My older brother, Mike, lives in upstate New York; I live three time zones west, in downtown LA. His birthday is the day before mine, and once a year we call each other at the precise time of night when it’s already my birthday where he is and still his birthday where I am. These annual phone calls have become one of the few times we talk. It’s not that we’ve had some huge falling-out. The gulf between us is more mundane: though we once shared a bunk bed, rode the same school bus, and spent every day playing together, as adults we live different lifestyles on opposite coasts. Mike is a father of two, a self-professed “NPR nerd” who works at a small college as the campus photographer. He would rather spend a Friday night at home reading National Geographic than hitting every bar in Echo Park, the way I often do. Mike likes to take his family square-dancing. I like going to the strip club.
The distance between us feels more apparent during our birthday phone conversations. The cordial calls always end with some vague plan to get together, which rarely happens unless there’s a wedding or a funeral. So I’m caught off guard this year when Mike says that for his fortieth birthday he wants to climb a mountain — and he wants me to come with him. And I’m even more surprised to hear myself respond, “You bet.”
Four months later, in mid-August, I clomp off the jetway at Sea-Tac Airport outside of Seattle, and Mike is there to greet me. (His plane from New York landed a couple of hours ago.) We hug, a bit awkwardly — he’s five inches taller than I am and skinny from a diet of couscous and organic vegetables grown in his backyard. He’s spent all summer tramping through the Adirondacks, training for our hike, while I’ve grown chunky from too many late-night tacos and pizzas. I’m excited, if a little intimidated, by the adventure we’ve planned: a summit bid on Mount Adams, a 12,280-foot peak just south of Washington’s Mount Rainier. We’ve picked it because few mountain-climbing skills are necessary to reach the top — just some basic know-how and massive reserves of determination.
At the rental-car counter we have our first disagreement. Mike thinks we should get a fuel-efficient, economy-sized car, and I lean toward an SUV that can better handle the gravel park roads and fit all our gear. Mike’s also inclined to pay extra for a GPS, which I think is wasted dough. We have a brief, irritable exchange at the counter before — still on our best behavior this early in the trip — we compromise and rent an SUV with a GPS.
Our younger brother, Peter, who lives in Seattle, is supposed to be joining us on the climb — and acting as a buffer between Mike and me, as he always has — but when we arrive at his place, Peter is stretched out on the floor of his living room, draped in ice packs. He’s just thrown out his back. Forget about climbing a mountain; he can barely inch his way around the apartment. Mike and I glance at each other warily. Our buffer is gone. We’re going to have to make it up Mount Adams on our own.
Before heading to the mountains, Mike and I spend a day purchasing food, supplies, and gear for the trip. At REI’s Seattle headquarters the employees regard me with disdain, as though no one who wears a basketball jersey, a neck chain, and a houndstooth cap should be allowed into the backcountry. They keep reminding me that inexperienced, reckless climbers often die on Mount Adams. To make matters worse, Mike seems to side with them, showing impatience at my complete lack of wilderness knowledge.
An older salesclerk, who no doubt has seen others like me come through the store, says kindly, “You’ll do fine on the mountain.” She advises short breaks every hour and says that at each one I should eat something, drink water, and reapply sunscreen. “If you want to get to the top badly enough,” she says, “you can.”
Realizing it would be foolish to attempt a summit bid without some training, Mike and I have signed up for a daylong course with Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. We’ll be scaling the lower slopes of Rainier, which is Mount Adams’s big brother. It’s late summer, and the parking lot — buried under several feet of snow most of the year — is completely dry. The surrounding meadows are teeming with birds, chipmunks, and wildflowers. Magnificent and imposing, Rainier’s peak towers a mile and a half above us.
As soon as we start up the first switchbacks, I realize just how ridiculously out of shape I am. All summer long Mike has been barraging me with texts and e-mails: “You’re not training, are you? How do you expect to be successful when you’re sowing the seeds of failure?” I knew he was right, but every Sunday my planned sojourns into the foothills outside LA were derailed by hangovers. I played basketball once or twice a week; that was training enough, I figured. But I realize now that shooting hoops at sea level has no bearing on one’s abilities at eight thousand feet. I can’t even get the laces of my boots to stay tied. Soon Mike and the rest of the training group have disappeared around a bend. One of the guides — Gabriel from Argentina — is assigned to lag behind with me. He’s friendly and solicitous beyond measure, but I can’t help feeling humiliated at being dead weight.
