, obscuring the view at first. Then it cleared to reveal a carpet of clouds, which seemed to reach on to the very gates of heaven.
Setting the headphones over my ears, then going to choose a CD to put in the player -- something special for the moment -- then tilting my tripod and camera up over the 7,000+ foot edge of weak snow, trying not to plunge off, one song seemed especially fitting for the moment:
What's the use of worrying if we'll be here tomorrow
All we need to be is here today
Don't care if you're rich or if you have to beg and borrow
You can always find a way
Dive and breakaway
Fall free, freedom's in the air
It's calling you, your heart is there
Fall free, blaze across the sky
The perfect fall, the perfect high
Mother earth looks peaceful as we climb towards the ceiling
We must be ten thousand feet or more
Hear the wind rush screaming while we fight to curb our feelings
As we stand beside the door
Let our spirits soar
Cast in pink, blue, orange and turquoise, billows of cloud swept across the horizon. I was on my 35th exposure and the sun had long since set, when a gust nearly sent me off the ledge toward the tent. A fall in that direction probably would not have killed me, but it would have broken some bones. This, I guess, would end up the same up here in this growing storm. Fall free.
August 26/Day 21
Hurricane force winds have pummeled the summit for 13 hours now without letting up for so much as a minute. The worst of it hit a few minutes past midnight. The SW corner collapsed. It stayed there for over an hour with this single gust. Another 10 or 20 miles per hour would have taken me right off of here.
Sometimes it's impossible to distinguish between a crash of thunder and the roar of wind as it barrels up the glaciers from below. Although the anchors were beginning to falter, it was just too dangerous to get out of the tent at that point. So planning for the worst while hoping for the best, I huddled against one wall until a fitful sleep came calling.
I awoke with a start after first light when one of the poles touched my chest. I didn't recognize the inside of the tent, even after three weeks of living in there. The entire south side had given way under the weight of accumulated ice. After dressing I stepped out onto the glacier and was thrown hard to the ground and spun around to the east. Leaning back and grabbing the southeast anchor, I was able to pull myself up alongside the tent to keep from sliding away off the mountaintop.
There was no choice - I had to clear the tent before getting back in.
The shovel was sticking out of the snow right next to me. So I yanked it out and furiously bashed ice from the tent, returning inside fifteen minutes later, hypothermic and shivering all over. The next time the tent needed to be cleared I figured, unless there was an emergency with an anchor, I would wait until the wind calmed down some.
This can be a nasty little bed and breakfast at times.
Speaking of breakfast, I was in the 18th hour of this latest storm when three climbers approached the tent. Steve had arranged a re-supply and there was Adam Bly on his second ascent of Glacier Peak this season, accompanied by Jason Scott, and Greg Parke. I touched Adam's gloved hand to make sure that they were real, and quickly made room for them in here.
Before leaving the parking lot for the ascent twenty-some days earlier, when it appeared that none of us could carry even another ounce more, I privately stashed some of the heavier items in the cab of my truck. Most of that was food.
They were covered in ice and Jason was starting to shake uncontrollably. As they got in Adam produced a bag containing the most important items I had left down in my truck - yes, they found it! This parcel contained several cans of Spam, saltine crackers, some bean mix and some candy bars. Someone donated four power bars and a freeze-dried dinner to the expedition the other day, so I was fully prepared to make this last eight more nights. Apparently, Steve is not very happy with me.
The storm was worsening and Adam, Jason and Greg were in really bad shape. I was worried about them as they left a few minutes after their arrival. What an incredible sacrifice; they will never know how much this means to me personally, or to the outcome of the expedition. As they are less than half my age, I am very impressed with these kids. In particular, Adam's enthusiasm for adventure and desire to contribute toward this cause seems to know no end!
August 28/Day 23
The wind calmed to a reasonable level by midmorning, by the time a young couple stopped by for a visit. While Christy was busy elsewhere out of sight on the glacier, Dave confided in me that he was about to ask her to marry him. He asked if I would take pictures to commemorate this event, slightly after the fact. Of course.
We were all stunned to see a fully loaded Alaska Airlines DC10 jetliner, circling close by to the east at about 9,000 feet. What's up with that? I made sure to wave back.
By the way, Christy said "yes" to Dave.
A full-blown storm erupted around me while I was out goofing around on the glacier well after sunset. It was all I could do to get back to the relative safety of the tent only fifty yards away, as the entire mountaintop was soon plastered in an inch of water ice.
While I slept soundly later, the sleet silently turned to rain. Yes, rain! Of the nearly 100 nights I had spent atop Pacific Northwest volcanoes to date, I had never seen anything like this. Potentially serious consequences soon arose when the anchors started to melt out, as the temperature continued to rise; water began to flow in a torrent from somewhere deep within the glacier. Fortunately for me, the wind was blowing at only 30 mph to 40 mph at the time.
