July 3, 2008 · Updated 1:29 PM
"I recently read Bruce Barcotts The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier. It awakened mountain memories of my own.When I was 16 years old I joined a team of 10 people that set out to climb Mount Rainier. It was August of 1980. Three months previously Mount St. Helens had blown its stack, reminding all Pacific Northwest residents just how puny they actually are in this land of volcanoes and earthquakes.The cloud cover cleared on the afternoon of our ascent of Mount Rainier, revealing a smoldering, cratered Mount St. Helens to the south. The glaciers on Rainier were dusted black from St. Helens ash. Stories of where I was during the eruption were still swapped daily that summer. The best I heard was from a geologist couple, my sisters friends. For their anniversary they rented an airplane to see steaming Mount St. Helens. They were airborne during the eruption, and actually took some of the photographs that ended up on national magazine covers.A close second was the tale told by a mountain climbing friend of my brothers, who was 10,000 feet up Mount Rainier when St. Helens blew. The eruption was so violent, the 90 miles separating the two mountains suddenly so minimal, that he and his fellow climbers literally ran for their lives down to Paradise, where they hopped in their cars and got the heck back to sea level.Many people associate a gung-ho attitude for life with mountain climbers. If anyone understands that human existence is brief and you need to make it count, its these ice ax-carrying daredevils, right? That wasnt the motivation for my own climb of Rainier. I was only 16. I had little conception of the fleeting nature of life. It just seemed like a cool thing to do.We climbed to Ingraham Glacier at the 11,000 foot mark on our first day and set up camp. After waiting out a day of nasty weather, we awoke at 2 a.m., put on our crampons, roped up in two teams and started what we hoped would be a four-hour push to the top of the 14,410 foot peak.We didnt make it. One member of our rope team failed to properly lace up his crampons, the spikes that give your boots traction on dangerous ice, and he lost one completely. With one of our team members in danger, we could not go on. We all turned back at around 12,000 feet.A year later, in about the same spot, a chunk of Ingraham Glacier broke loose and sparked an avalanche. Eleven climbers were killed in what still stands as the deadliest accident in American climbing history.I realized that one of those 11 people could have been me. In Measure of a Mountain Barcott writes about current research into the biggest danger Mount Rainier represents to the population centers of the Puget Sound region not an eruption, but an earthquake-triggered mud flow.Around five centuries ago a massive slope of the mountain broke loose and flowed from the side of Rainier all the way to present-day Tacoma. The town of Orting, in fact, is built on this mud. Theres evidence that these events happen every 500 years. Were due.Its probably not worth worrying about such things. A Rainier mud flow isnt likely to reach Whidbey Island. Maybe Mount Baker will get us, maybe an earthquake. Maybe none of this will happen in our lifetimes. Who knows?Theres no predicting when our number is up only that it will be up someday. In the meantime, ice ax in hand, all we can do is keep climbing. "