After an hour I catch up with the others. They’ve reached the day’s destination: a steep, snowy bluff where we’re taught how to use our ice axes to arrest a downward slide and how to attach crampons to our boots to help us pick our way across ice fields. Gabriel preaches efficiency in movement and demonstrates the most restful stance to use when we’re catching our breath. On the mountain’s higher reaches, he says, we’ll sometimes end up taking one step, pausing to breathe, then taking another. “Be lazy,” he advises. During longer breaks, we should take off our packs and sit down. We’ll need every ounce of energy to reach the top.
On our return trip to the parking lot, Gabriel points out the glistening peak of Mount Adams fifty miles in the distance, and the sight of it makes my heart sag. He asks my reasons for tackling the mountain. “No clue,” I tell him. “I guess because my brother got a wild hair up his ass, and I wanted to have his back. You think I have a chance to make it up there?”
Gabriel thinks it over, then replies, “I never like to say never.”
“Thanks,” I say. “That’s encouraging.”
“Be sure to let people know when you head out on the trail and when you expect to be back. That way, if you go missing, at least someone will be able to call in a rescue.”
The next afternoon Mike and I reach the trailhead for the South Spur ascent of Mount Adams. There are two competing strategies for the climb: Some recommend breaking it into two days — hiking halfway up on the first day and camping on a wind-swept plateau known as Lunch Counter, then making a summit run the next morning. Others say it’s best to keep your pack extremely light and make one crazed march to the finish, starting out around midnight, reaching the top by noon, and getting back to the bottom by nightfall. Mike and I have been hotly debating the options: he favors spreading the hike over two days and camping on the mountain; I’d rather carry lighter packs and bum-rush the peak in one day. It’s his birthday trip, though, and he’s the more experienced outdoorsman, so I defer to his wishes.
I begin having second thoughts the instant I lift my pack onto my shoulders. Filled with tent stakes, water, crampons, and a dozen layers of clothing, it weighs about sixty-five pounds. I can barely keep my balance. We’re not even out of the parking lot when the laces of my hiking boots come loose, and I get tangled up and crash to the gravel. Blood wells to the surface of my scraped palms. Nearby hikers exchange looks of concern. I must seem like the kind of buffoon who will need to be rescued, putting other climbers’ lives at risk.
I tell Mike the pack is too heavy. He says maybe it’s just loaded in a top-heavy way. He flips it open and roots around inside like a TSA agent. “What the hell are these?” he asks, holding up two bottles of Corona.
I explain that I thought we’d celebrate when we reached the summit.
He tosses them back in the SUV, along with a frisbee, a paperback book, a ballpoint pen, and a handful of batteries and loose change. “Every ounce makes a difference,” he says. He convinces me to leave a few other items behind, including the inflatable mattress I rented from REI. “If we even make it to Lunch Counter,” he says, “you’ll be too tired to know the difference between a mattress and the ground.” He wants me to leave my trekking poles in the truck, too, but I convince him that I need them. One online writer said the poles — which are essentially the same as ski poles — were indispensable.
We’re about to set out for the trail again when Mike’s own backpack, which he has taken off, topples against his leg, and he yelps in pain. The spikes of his crampons have gashed his bare shin. The cut is fairly deep, but Mike says he’ll soldier on. As we wipe our wounds, we suddenly break out in wild laughter: we are literally fifty feet from the car and already banged up and bloody. But at least we’re in this together.
Our sense of unity lasts about twenty minutes. I packed for freezing temperatures, and the trail is scorching hot. Every twenty or thirty steps I stop to catch my breath and hide from the sun in a tree trunk’s thin shadow. And this part of the climb is supposed to be easier than the higher altitudes — dry and snowless, not as steep, and with more oxygen in the air. Other hikers go flying past. Mike tries to engage me in conversation, but I can do little more than grunt in response. I’m wondering why my brother would want to subject me to such torture, and mystified as to why I agreed to come along. Then Mike begins hectoring me for my frequent breaks. He reminds me that the guides told us to rest every hour. And according to him I’m just making it harder for myself, standing there wearing my pack when I should be taking it off and sitting down. “Remember: ‘Be lazy.’ ”
“I’ll ‘be lazy’ in the SUV,” I snap, “while you try and climb this goddamn hunk of rock.” I truly can’t go any faster — the heat, the heavy pack, and the thinning air are killing me.