Lulled asleep again before dawn, an explosion ripped the air like a cannon blast! My heart nearly stopped when the first of several shudders raced beneath the snow -- all of the sudden the glacier fell in half a dozen feet with a huge concussion. Before enough time had passed for this to register on me, the temperature plummeted again and the tent was encased in more water ice.
Things were finally getting back to normal as the Queen of the Cascades was obviously in a very grumpy mood. But my own bad mood could easily outmatch hers any day.
One good kick from in here and the ice shattered like sheets of broken glass.
This latest storm ended as quickly as it had begun, at half past six this morning. At 9:00 it is warm and beautiful on the mountaintop. A group of about a dozen climbers from National Outdoor Leadership just reached the summit and are now engaged in singing songs that echo kindly over to the loneliness of my tent.
Clouds rose and fell around us as I took photographs of them spelling out NOLS with their bodies on the snow, with my now water-damaged camera. It is obvious that this school teaches their students the skills necessary to climb mountains and stay alive in the process. Of equal importance, is that they also learn to have fun! NOLS seems to advocate both safety and enjoyment of the natural world. What a concept, and what a neat organization.
August 30, 2000/Day 25
The weather forecast for the week ahead was quite ominous, according to a tiny AM/FM radio I had brought along to keep me company. Local meteorologist, Harry Wappler, said a low-pressure center would soon park itself off the Washington coast and that it would remain in place for "a long time." Jeff Renner, whom I had once met in person, said the same thing. You could always trust them. The snow level was expected to drop to 5,000 feet by Friday evening as an "autumn like" storm warning was in effect for the North Cascades; temperatures were projected to be 10 to 15 degrees below average. All of this added up to a perfect storm of potential problems for me.
"Anyone planning to go climbing in the Cascades, especially in the North Cascade region,” Harry said as I pressed the radio up against one ear, desperately hoping for any tidbit of good news, “should think twice about it."
Some climbers were scheduled to make the nine-mile trip to Boulder Basin that Saturday. Sunday they were going to attempt to climb the remaining three miles to the summit to help me down with my gear. I pictured my friends caught up in a storm high upon the volcano in a state of utmost danger and misery. What if they were unable to reach me for some reason, in a whiteout or deep snow for instance? And what if they had to carry me down from there? This last scenario didn't seem quite so far-fetched as I was already somewhat detached from my surroundings and shaking badly at times after only 25 days spent on the summit. What if my back or neck went out again?
Even another two or three more days would probably finish me off, or so I had thought. (As it turned out later back at home, even another few hours spent up there would have sprung me loose from this world.)
When the temperature dropped an awesome 30 degrees in only three minutes as I sat in the open doorway of the tent - a full ten degrees Fahrenheit per minute - my mind was made up. Should any climbers reach the summit the next day, I would swallow my pride and ask if I could follow them down as far as the tree line at Boulder Basin. Camping in a forest is usually less difficult than camping on a mountaintop. Gathering my belongings and dividing it all into two piles on the tent floor, I decided,
...this stack will go into my backpack and be carried down. This one will stay and either be carried down by the recovery group, or by me, as soon as I am able to walk right again after this expedition.
(The “walking" right again part of this program turned out to be about seven months.)
The second set of luggage in my fourth "leave no trace" quest, included a bag of my carefully contained and sealed poop from nearly a month on this mountaintop. Yes, how lovely.
During a brief respite in the ensuing storm I scampered in nothing but my underpants and inner boots to an alcove under the mountain's highest point. There this squirrel stashed a huge and neatly labeled stuff-sack and made it back to the tent without getting his nuts flash-frozen in the park, so to speak. For all I knew, hiking in underwear might even be illegal in North Cascades National Park.
So come arrest me! Please.
After packing up my belongings in case of a sudden departure, with the exception of my camera gear and the tent of course, I set out once again across the dazzling summit dome of Glacier Peak - more fully dressed this time. Just picture yourself there alone atop a two-mile tall volcano as the sun begins to set. Clouds still act unruly as they rise and fall in a fashion that now seems crueler to you than beautiful. Realizing that this will probably be your last night spent atop this volcano - like, ever - you have to make the most of those few remaining hours. So what are you 'gonna do?
Venturing to my best nest with my Pentax 645 as more high winds assaulted the mountain, even as I asked her to pose for one final series of pictures, it seemed radically cold and hostile atop DaKobed, ah, “Glacier Peak.” Back at the tent I could easily picture myself trapped there a week later as the rescue became a recovery mission. Sure enough, seconds after returning to camp, another, tremendous blast of wind pounded the summit. The tent bent alarmingly close to my face, hammering away: bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang! All the while the canvass floor pulled violently from its four anchors: bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam! You get the idea. Every minute seems like an hour and every hour like an eternity as your tent pitches endlessly back and forth and inhales and exhales and shudders and pops, often in sustained winds exceeding 100 mph for 30 or 40 or 80 or more hours at a time.
