Top of the World
The giant boulder resting at the edge of an alpine lake was one of the most unusual places I’ve ever spent the night.
My roommate and a few close friends from SPU had hiked up a leg-burning trail in the heart of the Cascade Mountains to a pristine campground where we had discovered the flat granite slab, just wide enough to sleep four people. It also served as an excellent place to leap into the freezing lake on an early morning polar bear swim.
Surrounding us, a natural amphitheater of sheer cliff and mountaintop turned the smallest noises into booming echoes — especially our shrieks when we plunged into the crystal clear water.
Some of my fondest memories from SPU were the times I cut my teeth on Northwest trails with my fellow students. One memorable night found us hiking popular Mount Si in the middle of the night under the glow of headlamps. Other weekends found us sleeping on remote ocean beaches after scrambling over muddy headlands using rope and cable ladders.
All of those trips set the groundwork for a love of the outdoors, and they taught me about what theologian and alumna Mary Plate DeJong ’99 calls biophany — the sounds and songs of the natural world. These melodies of creation catch us off guard, telling a different narrative of the groaning planet that we’ve plundered and filled with mechanical noises. She says, “The sounds within nature remind us that the earth — and all of the cosmos — is singing, and we are meant to be participants in that choir.”
I’m not alone in my love of hiking. According to the most recent survey for the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office, 61 percent of residents hike each year, making it one of the most popular activities in the state.
A Seattle Pacific student is well positioned to discover these kinds of songs, with two mountain ranges, huge tracts of virgin rainforest, waterways speckled with emerald islands, deserts, glaciers, and the Pacific Ocean all within a few hours of campus.
For many in the SPU community, time in the natural world is an essential routine. Here’s a glimpse of where some SPU hikers go and what they find when they get there.
Restored to peace
Luke Reinsma, professor emeritus of English, is a hiking legend around SPU. When he was teaching full time, he regularly invited his students to join him on hiking trips to nearby peaks like Mount Dickerman and Granite Mountain, often leaving campus at 6 a.m. and returning in time for afternoon classes.
During the past decade, Reinsma backpacked the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. He split the iconic trail into roughly 500-mile chunks, tackling Washington and Oregon in one summer each, and hiking California over three summers.
“I find on the top of the mountain in the middle of nowhere a reminder of how small I am and how big and beautiful the world is. My analogy for hiking is that it mentally and physically restores the keel to a tossing vessel. I find myself at peace,” he says.
Reinsma found that embarking on long backpacking trips has given him lifelong friends and skills he couldn’t easily teach (or learn) in the classroom — skills including physical strength, self-confidence, peace, and perspective.
“We live in pretty isolated and insular worlds, and it’s good to see how big the world is,” he says. “The western United States isn’t exactly the world, but it’s a pretty big and beautiful chunk of it.”
For SPU senior and exercise science major Madelynn Scherrer, the mountaintop is less about the summit, and more about the connections you make with those around you.
As a volunteer instructor for the nonprofit Cascade Leadership Challenge, she helps teach leadership skills to teens while mountain climbing. While at SPU she’s helped lead expeditions to classic Northwest volcanoes: Mount Rainier, Mount Saint Helens, Mount Hood, Mount Adams, and Mount Baker.
This winter she is going to attempt Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in South America, where she’ll be working on her senior project searching for correlations between physical factors like blood pressure and how they impact psychological factors like self- doubt during mountaineering.
She remembers one young climber on Mount Rainier who had an altitude headache and thought she couldn’t finish the climb. The teen worried she was holding her team back. Scherrer sat with her in the snow and talked with her, helping the teen find resilience to defeat her fears and push for the summit. The two are friends still.
“When you’re in this beautiful place that’s also very challenging and then you’re able to connect deeply with somebody, I see God in those moments,” she says. “It’s a really amazing place to connect with other people.”
Eric Hanson, professor emeritus of music, is about to reach a major life milestone. For years he’s joined small groups of SPU faculty to summit Northwest mountain peaks. He’s reached 99, just one shy of his goal.
At first, 100 summits wasn’t even a thought. He was simply checking off interesting ascents in a guidebook. Many were steep, strenuous hikes, some were rock climbs, and a few, including Mount Rainier, involved traversing glaciers.
But as he’s gotten older, he’s noticed he’s less enamored with bagging the summit and more interested in what happens during the journey.
“Rock climbing really has a clarifying action,” he says. “When you’re dangling from a vertical face, all of a sudden what’s important in life comes into sharp focus.”
He remembers a climb on the south face of The Tooth near Snoqualmie Pass where he found himself slightly off route and stranded on a ledge just 2 inches wide. He had to make a literal leap of faith, jumping from the ledge to a handhold he couldn’t see, but trusted would be there.
During times of intense focus the trivial daily concerns melt away, but the things in life that truly matter bubble to the surface. Hanson has discovered that thoughts of his family and faith and how much they mean to him are those that become the most salient.
“I’ve never been very good at mindfulness, but in that situation you need to be mindful and in that moment,” he says. “When I’m doing the activity it’s intense concentration — putting your foot here, putting your hand here.”
Close to God
The most common definition involves summiting the highest points in all 50 U.S. states. In eastern states, that usually means a walk to the top of a hill, ridge or butte. In western states, it usually requires ropes, crampons, and ice axes.
He started highpointing five years ago. To date, Oppenlander has stood atop 39 state summits, checking off many of the easier peaks while working his way up to mountaineering. Of those that remain, three peaks in the Midwest will be easy, but most western summits will require that he learn new skills.
He’ll have to get rope and ice axe training to tackle climbs on Mount Hood in Oregon, Mount Rainier in Washington, Gannett Peak in Wyoming, and Granite Peak in Montana. The highest point in North America, and the most intimidating, is Denali in Alaska. It requires significant technical skills in a remote location with unpredictable weather.
“I’ll keep chipping away at the list,” he says. “Maybe in a few years and with a few more mountains behind me, I will be ready to try it.”
On a recent trip up Nevada’s Boundary Peak, he boulder-hopped and slid down scree slopes on a nearly deserted trail. Those experiences make hiking a spiritual experience for Oppenlander, who appreciates the quiet space to listen and be close to God.
“When I go up on a mountain, especially one of the more isolated peaks, there is that sense that you can just listen,” he says. “It gets really quiet. You get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and start to breathe deep and go, ‘OK, I can hear now.’”
Chelan County resident Jeff Layton ’96 is a freelance travel and outdoors writer. He frequently writes for The Seattle Times, Journey magazine, and Alaska Beyond magazine.