A renewed surge of energy coursed through my fatigued body as I reached the summit of Mt. Baker, the third-highest point in Washington State. My crampons gripping the ice, I surveyed the summit — or what I could see of it — from my position looming 10,781 feet above sea level. It had taken just six hours to get here today, but we’d been training on the mountain for a full week to prepare for the climb.
It was noon on a Thursday, when typically my fingers would be flying across the keyboard at my desk at Weber Shandwick. Instead, they were wrapped in two layers of gloves to guard against a steady drift of sideways snow. Savoring my accomplishment, I relished in the knowledge that though I was standing on top of a mountain, this was still part of my job!
My climb was the culmination of a Weber Shandwick-sponsored program called No Boundaries, which awards employees a stipend and a week’s time off to pursue a personal passion outside of the office, whatever that may be.
My passion, as you’ve probably guessed, is being outside. I grew up in and around Washington’s Cascade Range, and not a day goes by that I don’t pine after the woods (see what I did there) and the peaks. So when it came time to apply for a 2018 No Boundaries award, I set my sights high — really high — to tackle my first technical climb.
After being selected for the award earlier this year, I began training and packing. My work at Weber involves planning and forecasting, so this came naturally. Over the next few months I made an embarrassing number of trips to REI and hiked every weekend I could, gradually increasing the weight of my backpack to build my body and toughen my mind.
Then it was finally mountain time – and I was all in.
Phone on airplane mode? Check. Ropes, helmet, harness, crampons, ice axe? Check check. A smorgasbord of dried fruit and dehydrated meals to last me a week? Got it all. With my sixty-pound pack on my back, I headed up into my bliss with a group of total strangers who already felt like friends.
For five days, it was just us and the mountain. No trees at our altitude, no animals, no city lights. We melted snow for water and dug deep, roomy holes to squat in with an illusion of privacy. We learned how to rope up for snow travel, how to self-arrest when sliding down an ice-covered slope, how to rescue our partner from a crevasse in a more-than-sticky situation. We learned the skills and mental toughness to thrive where humans aren’t even meant to survive.
I’m not a morning person, but I’ve never woken up more quickly than when my alarm went off at 3:00 a.m. on summit day. I gathered my gear, tied into the two partners on my rope team, and up we went.
I’ll give half the credit to my training and the other half to my enthusiasm. Whatever it was, I was walking on air, one deliberate step in front of the other. A familiar surge of elation coursed through me that I only feel at altitude and on snow.
I can imagine this is why climbers are always drawn to the next peak. That, and the anticipation of making the summit.
After hours of climbing with sweeping views, we reached the top in a whiteout. I couldn’t even see the person on the other end of my 60-meter rope. A twinge of disappointment permeated my exhilaration, but didn’t dampen my sense of accomplishment. As the snow pelted me sideways and the cold creeped through my layers, the thick layer of clouds lifted just enough to reveal a breathtaking glimpse of Mt. Shuksan in the near distance.
An anticlimactic summit, to be sure, but we did still make it to the top. And as seasoned climbers always say, the mountain isn’t going anywhere. You can always come back.
In fact, I’m going forward —and upward again. Last week, I summited the state’s tallest peak and one of the most prominent in the lower 48: Mt. Rainier. This time clear skies allowed me to see 200 miles north right to the tip of Mt. Baker, where my day job had supported me in getting outside and embracing the thrill of a new challenge. What an incredible thing, made possible by those at Weber Shandwick who recognized my zealous drive to go up, up, and away.