Tales from the road

Mt. Rainer

Why do we climb mountains?

America By Van

Mt. Rainer

Why do we climb mountains?

There is an inherent, coded, desire deep within humans, like myself, that propels us to climb the highest peaks we can. Some days laziness wins out, but when I found myself in Mt. Rainier national park that desire manifested, into me frantically unpacking as quickly as possible, babbling with strangers about my mental debate between two hikes, the first described by my new friend as the "swiss alps of the west", and the second hike a peak with the best view of Mt. Rainier, then exclaiming to my friends, "I gotta go hike! I don't care if you're coming with or not! See ya!"

As a woman, solo hiking in a place you've never been before is exhilarating and a little frightening. But, it's mostly the fast bubbly heart beat skip in your step type of amazing. I set out on the trail up to Tolmie Peak. Firm earth and tall evergreen conifers guide me. Deep emerald fir, hemlock, and cedar protect this land, draped in neon moss like royal robes. The richness of green everywhere I turn are a constant reminder of the abundance of water; life flourishes here.

Sweat gathers on my brow and the small of my back quickly as I climb, the crispness of the oxygen rich air knocks the wind out of my recently-relocated-Los Angeles lungs.  Periwinkle alpine aster, coral indian paintbrush, violet mountain bog gentinian, and cream bedstraw abound; it's late August, and it seems like summer is a fleeting moment in this land of water. The higher I climb I notice the trees begin to slowly shrink, compared to the giants I was just walking among.

The trees clear, and a turquoise-emerald glacial lake greets me at high country. I take a quick detour, and catch some other hikers who have just submerged. They assure me the water is "warm". How glacial lakes are unbelievably hyper-real-vibrant, yet translucent, so clear, where you can see right to the bottom, is an optical illusion that will never get old to me. I dunk my head under the water, and I'm reinvigorated enough to begin the final short, but steep, climb up to Tolmie Peak.

After a couple hundred feet up, the first viewpoint; my head swivels back to the lake and then upward, to the mountain. The mountain is magnificent. But, the story of the forces that shaped this land, and created these hyper-real lakes, is also astounding, and it humbles me; 

Born out of fire and sculpted by ice, Mt. Rainier stands the tallest summit among the Cascade Range. The genesis of Mt. Rainier begins, and continues today at the Cascadia Subduction Zone. Subduction occurs when two tectonic plates, (jigsaw puzzle pieces of earth's crust), collide. Over the scale of millions of years, the Juan de Fuca plate slides beneath the north American plate, which Mt. Rainier sits on top of. The Juan de Fuca plate is wet, and water is squeezed out as it inches beneath the North American plate.

This collision births water, which melts rock above, creating hot melted rock-magma. Over time, magma travels upward to the magma chamber inside of Mt. Rainier, an active stratovolcano. Geologist Bailey Willis called Mt. Rainier "an awful power clad in beauty"; there is a possibility the volcano could erupt at any time. Subduction here could also very possibly manifest into a major earthquake, that could reach 9.0 magnitude.

Now that I've tasted the reward of the first view, my legs involuntarily speed up into turbo mode, and by the last hundred feet of the climb, I'm panting. Some stranger tries to comfort me with a "you're almost there" to which I respond in my head "I know, dude, that's why I'm really sweaty and red right now", but outwardly I smile, a "yep" suffices, and I keep trudging.


The skyline opens up to panorama, and then, I'm on top of Tolmie Peak. Face to face with the 14,410 feet of solid andesite and dacite that is Mt. Rainier, I feel microscopic. Columnar andesite surrounds the peak, still adorned with snow pack and prehistoric piercing blue glaciers. Glaciers like these carved and shaped the volcano into the craggy mountain that stands before me now.  500,000 years ago a primordial Mt. Rainier began erupting andesite and dacite lava. 1,100 years ago, frequent pyroclastic flows erupted, huge clouds of ash and hot rock spewed down the slopes of Mt. Rainier at 450 miles per hour. The mountain is the result of hundreds of these eruptions. Mt. Rainier once stood over 1,000 feet taller than present day because the frequency of these eruptions caused so much lava to amass over time.

My eyes scour for a piece of land that isn't encompassed with evergreen, but the search is fruitless. Sometimes, in nature, "perfection" is achievable, even though my human brain unsuccessfully tries to disprove it. Whether that purity is barren desert with nothing in site but sand dunes, or this forest, where nothing besides green and blue is seen for miles, it quiets my soul.


In that quietness, I hear a question- Do we climb peaks to escape our humanness and to return to primitive animal? Or do we climb to remind ourselves, the wonder of our strength, to feel our bones, muscles and skin work, so we can be humbled by mountains, and grateful for our humanness? Or maybe we climb to be silenced, in the wonder of nature's timescale, allowing our mind to re-create pictures of the past, leaving us feeling small, in the best way.