THUNDER ON THE HORIZON

 

"When the maidens fair bade 'good-by,' I asked them to pray for us.

But one, more lively than the others, observed that we should

be so much nearer heaven we ought to pray for them."

Edmund T. Coleman

Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 1869

 

Aerial views of Mount Baker, courtesy of the kind people at USGS.

 

 

CHAPTER 1

My two friends from the 'hood, Steve and Bill Peterson, supported me on only my third trip ever to the top of Mount Baker.  Steve was 29, going on 30 that August 8.  Having turned a ripe old 32 years of age myself only the day before, I was wildly pumped up and hungry for a big defining life experience.

 

Born on the 4th of July, Bill had always seemed to think that the fireworks were all about him.  Now he lagged fifty feet on the rope and five years behind me (27), while I tried to encourage him all I could as he lugged sixty-five pounds of my gear up Coleman Glacier in his pack.  This was his first big mountain, done the hard way, as it had been mine.  Shouting down the slope as we made our way through a wondrous icefall above camp, I said, "Look at this fabulous crevasse off to our right as you pass by Billy!  Look at the blue-green ice against the dark spaces.  Isn't it absolutely beautiful?”  And it was.

He didn't take the bait though, nor did Bill need a belay as he climbed that slope, then another and another and another and yet another and another.  Whenever he nearly fell asleep on his feet or hesitated for too long as we pounded up Roman Wall hours later as the sun began to bathe the mountain in sunlight, Bill's blood brother would give him a tug from the other end of the line, while I alternately smooth-talked or yelled at him from above until we finally crested the summit plateau together.

"A hundred more steps buddy, then we'll take a break!"

 

What else is a guide to do?   

 

And so this is how we managed to get my initial load of gear and supplies to the top of Mount Baker.  

Yet for the three of us this had may as well have been an Apollo moon landing:    

"Houston ... Tranquility base here ... the Eagle has landed."      

 

Indeed our welcome to the mountaintop was about as cordial as the Sea of Tranquility while we searched in vain for a "safe" camping spot for me on the glacier cap of Mount Baker, yet at first none was really to be found.    

 

Taking me aside the younger Peterson said: "Look, Glenn, this isn't some superman mountaineer we're leaving behind here.  This is you."

(Gee, thanks Bill.)

"Why would anyone want to stay up here for a month?  What if a storm comes along and blows you away?  Or what if you lose some fingers?  What would ‘nooo fingers’ do for your art career?” he gestured with open sarcasm now, groping at the air with clinched fists.  "A week is all it will take to get the photos for your book.  What else would there be for you to do up here anyway?  I can guarantee that you will get bored.  One week, Glenn.  That's it.  Maybe two."

Good try, Bill.

I stared back at him expressionless.

Then there came a chink in my armor when something he said touched a nerve between us.  "Hey, your parents and all of us care about you.  We're family.  We've been through a lot together since that set of swings in the schoolyard ... and we just don't want to see you die up here!”  Looking aimlessly off into the vast expanses of British Columbia for a moment in one direction, most of Western Washington in another, the North Cascades in yet another and finally back at me, Bill Peterson was getting really scared and was sobbing by the time he reached out to embrace me.   

Please do not tell anybody, but so was I.   

Minutes later Billy disappeared over the edge of the Roman Wall against the backdrop of a pale blue sky on a rope with Mike Yde and Mick Miles.  Steve had decided to stay behind for a night or two to help get me situated, since this would obviously be a very tough place to keep a tent buttoned down.  Plus, after years of hearing my endless accolades about this place, Steve Peterson wanted to get a good look at it for himself.

And so he did. 

 

The wind was calm and the sky dazzlingly clear on our second night spent on the mountaintop.  The temperature was still a fairly balmy +11 degrees as we surveyed the vast expanses of southern British Columbia from the tent doorway.  It all seemed so unreal that this was my childhood friend from back in Woodinville, sitting there beside me in the tent.  Finally I broke the silence to suggest that he should put on the five or six layers of rag-tag mountaineering clothing we had between us, and go for a walk to the mountain's highest point.  I had done so many times back in the old days of my mountaintop camping experience, like, three years before.  So he could now.  

"Nooo way.  Not a chance, and that's final.  There's no need to try to talk me into it, Glenn," he said.

"Listen to me, Steve" I countered, "it won't exactly kill you to go out there and take a look around.  Well, probably not anyway.  When do you think you'll ever have the chance to do something like this again in your entire lifetime?  You will have years to get more sleep.  Now is the time to go out and really live!

I'll give you a buck."

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Back when we were little bitty kids, while wandering through a stand of forest a couple of miles from my parent's property, hoping to see some wolves or other wild stuff, Steve and I came upon a bog filled with mud instead.  Challenging me, Steve said, "I'll give you a buck if you'll jump in there."

So I jumped in up to my knees.  A buck is a buck.

As promised, he produced a wadded dollar bill from his pocket.

 

As we approached my family's farmhouse a bit after dark, hoping to sneak in the backdoor unnoticed, from afar we were stunned to see my mother standing there in the doorway, waiting for us with her arms crossed.  Oh man, was she ever mad at us.  With a scowl, she plucked that wet dollar bill from Steve's hand and snapped, "This is mine, for washing your clothes!"

A second later I turned to find that 10-year old Steve Peterson had already scrambled off on his way across the valley toward home.  Smart dude.  Chicken shit.

 

*     *     *     *     *

Not so easy to get away from a Williams this time, Steve got all bundled up, put on a set of headphones with some of Seattle's Kenny G in the Walkman cassette player, and went for a stroll across the summit of Mount Baker.  I can attest to the fact that living up there is like living on the moon; sugarcoated mountains as far as you can see, shining waters below … personal challenge.  Like a long and lasting friendship, this mountain has a lot to give.

As he returned to camp nearly two hours later, crunching across the summit snows all the way, I was waving a dollar bill at him out the tent doorway.  Steve grabbed the bill out of my hand with a slight smirk, and then crawled back in his side of the tent without saying a word.