“Fine,” he says. “You go at your pace. I’ll go at mine.” He trots off ahead, his tall backpack swaying from side to side. I know he’s mad because I didn’t train for this. In all likelihood my lack of commitment has doomed his chances of reaching the top. We have too much shared gear to climb separately, and, anyway, we’re both too inexperienced to make it to the summit alone.
I pull out my battered Discman and pop in a CD by my friends’ punk band, Rise Against. Mike seemed appalled when he saw me pack the Discman, but I’ve found at the gym that almost any amount of painful exertion can be blunted by loud music. The driving beat buoys me, and before long I reach Mike, who is seated on a fallen tree, eating a sandwich. I drop my pack and collapse beside it. In two hours we’ve climbed five hundred feet — about 7 percent of the mountain’s total elevation.
Mike apologizes for tearing off without me, and I tell him I’m sorry, too. I know how badly he wanted to make it to the top. Maybe we can make Lunch Counter our “summit” instead. At that point we’ll be well above the tree line, where the views begin to get dazzling.
Mike says he’ll ease off his pace a little, and we’ll see how it goes.
“Yeah, we have to stay within sight of each other,” I tell him. Twice last week our mom made us promise we wouldn’t part company on the trail. As safe as Mount Adams is compared to some of the neighboring peaks, it’s still possible to sprain an ankle or step in a crevasse. And higher up there are no real trails, just boulder fields and expanses of snow. A couple of climbers a year get disoriented and walk off a cliff or freeze to death.
After lunch we find a rhythm: Mike moves at a faster clip, but every ten or fifteen minutes he stops to take pictures of the trees, flowers, and wildlife, and I catch up. As the blistering heat subsides, I find myself moving with more purpose, the music urging me on. I can climb for three or four minutes before taking a break. Patches of snow appear — the size of a puddle at first, then the size of a swimming pool, then the size of a football field. Before I know it, we’re above the timberline.
Working my way up one especially steep, treacherous snowbank, I pull my trekking poles from my pack to help me keep my balance, poking them into the crust of snow and ice. It’s incredible what a difference it makes to transfer some of the load from my legs to my arms. While Mike is slipping around, the poles help me power along. By the time we’ve reached the wide apron just below Lunch Counter, I’m the one waiting for him.
The sun edges toward the horizon, and suddenly the air turns frigid. A row of colorful tents comes into view at the point where the immense summit dome begins. We’ve actually made it. Quickly we find a pocket in the rocks that’s protected from the wind, and we pop our tents. A short distance away a pair of high-school teachers in their fifties, Bill and Kevin, are cooking dinner over a tiny stove. We hang out with them and watch the glorious sunset over Mount St. Helens to the west.
Bill and Kevin have hiked this trail every year for the last twenty. Most of the time they make it to the summit, but severe weather has forced them to turn back on several occasions. Above ten thousand feet the winds can reach a hundred miles an hour, and surprise blizzards are common. I ask them what they expect for the next day. “Only the most beautiful climbing day in my twenty years of coming here,” says Bill. The summit temperatures are not supposed to dip below forty degrees, and the winds are likely to be nonexistent. If a couple of rookies like us are going to have a chance to get to the top, tomorrow’s the day.
Impossibly bright stars fill the sky like silver glitter sprayed from a fire hose. And, to our good fortune, we’ve chosen to climb on the night of the summer’s largest meteor shower. Each shooting star is like a Roman candle.
Finally Mike and I crawl into our tents. To have a chance at the summit, we’re going to need an early start. (Bill and Kevin plan to head out around 6 AM.) But instead of sleeping, we find ourselves having a winding conversation, just like when we shared a bunk bed. We talk about our parents and our old friends and our daily lives. I describe the cast of characters who populate the Gold Room, my favorite bar in Echo Park, and Mike tells me about the community he’s found at his Friends meetings. Somehow the two don’t seem so different. As Mike talks about fatherhood, his job at the college, and tinkering around his house, I find myself appreciating the benefits of a more settled life. I might even want to try it myself someday.
