“Wake up, it’s time.”
Two a.m., 5,000 feet above sea level, the sky is still dark as I remove my sleeping bag from my thrice-layered body. It’s cold, below freezing cold, and the water that has seeped through my seemingly waterproof pants, socks, and jacket is making it no less warm. I roll out of the tent and look up into the distance. There, in a black silhouette marked by jagged rock edges and glacial drifts stands Mount Silver Star. I’m going to climb it.
Two days earlier ten Western students and guides set out on a side trail of Washington Pass. The journey was the culmination of six hours worth of training in several fields: map reading, knot tying, crevasse rescue, Leave No Trace and many others. We had skills, but it was the experience that would truly test us.
Our first day began with a three-mile hike and a 3,000 foot elevation gain. Essentially, it was like six hours of stairs machine, with only breaks every two hours. The snow was crisp, but not strong enough to hold an individual with a 70 liter backpack over the rock fields that dwelt beneath it.
By the evening we had reached a bench on the mountain and made camp. Digging holes and walls in the snow to keep ourselves safe from the elements we set up our tents. With our clothes soaked and our legs tired from the initial climb we relaxed on chairs made of carved ice in a makeshift camp kitchen. As we drank water burnt by the camp stove and ate dark chocolate, we watched a painting unfold beneath us: the sunset eclipsed the snowy valley below. It was a moment that, despite the laughter and conversation of the camp, no one could deny was a sight to behold.
The next morning we climbed another thousand feet to the base of our eventual summit climb. In the cloudy haze and frost we practiced how to build snow anchors in the event that a fellow climber fell into an icy crevasse, how to glissade or slide down a mountain with nothing below you but your pants and most importantly: how to self-arrest or stab your ice axe into the snow in the event that you fell or were blown off the mountain.
In the evening, we ate noodles and fell asleep at eight.
“We will summit if the mountain lets us,” Jacob Mandell said as we climbed into our sleeping bags.
As we arose from our tents the following morning I was reminded of what Jacob said as I glanced up at the jagged peaks we were to traverse. In the still black hush we hurried to get our gear on and eat a quick breakfast.
Our head lamps illuminated the frozen forest that surrounded us as the clipping of backpacks echoed in the campsite.
“Saddle up, let’s go.”
One by one, like soldiers we marched into the tundra towards the summit. Our bodies shrouded in gear and layers, we looked like ninjas armed with ice axes and rope. Two steps and a plunge of the ice axe marked the pace of walk as we made our own footing in the soft powder.
At five in the morning, the snow blowing in our face, we looked back at the sunrise. The golden light in the sky illuminated the valley and outlined the peaks below us.
It’s a strange sensation to be on a mountain. It’s a rush marked by both the feeling of invincibility and complete vulnerability to the elements that you are trying to master. Like the Greek myth of Icarus, you have to wonder if your attempt to touch the sun will result in a long fall back to earth.
We grouped into rope teams and continued into the fog that lingered on the top of the mountain. As we walked into the clouds we saw the summit. A rocky crag fifty feet above a flat snow drift, it didn’t look like much. We rested beneath it as the wind and snow swirled and snarled at our unnatural presence.
Snapping on crampons the ascent continued.
Step, step, plunge. Step, step, plunge.
Look up, look down, make sure you’re not ripping your clothes with your crampons. 30 degree angle, then 50, 70 and then we were there. Above the world, hanging on the peak of a mountain, we smiled at our accomplishment. We had scraped clouds and walked hills. Our skills forever changed, our strengths forever strengthened. And we were naturally high, standing atop the world on Silver Star Mountain.