 

Snow place like home.

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

The next day was "severely clear" as meteorologists call it, devoid of any breeze whatever.  The reflection off the summit glacier was especially intense until about 2:00 p.m. when the temperature topped-out at +112 degrees Fahrenheit.  There had been a cruel 123-degree rise in temperature in only eleven hours.  In order to avoid sustaining heat strokes, we "chilled out" inside a snow cave that Steve had had the wisdom to dig the day before.

 

Cool.

 

Late on the morning of our fourth day on the mountaintop, lightning began to flicker in a distant bank of clouds, illuminating shadows that lay draped over the distant South Cascades.  An ominous feeling was in the air, as if the mountain was about to show a darker side.  Looking west from the volcano's highest point at Grant Peak while my exhausted friend slept back at the tent, sure enough the sky began to rumble and grumble to the southeast.  Lightening bolts flashed against a huge black patch of sky.

  

Several major issues were sure to arise were he unable to "hitch a ride" down with other climbers as we had hoped and so casually planned before the expedition.  

 

If we had to wait out a two-to-four day storm:

 

1) There would be even less food remaining to sustain me for a successful expedition 

2) Steve would become unemployed

3) One or both of us would probably die up there.

 

We could always climb down to the edge of Coleman Glacier if necessary, I figured, boot-axe belaying one another over the largest of the crevasses.  Then I would simply make the return trip to the mountaintop, solo, and spend another few weeks up there.  No problem.  By 1:30 p.m. I had given up all hope of anyone reaching the summit for another day.  I had even begun to sort out our climbing gear on the glacier, when the first climber on a rope of three appeared off in the distance.  Without hesitation they kindly agreed to give one stranded climber a place on their rope.

After an awkward and emotionless embrace between Steve and me, down the Roman Wall they went.

   

Not many weeks earlier Steve and I had met in the home of a terrific African-American man, at his invitation, where the three of us had talked and laughed and cried together at quite some length.  From time to time his wonderful daughter, Janie, looked in on us with more cookies and coffee, ever mindful of the security of her dad, Al Hendrix - Jimi's dad.  At the time, neither of us even knew who Janie was.  But she was nice.

It seemed that if we could have such a fine privilege as getting to hang out with Al, strum some famous guitars and try on a bunch of cool and historic clothing from a special closet, what couldn't we accomplish in the mountains?  The inspiration the Hendrix's had given us was immeasurable, especially considering the serious nature of the task now at hand. 

  

   

Glenn Williams with James "Al" Hendrix; May 1989.

 

Photograph by:

Janie Hendrix

 

Unusual weather patterns caused a breakdown in re-supply lines and just as my parents and a few friends had worried all along, soon I was fighting for my very life.  

 

Excerpts from my expedition diary are presented below in bold italics.

 

July 26, 1989/Day 4

A clap of thunder made me think the glacier was collapsing.  Heartbeat: 250 per minute.  Lightening surrounds the summit now, flickering all across the plateau.

 

July 27/Day 5

Before dawn the threat of being barbecued-by-Baker has faded.  A cloud sea has formed in the semi darkness below, assembling itself layer by layer like a carpet of the gods.

 

July 28/Day 6

Supplies look less than promising now, as they must last four to five more days:

 

1-3½ oz. tin of tuna

1 packet chicken soup

1 tbls. peanut butter

3 cashews

 

As my freeze dried food provisions had run out much sooner than expected, additional canned food, some new camera gear and other items were soon carried to the summit by a number of climbers early on the morning of July 28 at the dire bequest of Steve Peterson.  

 

The 1989 Mount Baker Centennial Summit Expedition was now at least vaguely possible because of Mike Yde, Mick Miles, Tom Grigsby, Dallas Browning, Bill and Chad Van Someren, John Korn, John Aaron, Brad Sather, and Steve and Bill Peterson and others.  There was now a realistic opportunity for success, thanks to the selfless spirit of adventure demonstrated by these individuals and many others -- who's names are forever now lost to my memory or journals.

 

 

CHAPTER 3

Mount Baker Summit
July 30, 1989/Day 8
 
Another storm came through last night, packing one-inch hailstones.  Then it cleared.
 
Looking out the open tent door while going over my new camera gear, a momentary increase in wind totaling maybe only six or eight miles an hour, brought with it the formative wisps of a super storm.  Like water draining from a shoreline preceding a Tsunami, I should have known what this "lenticular cloud" meant.  This would be my first such tutorial in big-time storm clouds. 
 
The sky darkened to coal gray and finally to absolute black as tentacles of cloud silently crept in from above, backlit by the setting sun.  Clouds streamed in, arching, arcing like fingers of an unseen hand.  Setting through a myriad of hues and colors, light ebbed into darkness, surrendering to the night ... behind, beyond the veil. 

 

July 31/Day 9

The tent picked up half way and almost pulled loose from the anchors.  I had on all my gear, ready to crawl to the cave.  Wrapped a towel around my head to get away from the roar.  It sounded like a train going by out there.

 

August 1/Day 10

Another big storm passed through overnight - WHITE AUGUST.  It has snowed three feet over the past 8 hours, drifting ever higher.

 

August 2/Day 11

The snow cave is buried.  Ran for the door, gasping for air.  Headache, dark and silent, beat from shoveling, I couldn't stay awake.  The tent sealed with ice, then more snow.  I was on my way to suffocating like those guys on the side of Rainier last spring.  Didn't know where I was, screamed 'help' looking for a way out.  Kicked through three feet of snow out the east door.  Cleared it again.  Must stay awake now.

  

Riding low below the glacier, I haven't left the tent in over 48 hours.  

 

Another storm is setting in.  Heavy dreams every night now.

 

 

CHAPTER 4

August 3/Day 12 

Early this morning I awoke to sunshine and new snow all around, shining and shimmering all across the glacier.  A cloud sea formed below as I dozed in a blend of bliss and exhaustion ... my home was transformed from a hostile refuge to a warm, soft, orange, balmy cocoon.

