Men tend to live inside Myth, to live inside their own Homeric poem, striving to write each verse of their life’s journey by adopting perceived heroic roles in a personal epic.
When I use the term “myth” I don’t mean something that is known to be false by the man; for him it is very real. People have employed myth from ancient times to explain themselves and the reality around them. For the ancients the myth was truth, a foundational set of beliefs upon which to erect their lives.
Modern Americans have myths that define them as well. These originate with the founding of the country and the expansion across the West. The rugged American individual, self-sufficient, braving all kinds of danger, is the superstructure a boy-child is handed to live within.
Masculinity is now portrayed in the American culture as physical fitness, often in sports but also in media in the form of violence, and usually with the assistance of firearms. It is closely associated with conquest. I adopted these myths early, but found the heroic poem of my life became altered by objective realities.
Never good at team sports as a kid, I followed my father’s lead into mountaineering. It was often a hard, dangerous sport, but I kept going. I have always wondered why, particularly when some dangerous crossroads became apparent. I now see it as my personal myth of masculinity, summiting any given peak as an ideal which validated manhood.
Part of me doubted that I could live up to all that. After all, not playing sports in high school is a one-way ticket to marginalization in society, so I started from behind. But more accurately I was dealing with a sense that I was inadequate, a child of a lesser god, unable to stand in the same circle with the boys who were on the first team.
And so I strapped on a pack and boots and made a pilgrimage toward a manhood that faced down the cultural ideals, and in the process left behind the myth of conquest as the purpose in life, instead finding another.
Lost in Canada 1973
My mother and sister drop Dad and I off on a highway in one of the Canadian Rockies National Parks, I don’t recall which, Yoho, Jasper, it doesn’t matter. The drop-off point has a trail head, and we have a map with a promising trail marked on it that allows for a long but delightful day before being retrieved at the other end at a resort on a lake formed by a glacial moraine.
Only the first five miles has an actual trail. Unlike what shows on the map, the rest is a bushwhack which includes my father nearly walking off a cliff. He descended through knee-high brush, stopped, bent down to part the bushes and saw only open space, a fall of several hundred feet to rocks below, narrowly averted.
We come out of the woods a few miles downstream from the lake. Making our way to the lake, we stumble out of the bush, worn and sweat-stained and into a group of ladies in polyester pantsuits on a well-groomed path. We arrive at our rendezvous with my mother and sister, making remarkable time given all that transpired in a single day. It is not the normal occurrence of a trial lawyer and his son to traverse several miles of untracked wilderness and survive. Somehow I just expected we would.
We believed in freedom of the hills. It never occurred to us to turn around, return to the highway and find a phone. That would not fit the myth at all.
Seattle Park, Wonderland Trail, Mt. Rainier National Park 1974
The next verse of my poem is written at a camp on the Wonderland Trail, about a day out of the Sunrise Visitor Center.
We had been warned about the bear activity. The tent set up, we put the food in a tree several yards from the tent. The garbage we put on the ground in another direction.
Snow is falling as we bed down for the night. About 2:00 am I awaken with a start, the sounds of heavy footfalls and grunting outside the tent. Adrenalin pumps through my veins as I strain to remain perfectly still. The footfalls and other sounds abate. I eventually go back to sleep.
The next morning, zipping open the tent door I find bear prints right up to the vestibule of the tent, then around the tent and down to where the garbage is. The bear is gone. The food is secure in the tree.
I have achieved conquest; I faced down the beast.
The Glacier Peak Ascent 1975
Deep in the Cascade mountains lies Glacier Peak, a volcano well-known to local climbers. Fourth highest peak in Washington state, the approach requires two to three days of backpacking to a base camp. I pick up the story at the climb’s climax.
The advance team has climbed the 80-degree pitch ahead of us. Chopping with ice axes and making steps, a fixed rope comes tumbling down to us, a gift from the men ahead. I pull the strap of my ice ax over one wrist and Batman-like climb the last bit to the false peak.
A frontal system approaching from the Pacific becomes evident as I climb over the top. The advance team has already left for the true peak. Concerned about the weather, they take the only remaining rope with them. I stand there with my instructor and another man, wondering if we risk a non-roped traverse across the exposed draw to join the advance team at the summit, or take up the fixed rope, having to set it again for the descent, probably in the midst of the frontal system’s full force.
I shuffle a bit, suddenly realizing one of the rented crampons from REI has fallen apart. That decides it, I’m done. Now to get off the mountain with one crampon. We begin our descent. I chop steps with my axe for footholds.
Back down on what passes for fairly level terrain we cease being cautious. Suddenly the snow underneath me gives way. I immediately self-arrest, but my legs are dangling into space. I had stepped onto a thin crust hiding a crevasse, barely gaining purchase with my axe.