The tent bent alarmingly close to my face, hammering away: bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang! All the while the canvass floor pulled violently from its four anchors: bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam!
You get the idea. Every minute seems like an hour and every hour like an eternity as your tent pitches endlessly back and forth and inhales and exhales and shudders and pops, often in sustained winds exceeding 100 mph.
I bade the mountain farewell.
Later on in the tent, I wondered, if I leave the summit 48 hours short of one month, will this expedition be incomplete? Will I have failed? For more than a decade I had regretted having to bail out six days early, after 22-days on Mount St. Helens. This had really stuck in my craw. Perhaps avalanches and chest-deep snow shouldn't have driven me from my camping place just below the Crater Rim? Will I forever end up feeling the same about Glacier Peak, if I leave here two days early? Finally I came to my senses and realized that it would be far better to succeed at spending two days shy of four weeks atop this particular volcano, than to die trying to attain my goal of 28 days. Even that simple notion of surviving this ordeal was far from certain as it was.
The time had come for my one meal of the day - Top Ramen, of course. The difference this time was, I could use all the seasoning packets I wanted to, since for me there might be no "tomorrow." What the heck, why not 'do the town'?
August 31/Day 26
By the early morning hours of the last day of August 2000, I was more afraid than at any other time in my life. So much so that this seemed like a proper time to engage in some good old-fashioned prayer. No matter which religion you profess to, if any, soon enough we will all get there. Only the soul endures forever.
Somehow I kept picturing a solitary climber ascending Glacier Peak; or perhaps it was a group of climbers.
Please Lord, keep him, or them going.
Indeed, a fellow solo adventurer did "happen" upon my tent that morning. All along the way he had been wondering, "So why am I climbing this mountain anyway?" He felt strongly inspired to do so for some reason. He just "had to." Oh and by the way, Brent Trim had recently journeyed over 800 miles along Pacific Crest Trail on his way to Canada from Mexico. Now there's a story! All he was seeking was shelter from this ferocious storm atop the volcano. I refused him entry into my tent, for there was no time to waste in starting the descent. So instead of warmth and perhaps even a nice meal, minutes later, he was helping me down from the summit. Welcome to my world friend.
What a name for a climber though, 'Trim.' Like Ridgeway or Whitaker or Eastwood, these guys are already blessed. I got, 'Williams.'
Fifty feet from the hole where my tent had been stationed, we stopped at the edge of a several thousand-foot drop. The route I had ascended nearly a month earlier was now nearly vertical and plastered with hard water ice, deposited from the latest storm. There was no way I would be able to make it down that slope in my condition. So we descended a rock pillar instead, which led to the glaciers somewhere below. This was apparently the 'safer' of the two options. Some Labor Day weekend this was turning out to be, just like the last one.
Hanging on for dear life with each and every hand or foothold, my seventy-five pound pack threatened to send me to my death, for beneath me there was only air. Brent reached the bed of the glacier first and stood there shouting up valuable instructions to me, regarding the hand and foot holds below. This was as good a time as any I suppose, to brush up on my solo rock climbing skills. Eventually we reached the bottom of this 250-foot tall ice-encrusted tower and from there Brent quickly and skillfully led us up and down and in and out of one or another icefall. Shouting down to him from the lip of another 100-foot deadfall slope, I said, "I can't make it, pal!"
"What choice do you have, pal?" he shouted right back up at me.
He had a point there.
So I tightened my crampon straps, faced in and bucked up to
making this simple descent toward several beefy crevasses.
Adrenaline leaked out my ears by the time I reached him with my
knees now on the brink. Over the years I had guided some
fifty ascents of the Cascade volcanoes and with a total of
nearly two hundred summits now under my belt, I should have been
doing better than this. Now I was stumbling along behind
my guide in a daze.
A few hours later I was reduced to taking a few steps, then another one or two, then it was time for a standing rest break. We were about to leave this interminable glacier and return to more rock when I vomited up a big batch of blood, right next to a bright green cactus. I'm not sure which surprised me the most; a desert flower living there at 8,500 feet, or the other. Wow, like, I was dying.
From there we had a bare minimum of another thousand feet to go up to the next pass; this I had to make or I would probably pass away somewhere on the slopes of Glacier Peak that day. Through a blur of pain and illness I went, only to spot Brent several hundred feet above me as he reached the next crest. My heart sank when we looked down into the fog from there, after all this work and anticipation.
"Do you recognize this, Glenn?" Brent asked.
"No," I replied, with an unsteady voice.