 

As the sun sailed into the sky toward a horizon of low clouds, this mountain that has been a place of misery for me truly became "The Great White Watcher."  A slight breeze, a golden alpenglow on the plateau, North Ridge icefall gleaming, clouds below.  As I took one photograph after another music wailed through the headphones, tears ran down and froze in my beard and I felt like the last man on earth, some way-out warrior in this world of snow and ice.  The thought of Ed Coleman looking down on the scene was with me the entire evening.  Today was powerful, moving, emotional, and unforgettable!

 

 

August 5/Day 14

Worn out badly tonight, I don't have strength for more sunset pics.  It's going to be a plain one anyway.  Sulfur dioxide is ‘killing me softly’ as it fills the tent again at 7:34 p.m. 

 

Loud cracking sounds rifle from the bergschrund and icefall before midnight.

 

Another loud thud came from within the glacier at 3:51 a.m.  The Mt. is reminding me who's boss.

 

August 6/Day 15

Sunset from the Roman Nose was awesome tonight with two fun overnighters: Tom Rakestraw and Scott Sandsbury.  They gave me their stove when mine conked out, saving the day.  It was careful business taking photos from the drop off.  My legs were shaking.  Now that's what I call fun!

 

As we strolled across the summit plateau the next morning, Tom suddenly fell through the snow and nearly disappeared into a huge hole in a crevasse.  Scott and I happened to be on either side of him and caught him at chest level, or else he would have been gone.  In fact the entire summit was covered in these hidden deathtraps.

 

 

August 8/Day 17

I heard from Kevin over the radio that a woman died in Coleman Icefall the day before yesterday, as I took photos from Coleman Headwall.  She slipped while hiking with her husband and fell over 600 feet, breaking her neck in the fall.

 

Kevin Kennedy, Chief Information Officer for Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest at the time, who is no stranger to personal tragedy himself, and his wife, Regan, had remained adamant about the many inherent dangers involved in my plan of trying to camp alone for four weeks on the summit glacier of Mount Baker.  

Yet this kind and wonderful couple understood my energy and determination on a deeper level than most, while still holding their ground on what lay in store for me.  I wanted what I wanted and the United States Forest Service wanted what they wanted.  So I had decided to try to muscle them around a bit.  Well think again, because Kevin and Regan were there to sternly try to protect me from my own very vigorous ambitions as a relatively young man.

Even the night before I left for the mountain, the three of us had talked over the telephone together.  

 

Oh what a joy.  

 

Now, after a few previous conversations between us, they had decided that I needed to bring along a two-way radio.  This would be over my strongest objections, for it would all but destroy my dream of an old-time sort of expedition in which I would use as little as possible of the modern world to survive.  Did they think I was crazy or something?

I bitterly protested this condition of the radio.

 

"Look, Kevin, Ed Coleman didn't need a two-way radio on his expedition, so why should I on mine!  If you make me take the radio and the other stuff, how will I ever still my heart long enough to hear the mountain talk?  What don't you and the U.S. Forest Service understand about this?  Maybe I should just forget about this whole thing and stay home."

 

"Well, Glenn, if you don't take it, the mountain will 'still your heart' soon enough," Kevin calmly replied.  "It's all entirely up to you."

 

His calmness alone agitated me even more.  My ploy wasn't working worth a darn.

 

When there was only silence on the other end of the line, I knew I was pushing my luck.  No, they had not hung up on me.  It's just that Kevin's wife, Regan, is no shrinking violet herself.  Then Chief Law Enforcement Officer for Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, she yanked the phone out of her husband's hand and let me have it right in the ear, ever so rightfully: 

"Glenn, you are going to take one of our Forest Service two-way radios to the top of Mount Baker, or you can completely forget about your special-use permit!"  

 

Okay, Regan, having put it that way, I added the radio to my pack.     

 

Over the many years of their tenure with the U.S. Forest Service, the Kennedy's had met more than their fare share of climbers who were on a probable rendezvous with death.  But no one ever like me, baby.

 

Two pilots of an A-6 jet died after they flew over the tent this morning.

 

The jet created such a tremendous reverberation as it blasted overhead from east to west while I slept, apparently after spotting my tortoise shell there on the mountaintop that I barely needed a door to get out of there -- VAAARROOOMM!  After dressing quicker than anyone ever has in all of human history, I hiked the short distance to the top of Grant Peak and watched and listened to this metallic bird scream between various sub-peaks of the North Cascades.  Pride swelled within me for our men and women of the United States Military Services as they flew to and fro, to and fro.  Don't mess with U.S.!  

Waving them in with my red scarf like a matador as they came back 'round north to south, they responded with an amazing 180-degree turn.  All within a few heart-pounding seconds we met face-to-face as they flew south to north by Park Glacier Headwall, extremely close and slow now, with their nose tilted down in some sort of back-burn stall.  Trippy stuff.  Jets are cool.  Aviators are even cooler! 

When they passed over again as I strolled across the summit glacier toward the North Ridge, so close this time that I could feel heat flaming from the jet's twin burners as they made another dip around, tilting one way and another on their way up and out for a final time 'as with wings as eagles,' I knew what they meant.  Message duly delivered.

After making a vertical maneuver over Frazier River Canyon and a direct dive toward one of the Islands, I watched and listened as the engines on the jet began to sputter in and out.  Seconds after losing sight of the dot against the horizon, a distinct "pop" echoed all the way up to one horrified spectator in the big grand stands.  I knew what had happened.  And here only moments before I looked right at them as they had looked back at me on the mountaintop.  Now they were dead.  While this had turned out to be one of the most terrible days of my life, at first it had held out such promise and hope.  They all seem to start out that way though, don't they?

Was I next?  

 

A radio news station just did a story, saying those guys crashed and burned at Whidbey Island Naval Base while practicing for an air show.  Two kids died in a river leading from here also.  With all of this death and dying going on around here, the summit of Mount Baker seems like the safest place to be right now.

