Now, finally done with the picture of the boot, I refocus past the brilliant white snowflakes, blazing repetitive flashes in the light of my headlamp, to see a huddle of climbers in a place that dampens light and sound and feeling.
This is a strange, monochromatic, expansive place above Pan— people walk through it to get to Muir or beyond. It feels vaguely ominous, not technical or towering, but flat and black and, with the snow falling like brush strokes, roughly impressionistic. The sheer volume of the cold so easily leaves those who come here obtunded, forced to sleep, too numb to get away. This is where my friends are tonight, huddled together in a space as large as a bivy bag behind a rock, working to offset that effect. They are a noisy, mismatched, ridiculous bunch of craftsmen with complementary skills who are not being paid to do this job. The more I think about it, the more I think this is the only way to escape the numbness, by shocking it with our crazy mix of personalities and backgrounds and pants colors.
I brought with me several people in brightly colored pants, plus Bob. Bob retired too early from a career, first in the Marine Corps and then in a few other branches of the service. He does not condone hot pink pants. He has retained the cropped haircut, and lists his hobbies as climbing and golf, both of which he does with great proficiency. On several occasions, while getting food after rescues, he has bought the whole table dinner, telling the waitstaff that we’re his children.
Now, Bob is trying to get the injured hiker, who is also an E.R. doctor, to sit on his sleeping pad for insulation. Bob just took an EMT class and he wants to work the lingo, and he’s yelling above everyone else, over and over, “Get the pad under your ischium!” “No, higher, under your ischium!” “Just sit on it so it’s under your ischium!”
The flight nurse finally turns to Bob, waving his blue nitrile gloved fist in the air. “Say ischium one more time and you’ll get my metacarpals in your mandible!”
I can’t see Bob’s face, but I know his eyes slant behind his custom safety sport bifocals, and then they all dive back behind the boulder, and I just smile in the dark, watching them.
Mount Rainier is beautiful at night, looking down the end of the big trees, low on the mountain and early in the winter, heather totally encased in ice mushrooms. I love the clear ice. I love the way the palms of my gloves and the knees of my pants stick to it. I love when it is cold enough that the snow blasting at my jacket doesn’t leave damp spots. The dryness is such a blessing.
This rescue is so much more straightforward than anything I’ve done in ages. It feels fun to have an easy plan and a strong crew, with no real suffering on our part. I wish I’d brought glow sticks just so I could see the line of anchors below me like lights on a ice runway, smooth and mellow and perfect—except for the rocks, which I know are there—but still it looks perfect from where I stand, looking at the slope dipping down Pan and out to Paradise. I can see my crew below me in the dark, ready to start lowering the man, bickering about who gets shotgun on the way home. They’re all crazy to argue, because it’s me. Actually… now that I think about it, it probably isn’t. Paul hates driving at night and I’ve always been a good anchor-leg driver. But anyway, really, this is good service. Who gets their leg splinted in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, for free by half an E.R.’s worth of folks who enjoy working together this much? I sense my friend Myers from Olympic smiling in the dark to my right for exactly the same reason I am. Sometimes volunteers can be iffy. It’s tough to know who you’re getting. But sometimes volunteers can be awesome, and tonight I know we’re awesome.