Beyond that lay not Boulder Basin, but another gigantic traverse across a bleak and indiscernible moraine of snow and ice and basalt toward yet another pass. This would entail at least another five thousand agonizing steps for me to reach. Over the next hour, or two or three - by now I had lost track of time on the day - we traveled up and over and through some of the strangest and most delirious territory I had ever imagined.
At one point Brent was well ahead of me on the glacier below, when I made the unwise decision to take a shortcut across a steep rock face. The rock band appeared to meet back up with the glacier only about a quarter mile away, so this seemed like an innocuous move at first. The tiny trail started to dwindle away to nothing as I made the traverse above a huge moat, where the snow had melted away from the rock beneath. Finally I reached a cascading waterfall and tried to cross beneath it. With nothing to grab onto but mud, suddenly I became "rim-rocked." Unable to go up or down or from side-to-side, my pack quickly filled with water, weighing it down all the more. Terrified, I began to lose my grip and slide inch-by-inch toward this dark and foreboding place of certain death.
Spotting Brent down on the glacier, I screamed and waved my arms about, hoping to get his attention. Finally he stopped, turned around and looked up. Spotting me several hundred feet above, in a major pickle of a situation, he made his way back across the glacier and onto the pumice "trail." An instant before I would have slid off toward an awful demise in this hole in the ice, he latched on to my pack. It was as if the weight of the world had been lifted off of me as we retraced our steps!
With typical understatement as we reached more stable footing, he said, "if you had fallen into that moat, without a rope between us, you would have been dead" (not his exact word.)
This about summed it up.
Back on the glacier again, Brent moved on ahead of me again until I felt like I was standing still. When he waved back excitedly from his next station, my pace quickened considerably until in the exuberance of the moment I was accomplishing at least one step for every 20 seconds; this probably meant that he had found the route! At the top of the next path we looked down onto the same streams at Boulder Basin, in which I had washed myself one sunny day four weeks earlier while camped with my friends.
What a terrific month it had been!
Now that we were on the correct route, we agreed that Brent should continue on ahead of me, as something about how we would meet on the trail in a meadow in the old growth forest 4,000-feet below passed between us. I was hardly paying attention to details by then. "You'll see my tent right next to the trail," he finished.
Just as I entered the first trees I had seen in quite some time, two climbers offered me aide when my knees could take no more. They tried to help me wrap them up with several bandanas, as Steve Peterson had eleven years before while I descended Mount Baker, after a month atop the crown peak of the North Cascades.
After thanking them profusely, these two climbers went on their way toward the summit while I hobbled on down the hillside toward home. I envied them.
As darkness fell I reached the "meadow" at the confluence of Sitcum Glacier route and Pacific Crest Trail and soon stumbled upon Brent's tent to the right of the trail, just as he had said earlier through my foggy haze. Not wanting to wake him I quickly and quietly installed my tent next to his. Considering the length of his own journey, Trim must have been exhausted.
Crawling inside my tent I felt like I had been beaten with a stick. Make that two sticks.
Dragging myself out the door, beside a babbling brook shortly after dawn the next morning, the first thing I noticed was the smell of the trees and the soil. After a considerable amount of time, I was able to rise onto my feet. Looking around while taking it all in, the second thing I noticed is that Brent's tent was gone without a trace. Blisteringly sore from a really, really long trip, a confluence of trails seemed to lead off in every direction. Brent had apparently opted for an early start on the continuation of his journey to the Canadian border, without saying a word. Angry with him for leaving me there without any direction, I threw things out of my tent and stomped and banged and cussed around the campsite - until I happened to notice a note attached to the top of my tent. Oh no. There, taped to the canvass was a kind message, along with a detailed diagram showing me how to get home from there:
I didn't have the heart to wake you, since I know how tired you must be. Congratulations on Glacier Peak Summit! You cannot afford to go the wrong way from here, so here is a map. Good luck to you. See you soon!
Boy, did I ever feel low about then.
Following Brent's map and when I could no longer carry the seventy-some-odd pounds in my pack, I stopped and set it down against a fallen tree. After taking out some of the contents, filling a stuff-sack and duct-taping it securely - don't ever forget your duck tape - I proceeded down the trail, dragging the bumbling bundle along behind me from the end of a prussic rope. Eventually I had to leave the caboose alongside the path, with a note to members of my recovery team.
Making a nice camp at Kennedy Hot Springs several hours later in a quiet stand of woods beside a creek, I was finally living deliberately as Henry David Thoreau would have wanted me to. As this great poet said, Time is the stream I go fishin' in. Into Thoreau's stream I waded deep into the night in the greatest physical torment I had ever experienced. Literally sore to the touch, every movement was excruciating and yet exhilarating. Even if I had pushed my luck too far this time, at least the film was safe and my account was recorded on a pad contained in my camera case. Nothing could get me now: storms on the mountain, failure of history, or even the grim reaper. And in only a few more hours my dear friends would be there to help get me back to the continuation of my lonely, bachelor existence.