 

After updating my diary I left the tent to shovel snow from one place to another, more or less just to try to keep my mind off the bad things.  All the while I couldn't seem to get over the feeling of being "watched" from above.  Ooohhh, there it went again as I slammed the shovel into a pile of snow -- my gloves slipped down the aluminum shaft and into the top end of the titanium blade, surgically slicing my right thumb down to the bone.  

The mountain reeled beneath me as I pulled off the glove; blood squirted over my new sleeping bag and climbing rope as I screamed out in shock while falling inside of my tent.  

 

Holding my bad hand with my good hand, pinching a shirt with my teeth and draping it over the wound to try to squelch the intense flow of blood, I gutted out a stream of unmentionables toward no one and nothing in particular.  Looking closer and seeing a tint of white, I partially passed out and came to again leaning up against the tent wall.  Passing out completely, of course, would have meant freezing to death later on that night.  

 

While at home a few weeks earlier, with about five hundred items neatly set out on the living room floor, almost as an afterthought I had decided to add a bottle of rubbing alcohol to my well-equipped first aid kit.  Good thing, 'cause a splash of that on my hand brought me screaming fully awake!

 

 

CHAPTER 5

August 9/Day 18

Left for sunrise photos 45 minutes too early.  Miserable sunrise, +19 degrees on the plateau.  Thirty mph winds wasted me.  Exhausted this afternoon, I'm not feeling well at all.  Cold, tired, sore, hungry and uncomfortable, maybe this will be fun to look back on ten years from now.  Lips are bleeding, hands sore from sticking to tripod.  Very dehydrated.  Shouldn't have gone out.  Have to make more water soon.  My dreams have gone from being about girlfriends to being about ham and cheese omelets - I MUST BE FADING AWAY!

 

I felt bad earlier with help from the crater, thought I could have passed away here in the sleeping bag.  Still think I'll make it 11 more nights.  Stayed inside all afternoon and night and won't go out for sunrise again until it warms up.  The ends of my fingers keep splitting open from turning the stove knob and working the camera gear.  Several deep cuts.  The end of my right thumb is falling off.

Blurred vision again tonight from sulfur dioxide, lack of food, or maybe a bad tin of tuna?

Twenty-two degrees at 10:13 p.m.  It took 1-3/4 hours to make water and a cup of hot chocolate.  Very hungry.  Eighteen degrees inside at 11:25 p.m.  I would still rather be cold and hungry up here, than warm and well fed anywhere else.

 

August 11/Day 20

More high winds hammer the summit before dawn.

 

By late afternoon of my twentieth day atop Mount Baker I was in sheer agony.  With atrophy setting in and the sky beginning to show promise of yet another trophy, vicious and memorable sunset, photography seemed like a fine excuse to go for a stroll across the ice-glazed plateau to the west.  Claustrophobic and having trouble with my breathing by then, I just had to get out of that blood-stained tent at almost any cost.  Extreme winds of earlier had subsided to a much more manageable level, or so I tried to convince myself before leaving my little hotel with a get-down terrific view on all sides.  Five to ten-mile-wide cloud bands still stretched across the horizon, darkly, in shades of black and yellow and gold.  In all the excitement of setting out to "capture the moment" on film, I left behind my trusty ice axe and crampons like some careless Hobbit.

 

After firing off a roll of film above the Headwall I had to crouch down, and then lay down as the wind picked up.  I almost went for a parachute ride, without the parachute.

 

Removing the camera and setting it inside its case, it was crystal clear that I had gone too far out on a limb this time.  My parents had always said it was only a matter of time... 

 

As wind roared through the Black Buttes and up over the summit in a series of waves, trying not to get too excited about it, I quickly set my Nikon next to a precious zip-lock bag full of neatly labeled rolls of exposed film and closed the metal box.  With the next huge gust my gloves lost purchase of the tripod and suddenly I was sliding away across the snow toward a terrible death from Park Glacier Headwall.  Clawing away at pockmarks in the glacier with the edge of my boots from a dozen yards out, like a sweaty animal, I reached the camera case first, then the tripod.  As more drafts echoed up and popped the mountaintop, hanging on with bare hands and all my might now, my legs lifted again ever so slightly from the glacier.  

Staring at the tripod, it dawned on me how a single spike protruded from the base of each of its legs.  What if?

 

Minutes after reaching my orange bubble on Koma Kulshan, after crawling most of the way there using my now trashed tripod as an ice axe, by then drenched in sweat, a cloud rose up from nowhere and splattered the summit of Mount Baker in a crispy cream of water ice just-like-that.  When it comes to meaningful photography and writing and survival itself, it's all about "timing, timing, timing" as much as it is "location, location, location."  Trust me on this.  

My hovel seemed smaller and more vulnerable than ever before as I set about the tasks of tending to the camera and labeling this latest roll of film, trying to act as if nothing unusual had just happened out there on the glacier.  After scribbling a quick note in my diary with badly trembling hands, I stepped out and nailed down the tent some.  Returning inside fully hypothermic now, I changed the bandage on my thumb, crawled into my bag and slept soundly for eleven to twelve hours without moving a twitch:

 

Now THERE is another creative way to use your camera gear.

 

CHAPTER 6

Mount Baker Summit

August 12, 1989/Day 21

Hoarfrost covers the inside walls and ceiling of the tent, sending mini-avalanches of ice dust off onto this unhappy camper with each gust.  Wind has blasted the summit for 38 hours, moaning, wailing up over the plateau.

 

August 14/Day 23

Out of food, out of strength and too weak to descend alone or with a group.  Gas from the crater has given me an irregular heartbeat.  This is the fourth day of this latest storm.  Minus five inside at 1:40 a.m.

 

August 15/Day 24

Cold, loneliness and isolation is the rule as snow continues to fall tonight.  I wonder how Linda is doing in Hawaii, and Trisha in warm California.  So far away from me now, they are still held closely in my thoughts.  I loved each of them so much it hurts.

