Whitworth English Department Mt. Baker May Trip with John Pell
By: Emily Church
I never thought that through following my passion for writing and English, I would find myself on the side of a mountain. I’m sure that’s what many of us thought, and yet, that’s where we were. Three incredible days spent on Mt. Baker.
During the first week of class, while reading and analyzing the different writing styles of adventure stories like Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Nanda Devi :The Tragic Expedition, and Points Unknown: The Greatest Adventure Writing of the Twentieth Century, we were also being prepped for our trip up Mt. Baker. In order to learn to write about adventure, once must take an adventure themselves. In partnership with the U-Rec team and experienced mountaineer Brad Pointer, the class learned what it meant to wear a harness, how to tie a figure eight on a bight, a prusik, and a girth hitch knot with various types of rope, what to do with the string of carabiners on your tool belt, how to walk on a rope team, and how to use an ice axe to protect yourself from falling down the mountain. During one of our exercises on the rock wall, we were made to dangle, as if we had just fallen into a crevasse, and had to tie knots and move carabiners which allowed us to climb up the rope. It was a terrifyingly fun experience.To practice maneuvering around on rope teams, we took to the loop. I’m sure we looked pretty goofy walking around the loop of campus tied to rope teams and carrying ice axes and large backpacks.
The day before our early morning departure, the gear and supplies were loaded into backpacks that we were going to have to carry from the parking lot to base camp, an altitude gain of around 3,000 ft. The backpacks were well stuffed with tent gear, ice axes, helmets, cooking fuel, sleeping bags, extra clothes, food, and toiletries. Those on the U-Rec team who had done some backpacking cautioned us to pack as light as possible, for ounces equaled pain.
The students of El 396 Adventure and Travel Writing, the U-Rec volunteers, and John Pell arrived at Whitworth to depart at 5:30am. After a seven hour van ride across the state, our glacier that we were going to summit lay before us. For almost everyone in the van, that was the moment where the climb became real because that was when we came face to face with our goal. At the trailhead, once the van was unpacked and our fifty pound backpacks were loaded onto our shoulders, Brad gathered the group to pray before the long hike up to basecamp. For endless miles together we crossed waterfalls, dirt trails, and a brief encounter with snow before reaching our basecamp.
Basecamp was an island of rocks in the middle of the mountain. The summit was only a mere 4,000 ft. away. That night the group ate our freeze dried mountaineering food by light of the sunset, astounded by the view of our classroom for the next two days.
Day two was a day of taking it easy with a little bit of snow training. It was time to put what we learned in the context of the U-Rec to real use. While we didn’t go jumping into crevasses, we still got to practice catching ourselves in the snow with our ice axes and simulated group rescues in our ropes teams. That evening by the heat of the cooking stoves, we sat together eating dinner and telling funny stories. Danny started us off by asking “Does anyone have any embarrassing poop stories?” Of course the group had many to contribute. Poop was a common topic on the trip because whatever you brought up to the mountain had to come back down with you, which meant that we were going to have to carry our wonderful blue bags down with us. One of the joys of mountaineering for sure. We built community in our new classroom as we bonded over blue bags, awesome blisters from the hike up, aching muscles, fears surrounding the summit climb, and the beautiful views.
A 2am wakeup call brought the class out into the starry morning air to begin the climb towards the Coleman-Demming Glacier summit. Hooked into our three rope teams, we ascended up the mountain. We coached each other through fear and doubts as we hopped over crevasses and looked down into the depth of the mountain. Pell kept us going with words of encouragement and his general humor. When they had talked about crevasses and had pointed to some on the side of the mountain in the distance from us, I thought that we would be steering clear of them. It was much to my surprise when I found myself staring down into the depth of a crevasse that was right in front of me. I froze, which meant that my rope team was forced to stop because I was the leader. I knew we were going to have to jump over, but I wasn’t sure if I could make it. Then I heard John’s voice from the other side, “Its ok Emily. You just got to give a little hop.”
The views were breathtaking. Looking back we saw the vastness of Mt. Baker stretched below us.
In the end, three members of the class made it to the summit, located at about 10,700 ft., but everyone succeeded in reaching a new limit of their own. The trip demonstrated to us the amazing places that writing could take us and the value in sharing a story like that. I don’t think any of us will forget that trip any time soon.
Emily Church (’17) is an English Writing and Sociology major at Whitworth University from western Washington and dreams of one day traveling the world. She enjoys writing, reading, painting, collecting journals (not writing in them), fall leaves, summer warmth., and adventure.