Friends and virtual strangers alike filtered into Kennedy Hot Springs at half past nine o'clock that unforgettable Saturday morning. The first one to reach my tent was my climbing mentor, "The Bear," Michael Yde. His wife, Nancy Ferrell, followed him closely as did Bill DeYoung, Adam Bly, Jim Carlson, Brian Carlson, Mark Brewer, Alisa Webster, and Bruce Stuntebeck. Last in line and suffering from acute food poisoning from a fishy sandwich bought at a McRestaurant, was Steve Peterson. Most of us in his condition would have stayed home or sought medical attention. That's not Steve though.
Half the group headed up the trail from there, hoping to reach the summit the next day and carry out my belongings: Mike, Nancy, Bill, Alisa, Mark, and Bruce. The rest of us struck out for the parking lot almost five miles away, then directly toward a Denny's Restaurant. No detours were allowed now, for by then I had begun to fantasize about food. Scrambled eggs and waffles and hashbrowns and toast with globs of butter on it; bacon, bacon and more eggs ... and biscuits with half a gallon of gravy poured over them. Did I mention bacon? Hash browns. Yes, golden hashbrowns. Sorry moms, but nobody in the world makes them like the Big 'D'. Plates and plates of them, with four or five liters of coffee - I would pace myself, like on a climb, while I dipped from one biscuits and gravy plate to another.
I was extremely focused on achieving the food part of this program.
Mike courageously led Bill, Mark and Bruce to the summit the next morning - no easy task itself - and found my stash of gear amidst the wailing storm. To them goes the credit for retrieving my remaining gear from the summit of Glacier Peak and leaving her completely free of my presence there.
Michael John Yde taught me most of what I knew about climbing mountains early on. Much more than that, long ago he took me under his wing and educated this green climber on how to get up and back down from a mountaintop in one piece. He didn't have to. He just did. That's Mike.
It was none other than Mike Yde who had guided, pushed, drove and cajoled Dennis Grummer and myself to the summit of Mount Baker in 1986. Without Yde, Smith, Grummer, the Petersons and others, none of my grand mountaintop camping adventures would have ever been possible. Thanks to all these fantastic people the back cover of this book is now hard shut closed.
Well, wait a minute. Not so fast here. Maybe, maybe just maybe the most important and revealing part of this book is yet to be written.
Back at home, surrounded by darkness on my first night at home from Glacier Peak, I was really afraid. In a dream a storm swept in over the mountaintop and silently buried my tent under five feet of snow and ice. Perhaps I should have used a little pink nightlight my girly friend, Sherry Vote, had given me not long before. This alone would have saved me from running into the closed door at full stride and getting KO'd to the floor. I awoke for an instant with a banged up nose, then went cowering beneath a weight-lifting bench set up against a wall of my bedroom, off and on again lucid.
Off again, from back under the headboard of my bed I tried to make a break for it from this cold tomb. Drenched in sweat my heart raced wildly out of control as I gasped, convulsed and thrashed about, frantically clawing the walls in search of a way out of there. Not only was my normally low heart rate now more like that of a rabbit's, my usual low blood pressure had absolutely soared. In the depths of my ultimate sleepwalking nightmare and most likely at the verge of heart failure, I ripped the Leveler blinds completely from a small window, opened it and tried to crawl out. The fresh air felt nice. After promptly getting stuck half way out the windowsill, I had to make a desperate retreat all across that snowy landscape, kicking and fighting and scratching and screaming every inch of the way!
Back home after 26 enlightening
days atop Glacier Peak, 2000.
As we spoke together over the telephone the night before my departure for Glacier Peak, for some reason my mother cautioned me to be especially careful on this one; my fourth unprecedented mountaintop expedition. We had been through this same routine quite a number of times before over the years and yet, and yet never could we have imagined how she would fall terminally ill while I was away. She must have sensed that her own story was winding down to a close.
"Do a good job with your writing and the camera and have a memorable time, but mainly, you had better come back alive from there, Glenn Paul!"
I can still hear her voice saying these thoughtfully ordered words,
even as I had recently turned a ripe old 43 years of age now myself.
When you hear your middle name pronounced after your first, by one
of your parents, unless this is part of your name to begin with, you
know that they really mean it!
Like any good kid should I replied,
In a testament to their enduring 56-year love for one another and as her body began to fail her, my elderly dad set two chairs out in their garden for them each morning rain or shine. There they would sit and talk together for hours on end about how and when this or that row would need weeding. Dad took notes.