 

August 16/Day 25

More snow this morning.  Clouds parted when I awoke just as Sherman Crater went 'whoof'!  I have crossed some barrier here.

 

The first total lunar eclipse in North America in seven years ensued in the small hours of August 16, like a crack in the sky.  Awake enough to notice the full moon dancing in reverse through those tent walls as clouds had now cleared entirely from the mountaintop, I sat there for the longest while trying to figure out what all of this meant.  It was an eclipse!  This had to be a lunar eclipse.

Like the great Mohammad Ali of my youth I was still in the ring, shuffling back and forth, 'floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.'  Barely though.  There will never be anybody quite like the 'Louisville Slugger,' or anyone like Joe, or Joe, Evander or George or Mike or so many other greats of their own era.  Watch them on the big screen of history for the duration and you are certain to gain a greater appreciation of what it is like to go heavyweight rounds with a man.  In my case it was with a two-mile-tall volcano.  Same thing.  

 

To all my Christian and Muslim warrior brothers from across the ages, let me say that nothing in this big old bad old world can KO you like this!  The mountain always wins.  Time always wins.   

 

After donning my usual mountain attire and crossing over the summit glacier of Mount Baker once again, I made those final few familiar steps toward the mountain's highest point as chips of ice tinkled from the tip of my ice axe.  Destiny awaited me up there.     

 

Now that clouds had dissipated and the sky was exceptionally clear, the temperature dropped and it was somewhere around ten below zero up there.  Perfect.

   

The night enveloped me as I sat shivering and frightened beneath a single spiraling arm of the Milky Way.  Clouds of stars penetrated the Golden Plain of our galaxy, set among our incomprehensibly more massive spinning solar system.  Up against all this, we don't seem quite so significant, do we now?  Since the exact moment of my passing was long ago predetermined, suspended here on Earth amidst at least one hundred billion other galaxies with billions of stars and planets contained in each, normally I don't concern myself all that much with the mortality issue.  What if there are billions of universes?  

 

There were so many heavy things to ponder while soaking it all up at the very footstep of the God of Abraham, yet soooo little time.  I could hear my heartbeat thumping away in my chest, daring to look up and glimpse back into those misty distant reaches of space.  Pulling the hood of my coat up around my neck, I felt so humbled.

 

An occasional meteor ripped across the heavens.  Zooooom, there went one . . . and ahhh . . . another over there!  Back on my feet again, I danced to the rhythm of the cosmos as these rings of fire became locked in place and simmered against a dark sky.  From the most fortunate of persons here in America, like me, to a helpless group of starving children huddled together somewhere on a desert floor in sub-Saharan Africa, why can't we all get along like, like, like those rings in the sky?  Why so many wars raging around the globe?  Why so much inequality?  

I for one happen to side up with those starving kids.  Don't you?

 

Offering a prayer for each of the hundreds of millions of people living in desperate poverty on the Blue Planet, with arms wide open now, I shed away my deepest sorrows from the edge in one gasp of emotion.  While the crater gently puffed and growled and steamed below, like any good old sleeping dragon should, an answer arrived quicker than most messages normally do: the rings had begun to divide somewhere up in the Holy of Holies.

 

As moonlight gradually returned to earth and after drawing in another deep breath, watching over my domain like some Guardian of the North, in the distance below the semi-moonlight reflected from various rivers streaming from Mount Baker's mighty glaciers.  For a moment there, for just one moment, I felt like king of the hill.

This time, I was King of the Hill!

 

The eclipse had had a stunning totality of 1 hour and 36 minutes.  Retracing my steps down and across the deeply blue-tinted glacier and on to my campsite, after unzipping the door of my precious tent and crawling back inside it was like taking a dip in cold water when the light of my headlamp crossed my deeply bloodstained sleeping bag.  This served as a powerful reminder of what had transpired and exactly what it would take for me to ever see home again.  

 

Before hitting the sack I took proper time to make a note in my diary, since you never know when it will be your last:  

 

Now I lay me down to sleep 

I pray the Lord my soul to keep 

If I should die before I awake

I pray the Lord my soul to take

 

 

 

CHAPTER 7

By next morning, the morning of August 17, the entire mountaintop was obscured in another dense blanket of fog.  Everything was completely still.  Looking out the tent door, it was as if the sun had risen and then decided to go back to sleep for a while.  Not a bad idea.

 

When I heard possible voices echoing across the summit glacier cap of Mount Baker, after spending nearly four weeks up there, I knew the difference.  So with a dramatic stirring out there and the tapping of an ice axe on the glacier, maniac goose bumps ran up and down my spine.

  

August 17/Day 26

I met three climbers who had reached the top and got lost in this whiteout.  Thought I heard breathing and ice axe taps from out on the glacier this morning.  Got dressed and left several times looking for whatever was, or wasn't there.  It scared me badly.  I freaked them out completely.

 

They had come all the way from the "other Washington" - D.C. that is - to climb Mount Baker.  Landing at Vancouver International Airport, renting a car and driving all the way to the trailhead, they hiked up and spent several miserable days in rain and cloud confined to their tents at the base of Coleman-Deming Glacier. 

"Then we saw a break in the weather," the senior among them explained, "climbed the glacier and the Roman Wall and made the summit, but couldn't find our way to Grant Peak and the registration box.  We read an article about you several weeks ago and wanted to meet you up here.  We were not about to descend until we found you and signed in.  I think I can speak for all of us to say," he said standing there on the glacier, "we will never forget this."

Staring at me by then, the other two nodded in unison and in like agreement.

 

After leading them to the true summit at Grant Peak, clouds parted around us the very moment we all stepped up top of Mount Baker beneath a pulsating jet blue circle of sky above, while the final vestiges of swirling patches of mist lifted and evaporated into thin blue air all around us.  Whoosh, a slight gust came in and took it all away.

Will Brown and his son, Steve, and Arthur Paysley and I were presented with a historic big-screen view with all the trimmings.  What a moment and I do mean, what a special moment in our lives and memories.

