Mountaineering: Embark on Your Journey

Physician's Money Digest, October15 2003, Volume 10, Issue 19

When George Mallory was asked in 1923 whyhe wished to climb Mt. Everest, he replied,"Because it's there." Even today, there arepeople who climb mountains and otherswho question why anyone would take such risks orendure such hardships.

I began mountaineering at age 37 with a guidedascent of Washington's Mt. Rainier. A dozen years later,not only have I climbed and trekked worldwide—Patagonia, the Andes, and the Himalayas—but I've alsoreached the highest geographical point of each of the 48contiguous states and stood atop Argentina's CerroAconcagua (22,869 feet), which is the tallest mountainin the western hemisphere.

I meet climbers from throughout the world, visitother cultures, and see the wildest and most rugged terrain.I shared meals with gauchos in Argentina and yakherders in Bhutan. I endured snowstorms and gale-forcewinds, watched the storms abate, and saw the mountains,covered in fresh-fallen snow, reappear. Mountaingoats visited me high in Montana's Beartooth Mountainsand Andean condors circled about my path in Argentina.Approaching the summit of Mexico's highest peak,Orizaba (18,701 feet), I saw lightning flash—below me.

Take up Your Pack

A professional guide service or qualified privateguide provides the safest introduction to climbing. Manyguides demonstrate their competence through certificationby the American Mountain Guides Association(303-271-0984; www.amga.com).

Guided seminars allow novices to climb well-knownpeaks. Rainier Mountaineering Institute (888-892-5462;www.rmiguides.com) offers 3- to 6-day programs on Mt.Rainier (14,410 feet). Summit success is about 50%, butthe course gives an introduction to mountaineering and achance to meet famous alpinists. I reached the summitwith Nawong Gombu, who, with Jim Whitaker in 1963,placed the first US flag atop Mt. Everest.

Timberline Mountain Guides (541-312-9242; www.timberlinemtguides.com) offers a 2-day course on Mt.Hood (11,239), Oregon's highest peak and the mostclimbed mountain in the United States. Its "base camp"is the luxurious Timberline Lodge (800-547-1406;www.timberlinelodge.com). Built in the 1930s, this historiclodge showcases period rooms, a central lobbydominated by a massive stone fireplace, and gourmetPacific northwest cuisine.

Climb on and on

Like other alpine ascents, climbing Mt. Hood beginsshortly after midnight, when colder night temperaturesreduce rockfall and avalanche risk. After ascending thelower mountain by moonlight or headlamp, the climberreaches the most interesting portion of the climb at daybreak.There, roped together for safety and using iceaxes and crampons for traction, climbers traverse abovethe volcano's active crater, called the Devil's Kitchen.Lava is no longer visible, but sulfurous vapors emanatefrom crater vents. Climbers follow the lower edge of thebergshrund, a 100-feet deep crevasse at the head of theglacier, before passing through the Pearly Gates, whichare a series of ice-encrusted rock pillars. Afterwards, theroute levels off, permitting an easy walk to the summitand sunrise atop Oregon.

Climbing styles include rock, ice, alpine, expedition,and indoor. Essential skills include knot-tying, rope handling,belaying, and anchor construction. Other skillssuch as glacier travel, winter camping, and hazard evaluationare more sport-specific.

Since I enjoy wilderness and solitude, I prefer treksand longer climbs to less visited areas. Physicallydemanding and requiring a wide range of skills, theserugged, remote trips provide a more intense, but paradoxically,more relaxing experience. Mountaineering hasenriched my life and helped me remain physically fit. Ihope to climb many more peaks, for the challenge, thepleasure, and yes, because they're there.