I’m a Mountaineer!

If you were turning ten, how would you celebrate your birthday? By climbing a mountain, of course!
Cara Cutler Cara Cutler
Mountaineers Super Volunteer
March 28, 2017
by Cara Cutler, Mountaineers Crag Climb and Qualified Youth Leader

During Junior Mountaineers Summer Camp in 2014, nine-year-old Sydney Swenson confidently announced to then Youth Programs Manager Caitlin O’Brien that she was planning to climb The Tooth in celebration of her tenth birthday. In January 2015, Sydney’s dad Matt Swenson sent an email to some of his friends in The Mountaineers climbing community asking if anyone was interested in joining him and Sydney on the celebratory Tooth climb.

I know Sydney and Matt from volunteering with the Mountaineers Explorers Youth Program, which Sydney, Matt and Joni (Matt’s wife and Sydney’s mom) are very active in. When I saw the email, I jumped at the chance to join in the climb, as did Caitlin. We selected a date for the climb in the summer of 2015, deciding that while Sydney would turn ten in February, a climb around the time of her half-birthday would be a better choice. 

With the objective stated and a date on the calendar, Matt and Sydney began to train — hard. They hiked up local steep trails, including old Mailbox Peak and Muir Snowfield. They went top roping at the climbing gym and at local crags. They had big days. When I saw Sydney at Explorers outings in the months ahead, her eyes would glisten with determination and excitement when she talked about training with her dad for her big day.

On Thursday, August 6, Sydney and Matt parked at the trailhead for the Tooth and hiked to a clearing beyond the talus en route to the Tooth, just below Pineapple Pass, camping gear in tow. They had a father-daughter evening of stargazing and fell asleep full of anticipation for the following day. 

On Friday, August 7, like many Mountaineers before us, Caitlin and I met early in the morning at the 65th Street Park and Ride to carpool to the trailhead for the Tooth. At 6am we arrived at the trailhead and saw fellow a group of Mountaineers climbers, led by John Bell. They were racked up and headed towards the same peak. We exchanged pleasantries, and Caitlin and I began our hike to Sydney and Matt’s camp. When we arrived at camp, Sydney and Matt were packing up camp and getting ready for the climb. Final preparations and organization of gear and people took us some time. Our fellow Mountaineers passed us as we headed towards the base of the route. 

Team Sydney made its way up scree and talus to the base of Pineapple Pass. We scrambled up the pass, traversed along the backside of the Tooth and then arrived at the base of the climb. The other Mountaineers were climbing very efficiently, and two out of three rope teams had begun climbing by the time we made it to the base of the route. We sat at the base of the climb and talked about our plan of attack — Matt would climb first. Caitlin would belay Matt. Sydney would follow Matt, who would belay her from above. Sydney would not clean the gear — she would just unclip it. I would climb close behind Sydney on a separate rope and clip the gear Matt placed. Caitlin would clean the gear. This way, Sydney would not have to worry about using a nut tool or properly engaging cams to loosen them from cracks, and two people would always be pretty close to Sydney — a little above her at the belay and just below her climbing. It was a good plan.

Then, the climbing began. Matt climbed the first pitch and set up a belay from above. Sydney began climbing. I began climbing just beneath her. About twenty feet up, Sydney shouted down to me, “Cara - I’m scared. I don’t see the move. Give me the beta, Cara.” We talked about the possibility of a high step. Sydney executed it flawlessly and for the rest of the pitch I could barely keep up with her as she floated up the wall. We climbed another pitch. Then, we unroped and scrambled to the base of the final pitch. The climbing was fun and it was sad to see that it was ending. For the last pitch, Matt gave Sydney two options — the straight-forward way or a variation — Sydney voted for straight-forward. Within minutes, the four of us were at the top of the route. Sydney had just arrived at her first alpine rock summit. 

At the top of the climb, we were reunited with the party of six Mountaineers climbers. John Bell asked us if we would like some cake. He explained that his party had actually brought two full cakes to the top of the route — a cake to celebrate John’s birthday (which we learned was actually that day) and a cake to celebrate the graduation climbs of the three Basic students in the party. Then Caitlin pulled out two red velvet cupcakes and candles which she had brought to celebrate Sydney’s birthday (the half birthday of which we were closer to in actual date). Caitlin lit the candles, we sang happy birthday and Sydney blew them out. Then the ten of us basked in the sun on the top of the Tooth being silly — taking lots of funny-faced photos, giggling and eating up sugary desserts. 

Michelle turned to Sydney and asked, “Are you going to become a Mountaineer when you are older?” I thought to myself, “I wonder if Michelle meant Mountaineer or mountaineer...” Sydney quickly responded, interrupting my thoughts with, “I am a Mountaineer! And I’m in Explorers.” Then I realized that whether Michelle meant big M Mountaineer — as in a member of The Mountaineers organization — or little m mountaineer, this experience had created a Mountaineer for life in Sydney. 

Then I looked around the group — our collective Mountaineers group on the top of the Tooth spanned over a huge age range and experience level. Besides ten year old Sydney, John Bell was celebrating his birthday. John has been a member of the Mountaineers since at least 1991 and was faster in movement and systems than anyone else on top of the Tooth that day. Then there were those in their 20s, 30s and 40s - some new to climbing and some seasoned - all coming together to collectively achieve this high point of sugary treats and gentle sun. The summit was special in and of itself, Sydney achieving her goal was commendable, but the best part of the day was the community - and seeing Sydney experience her part in the community as an emerging member and future leader. Like Sydney, all of us could answer, “I am a Mountaineer” with pride. 

We then collectively rapped that route as a group of ten, pooling ropes. Caitlin and Matt carefully set up and checked each of Sydney’s rappel set ups. With each rap, Sydney exclaimed, “Geronimo!!!” full of smiles.

Safely back on the ground, we began our scramble and long hike out — definitely the hardest part for a ten-year-old, and maybe for all of us. As we left the trailhead for our cars, Matt declared the day a success, but noted with mild concern that Sydney may believe that there are cakes at the summit of every climb. I’m okay with that, and think maybe there should be. Climb on!

This article originally appeared in our November/December 2015 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.

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Sherrie Trecker
Sherrie Trecker says:
Thu, Mar 30, 2017 8:33 PM

Best day ever!!! That was my last mentored lead before becoming a climb leader. :-) Sydney was such an inspiration to me that day.