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A rite of passage on the snowfields of Rainier

It was all Lori's doing, really. For years my friend had been prattling on about her plans to one day climb Mt. Rainier in Washington State. Having climbed Rainier myself, I listened to her pronouncements with benign amusement. Lori cracks me up.

But when Lori began coming to me with questions about how to get started in climbing, I found my amusement fading, replaced by serious concern for her well-being. Lori hadn't been on many hikes, let alone climbed even the littlest mountain. I tried to explain to her that climbing isn't all that exciting. For the most part, mountain-climbing is a grinding, monotonous process - akin to climbing stairs for eight hours. Still, she persisted.

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Feeling a responsibility to help her see what this climbing business is all about, I invited her to climb with me up to Camp Muir, the base camp for the summit of Mt. Rainier. Joining us on this climb was my 8-year-old son, Andrew, and my octogenarian father, who had been a guide on Rainier 60 years before.

The first part of the climb to Muir meanders through green meadows full of wildflowers and little twinkling creeks. Lori exclaimed at the beauty of it. But all the time we were hiking through the meadows, I was aware that up ahead lay what I consider the most challenging part of the climb to Rainier's summit: the hike through the snowfields to Camp Muir. It's not that the climb to Muir is dangerous - it's not terribly steep, there are few crevasses, and unless you get caught in a white-out it's not easy to get lost on this part of the climb - but it's powerfully tedious.

Where the meadows stop and the snow begins lies Pebble Creek. As we munched on gorp there, I tried to prepare Lori and Andrew for what lay ahead. "From here on, it's a climb straight up that snow," I said, pointing up the slope. Lori and Andrew squinted their eyes and peered up the slope, grins on their faces, while Dad and I exchanged knowing glances. This is where the work would begin.

Our little troop set a slow, steady pace up the snowfields. At first, Lori kept up a running commentary on how exciting all this was for her. After a while, however, I noticed the pauses between words became longer, until Lori was no longer talking at all - a most unusual state of affairs.

Eventually, there came a time when I heard myself using the words my dad had always used on me when I began to get discouraged on a climb. "It's just over that next ridge." I yelled down to Andrew and Lori. But I got only grunts in reply.

Dad sat down on a nest of boulders and announced that he would wait there for us. We were three.

A party of climbers passed us going back down the slopes. They had sleeping bags, pots clanging from backpacks, and the dishevelled, exuberant look of men who had made it to the summit. As we trudged passed them, one of the men bent over Lori and looked down at her nose. "We need to do something about that," he muttered, and, whipping out a tube of zinc oxide, dabbed her tomato-red nose with cream. He put the tube back in his pocket, turned, and continued down the snowfield. Lori stood there, looking after him with a bemused expression.

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"People sure take care of each other up here," she observed thoughtfully before once again slogging her way up the slope.

She was getting a little annoyed with my "just over the next ridge" spiel by this time. When I asked how she was doing, her response was through gritted teeth. "Fine. Just fine!" she spat out.

Good girl. And Andrew?

"Well," he said, "I'm tired, but I really want to be able to tell Dad I made it to Camp Muir."

As we went over one last rise, we suddenly spotted one of Muir's huts. "We really are almost there," I gushed to Lori, and she grinned. I told Andrew to get in front of me: He was going to be the first of our party to step onto the rocks of Camp Muir.

It was a glorious feeling to have made it. From here we could look up and see the summit of Rainier - looking temptingly close. Andrew frowned. "The top doesn't look that far away, does it?" And I knew he was picturing himself up there.

"How long do the climbers rest before they head up to the summit?" Lori asked.

I told her that they usually leave about 1 or 2 in the morning, when the snow is firm. Lori looked at me, aghast. "But that's inhumane." she cried in righteous indignation. As I said, Lori cracks me up.

"Look!" Andrew yelled, pointing. There was my dad, only a few yards from camp! Andrew raced to give his grandpa a huge hug as he stepped into the camp.

Lori smiled at me, tears in her eyes. "Wow," she said, "That's what it's all about, isn't it?" And I knew then that my friend really is a climber.