My mind’s telling me I’ve stepped in a creek and need to hurry out so I don’t get wet. Pulling myself out, I turn and see the chasm that’s really there. With the confidence such moments give a young man, I back up and leap over the gaping maw that nearly took my life.
It is only down at base camp, retracing the events of the day, that I recognize how close I came to buying the farm. Picking up the novel I brought along, Peter Benchley’s Jaws, I decide I will never do anything as dangerous as swimming again.
How far into the myth am I living at this point? Even though I wisely chose not to summit, I was nearly killed during the descent. And I yet I fear a fictional shark. I don’t realize it yet, but true heroism lies in survival, not for myself, but for those who rely on me.
Lake Chiwaukum 1976
Dad and I decide to backpack into a place in the Cascades I had been with my mountaineering class in 1975, located several miles west of Leavenworth Washington.
It’s late in the fall, but still warm in the lowlands. Dad is 45 but practicing law, a sedentary art. The approach to the lake is a nice long forested trail but then climbs abruptly, tiring most.
By the time we reach the lake the weather has turned. A chilly wind blows off the snow still present from the prior year on Chiwaukum Peak. Dad sits down. I go about the business of getting the camp set up. I notice Dad’s unresponsive. I hand him his parka and tell him it’s cold, he should put it on.
He does, but can’t manage to zip it up. I finish putting up the tent, get his sleeping bag out and get him into it. I start the stove and make hot chocolate. This revives him.
I’m not sure how I recognized the onset of hypothermia, the siren call of weariness tricking the mind to believing a nap is all one needs when in reality one needs much, much more to evade death.
The next morning, we have snow on the ground around the tent. But we’re both warm and alive. I remember standing taller after this event.
From a 40-year vantage point, I can see myself in transition. My father tells people I saved his life that day. That fits into the American cultural myth well. On the other hand, there is no conquest, other than beating nature’s cruel tendency to take life.
The Rainier Ascent 1977
Our house was full of books and magazines about mountaineering. While listening to classical music, I loved reading about stark landscapes above tree line and tales of survival at great altitude, sensing a rare quality of life exists there, one where questions of life and death are all so real, so personal. Since my Homeric poem would never contain a verse where I climb in Nepal, climbing Mount Rainier would be the climax of my epic. I was nineteen.
A college buddy and I sign on with the guide service Rainier Mountaineering Inc., or RMI, to make our attempt at the 14,411-foot peak in September. The day before we start they take us out to see what kind of shape we’re in, whether we know how to self-arrest, etc.
Lou Whitaker gives a speech in an A-frame lodge at the Paradise Visitors Center. Whitaker is a legend along with his brother Jim, the first American to ascend Everest. He tells us we may not make the peak, no one had since July that year due to weather. He tells us that some days it is just better to turn back, go down to Longmire and have a beer.
What he doesn’t tell us is that a rescue team has gone ahead to remove the bodies of two climbers that went before us. This pair had declared they were from Colorado and knew more than the guides at Mount Rainer. What they didn’t know was that the Pacific’s unique weather system can throw a lot at Mount Rainer: a lot of snow and ice, yes, but Rainier is also an active volcano with steam vents sending hot air into the atmosphere in the middle of the cone of cold.
The climbers’ bodies are found at about 12,000 feet. One of them had fallen, incurring gashes from the impact of an ice axe during the tumble. The other tried to dig a trench to get out of the wind. They died on the side of the mountain, in the wind and snow, their sleeping bags still in their packs just yards away. Our old enemy hypothermia is likely what took them.
The next day we ascend the slopes toward Camp Muir on a route which can be a walk in the park under gentler conditions. A Chinook helicopter passes overhead, ferrying the bodies of our predecessors from the route.
I don’t sleep at Camp Muir, where climbers rest before the final assault on the summit. Just what am I trying to prove here? In the morning, after a long traverse and some climbing, we watch the sun rise directly over Little Tahoma. Stopping there, waiting for the guides, I’m happy to be alive. The wind picks up and sweeps a companion’s glove into a crevasse yards away. There’s a reason they tell you to bring two sets of almost everything.
We turn back. The weather is good but the ice too technical. Some are disappointed, but no one argues. A team from Germany behind us heeds the guides’ warning and turns back as well. I’m glad to leave, but wonder still about my worth: I had been scared.
There is a special quality to the confidence this experience creates in me. No, there was no conquest, we did not summit. That would be the easy part. Instead we heed the warnings of those who have come before and retreat to live.
