ONCE THERE WAS a toilet on Mount Baker, Larry said. It was nothing fancy: just a fiberglass box with a hole on top. It was there at 7,000 feet for anyone who reached it. A helicopter had dropped the toilet near the glacier, and every so often a helicopter returned to replace it, flying off into the scenery with a brimming tub of human waste.
But the toilet was gone now, Larry continued. These were austerity times, and the National Park Service could not afford the upkeep. Then Larry disappeared into his tent to finally find the answer to our somewhat pressing question as to what had taken its place.
My five Wilderness Collective companions and I sat on the patch of rock where we would have liked to build a fire except there was no wood at this altitude with which to build it. We had just eaten dinner, and the sun spilled its guts into the darkening sky: The long mountain dusk was nearly extinguished. Larry returned with six plastic pouches. Each pouch contained a ziplock foil bag, which itself contained a large plastic trash bag. Each of us, we learned, would have to carry his bag back down the mountain.
The bags were the subject of much discussion, reminding me of one reason I'd never cared much for camping: You left behind civilization for a few days and found yourself with less privacy than ever. Larry explained that Mount Baker had many visitors, and if everyone made like a bear in the woods, the mountainside would be covered in excrement. This was hard to fathom, but then we had run into a lot of people coming down the trail as we climbed up it. "Are you going to the top?" two paunchy, older men had asked as we passed. "There were 200 people up there today."
"I've seen weiner dogs going up the mountain," I heard another hiker say. I hoped he was talking about some other mountain because Mount Baker was making my legs burn. My main preparation for the trip had been an experiment in facial hair, wherein I quit shaving to see if my boyish cheeks had given up their resistance. They hadn't, and I arrived with the beard of a backwoods teenager, the mustache having come in thick, the rest in patches.
BEFORE FLYING FROM New York to Seattle to meet my hiking companions, I'd also watched a Wilderness Collective video online. Masculinity was "eroding," the narrator said in the film, which was made during one of the Wilderness Collective's other expeditions, a motorcycle ride from Sequoia to Yosemite. Men today were seen as "weak and blundering and misguided and shallow," but the Wilderness Collective could fix that, by giving its clients a way to "reclaim masculinity through adventure." To help our fledgling manhood along, there would also be "craft cocktails and artisan food."
Here were New Men — sensitive, style-conscious, and proudly urban — -revisiting an old manhood that had grown passé. They schlepped into the forest the material comforts, ephemeral fashions, and rampant consumption of the city, the very things their forebears in manly adventure were trying to escape.
I lived in Brooklyn and overspent on clothes and cocktails — and I am okay with that, most of the time. Didn't I find, like Paul Theroux, "the quest for manliness essentially right-wing, puritanical, cowardly, neurotic, and fueled largely by a fear of women"? Yes, absolutely, and this belief did nothing to change the fact that I have wanted and sometimes tried in life to feel more manly.
This might offer a clue as to why thousands of other young men (and women) had watched the Wilderness Collective motorcycle video when it went online last winter. It revealed both the overconfidence — I look great! — and the insecurity — am I manly? — of the contemporary urban man. The Wilderness Collective said it could resolve this tension, but the video also drew new attention to it, including mine. I wrote to Steve Dubbledam. He invited me to join in the Mount Baker trip, a three-day climb up the 11,000-foot glaciated volcano, complete with crampons and ice axes. He said it would be "legendary."
The five men Steve had brought to Mount Baker were cut from the same cloth, even before he handed out matching boots and backpacks — white, college educated, politically liberal, and aged 28 to 35. All but one of us was traveling for a professional reason or through a personal connection. I was writing an article. Noal worked for Danner, the boot company that sponsored the trip. John from Portland had come along to assist Casey, who was the official photographer. Only Jersey John was what you might consider a "pure" customer. He worked at a Manhattan ad agency, practiced mixed martial arts, and drove a Lotus. Thirty-one years old, he had married, divorced, and was father to a 7-year-old boy.
Finally, there were Larry and Matt, the professional mountain men. They met us at the trailhead, where Steve immediately began handing out sponsored gear.
To help with the haul, Matt and Larry had an intern. His name was Jake, and he carried an 80-pound pack of food. Pasta, sausage, pesto, blueberries, cheese, pancake mix, ground beef, refried beans, guacamole, and chocolate cake — it didn't add up to anything as exciting as the slab of meat being blowtorched in the motorcycle video, but our meals were certainly gourmet compared to the suet mountaineers usually digest. "That's always my goal for these trips," Steve said. "The best food humanly possible, given the environment." There was also coffee, which was treated with all the ritual you would expect.
