I was living in Pullman Washington and working at Washington State University (Go Cougs!), when a friend of mine rolls up to me and says, “hey Dietz, you wanna climb a mountain?” With zero hesitation and having no idea what that really meant, I blurted out “well yeah!”
You see, I am from Chicago. I have city blood running through my veins. The highest point of Illinois is 1235 feet and that barely counts because it is on the border of Wisconsin and it is called “Charles Mound”. The highest point of Illinois is a mound.
I was 26 years old, in perfectly good health, capable of doing just about anything physically. I had always wanted to live out west after visiting family in Colorado growing up and had been drawn to the climate and the mountains. I had made that dream come true and about 6 weeks after making that happen, I had committed to standing on top of a mountain.
We were going to climb Twin Peaks, which incidentally is only one peak because the other collapsed in the early 1900’s. Turns out it is the 11th highest peak in Oregon at about 9,673 ft. The trip was about a 5 hour drive south into the Wallowa mountains, near the Seven Devil mountains. Seriously, who doesn’t want to climb in the shadow of the Seven Devils? It’s like trying to get a good look at Mt. Doom.
I was told by a seasoned climber, the ascent was about 4000 vertical feet in 4 miles and the trailbook had it listed as “strenuous, but not advanced”. Meaning it was going to be tough, but not technical. No ropes or rock climbing. I thought 4000 feet in 4 miles? That doesn’t sound bad at all. I am sure that “strenuous” is just for people who are out of shape. I have been wrong in my life before, and this was one of those times I was categorically wrong.
On the four climbs that I went on during my time in Pullman, getting to the campsite was always fun. The people that set these trips up knew all of the deepest nooks and crannies of the Northwest and we found ourselves in some beautiful isolated spots. The directions always were like: Take Highway 95 south for 4 hours and then turn left on State Road 123. Proceed west for 16 miles. Then turn down access road 5b, go 6 miles. Continue another 3 miles after the road ends. Turn left on the trail right after the dead spruce tree and go until you see the rock shaped like Abraham Lincoln. That is where we will set up camp. Without fail, we would always pull up, and one of our friends would be there, with a beer in hand in front of a fire that is already going.
About a week before, I had decided that the smartest thing to do would be to buy a new pair of hiking boots. I mean, I was going hiking. I needed a pair of hiking boots. I went to the local outdoor shop and got a nice pair of boots and threw them in my car. Did I try and break them in? No. More on this later.
The morning of the climb, we get up before dawn and crawl out of our tents. I was instructed to wear synthetic/ non cotton clothing so that the sweat would wick away and evaporate. Something else about avoiding hypothermia was in there as well. I wore a long sleeve synthetic shirt, with a cotton t-shirt over it.
We find the base of the trail and up we go. We start going up and don’t stop going up for 8 hours. After about 20 minutes, I am dying. I actually am thinking that there is no way I can do this. I mean, jesus, it’s been 20 minutes. I can still see the damn tent I slept in and I want to cry. I begrudgingly continue.
After about another 20 minutes, my breathing regulates and my body adjusts and things start to get a little easier. Not easy. Never easy. Just not, I- am-going-to-die difficult. What I learned after the third climb, was the first hour is always the hardest. The best way to explain it, is that your body needs to figure out what you are doing to make the proper adjustments. It would say, “OH!!!! You are climbing a mountain. Let me switch you into that mode to make it a little easier”
Remember those lovely new boots I bought? I should’ve broke those in. About half way up, both of my heels start to get hot from the constant rubbing. Soon after, the skin breaks, and soon after that, I have quarter size blisters on both heels. I need to essentially change the way I walk to avoid the pain. I need to walk toe, heel, UP and DOWN the mountain now. And that cotton shirt I was wearing, is totally soaked from the sweat at this point. I mean drenched.
I learned 4000 feet in 4 miles is a real bitch. Every time we turn a corner or crest a ridge, there is more mountain above us. It is like stair mastering for 8 hours straight. Your mind does have a chance to wander because no one is really conversing because they are focused on putting one foot after the other. It was beautiful, it was quiet and it was something I had never done before. There aren’t many times in your life where you can put those three things together.