The experience is transitional. Ego plays a role but it is transformed from a presumption of aggressive conduct to a maturity not often afforded in modern culture. We leave the park with a confidence we lacked before we came. We had been there, we had seen death, yet we had survived, and can move on with our lives.
Memorial Day weekend, 1999
Life in a metropolis like Seattle has a grinding, existential-crisis quality associated with it. One is just another commuter stuck on Interstate 5. Office work sterilizes the soul and can lead to a sense that one’s heroism is lost in the recognition of one’s own insignificance. Just another cog in the machine.
My next Homeric verse is written in the years of marriage and children, the backpack, ice axe and crampons sitting idle in the garage. One day, while sifting through the debris of my American life stored in that garage, I come across the photo of my teenage self climbing over the top of the false summit at Glacier Peak, clinging to the fixed rope. I begin longing for the wilderness again and find a time to go.
Deep in the Cascade mountains, due east of Glacier Peak, I lie in the tent next to my longtime friend and mountaineering buddy Paul who never married or had children. I have three. He and I have had so many adventures in the region; there was a day in the 1970’s when we attained a ridge line, looked around at the surrounding countryside and realized we had climbed everything we could see with the exceptions of Mt. Baker and Sloan Peak, an imposing edifice of granite.
But the view from this ridge in 1999 is fading with yet another Pacific storm rolling in. The wind howling around our pathetic little shelter and sheets of rain pelting the fly, I ask myself, “What in the hell am I doing here? I have three children to raise.”
I didn’t know that my internal questioning foreshadowed a harrowing, life-threatening day ahead.
We plot our course to the road and Paul’s Pathfinder with map, compass, and the surrounding peaks as orienting points. The night brings clouds which sink down to obscure these way-points. We pack our wet gear and leave to find our way the best we can.
During our descent, deep in the timber, a snow bridge collapses beneath my feet. Falling head first I see the boulders of the creek zooming toward my face. My pack falls ahead of me and breaks my fall.
It takes both ice axes and the painful realization that I have broken my toe as I kick steps in the snow wall to get out of the creek.
We’re more than lost, deep in the woods, and I’m injured, walking on snow with rain falling. No rescue possible; no one knows where we are. Hiking out, we cross a waterfall we encountered the previous day from the other side; deciding then that it was impassable, we found an alternate route. Now we are on the other side and we have no choice; the hero must pass this trial.
The pitch of the traverse we’re on is something like 80 degrees, the footing questionable, particularly as the stream washes over our already-cold hands and feet. A peek to the left shows the waterfall becoming a vertical drop just a few feet below us. There’s no room for a misstep.
Eventually we emerge from the woods and find the trail, like merging onto a freeway compared to our earlier bushwhacking. I’m reminded of that Canadian trip with my father, years ago. Reaching the Pathfinder, I take off my boot to examine the injury. My foot quickly swells to twice its normal size. Had I taken the boot off at the impact site, I wouldn’t have gotten it back on. And that would have been that: lost and alone, wondering even if my companion hiked out for help, would he have ever found me again?
This was my last challenging foray in the Cascades. It was not the first time I examined the causation for all this adventuring, but at least with some maturity I can now articulate my complex feelings about why I did this sort of thing. This experience provided me with clarity: I do not live for myself alone, and my life is not for me to throw away on a personal story of self.
I remain of a mind we need myth. Myth provides the individual with way points in his journey to happiness and health, a means to make sense of things in an often-senseless world. He has a future to choose; a culture to embrace. The absence of myth leaves a vacuum into which all sorts of other—perhaps more malevolent—explanations of life are drawn. We need heroes, but we need to choose both myth and its torch bearers carefully.
My children are grateful I stopped writing my personal Homeric epic from the myths adopted in adolescence. Instead, I found the ways of manhood in the objective role of fathers in modern America: being provider, protector, and above all, present.
Kolowalu Trail to “Mount Olympus” (Hawaiian name: Awaawaloa), 2002
Miles from Honolulu, where the noise and people populating Waikiki beach are a fading memory, there are trails leading to the highest points on Oahu. It’s all steep. Most of the way there’s a trail, but eventually that peters out into a bushwhack.
The trade winds are blowing fiercely, and the knife-edge ridge requires considerable gymnastics and balance to manage.
I ask my companions, locals there, to turn back. My close friend from college tells his sons we are turning back. I sense they’re disappointed; of course they are. They still believe their masculinity is tied to achieving some peak, some conquest.
It’s not. Risking everything is not a good measure of a man. It’s someone else’s idea of masculinity. It is considerably harder to face your limitations, and turn around and chose life, therein lies a modern heroism. That is the ascent of man.
I haven’t been mountaineering since. But I do miss the views.[Photos, including the cover photo, taken by or provided courtesy of the author unless otherwise noted.]