I climbed a mountain, and got a lot more than this lousy t-shirt
It was nearly 11:00 PM when we crested a bench on the snowfield and spotted the twinkling lights that signaled Camp Muir. My relief was short-lived: they still seemed impossibly far away.
“No problem,” my husband, Bix, murmured from behind me, “Twenty minutes, easy!”
Simultaneously bolstered and annoyed by his cheerfulness, I sighed, hoisted my pack, and soldiered on.
When we finally arrived—indeed, just about twenty minutes later—we set to work pulling layers out of our packs, eventually snuggling up, Bix and our friend Daniel and me, under a single zero-degree sleeping bag, where we planned to bivy for a couple of hours until the guided parties, cozy in their tents at Muir, started to stir.
It had been relatively warm at Paradise, the starting point for the vast majority of Rainier climbers—most of whom, this time of year, are climbing the Disappointment Cleaver route. Like much of the Pacific Northwest, Paradise (at around 5,000’) is often obscured by a thick layer of clouds, but a thousand feet higher, we’d burst through the ceiling, right around sunset, to catch Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens as they floated in an impossibly fluffy stratus sea.
The temperature dropped significantly as we climbed, first on account of the dissipating clouds, and then when the sun set altogether.
Half an hour after we settled in at Muir, I lay, awestruck, watching some of the best stars I’d ever seen: the Milky Way, a wayward shooting star. I checked my watch: midnight.
“Happy anniversary,” I whispered to Bix.
He opened his eyes.
“A little different than last year, huh?” he smiled, brushing some frost from the front of his parka.
This was objectively true. A year ago, we’d woken up early to go for a run, then parted ways to get ready to say our vows. It rained all day, but I hadn’t been particularly worried: rain or shine, I figured, I’d finish the day married to Bix.
In fact, the rain petered out just in time for the outdoor ceremony we’d hoped for, then returned with a vengeance as we walked down the aisle hand-in-hand. It poured as we took pictures, and kept up until we arrived at the reception when the clouds parted and a rainbow appeared. I hate to brag, but it was basically a fairytale.
In the weeks leading up to our wedding—and, in fact, for many months afterward—people told us all kinds of things about what to expect from our first year of marriage. It was hard, people told us, Oh, no, even if you’ve lived together, it’s so different, nothing prepares you for this.
I’d usually nod politely for this well-intentioned advice, inwardly guessing what it was that had made everyone’s first years of marriage so difficult: Was everyone but me (sorry, us) just a pain in the ass to live with? I’d shared a home with Bix for two years; there would be no surprises—for either of us—in the Annoying Personal Habits Department.
Despite my—our—assuredness, it was a tough first year. I had a hard time finding a job; we lived with my parents for four months after our wedding. I eventually found a gig in my field, but as an office manager, which meant I was suddenly spending a lot more time inside than I was used to. Lots of days, I came home tired and frustrated.
It helped to have a goal. Training to climb Mt. Rainier—in a day and without guides—gave us a shared objective more tangible than the all-encompassing “keep our marriage healthy,” but it required a lot of the same things.
On long days, when we both wanted to come home and collapse on the couch for a Netflix marathon, we remembered Rainier and laced up our shoes to run hills. On weekends, when we wanted to sleep in and recover from the work week, we reminded each other of our common goal and set out to climb mountains—and, in the process, spend our off hours together.
“I’m on your side,” Bix often reminds me, and it’s true: I threw my lot in with him long ago, but we threw a big party last September where we announced this to our friends and family, and he takes my commitment seriously. The inverse is true, too. In spite of the day-to-day, the grind, the regular challenges, we’re on the same team.
When we set out to climb Rainier, this was more literal: there is perhaps no more concrete way to let someone know you trust them than tying into a rope together, navigating crevasses and steep scree, based on the understanding that they’ll keep you safe.
Two hours after we arrived at Muir, the camp came alive. Headlamps clicked on; restless lines formed at the pit toilets. We melted snow for water, glad to have a reason to move around and warm up, and tied in. It was time to climb.
The three of us started up the mountain, following the bobbing white lights of the dozen or so climbers who’d gotten out ahead of us. At the base of the Disappointment Cleaver, we hopped over one crevasse, then another, doing our best to communicate despite the exhaustion of having ascended five thousand vertical feet in a few hours without the benefits of sleep or coffee.
We arrived at the top of the Cleaver just as the first rays of sunlight appeared on the horizon, beckoning us to a rocky outcrop to take in the view. At this point, it was pretty clear that our party wouldn’t summit: Daniel was overcome with altitude sickness and didn’t have another two thousand feet of climbing in him.
“You guys can go on ahead without me,” he offered, and he meant it sincerely. But that’s not what mountaineering is about, at least not to us: it’s all well and good to make it to the top, but it’s infinitely more important that everyone make it back down in good shape.
Despite our meticulous planning, despite our ambitions and hopes and fears, external factors were at play on this climb, as they always are. Our marriage doesn’t exist in a vacuum, either. It’s affected by jobs and money and other people and the million little things that happen every day, but I don’t believe those things cheapen a marriage. All that shit happens regardless, so why not take it on with someone in your corner?
I expected to be utterly disappointed if we didn’t make the summit, but in that moment, I felt only warmth and happiness. The sun had illuminated the glaciers and peaks around us with perfectly pink alpenglow; in the distance, we could see the other Cascade volcanoes as they, too, greeted the day—and not just any day. Our anniversary.
Emma Walker has worked as an avalanche educator, raft guide and backpacking instructor—and still can’t believe people will pay her to play outside. On her days off, you’ll find her passionately debating the merits of various hot sauces, poring over a guidebook to plan her next adventure, or, best of all, on a trail run with her trusty mutt.