WHAT, THOUGH, ABOUT manliness? That first day, we had hiked through a tall pine forest, then through fields of snow and heather, where sweat bees humped the tiny flowers. We proceeded single file onto a narrow ridge called the railroad grade. Hundreds of feet tall and only a few feet wide, it led us along the edge of the glacial moraine, past the tree line, and to the campsite in the mountain's alpine zone. Masculinity hardly came up at all, aside from something Matt had said as we started out. "With physical exertion there's a lot of mental clarity," he told us. He hoped the trip would be "about letting go of some of the guard we have up as men." ("We will do a naked drum circle," Larry added.)
Between them, Casey and Portland John carried several cameras. The pace of our hike that morning was largely determined by their documentation, as Larry led Casey, Steve, and Portland John ahead to set up shots of the rest of us coming up the trail. We were not simply men climbing a mountain to learn something about manliness. We were men playing parts in a multimedia project about men climbing a mountain to learn something about manliness.
THERE WAS STILL a mountain to climb, and I was genuinely excited. We had gone to bed at 7:30 and rose at 1 a.m. so we could set out when the snow was firmest. We unpeeled our sleeping bags as the wind cracked against our tents. It was somehow 2:30 by the time we all dressed, ate, and roped in. I was the anchor on a rope team led by Matt, with Casey and John from Portland in between us. Larry's team set off first, and we followed. Each hiker wore a headlamp, and we ran like a string of Christmas lights up the mountain.
Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. If Mount Baker had anything to teach us about being men, this was a good place to start. Portland John observed this the previous day, as we trained. "I'm paying attention to all the things I don't pay attention to at home," he told the camera. "Putting one foot in front of another."
Left foot, right foot. I started to sing the words to myself with each step. Growing confident, I accented their rhythm with my ice ax and trekking pole: ice ax, left foot, walking pole, right foot. As long as I sustained the rhythm, I was succeeding. An interruption meant that I had misstepped or maybe slipped.
Or that Casey was taking a photo. At 4:30, the sun began to rise, making visible the scenery through which we slogged. Don't get me wrong: It was spectacular. Mountain ranges hemmed the horizon; and blue ice peeked through the snow, as though the glacier were keeping an eye on us. But as the day brightened, the scenery became an outright nuisance. We had planned to stop every hour to rehydrate and replenish, but Casey asked us to stop every 20 or 30 minutes so he could take photos.
We had been climbing for hours, and the summit hardly seemed any closer. The glacier hid its size in flats and folds. Because of the foreshortening effect, each step forward seemed to place us further from the top. Hikers who had passed us in the darkness were now fleas on the summit's scalp. And every scenic pass slowed us even further as we waited for Casey to photograph it.
I was cranky, in part, because my right hip and left ankle both ached. I was used to expending my energy in 60-minute bursts at the gym. But here I meted it out over hours, one step at a time. As my impatience grew, it became more difficult to concentrate on my footsteps. Still, there was nothing to do but keep walking. Around 7 a.m., the air sharpened with a sulfurous stench. The stink was so pure that it was almost refreshing. It meant we were near the crater.
But the crater was not, as I had imagined, the summit. It was at 9,800 feet — still another 1,000 feet to go. We rested on its lip in the crumbling, yellow dirt. A plume of steam rose behind us. It was 7:30 a.m. — the time at which we had hoped to reach the summit.
We fastened our ropes and set off at a 45-degree angle across the face of the final slope. When we reached the far edge, we switched back. It was only a few hundred more feet, but it took us ages to traverse it. Then we walked across a long flat and up a small slope to the summit: 10,781 feet.
It was 9:20. We exchanged the comprehensive gesture of manly congratulations: a hand slap into a handshake into a chest bump into a hug.
I had my notebook, but the pages from the summit are barren. The first day, at the campsite, Portland John asked me, "What's your hook?" Then he suggested one in jest: "As I gripped the rock, I looked back on the steps that led me here."
Prior to the trip, I had actually imagined words along those lines. But now that I had reached the summit, I had no energy for reflection. It was not a vantage point on life (or on manhood). It was something better: a place to rest my legs.