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Kid mountain climbers

By on July 26, 2021 in Outdoor Fun with 0 Comments
Bennett Werdell, age 9, leaves Camp Muir on a climb of Mount Rainier en route to Ingraham Flats. Photo by Josh Swift

By Marlene Farrell

Big adventures for siblings Bennett and Lochlan Werdell of Leavenworth began with stories.

“My dad would tell us stories about all of his climbs. Then he started taking us on hikes,” said Bennett.

In 2017, when they were only seven and almost six, respectively, dad Joel and the kids were hanging out at Seward Park, near their then home in Seattle. Across the water stood Mount Baker, prominent and white with glaciers.

“I’d love to take you to the top of Mount Baker someday,” Joel told them. “There are just a few things you would need to prove before that could happen. You must be able to make it to the top of Mailbox Peak and Mount Si, backpack overnight to an alpine lake and be able to use an ice axe and crampons on snow and ice.”

Without hesitation, Lochlan asked, “Dad, can we hike Mount Si this weekend?”

A shared dream hatched plans, first to climb Baker, then to climb Rainier, then to climb all the Pacific Northwest volcanoes.

Bennett and Lochlan might not have fully understood the work involved to reach such lofty goals, but they made up for it in exuberance. Joel said, “Their sense of adventure and determination can resemble a thirst for water on a hot day.”

That first year, they met Dad’s prerequisites, learning how to use an ice axe for climbing and self-arrest (if necessary), how to be on a rope team, how to pace the long ascents and navigate moraines and crevasses.

There’s descending too. “The adrenaline-inducing race of a glissade while using only the finest equipment (one’s booty) can outshine all other memories,” said Joel, remembering the first time the kids glissaded, on Mount Daniel for training. “The snow flew in every direction, and it filled our shirts and pants to overflowing, but the smiles beamed.”

They’ve also descended on skis, often surprising and impressing adult skiers nearby.

Because of their small stature, Joel had to piece together equipment, giving them large ice tools instead of ice axes, cranking crampons down to the smallest settings, having them wear slightly spacious boots to fit the crampons and using glasses straps to hold the glacier goggles on their faces.

Joel scrutinizes the weather, checking multiple weather reports and having the flexibility to go when conditions are near perfect. The packs are often prepacked, ready and waiting.

Even so, he admits, “With kids, you have to be mentally ready to turn around. The likelihood of making it to the summit is going to be lower.”

With all the precautions in place, and guided by Joel and other knowledgeable dads, Bennett and Lochlan summited Baker without a hitch. Lochlan’s complaint? “There were too many people in our group, so we went super slow.”

They were ready for more.

It’s easy to imagine kids complaining of boredom or exhaustion when hiking uphill for hours and then repeating it the next day, or through the night.

Bennett and Lochlan admit they don’t always make the summit, and there are moments of “break down.” But they’re just that, moments, and then they get up and keep going.

To pass the time, Bennett said, “I’m a talker. I’ll talk for a long time and it takes my mind off things. And I like to sing.”

Lochlan said their “stuffies” make good trail companions, including Simon, a golden retriever, Deborah, a lamb with a theme song, and Cappy, the sloth who has stood atop all the volcanoes with them. Gummy bears also motivate Lochlan and Bennett at the end of a long day.

Their biggest challenge has been sunburn, which can happen even with scrupulous sunscreen application. The lower half of Lochlan’s face got burned once to the point of causing blisters. “He looked like a troll,” said his sister.

Bennett hangs out at Ingraham Flats the night before summit day. Photo by Josh Swift

Rainier Ready

In July 2019, they set their sights on Rainier.

The trio, along with some other climbing friends, had already checked off Baker and El Dorado in the prior two summers.

“The age limit to climb Mount Rainier, at 14,411 feet, requires parent approval under 18 and a strong climbing resume for those under 14,” explained Joel.

“There was still some doubt in my mind whether we could really make it, but the kids were prepared mentally and physically, and that would be the driving force over the next three days. The good-spirited rangers were enthralled with these little ones and their stories of mountains past.”

They worked their way up the mountain over two days, arriving at Ingraham Flats at 11,000 feet, where they met up with the rest of their group and slept for a couple hours before beginning the summit pitch. “The kids were more than ready to start at 11 p.m.,” said Joel. “Bennett and Lochlan (now nine and eight) cruised effortlessly up into the frozen night sky, attacked the cleaver of rock and snow and navigated huge crevasses and ice fall zones. All until about 13,500 feet.”

When Bennett had a low moment, Lochlan said, “I encouraged her.” They resumed.

It happened again, this time Lochlan laying down in a heap with almost zero vertical left to go. “Dad started coiling the rope,” said Bennett. “Lochlan seemed glad. But I grabbed the rope and refused to quit.”

Joel remembered saying they could go down, giving them an out, but letting them know if they dug a little deeper, they’d make it.

“The kids seemingly ignored me but started talking to each other. I could tell by their body language they were finding a whole new resolve to get past their perceived limits.”

Then it was Joel’s turn for emotion. “A few hundred feet from the summit, the tears started to come! I sobbed, laughed, smiled, and sobbed till it hurt. We were going to make it, and the joy welling up was the most intense feeling of my life.”

The Werdells and the rest of their climbing party celebrated the summit, briefly but joyously, with photos, signing the logbook to officially mark the youngest siblings — at ages 9 and 8 —  to climb Rainier, and taking in the surreality of the world dropping away in all directions.

Joel, Bennett, and Lochlan coming down from the summit of Mount Rainier via Disappointment Clever with Ingraham Flats in the distance.

It was windy and cloudy, so they didn’t linger. As they began the descent, the kids’ thoughts turned to Mom and the adventure story waiting to be told.

Their efforts are extraordinary, their passion unusual, but Bennett and Lochlan are human and happily shared a few less enjoyable aspects of climbing trips.

Both recalled thick swarms of mosquitoes on the lower flanks of Mount Daniel. “They were attacking us everywhere, even our eye lashes,” said Bennett.

Lochlan remembered one trip in which he slipped and fell on snow, causing a friend, attached to him by rope, to fall too, precariously close to a crevasse. “She was scared and mad at me after that,” he said.

El Dorado required them to push hard. At one point, they had to travel through a miles-long boulder field when they were out of water.

Highlights include the rocky summit of Baker. “We could hang out for a while in the sun,” said Bennett. And for Lochlan it was the top of Glacier Peak, completed in 2020.

What does Mom think about all of this? “She worries, but does it in a good way, saying to be careful and come back home,” said Bennett.

“When they started their more intense climbs and crossing glaciers, I was very nervous,” said mom Amanda. “They were so tiny and tackling something that most adults won’t do. It slowly got easier as I would see their faces light up when they got home. They would beam with accomplishment on what they had just done. 

“I also credit Joel with exposing them to all these adventures. I’m at best a beginner mountaineer, so to have him build this confidence and courage into our kids is a beautiful thing.”

They also have a younger brother, Huckson, who’s been to base camp of most of the peaks they’ve climbed. When asked what it would take for Huckson to be atop Rainier, veteran climber Lochlan said, “He’d need a lot of training.”

Joel recommends that other parents not be afraid to think big.

“Invite your kids into working towards something neither of you thinks is possible and break it down into small milestones of success. Don’t make excuses for them on why they can’t do something; make accommodations for them so they can. Be their biggest fan and adventure companion.”

It works for the Werdells.

Together, they’re stronger and will keep aiming high. Summiting Mount Hood in Oregon is next on their list.

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