She had always provided a special place for me in one of their plentiful vegetable gardens and with her help, I thought the sunflowers of my imagination could grow to the very sky! From an early age I was allowed to have as many pets as I wanted, as long as I took care of them. The first of these was a tortoise named "Willie," whom is duly immortalized at the forefront of this book. Then I graduated on to other beasts such as poults (baby turkeys) and goslings (baby ducks) and even the occasional piglet I kept in a box under a heat lamp in my bedroom of our Woodinville farmhouse. My goodness we had pigs and cows and chickens, geese, ducks, turkeys, a pony, a goat or two at times, two dogs, several cats, gerbils and stuff like that.
Starting at eleven years of age I regularly called over my new nine-year-old best friend, Steve Peterson, to adore my ensemble of pets. Mom often set us up with neat and interesting crafts to work on at our simple dining room table when the weather was bad. Otherwise we were scrambling out the door winter or summer to explore the deep dark woods surrounding our farm.
One time my favorite runt piglet fell seriously ill with pneumonia. I was mortified. Heavily into 4-H at the time, this was a telling moment for me because “Penelope” was coughing and had a runny nose. She just wasn't her same old playful and squealing self. Faced with my first possible pig-time death scene, my mother averted this by staying up with me throughout the night nursing Penny with bottles of milk and antibiotics, agreeing to let me skip school the next day to focus on saving my precious pet's life. Mom and I snacked on Cheerio's and cheddar cheese on saltine crackers and talked together way into the night, while caring for my tiny pink-nosed friend.
Turning on the stove at a low temperature, mother bundled Penny Pig up in a soft towel. Looking at me with a deadpan expression, I was ready for her this time as she said, "We need to let her warm up some, Glenn, just not all the way." I feigned to let her statement hit dead air, then dropped my jaw. I will never forget her standing there beside me - about the same age that I am now - as she laughed out loud at my reaction, while we gently set my little girl-pig in the oven and closed the door. Just not all the way.
There was always such a beautiful touch of absurdity tangled up in my folk's intellect and wit ... they were together for 54 years.
By the way, and since I am sure that you are virtually nailed to your seat over this one, several years later mom showed me a classified ad in a local newspaper, which said:
We must move to the city.
One big pig for sale, or for free.
Her name is Penny. Pet only.
We howled laughing over the choice of words in that clipping. No one else in the house would ever know why. This was just between my mom and me.
Another incident easily comes to mind as I sit here writing again deep in the night, on yet another Mother's Day - now in my 50th year - which also occurred in the winter of 1970. This would one day have a direct influence upon the book you now hold in your hands.
It had snowed three feet or more overnight in Woodinville and all the schools across the region were closed. Of course, I was totally destroyed at having to miss school. Darn. Since the snow was too deep to even go sledding, mom suggested that I write a short story to keep me busy indoors. She all but demanded something extremely creative.
Early on in my upbringing she had insisted that I learn to do three things, aside from the obvious: wash and iron my own clothes, and type. In fact, I had become quite a good typist by the age of twelve, but nothing like her flawless blur of words on a page at 60 wpm. This had always amazed me. I wanted to be that good at typing and because of her, now I am. (Today they call it "keyboarding," so please pay close attention kids.)
To this day also, my clothes are always clean and impeccably ironed before I ever leave the house.
We must always keep up appearances, she always said to me.
So I threw myself into this writing project during that snowy week in 1970, as a brat little kid. My first literary work ever was called "A Mouse in the House." After laboring on it for much of two days, I turned over my double-spaced, ten-page manuscript to my literary agent with much fanfare and waited with bated breath for her opinion.
"This is terrible, Glenn," she finally said. “It is just terrible. This is the best that you can do after all this time? You are kidding me?" she said, while looking down flipping through the pages. I hung my head, crestfallen.
"I want you to go back and write it all over again. Start from scratch."
And so I did. But it would still be about a mouse, whether she liked it or not! I was mad now and more determined than ever before, which in hindsight says that this had been her objective all along, of course. That’s a mom for you. She just meant to draw a good storyline out of me.
Another day passed with me tapping away furiously on the new Smith Corona electric typewriter that mom had made dad buy only a few months before, and eventually late one evening I had a revised draft in hand of my Mouse in the House story, with only about a dozen whiteout corrections. After submitting the manuscript to her in my parent's bedroom, where she always poured through her countless, truly fine adventure books like Little House on the Prairie, propped up in bed next to her reading light, I headed for the living room and nervously awaited her response. This was some important literary stuff, I was sure of it.
Much later she called me back in. "Glenn, this is pretty good, but I know that you can do better. Start over again, only this time, just re-draft what you have already written."
However slight it was, this was a nod on my work!
"I would like to see you expand on what the mouse was doing in the house at the time the new family moved in, and of how it affected the mouse and his family. Tell me a story that will really move me!"
