When we get in the car it’s already a little late to be hitting the road, but this whole trip has felt unexpected somehow, so we’re not worried. Not yet. Earlier in the week we decide to go in what is quickly becoming our fashion—a why not kind of adventure, a let’s do it that has usually spelled fun but could always be disaster. There’s something about the road that calls to a certain spirit, a little shoulder Jack Kerouac whispers in one ear, and so without too much ado we headed north, exclaiming every few of the first miles that, we’re doing it! we’re going on our trip! as if we’ve both managed to surprise the other with a little vacation. As we drive our moods follow the sun, which is great when we’re laughing and eating Chipotle even though we’re stuck in a traffic jam in Tacoma (surprise) at 6 p.m., but less great when the car gets increasingly quiet as we drive into sunset in Everett. By the time it’s full dark, our silence is heavy with the recognition that we won’t be pulling into the park until 11 p.m. and we probably should have left earlier and also this is an extraordinarily wind-y road. This, I suppose, is the more sobering side of a spur of the moment trip. We fly by country houses, kitchen windows bright squares against the shadow landscape made by our headlights, weaving up through the mountains. One patch is startlingly bare, a huge swath of brown in otherwise dense fields—the Oso landslide. Here feels ominous, a spooky pallor colors the world for a minute, this place where mountains will suddenly fall apart. There’s a house in the Gorge that was half-buried for part of my childhood, sinking every year until you can no longer see it, hidden as it is by dirt and blackberries. I tell Darren about it when we drive past, and then we are back to looking at the road and humming along to the radio. Here and there I catch glimpses of a dark black glittering through the trees, the Skagit River looking dangerous in all this night. I want desperately to know what we’re in, what the trees look like, who else might be around—but not out of fear. I want to know because it grounds us in place, lets you know how much ground you’ve covered and where you’ve been to get where you’re going. Changing landscape warms a wandering girl’s heart, but here, in the dark, we are anchorless, flying through space and time with nothing to hold us down.
The upshot is that the next morning, when we unzip the tent, it’s a surprise all over again. Not only did we leave town, we also aren’t a 100% sure where we ended up! Granted, we had some sense of surrounding when we were putting up the tent, guided by headlamps, but in the morning light everything is made new. Trees encircle our little two-man polyester home, a couple felled by last winter’s storms, and vegetation crawls over everything, layers and layers of green. We do the perfunctory exclaiming, it’s so green! It’s so beautiful! These are some dang big trees! Not even we, seasoned pacific northwesters, are exempt from wondering at the beauty of these woods. I love the feel of it here, Darren tells me while we eat oatmeal (sidenote: so strongly is Quaker’s maple and brown sugar packet oatmeal associated with camping to me it induces a Pavlovian type response any time I’m in the woods in the morning), and I agree. At first I think he’s referencing the campsite itself, honestly, probably because I note that the architecture of the bathroom lodge was particularly impressive and I assumed he did the same (luckily for me, I didn’t say that out loud), but as the weekend raced along I think I started to understand in a more metaphysical way what he meant.
It’s a lazy morning, I’ll be honest, we’re both drugged after the late night and by the greenery, and we end up spending about a half hour narrating the thoughts of this hyperactive squirrel who was running an elaborate route around our campsite in very earnest preparation for winter. Pinecones, stop and scold the humans, run down the log, circle the tent, dig a hole, bury pinecone, race back to pinecones. More scolding. It was basically Planet Earth but 4D. When we do get things into gear, to be fair, we don’t stop for the rest of the weekend, racing along from one jam packed activity to the next. Consequently, it felt like we spent about a week there, up north, instead of just the two and a half days we did.
In the spirit of we’re doing it, we decide we have to make the absolute most of our trip here because it’s almost the end of summer and who knows when we’ll be back (we’re told the Cascades aren’t the most hospitable place in the dead of winter, we pretty much learn that firsthand during this trip and it’s only the end of August) so we’re interested in doing everything. We tell a version of this story to the ranger at the visitor’s center, which is our kick-off point for our fun-filled adventure. He says, great, love the enthusiasm, but could you be more specific?