 

Will handed me three cheese sandwiches they had made at camp, some 5,000 feet below that morning.  This food would eventually go on to save my very life.

 

When Arthur said, "you look bad, Mr. Williams, really bad," I looked down and for the first time realized how my rib cage was protruding from my clothes.  Up until then I had been too busy to notice.  When they handed me two candy bars to go along with the sandwiches, I could actually smell the food inside of those plastic bags and wrappers.  Glenn Bear.

 

Although they tried all they could to get me to descend with them right then and there, having come so close to my goal of spending one month on the summit of Mount Baker, nothing could take me away from there now.  My mind was set even if it cost me my life.  If that were to be the case, which was pretty much probable by then, it would be on Baker and eventually everything would be all right.

 Two of their three sandwiches were gone by the time we descended from Grant Peak and in fair trade I made each of them an awful cup of Folgers instant mountain mud back at my clean and well-organized campsite.  I noticed Steve Brown wince at his first sip.  Had I made it too strong, or, had he seen too much with his glance inside my tent? 

Doubtless some of both.

 

Ushering Will and Steve and Arthur to the top of the Roman Wall and to the correct route on which they should descend, second guessing myself about a thousand times along the way, with Will still nagging me all the while, I had to 'Just Say No.'  I was staying.

Eventually they turned to dots on the glaciers and disappeared against the massive landscape below.  

While returning to my campsite some hour and a half later, I felt desperately tired and hungry and lonely.  Yet their kind gift of food had definitely made the difference between my being able to walk down the mountain, and having to be carried down from it.  Mucho difference.

 

Only four climbers stood atop Mount Baker on August 17, 1989, in the year of Washington State's Centennial.  Exactly 121 years before, to the day, on August 17, 1868, another four mountaineers had been the only ones to set foot atop the volcano that day in the Nineteenth Century.  They were the first.  Their names were Edmund T. Coleman, John Tennent, David Ogilvy, and Thomas Stratton.  According to Ed Coleman's diary they had subsisted on "biscuits, bacon and tea.  And bacon, biscuits and tea."  That would have been good enough for me, because I really love biscuits.  

 

Arriving at the western rim of the summit plateau late that afternoon and to approximately the same place they had enacted a ceremony christening the mountain's first successful ascent, at precisely the same time of day, I planted a small tourist-like American flag in the crusty snow and repeated their ceremony as authentically as possible.  After singing "America the Beautiful," I bowed on one knee next to the flag and offered a prayer, to let those early explorers know that I was doing extraordinarily well up there.

 

What a strange and eerie feeling this was, as if I was being 'watched' again.

 

 

CHAPTER 8

August 18/Day 27

This final reprieve in the weather has brought the greatest relief from hardship I have ever known.  With it also, has come some of the most astounding beauty imaginable.  Northern Lights shone again during the night, casting up beams from behind the Coast Range in B.C.  After finishing off the last of the coffee supplies, I dug out the crampons and strapped them on.  Fatigue melted away to fascination and all else was forgotten as snow gleamed in the moonlight, sparkling, glittering in concert with the night.  This most recent storm has created an infinite number of tiny ice sculptures, which now cover the glacier by the millions.  

 

The Aurora Borealis died out as dawn played upon the horizon, shadows lay draped over ridges and valleys below as steam poured from Sherman Crater . . . mystical, magical, savagely beautiful.

 

 

Final Diary Entry:

The inordinate heat has thawed me out and has helped to begin the healing process.  The arrival of a care package from the U.S. Forest Service, courtesy of Kevin and Regan Kennedy, has helped considerably.  Jim Tomich, Jim Champa and Eric Champa delivered a very special piece of art and note of encouragement, sent to me by 8 year-old Shannon Kennedy.  This I shall never forget.

 

The innocence of this little girl's note as well as the beauty of her great art masterpiece, touched me to the very core.  This supposedly tough guy wept like a baby there inside the tent, all but ruining her work with my tears.  Just don't tell anybody though.

 

Artwork by: Miss Shannon Kennedy.

 

Without a hint of breeze, it has become boiling hot out on the glacier:

 

115F @ 1:14 p.m.

118F @ 1:32 p.m.

112F @ 1:48 p.m.

 

From the freezer to the frying pan.  Tomorrow I am going home.  I've had enough.

 

 

CHAPTER 9

August 19/Day 28

The sky was clear and the wind was calm when I opened the tent door and took a look out at 3:34 am.  Everything seemed good.  Unable to sleep, I sat back in my sleeping bag and thought about how the moon had been blissfully wrapped in a sheath of a corona on my last look out.  Then it fully registered on me how a corona usually means that ice particles are caught up high in the upper stratosphere, appearing as a ring around the moon.  Alarmed now, I got back up, pulled the zipper across and looked around.  Other than the fact that it seemed colder outside this time, which isn't exactly unprecedented for the summit of the crown peak in the North Cascade Range, it was still clear as a bell with no clouds or wind.  

 

     Always trust your instincts though, that part of you that keeps you alive in a clinch.

 

     Awakened from a nap half an hour later, after carelessly letting my guard down and falling asleep, sure enough the tent was shuddering violently again.  Met by a blistering blast of hailstones in the face as I pulled the zipper open again, things were finally getting back to normal up there.  The instant I zipped it back up, it all stopped.  Poof.  Silence outside.  So I unzipped the other door this time and gazed out toward Grant Peak.  Angry-looking black clouds boiled up over the eastern part of the glacial plateau, against a solid background of lighter gray clouds, swirling around in a menacing dance of death.

     After zipping up that door and unzipping the other one - the western one - I started throwing everything out onto the summit glacier.  Once the tent was disassembled and everything was loaded into my pack - at least a two-hour process - I stashed some of my gear next to what was left of the snow cave, and taped a note on top of it to my would-be rescuers.

 

     With six or seven quick and frightening steps over a spongy snow bridge at a slight incline as the sun began to rise to my left - spanning a several hundred foot-deep crevasse - I made my way out onto the plateau, staggering, shaking like a leaf.  It was like being in another world.  (Back home later my pack weighed in at 76-pounds.  While there on the mountaintop, by then I weighed not much more than 100-pounds.)