We even laugh at a few ancient sore spots — like the girl we once both had a crush on. When we were kids, Mike was the wiser older brother, but in high school I found it easier to navigate the social scene than he did, and I left him alone with his books and science projects while I snuck off to parties. I’ve always wondered if this is at the root of our distant relationship. Have I, with my carefree West Coast existence, left him behind once again so I can go hang out with the “cool kids”? Whenever we’re home in Michigan for Thanksgiving, he’ll give me a disapproving look as I head out to a bar and leave him behind to play board games with our parents. Maybe there’s a part of him that wants to roll downtown with me and throw back a few shots.
At dawn I’m squatting in the rocks above the campsite, shivering in the near-freezing temperatures, trying to shit on a paper target. To avoid leaving the upper reaches of the mountain covered in frozen turds, all hikers are required to pack out their own feces. The Forest Service provides paper bull’s-eyes and blue plastic bags for this purpose. (I wondered yesterday why all the hikers who passed us on their way down had the bags dangling from their packs. Now I understand these did not contain the Sunday Times.)
I miss the target completely and spend the next few minutes using a stick to try to pick up my own excrement. I do the best I can, but after Mike has taken a turn up there, he comes back frowning. “Was that you who left all that shit on the rocks?” he asks. He claims it’s just like me to make a mess for someone else to take care of, and he orders me to clean it up.
Whoa! What happened to the vein of goodwill we tapped into last night?
We carefully reload our backpacks for our summit attempt. We’ll leave behind all our camping gear and carry only water, high-protein snacks, sunscreen, extra layers of clothes, ice axes, crampons, and my trekking poles. By the time we head out, it’s almost 8 AM. Bill and Kevin are long gone, and we can actually pick them out, ant-sized specks high up the first dizzying bluff. We’ve been told how important it is to get up the mountain before noon. Once the afternoon sun starts melting the surface snow and ice, it’s nearly impossible to keep scaling. By leaving so late, we’ve almost guaranteed our own failure.
Not only that, but we’re the slowest climbers on the mountain. As we journey upward, we are passed by hikers who left the parking lot in the wee hours of the morning, aiming to cram their summit bids into a single day, as I initially proposed we do.
From Lunch Counter the climb can be broken into three parts: First a steep, 2,400-foot slog up to the False Summit, which, true to its name, appears to be the top until, at its apex, you discover painfully that it is not. Then a flat valley crossing. And finally one last, nearly vertical, eight-hundred-foot ascent to the peak.
While most hikers appear to charge straight up the mountain, each creating a well-worn path for the next, I find that I have better luck crisscrossing the slope at a gentle angle. Mike zigzags a hundred yards below me. It seems my gamble of carrying the extra weight of the trekking poles has paid off. I worry that he’s laboring too hard. When we stop for breaks, I wolf down a granola bar, reapply sunscreen to my sweaty face, and keep on moving, afraid to lose momentum.
The slope narrows so that I can’t continue my wide back-and-forth pattern; I now have to follow the steep, bottleneck path. The air is rapidly thinning, and every ten or twenty steps I pause to utilize a breathing trick that Gabriel taught me on Rainier: a deep breath in, followed by a forceful, whistling exhalation, as though I were trying to blow out a birthday candle from six feet away. According to Gabriel this brings more oxygen into your lungs.
I’ve always prided myself on my determination, but as I fight my way up the most vertical stretch on the mountain, my lungs and calves and quads burning, I’m finding out precisely how much I’ve got in the tank. Luckily it’s just enough to get me onto the False Summit. I drop my pack and crumple into the snow beside it. Ten minutes later Mike appears over the ridge and collapses beside me. Wordlessly we eat lunch and admire the spectacular view.
A couple in their early fifties join us at the False Summit: Sandie, a businesswoman and avid hiker with a boisterous laugh, and her friend David, a photographer and river-rafting guide. Like many others have, they deflect my claim that I’m the least-fit person on the mountain. “I’m out of shape, too,” says Sandie. “Last weekend I had my worst time ever in a marathon!”
Sandie and David left the parking lot at 4 AM with hopes of reaching the peak by 2 PM, the same time Mike and I have set as our goal. But it’s already one in the afternoon. Everyone else has been to the summit and is passing us on the way back down. The four of us are the last ones still plodding upward. Mike wants to rest a while longer, but Sandie and David plan to push on, and they invite me to join them. I’m not sure what to do. Mike looks out of juice. If I stick with him, there’s no way I’ll get to the top. But I remember our promise to our mom to stay together on the trail.