Luckily I’d done a little research, so I give him some examples, he tells us what’s realistic and what’s not (for example, climbing the Sahale Glacier trail: we could do it, but it will be completely fogged in and you may die) so we picked what we thought would be fun and then we hit the road (again). It’s an hour out to the trailhead we’re gunning for, to do a climb we found in the guidebook (guidebooks are bibles for a climber who’s worth his salt). North Cascades is known for climbing, mostly thanks to a man named Fred Beckey, who we heard speak last year about his life, which has been entirely dedicated to climbing things. I mean really, really dedicated—he has no wife, no family, no real attachment to anything, just more first ascents than anybody and a lot of luck. He’s also about 90 which meant that his presentation was mumbled and featured sepia-toned photos from the 30s and 40s, when they climbed in tennis shoes with a rope tied around their waist. It felt only right then, since we were in his territory (he was raised in Seattle and learned to climb in the North Cascades) that we do the Beckey Route up Liberty Bell. It’ll be fun! we said. A short, easy little summit, the chance to stand together on something Fred Beckey did almost 70 years ago, we’d be a part of history! Plus the view is supposed to be fantastic, and we all know that’s my primary reason for doing anything.
So we get there, consult the guidebook, and start the approach. That’s the thing about climbing—rarely do you ever just walk up to an enormous cliff band or peak and start. You have to hike and scramble your way up before you even get there, sometimes a really long way. This approach looks pretty straightforward, which probably should’ve been our first warning. A quick mile and a half up an established trail, and then a scramble up a rock gully to the base of the climb, what’s not to love? So there we go, bright eyed and bushy tailed, optimistically signing the trail log and heading out. We get our normal comments, of have fun and good luck, while we head up, the trail rising slowly but steadily through dark, earthy green, not quite as tangled as places at home but still remarkably dense considering how high we are. We hike mostly in silence, hurrying because it’s afternoon already and we don’t want to get stuck in the dark. Bright blue sky is patchy above us, dizzyingly blue in the window we get through the tops of the trees. I keep scanning to our left, after we’re out for twenty minutes or so to see where the climber’s access trail might be. They’re never marked with a sign, but it was on the map so we’re hopeful that it’ll be pretty obvious—Darren had two friends come up last weekend who woke up at 4 in the morning to do an approach and an all day climb, and they missed their cairns and ended up at the base of a completely different route. It’s easy, kind of, to do, so we’re watching, but the trail starts to feel too long—we were estimating maybe 15 minutes a mile, so we should be just about there now. Instead, as we suck in thin air and pass families taking pictures on the enormous boulders that’ve started appearing on the side of the trail, we say things like gotta be getting close now and keep an eye out, the kinds of things people say when they’re trying to mask their anxiety about getting lost.
But then we find it, just as we cross through a high-alpine meadow that looks a little out of place in contrast to the trees we’ve just come from. There, to our left, is a little cairn and a worn path through roots and boulders, and farther up, the looming Liberty Bell group, a collection of peaks that you’ll find in most North Cascades guidebooks, the gatekeepers of the East side. We start immediately climbing and I’m suddenly hit with the enormity of the distance and elevation we need to cross before we can start this climb. It’s immense. We’re trying to get to “the notch”, a little gully that gets covered in snow during the winter here, and that is, during the summer, a rock slide waiting to happen. But before that piece, we have to pick our way through a mile of granite boulders, straight up and ominous, while following the cairns. And you know this about me, I’m good at going up things. One foot in front of the other. But this is hard, whole body work, not just a normal draw to a ridgeline, not a nice little hike. This is some business, as Darren tells me. I’m in pretty good shape, but it doesn’t take long for me to be out of breath and pouring sweat, but we keep climbing, moving up, forging ahead. Behind us, the valley opens up—a circle of peaks appear, a crown of mountains soaring above us. As we get higher we’re able to look them in the eye, and that makes it all worth it, you know. Big swaths of green cut down the mountainside nearest us, a river tumbling down through the middle of it. The last of the summer’s wildflowers are waving in the breeze, bright spots of color against the almost black green of the grass.
We don’t ever stop for long, but I keep checking behind me as we go, soaking in those mountains, feeling like if I could just internalize this view somehow, if I could just take it with me. But then, now you know why I write. So here we are, still working our way up, passing through patches of mountain goat stench so pungent it makes your teeth hurt, getting closer and closer to the rock gully and the notch. We see a few more climbers coming down and we ask them how it is. Cold, they say. But a good climb.