 

Visibility was back down to ten feet and daylight more resembled twilight.  Then the wind shifted and started in on me from the north.  Within minutes I was coated from head to boot in water ice, like the stuff in the freezer compartment of your refrigerator.  Before long I couldn't see and had to sit down.  Forced to lean against the leeward side of my pack for what little protection it might provide, ice crystals filled my eyelids and made each blink slow and excruciatingly painful as it dragged against the very surface of the corneas; cold, rough and unyielding.  And so I closed them.

A fierce northerly still prevailed some two hours later as the last of my energy reserves were finally extinguished.  With my face now covered and my thought processes slowed past the point of knowing or caring anymore, all I wanted was sleep: another dip in that warm bath of delicious, wonderful sleep.  I waited for the final curtain to fall, but for some reason, it wouldn't.  No golden wings for me yet, only the vivid reality of more pain. 

Then a disconnected thought or memory came skittering in of having placed something inside a pocket of my outer parka.  Rummaging around I produced a half-frozen, golf-ball sized glob of goo contained in a zip-lock bag; a remnant of one of those cheese sandwiches!  I had saved it in case of an emergency.  This would qualify.  Two or three M&M's were glued to the contents as well.  With this surge of newfound energy came a renewed determination to find my way down.  Digging a detailed map of the mountain from my pack, then my compass, it was impossible to make sense of the numbers.  Having once considered myself to be fairly proficient when it comes to maps and compasses and that sort of thing, thanks to my course with the Everett Mountaineers, now I could barely put two and two together to come up with, what, six?  It all became academic anyway as the map tore from my gloves and sailed off into the Cascades somewhere.

Just as well.  

Planting wands in the glacier to help guide me back to the pack, I tried one route after another to no avail.  There I was at the edge of Coleman Headwall, or the North Ridge - it was impossible to say which in the whiteout.  Starting down the wrong route would have meant an unpleasant amount of airtime for me either way.  So I hiked back along the markers and sat right back down again at ground zero, feeling very much defeated, if not near death by then.  So many people had perished on this peak over the years that surely I would be blessed to survive this major overdose of adventure.  Whatever.

 

At one point that morning, two climbers passed me by on their way back from Grant Peak and left me for dead sitting up against my pack on the glacier.  I picked up my gear and tried to follow them as far as my legs would allow me to, which wasn't far.  It takes all kinds.    

 

Leaning back against my pack again, wind-borne ice continued to plaster my face and torso.  From somewhere deep within the recesses of a "private room" of thought I had carved out for myself, where I was able to contemplate my death in utmost objectivity, blinking in and out and in and out and in again, two beings seemed to emerge from the swirling blue-tinted fog like a pair of angels.  At first I thought I was on the other side.  They were real enough though: a powerfully built Russian man, Aleksea Krasnokutsky, and his American wife, Cathy Gibson, a newlywed couple from Manhattan, New York.  

Bending down and taking a look to see if this was a body, or a living being lying there, he said, 

"Are you still with us, my friend?"  

 

"Yes," I groaned.

 

At first I was deeply disappointed, since "waking up" meant that I was still atop this volcano and in complete physical torment.  It would have been far easier to get more sleep; just one more dip below the surface of consciousness.  And so I tried.  Then this Russian man shook me and roughed me up as much as was necessary to bring me to my feet.  Standing on either side of me, they picked me up and helped shake away the ice from my clothes.  After saying a few words, somehow I was stumbling along ahead of them like some insane tour guide through the whiteout toward Grant Peak.

 

How I longed for home and a shower and like, a five-to-six-hour stint at a Denny's Restaurant.  That last idea, the one of dining at my leisure at a Big "D" gave me a vestige of reality to hold on to.  Bacon and scrambled eggs and other chow, as much as I could possibly eat.  This is what awaited me with success.  The thought of a ham and cheese omelet drove me forward - two of them, three of them - and two orders of hash browns, four orders of well-done crisp bacon, along with giant piles of waffles with syrup.  And about a gallon of coffee.  Over the past several weeks I had planned out the order in which I would consume it all.  If only I could get there before my own closing time.

On our way back across the summit plateau, Aleksea was there to catch me when my knees finally buckled.  For the first time in my life my legs had basically come apart at the hinges.  Usually it's my neck or spine or hips.  As I heaved in pain - trying to throw up what wasn't there - Aleksea put his arms around me and warmly and gently lifted the pack from my shoulders.  Looking directly into the vibrant blue-green eyes of his weathered face, I liked this guy.  No, I loved him and his wife for the kindness and tenderness they were displaying to me.  

Aleksea said in slightly broken English, "let me take pack for you.  I will carry both.  Cathy and I will climb Everest soon.  Now we warm up on Mount Baker volcano.  What you do up here Glenn Williams, you have climbed an Everest."

Looking back into his crystal clear eyes as these words left his lips, this was hard to argue with. 

 

And so we switched packs and headed off on our merry way, with me leading the way again through the fog toward the top of the Roman Wall at the Coleman-Deming route.  Right?  Wrong.  There we stood, looking down from the top of Easton Glacier.  Some guide I was.  Forced to make a perilous diagonal traverse of the entire Roman Wall, with Aleksea now in the lead, of course, back on the Coleman Glacier I was stunned to see how some of the crevasses Steve, Bill and I had easily jumped across on our ascent only four weeks earlier, were now 50-feet wide in places.  Delicate snow bridges spanned some 300 and 400 and 500 foot-deep crevasses.  

In any case, without Aleksea and Cathy, I would have long-since been a dead man.

 

Angels from the blue mist: Aleksea Krasnokutski and Cathy Gibson.

