At a young age I discovered one of God's greatest gifts, the surreal beauty of the mountains. It happened on Mt. Pilchuck, a mystical pull that started in the summer of 1990 and captured me for nearly a decade.
The Washington Cascades is diversely abundant in beautiful scenery, and savage artistry of a Creator with some tricks up His sleeve. Driving along I-5 in Snohomish County you can feel as if you've been surrounded by guardians of a different realm. To the south, Mount Rainier, the largest of the sentinels, stands majestic and square shouldered. Mt. Baker rises mysteriously above the northern clouds. And on either side you can see the endless ridges of the Olympic Mountains and the north-central Cascades. Surely, God has placed around you a crown of snow capped peaks.
In the middle of the crest rising to the east, stands Mt. Pilchuck. Barren in the summer and snow bound in winter, it stands nobly above the Snohomish River valley. Growing up on 80th St. in Marysville, all I had to do was look to the east in between the trees that lined both sides of the road to glimpse Pilchuck's rugged peak pointing toward heaven.
The mountain was my high school's namesake, but long before the words college prep and grade point average meant anything to me, Mt. Pilchuck was my introduction into God's playground.
In the summer of 1990, my Sunday school teacher took our class for a hike in the woods. We piled into Suburbans and minivans early on a Saturday morning for the drive up through Granite Falls and Verlot to Forest Service Road 42. FSR 42 is a steep, windy, pot-holed road. To a bunch of fifth and sixth graders it is an exciting drive. The road ends at a sizeable parking area near the trailhead; at eleven years old the gravel lot seemed massive.
Don, our teacher and the leader of this youthful expedition, got out of his truck and pointed uphill to the top of the rocky ridge and said, "That's where we're going kids."
I stood in awe. My family had driven though the mountains several times but had never risen further than pass elevations. Now around me was the most inspiring and beautiful vistas I had ever seen. The air was crisper and cleaner, our hearts were bursting with excitement. Our destination, 2200 feet higher, was close enough to touch. Three Fingers, the mountain rising from the opposite valley, was a part of the standard panorama at sea level and a view I'd grown accustomed to; now it appeared more real than ever before.
William Blake once said, "Great things are done when men and mountains meet." That Saturday, I proved his thought was true. I was doing a great thing: climbing a mountain. This journey began a profound change in my character.
The trail begins as a leisurely walk through old growth forest, dips across a stream and then begins a steady and exhausting climb upwards. For three miles, we followed switchbacks, swatted mosquitoes, marveled at scenic viewpoints, and stripped away layers as the day grew warmer.
Half way up the hike, the trail blazes through a basin once used as a ski area. The basin is a fascinating venture, filled with boulders to climb, snow pack that hasn't yet melted, fresh spring water to cool off with, and the remains of the abandoned ski lifts.
For our group it was a good resting place, but for me, it was a place to explorer. It caught my imagination, and continued to do so as I returned in years to come. Here, the fire lookout on top of the mountain first becomes visible to the naked eye. Here, boulders the size of busses demand to be conquered. Here begins the final ascent to the top.
Near the peak the path becomes rockier until the final stretch where you find yourself jumping from boulder to boulder and climb a ladder into the lookout situated at 5340 feet.
Built by the forest service and maintained by mountaineers, the lookout on Mt. Pilchuck is an entertaining and educational resource. We signed the guestbook inside. We read the displays that points to and names the surrounding peaks, describes the local flora and fauna, and details the construction of the building in which we stand.
We ate our lunches in and around the lookout. I don't remember what I had to eat that day, but I do remember the thrill and excitement. For the first time I experienced the emotions felt by Sir Edmund Hillary, John Muir, Jim Whitaker, and William O. Douglas, names at the time that I didn't know but would learn about in years to come. They defined wilderness exploration and gave privilege to those that would dare to follow in their footsteps.
On the eastern side I stood on a precipice above a near 300 foot drop. To the west, I overlooked the world I knew. Marysville (my home town) and its neighboring communities spread out below me in an intricately woven tapestry. For the first time I realized how small we really were, and in what a great big world we lived in. My eyes opened to a new realm of possibilities. I was seeing new sights and feeling new emotions.
While most of the kids in our group went back to a normal summer, nothing was ever normal for me. I followed Don back into the mountains; he became my mentor as we hiked to Lake 22, Cutthroat Ridge, Mt.Si, Sauk Mountain, and Church Mountain.
Through the years Don and I became friends and hiking partners as we sought out trails from Mt. Baker to Mount Rainier and areas in between. We got rained on, got lost together, chased mountain goats and marmots, and shared many laughs. During our excursions we talked about life and God. Slowly, I discovered myself. I grew up in those mountains and became an adult.
Sadly, I was unable to share those joys with my father. He got to see the pictures, and showed the photos to his co-workers and clients. But, a 3500 foot elevation gain in an eight mile round trip was not a possibility for him.
In February of 1991 my dad fell backwards off of a ladder from 17 feet in the air. He landed flat on concrete, bouncing back into the air, and subsequently caught in the hands of an off duty EMT. The resulting injuries would forever alter his life and the lives of those of us close to him. Complications followed and still plague him, but he's alive and he can walk. I never asked for anything more.
The result was more than a bad back or a bad neck. It made simple things, like holding a gallon of milk, difficult. Before the accident, he was strong and active; it was not unusual for him to be playing catch or basketball with my brother and me. My older brother's passion was athletics. Since Dad played baseball in high school, that was a passion they got to share. My passion was hiking and climbing, an obsession my dad would have loved to share if he had not suffered his catastrophic injuries in ‘91.
He endured multiple surgeries (some with undesirable side effects), lost range of motion and mobility in his neck and shoulders, and beared constant daily headaches. But, the most tragic result of his fall was a restriction from activities that I enjoyed most. He wasn't allowed to forge mountain streams or swim in lakes created from glacial melt.
One Christmas, my brother and I took one of Dad's favorite pictures of me and enlarged it to poster size, a picture he still has mounted in his office. It's a picture of me standing on top of a ledge after a 30 foot vertical climb on the south side of Mount Rainier. It's a beautiful picture of a sunny day that represents the excitement that the wilderness offers, especially to my father who lived vicariously through the pictures I brought home with me.
Someone once asked him if he was worried I would get hurt or injured while climbing. With a proud smile that only a father could understand, Dad said he never worried, but wished he was there with me.
From a hospital bed after slipping on a wet floor, Dad turned his wishes into a promise and told me that one day, he would climb Mt. Pilchuck with me.
I've hiked the trail up Pilchuck many times, in rain and fog, in late spring when snow still covered much of the trail, and on crystal clear days coming home with sun burnt shoulders. Don and I have returned with guests from the Midwest, who have never seen a mountain let alone stand on top of one. I've watched, from relative safety, as a thunderstorm passed in storm clouds below Pilchuck’s lookout. And one time, I led my dad up that steep trail.
Good things happen when men and mountain meet. Good things happen when father and son trek together. Good things happen promises are kept.
It wasn't just a special time for me, but it was for my father as well. I could say more, but that really is his story.