Without any complaint I headed back to the typewriter. Although I was quite hurt by her first two responses, deep in my heart I knew she was right. And I knew what she was doing with me. I could do better. So this time I really went at it, trying to tell a story of epic mouse proportions, which would deeply touch the heart of the reader.
Another two days passed until finally I had crafted a work of art with my words, or so I thought. After making yet another manuscript delivery to my number one agent and editor, I went back into the other room and waited, nibbling at my nails while eating a batch of David and Sons Sunflower seeds, as I had done regularly since about the age of 5.
"Glenn, please come in here right now!" she shouted to me over an hour later.
I trudged back to her bedside and her crisp
linen, which somehow always seemed to stay perfectly clean and
pressed. Mine was always a total smelly wreck.
"This is brilliant!" she said. "You did it this time.
This part here especially spoke to me. Now I know and
really like the mouse and his family, along with the people who
moved in there. Great job Glenn. I give this an
Shoot, an A- from my mom! I was ecstatic, as if I had just
won the Nobel Prize for Literature or something, like Hemmingway
did! I still have the original copy of this story, the
mouse story, kept safely secured in a safe deposit box after all
these years for future reference -- in case I ever run dry of a
It was over Thanksgiving Day weekend of 2000 that Katherine LaNelle Williams was diagnosed with advanced stages of multiple myeloma, a most excruciating cancer of the bone. While driving over to the southwest Washington coast the morning after the official diagnosis, only one thing seemed certain: directly ahead of me on the tracks lay an emotional train wreck. This would require all of the courage I could possibly muster.
Climbing mountains was nothing by comparison.
Walking in through the door of their home the day before Thanksgiving I fell into the arms of this once spry woman I hardly recognized anymore and nearly passed out from a tide of emotion washing over me. All of my goals and even my most ambitious alpine dreams bowed to the ground that day into insignificance. All in the course of only a few months I had gone from such incredible heights of sunlight and joy, to an utterly deep and dark valley of sadness.
The day after Christmas, Steve insisted that we all go visit mom at St. Joseph's
Nursing Care Center in Olympia, and that dad drive the 60 miles from Aberdeen to
join us. This would be one of my
father’s final solo journeys in a car, after 50-some-odd years of them.
Steve wouldn’t take “no” for an answer from our dad. “Absolutely,
dad," he said, "you need to meet us there.”
The courage my friend showed in making that telephone call in the first
place, when I was unable, speaks volumes about him. Without saying it, we
all knew that this would be our last time all spent together until we meet on
the other side. A huge dose of hardship was just around the corner for us,
inexorably tied up with some life-changing experiences.
Right away she called the three of us close to her bedside and whispered
directly to Steve: "You know something, bud, you guys get more handsome every
time I see you!" There you are, standing at the edge of a tremendous
emotional abyss, trying to keep your balance. You try to keep it
lighthearted as possible -- good luck with that. Don't fall off now.
Several other people joined us and eventually two Pastors were present: my dad
and another man. For sure, the most moving and powerful thing you have
ever heard came not from one of them, but from Steve as he bravely offered to
lead us in prayer ... and so goes the true measure of a man, and the closest of
all friends of our family:
"Dear Lord, we commit to you this special moment. We feel your very
presence now in this room..."
The rest of what he said and what transpired thereafter is private.
However, I will say this:
Steve's Christmas present from my parents that year had been a few special books
selected from my dad's emence library - this is all W.D. and Katherine Williams
could manage under the circumstances - collected over their astoundingly long
and fruitful church-building ministry. Dad was giving them away as his own
sight and hearing were beginning to fade, from old age as well as the ravages of
Inscribed inside the cover of the first of these books was:
Our "other" Son, with love, from your "other" parents:
Katherine and W.D. Williams.
Stars twinkled from a black sky and a light breeze blew from the west the night my dear mother passed from earth and into the very Thrown Room of God. Eleven American bald eagles had arrived at my ranch that particular morning, as they always did at some point each winter. This time they had some of their molting offspring with them. The timing of this seemed special to me. I sensed that angels would be celebrating an arrival in Heaven by the end of that "day." Who even knows how long a day is up there? A long time we can only imagine. Or maybe it is only an instant. Or perhaps, just perhaps, they are one and the same.
When the telephone rang I didn't need to look at the caller ID to know that it was my father, or why he was courageously phoning each of his children one at a time. Their "fifth" kid, Steve, was included in those calls, to let us know that mom had just died in his arms.
Tuesday prior I had had the privilege of sitting up with her
through the night, as she had so many times with me as a child
when I was very sick. This time it was in the
hospital-like setting of their home, where she had insisted upon
going to die in peace. The fireplace crackled softly
nearby as the cadence of an oxygen machine filled the room with
its periodic pump, compression and hiss while my family slept,
exhausted from their sweet yet somber vigil.