 

Back under the Black Buttes four hours later, half a dozen students from Western Washington University greeted us well above camp.  These kids had read about my struggle in a newspaper and had hoped to meet up with me on the summit, spend the night and assist in what was sure to be a challenging descent of the mountain.  As they scrambled to present me with bottles of water and handfuls of candy bars and other food, it was all I could do to maintain my composure with them, much less eat and carry it all down the mountain.   

Although your names are now lost to my memory, you know who you are.  Nothing will ever change what you did for me.  

 

Aleksea and Cathy invited me to climb up to their tent some 200-feet above our position on the glacier, to join them in a full-course Russian meal.  They would “put me back together,” as Aleksea put it.  Perhaps I would have accepted their invitation had Humpty Dumpy been able to make it up that slope.  Actually, I knew that sure as rain in Seattle, Steve Peterson would be awaiting my arrival a day or two early at the base of Coleman Glacier.  Yet there was no way for me to know this for sure, aside from intuition.

Having to take a rain check with my new friends, we said goodbye on the glacier.  As I went to hug each of them, Aleksea was weeping, just as I was.  Then all three of us were.  And so I limped off down the glacier, as they returned to their tent, waving back at me again and again after a successful time on the mountain for us all.  Several of the kids had congregated on the glacier's edge and were waving too.  I gave them all a hearty wave back.

 

Cresting the final slopes of Coleman Glacier, a lone figure crossed an alpine area a thousand feet or more below.  I didn't need a pair of binoculars to know who it was.  Steve later recounted that when he saw a tiny red dot weaving around the crevasses, taking a few steps and falling over, taking a few more steps and falling over again, he knew who this was also.

 

Steve Peterson, with his mom, Noni, in 1985.

 

 

CHAPTER 10

Kevin and Regan Kennedy were there to greet us as we drove into the parking lot of Glacier Ranger Station.  The little girl standing between them was obviously Shannon.  She and I had never met in person.  So I took a deep breath, unbuckled my seatbelt and limped out of the car.  The first thing I said to her was:  

"So, you must be Shannon?"

"Yes," she replied in a tiny, squeaky voice.  

Straining to kneel down and meet her at eye level I said, "Thank you for the letter you wrote and sent to me on top of Mount Baker, and for your awesome picture.  This meant so much to me up there, sweetie, you wouldn't believe it."  Looking into her eyes for a moment there, as Shannon gazed back into mine, she seemed to realize what all of this meant.  Smart young lady.  When she moved toward me ever so slightly, it was obvious that she would accept a hug if I wanted to.  Well, I guess I could manage that.

  

Then, I turned my attention to her parents.  Yes, the Rangers who had kept me alive over that magic month atop the great Koma Kulshan.

 

Steve and I spent that night in the very best cabin at Glacier Ranger Station, courtesy of the Kennedy Family and the U.S. Forest Service.  And it was a very nice cabin at that.  Stepping out of my first shower in over four weeks, I dried off and put on an actual clean pair of underwear.  On the way out of the steamy bathroom I wiped off the mirror and caught a glimpse of myself.  This stopped me in my tracks.  The first thought that came to my mind was, Prison Camp.  

Indeed, the only other major volcano in the North Cascade Mountain Range, Glacier Peak, would one day lay waist to me as an older man by eleven years.  But not as bad as this.        

 

As had been prearranged, some climbers were supposed to try to meet me on the summit to help get me down with my gear.  Since hiking up to meet them was the very least we could manage, Steve and I started up Mount Baker again the next morning, toward Squak Glacier this time.  After hiking the four miles to the glacier's edge in little over two hours, we waited for them long into a driving rainstorm.  

Settling my back against the trunk of an ancient pine tree within seconds of our arrival there, soaking wet again, I watched as its water-laden branches draped across my field of vision and waved about randomly in the wind.  Playfully it seemed.  The sight, sound, smell, feel, and even the taste in the air around this great 1000 year-old tree filled my senses like nothing ever had.  Water droplets ran their course down to the end of countless pine needles all at once over and over again, falling harmlessly to the ground where they were instantly immersed in the summer soil.  Oh that scent.  And what a sight it was; glittering water droplets dripping a hundred times a second.  Green.  Color.  Life!

Late that afternoon, after hours of watching and listening for this trio from under this clump of trees as the downpour continued, the odds of our picture perfect reunion had diminished to zilch.  For all we knew the group might have passed us on a branch of the main trail as we were on our way up.  By then I was too "out of it" to care about the details and just sort of had to go with the flow.

 

"Let's head down now, Glenn," Steve said, breaking the spell I had been in since plopping myself up against that tree trunk.  "We must have passed them somewhere on the maze of trails below."  Not much more was said as one more imposing challenge would soon cross our path.  Within the first mile my knees began to give out, just as they had the day before on the summit plateau.  Eventually they came out of place altogether.  We could hear my joints "pop" as I fell to the ground with a yelp.

Knowing that we would never make it down and out by dark at the rate I was going, we stopped, shielding ourselves from the rain under another first-growth tree.  Since we certainly couldn't afford to spend the night there in those woods, my assistant unzipped my bib overalls along the outside of each pant leg and carefully forced my dislodged knees back into place.  Peterson stayed cool as a cucumber as I screamed out.  Then he wrapped my legs with strips of cloth, easily torn from a saturated shirt.  This did the trick for a few hundred feet more, then they popped out again.

 

So Steve put his pack on my back, draped me over his back, and dragged me through this rather scenic forest for miles and miles.

 

With only about half a mile to go to the car, Michael Sullivan and Michael Bell passed us by, loaded down with every last trace of my remaining gear from the summit.  As we were meant to meet on the summit, they were extremely understanding about my early departure from Mount Baker Inn.  Their spectacular one-day ascent and harsh night spent on top certainly showed on them.  So did those 27 nights, on me.

 

I asked everyone to go on ahead, so that I might be left alone for some private time of reflection.  After assuring Steve that everything was cool, he went on.  Using our two ice axes as hand crutches, determined for the final satisfaction of being able to walk the rest of the way out on my own volition, thunder rolled across the mountaintop over my shoulder as twilight faded on the final bend in the path before me.