Finally, finally we get to the rocky part. We both put on our helmets, just in case, and start going up as gingerly as possible. The danger is starting a rockslide but we hug the wall, where the rocks are bigger and less likely to shift out from under us. Since we passed the tree line it’s all rock, only rock, a paradise of sorts, for people like us. A staggering amount of rock ahead of us and below us and all around us. I stop for a minute and close my eyes. All I see are the same veiny browns and grays of this world I’ve somehow wandered into. And then it starts to hit me, just as we get to the start of the climb—icy little pricks of wet that my summer skin doesn’t register right away. Ah. It has started raining.
Neither of us mentions it but the rain is very much there, in the way that bad things usually hang between two people who aren’t ready to talk about it. Darren is aggressively optimistic, even in the face of the storm that we’re now watching roll through across the valley we were admiring not ten minutes ago, even as the temperature is dropping alarmingly. We work our way across the notch and to the start of the route, while a team of four guys in front of us is set up. They have someone on the rock already, so we wait to figure out what our options are. Hey, I say, let’s think about this for a minute, I tell him, because I have a gut feeling about what we should do here. Come on, it’ll be a suffer fest, Darren says, think about how good it’ll feel when we’re done! Part of me believes him, because we’ve come all this way, and I don’t want to climb down without standing on the top of Liberty Bell, Fred Beckey’s bell! I also know that there is a kind of fun in suffering, of battling through miserable conditions and freezing fingers and then the after, around the campfire swapping stories and laughing because you lived.
I am nothing if not a believer in gut instincts though, that intuition that whispers what our conscious minds can’t quite grasp. So I tell him, I know. But still, even if we get to the top, we have to get back down. And I don’t want to get back down in this. He looks at the clouds, looks at me. Look at this, I say, a little louder than I mean to. It’s not if it hits, it’s when! And where we’re going to be when it does!
We were just talking about that too, says junk-show guy from the group in front of us. The rock is pretty slick, man, I just don’t know. Nail’s in the coffin now for this climb, because if everyone is saying I don’t think so for weather, in the climbing world, there is no one who should say well maybe we’ll try it anyway. Too much risk, not enough reward. So we climb a little higher into the notch, and look down the other side, thousands of feet of sheer rock—the other way to get the top of liberty bell, a days-long trip up the side of the peak. We, kind of unbelievably, took the shortcut today. I pull out the sandwiches we made back at camp and we watch the storm drench the other side, the crown of peaks gone now from view, shrouded in clouds. We’re perched high above the valley, perched being the only appropriate word to describe our lofty and somewhat precarious position here on the rock, and soon, I know, we’ll be sitting in the middle of the sky, if those clouds keep rolling this way. No, though, I think, as we pack up and start trekking down, each foot step a careful touch to the ground, testing carefully before we put full weight on to avoid the rock fall. Humans belong on the ground.
While we go down we spot other climbers on the walls around us, bright spots of orange and green against the otherwise gray rock. A few are working their way up cracks, probably with tight spots of anxiety in their bellies about whether or not they’re going to beat those clouds to the top. Later we look up the climb they were doing and find it, a monstrous climb that Darren immediately wants to try. Next trip, I say. I already know we’ll be spending a lot of time here. By the time we get to the bottom my quads are quivering wrecks, I’m cold enough to shake and I keep tasting salt—the rain is washing sweat from my face and into my mouth every time I breathe. Back in the car it’s quiet again, but this is a bummed out quiet, a quiet born of defeat. We did the right thing, we made the absolute best choice we could’ve, Darren says. Yeah, we did, I say and turn the heat up higher.
Later, after we get back to camp and get changed, build a fire, get some of that liquid courage in us and laugh about the day, Darren says, we could always try again tomorrow. It’s not supposed to rain. And I laugh again, thinking he’s kidding. He’s not, of course, and that makes me laugh again, because isn’t this who we are? Incorrigible and young, surprise trip kind of people, let’s do it again tomorrow kind of people. Alright, I say, we’ll try it again tomorrow. Cheers.