My brother-in-law, Bill Burkenbine, and my eldest nephew, Tim, had compassionately and professionally installed a set of white curtains surrounding her bed before her arrival back home. To me, this became like her launching pad into eternity, from where we would all say our final goodbyes to, to mom and to "mom-mom." As a professional musician, my niece, Aimee Burkenbine, played her flute for the matriarch of our family as she lay on her deathbed; this beautiful young lady's music always seems to echo into your very soul.
That afternoon and for the first time in nearly thirty years, my brother and sisters and I were together under the same roof with our parents. Sharon, Jeremiah, Rebecca, and Glenn had the great privilege of saying our hellos and goodbye's to her, each in our own time, each in our own way.
From my own perspective, the hours she spent alone with her youngest born, from about midnight to 5:30 a.m., were some of her last. Nothing I have ever experienced in the alpine realm could possibly compare to the depth or height of beauty or emotion I experienced then. Much of what was held in the balance shall always remain secret between us, until we meet again relatively soon.
In as much as I have included very little regarding my personal life in these pages, now I recognize how this might be the most important part of any story.
Just after midnight she suddenly recognized me and whispered, "Glenn, you're here!"
"Yes, it's me, momma" I said, weeping in one great gasp over her emaciated frame. At that moment, she was by far the stronger of the two of us. "I'm here with you mom, and I love you so much I can't put it into words. We all do." She smiled and squeezed my hand twice with a trace of a wink, her sign of comfort to me from the day of my birth. Mom had returned now for a brief while as if to comfort me. Never able to escape those big brown eyes and tell a lie, somehow she always knew ... and boy oh boy was I ever in trouble this time!
So instead of saying that everything would be okay, I told her a story which surely lay ingrained within her memory, as it was in mine.
"Do you remember when you made us play dough on the stove, in our Woodinville farmhouse? Steve and I had only recently met. We were no more than eleven and nine years old at the time. We fashioned it into rings and necklaces. You gave us your watercolor paint set, and with that we painted our creations. All day long we bragged of how we would make it in the jewelry market in Seattle. We were going to dominate this industry at Pike Street Market." She managed a smile. "The jewelry had shrunk by the next morning and didn't look quite so good, mom, so we headed up the creek on our property to look for gold. Do you remember that?" She smiled again. Another squeeze or two.
At half past three my mother signaled me that she would like a snack. I was absolutely desperate to decipher exactly what she meant. "Eeer", she said. "Mom, I still don't understand," I said, after several tries. "Cheerios!" she said, before settling back onto her pillow. I should have known all along.
"You've got it mum, yes, you've got Cheerios on the way."
Cheerios, Cheerios, Cheerios,
I said under my breath as I entered the kitchen of their modest
home. As if in slow motion I saw the refrigerator door
open and my hands take hold of a milk carton, then pour it over
some oats in a small bowl, knowing that I would always remember
these moments. Right now the most important thing I would
ever accomplish in a lifetime was not to climb another mountain
or create another work of modern art, but to keep it together
and prepare a bowl of cereal for my dying mother. The
reality of this hit me particularly hard when the light went out
as the refrigerator door closed.
Now the time had come for me to go back in and say my final
farewell to her.
It was snowing hard on Snoqualmie Pass and Fred Meyer Stores was
finally calling us as a Vendor - after ten years of trying to
get them to carry my photographic products - and so my career
was on the line also.
More importantly, it was up to the more senior members of
family to see her off.
I was the upstart.
First, though, as that long-feared moment of mine had now
arrived with full force, I leaned my head up against the kitchen
wall and weeped everything out of me. I didn’t know that
it was possible to cry so hard.
Behind me there on the stove lay one of mom's ancient baking
sheets. We had used this same one since, well, since us
kids were kids. A million of the world’s best biscuits had
passed its way.
She could easily have bought another one at any time over
the past five decades - but no, she wanted to keep this one, for
it held so much meaning. It may have been handed down from
her mother for all we knew. It certainly looked
I wiped off my never-ending stream of tears the best I could,
composed myself some, and reentered her world of white.
Mom ate one spoonful after another with great dignity as I fed
her - we had traded places now - I dabbed her chin as needed
while her kind and glistening eyes shone up at me, a mirror of
the same. I knew what she meant by that 'look,' and I
would venture to say that she knew what I meant by mine.
"See ya there." This would be Katherine Williams' last
meal upon this earth, other than one my super-sister, Sharon
Burkenbine, gave her after I had left for home across the snowy
pass to Ellensburg.
And so it was that the last thing my mother ever said to me was literally all she could muster: "Go eat!"
I did, right there by her bedside, by finishing off her bowl of Cheerio's.
Dad died soon after, only an hour or so before I turned 50, but that's another part of the story.
Katherine and Reverend W.D. Williams.
A Heavenly place.