Our goal the entire day was to get above the clouds, which didn’t happen until the final 10 minutes of the climb. We peeked above the clouds like 8 little gophers and it was gorgeous. I was so happy up there. I had never dreamed I would’ve climbed a mountain yet here I was standing on the peak of one with wambly legs and holes in my heels feeling pretty accomplished. We took our hero shots with the camera, hung out for about 20 minutes and then started our decent.
The descent always seems to take at the most, half the time to get down. If you are lucky, there is snow and you can slide down most of the mountain on your rear and get down in about 45 minutes. No snow on this trip though. You do use a completely different set of muscles so your legs get absolutely destroyed on a day like that.
We made it to the camp with a good hour of daylight to spare and I popped about 3 ibuprofin and washed it down with the best tasting dark beer I can remember having. I fell into a coma like sleep that night and awoke to a friend of mine walking by my tent asking, “Dietz, you alive in there?” To which I responded, “I don’t know yet”.
The other climbs we did over the next few years were all amazing. My second climb, we climbed Mt. Aneroid in the same region as Twin Peak(s). I was introduced to scree on that trip which should be a four letter word. We are still going to make a tshirt that says F#*& Scree. It is just fields of loose rock that you have to take two steps to make a half a step worth of progress and going up sections of mountains like that is awful. It’s like that dream everyone has where your legs are really heavy and you are in a hurry. That is scree.
The next trip we made was just me and another friend on mine who is from Wisconsin. We were hitting our groove here and decided to go on a climb without any of our native guides who accompanied us on the other two climbs. Our destination was called Chief Joe in Enterprise Oregon. We got there, set up camp, had many beers and great conversation and plotted our route to the top. Got up early and launched our assault on the mountain.
We found and kept an impressive pace up this mountain. We hit a boulder field and I learned that I really dug boulder scrambling. There was one stretch towards the top, where I could go up a canyon or scale this rock wall. I took the canyon. My friend, we will call him Tony, decided to take on the wall. When I left him, he looked immobilized half way up the wall without anywhere to go. He looked like spider man who lost his ability to climb. He was just clinging to the side of this huge rock.
He somehow got himself through that and we summited in about 4 and a half hours and we went up 4500 vertical feet. It was impressive. Then, Tony uttered 5 words that almost ruined our friendship. “Let’s go down that way”. I can still see him pointing the opposite way we came up and I agreed.
It took us longer to get down than it did to get up and I was starting to get nervous that we were totally lost. This was in 1999 before we all had $700 computers linked to satellites in our pockets. We had, the sun and if we weren’t careful, we were going to be using the stars, Magellan style, to find our way back to camp.
Luckily the trail appeared out of nowhere and we made it back to camp. We still say those words to each other and laugh out loud whenever we talk. “Let’s go down that way”.
The last climb was supposed to be Mt. Rainer but bad weather derailed those plans. We ended up climbing Mt. Stuart which is the 2nd tallest, non-volcanic peak in the Cascades. This trip was perfect. It was in the beginning of June and we hiked into camp on day one. Climbed on day two and it was an awesome climb. We hit snow about half way up and out came our ice axes and crampons.
Near the top there was a little excitement. The approach is pretty steep and one slip or misstep and you could find yourself sliding down the mountain picking up speed. They taught me how to “self arrest” which is mountaineering speak for, fall on your ice ax and dig it into the snow as hard as you can using it as a brake to stop yourself from sliding off of the mountain.
This came in handy once for me. I slipped and started sliding down the mountain and I am heading right towards this team of 3 climbers who are roped together for safety. One of them yells, “DOWN”!!! All three of them, like climbing ballerinas, collapse in unison on their ice axes as I come barreling towards them. I manage to stop myself about 2 feet from one of them and apologize for the scare. I am just pissed I have to reclaim about 200 feet of the mountain now.
We made it to the top without further incident and had the pleasure of glissading, which is mountaineering speak for, sliding down the mountain on your ass using the ice axe a rudder and a brake. We made it down in about an 90 minutes after taking 7 hours to summit.
My climbing days were amazing. I found myself in some beautiful places with some amazing people and look back on those climbs with a feeling of pride and a wide smile on my face.