Before I can decide, my brother points to the wide bowl ahead of us and says, “This is the easiest leg of the climb. And it’s not like you’ll be out of sight. You go ahead. I’ll catch up.”
So I forge on with Sandie and David, though I feel a little sick to my stomach over leaving Mike behind. After all, it was his dream to climb a mountain that brought me here in the first place. Shouldn’t I be at his side, urging him to the top? The truth is, though, I’ve caught summit fever, a compulsion to continue that often drives climbers to make foolish choices. As impossible as it seemed yesterday, I now have an outside chance to finish the ascent, and I refuse to come this far and not make it.
As Sandie, David, and I pick our way across the bowl, I peer back over my shoulder every few minutes. Here I am once again abandoning Mike for new friends. I’m relieved, at least, to see him get to his feet and follow us, a half mile behind.
When we reach the base of the final pinnacle, it’s two o’clock. Sandie and David decide to press on. If I wait for Mike, it will be too late, even if he does have the strength to keep going. The bowl we just crossed seems to pose no serious danger to my brother. And the summit for me has taken on an almost narcotic allure. So I follow Sandie and David.
The last leg is a sheer face made of snow and ice and loose shale. We’re almost twelve thousand feet up, and the air feels depleted of oxygen. David and I pause to catch our breath every two or three steps, but Sandie’s constant encouragement and laughter urge us on. Mike is a diminishing figure far below. Finally I see him heave off his pack and take a seat. Maybe I should turn back. It’s too cold for him to sit still for long, and I don’t want him to head down the mountain alone; most climbing accidents actually happen on the descent.
I cry out at the top of my lungs, “Mike! Should I keep going or turn around?” but the sound isn’t reaching him. I try to signal with my arms that if he intends to keep climbing, I will, too. Mike waves back at me. It’s not clear, but it seems like he’s motioning for me to continue. My mind is clouded with fatigue and dizziness, and Sandie and David are already fighting onward. I don’t want to lose them. I shout to Mike as loud as I can, “Just hang tight! Don’t go anywhere!”
And then I turn my back on my brother and pass over the last ridge.
At the peak of Mount Adams someone has stretched a row of prayer flags between two upright sticks. Up ahead Sandie whoops with delight, and a few minutes later David does the same. I’m several hundred yards behind them, and as I clamber up the slope, I feel hot tears at the corners of my eyes. Very soon I will have taken my last, painful step up the mountain.
Atop the crown I’m afforded a stunning, 360-degree view of the Pacific Northwest skyline. I thrust my trekking poles high in the air and cry out, “Holy shit, I did it!” Sandie and David rush over and wrap me in a hug. I tell them how grateful I am that we crossed paths — I’d never have made it without them. I feel sad that Mike isn’t with us, but for the next half-hour we remain at the summit, elated and marveling that we’ve traveled this high on our own power. The air is cold, but the wind is gentle. Had it been more blustery, I would’ve had to turn back hours ago.
It’s now almost four in the afternoon, and I’m starting to worry about Mike. Is he huddled in the snow, waiting for me to descend? Maybe he’s started down on his own — a risky proposition. My pure joy at having reached the top is tainted by guilt. A steady stream of grim images flickers through my mind: Mike ensconced in a tomb of ice at the bottom of some crevasse, his Nikon camera and a single glove left behind; the look on my mom’s face as I struggle to explain how I could’ve abandoned him; an open-casket funeral, with only his camera and that lone glove in the coffin.
Just as my worry begins to balloon into panic, I see my brother appear over the ridge a few hundred yards below. Sandie, David, and I start hollering, urging him along.
Mike moves incredibly slowly — one step, a pause, and then another, a tortured expression on his face. But when he looks up and sees how close he is to the top, he breaks into a giant grin. We sing his name in unison as he takes the final steps. As we stand to welcome him into our circle of warmth, I feel myself tearing up again. Mike’s eyes are wet, too.
We don’t get to celebrate for long. It’s so late in the day that we’ll have to move quickly, sliding on our asses down the mountain like bobsledders, whizzing past stretches that took hours of intense effort to scale. If we’re lucky, we should arrive back in the parking lot close to midnight.
But for five minutes Mike and I are together at the top of the world.