For more background on this, read about my plan. I wrote that in February to explain my upcoming (at the time) trip to Mount Rainier. I completed that trip in July and began writing this in September. It took me a while to process everything, decide that I really did have something to say about it, and just sort of want to sit down and write about it.
In short, I did a six day skills seminar on Mount Rainier to learn mountaineering stuff. It’s a prerequisite course for being able to climb Denali in Alaska with the guide service that I used. It’s also some pretty cool knowledge to have if you do hiking and anything in the backcountry. There were eight of us climbers to go along with three guides. The story is long, but should provide some good information for anyone who is thinking about doing this. I also hope that it’s a fun read.
- The guides—Eric Frank, Chase Nelson, and Katrina Bloemsma from Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI)
- David and Hailey—a recently married couple from New York (by way of Philadelphia and England, respectively) who needed this climb as their prerequisite for a Mexican Volcano climb that was to be part one of their honeymoon (part two was on the beach)
- Jessica—a recent midwest to Seattle transplant who had made the trek to Camp Muir a few times in preparation
- Cameron—a recent high school graduate who wanted to make documentaries and had traveled the world already to do some climbing and documenting via his dad’s job as a commercial airline pilot
- Rene, Victor, and Amir—engineers working in Silicon Valley who met while doing a PhD program at Stanford and all had the same goal as me in the end—to climb Denali
I got up early to leave Longview, Washington, where I had stayed the night at Christy’s aunt’s house, to make the 90 minute drive to Ashford. I was supposed to check in at 8:00, so naturally I was ready to go and out the door by about 5:30 It was a bit overcast that day, so there were no views of the mountain on the drive. As I entered the Ashford Valley, I realized that there was no cell service. That wouldn’t change, even in the town itself.
I rolled into Ashford at a little after 7:00 and checked in at the office. Then, I waited for the rest of the team and the guides to arrive to begin the day’s activities. Guides Eric and Chase came out and introduced themselves. We’d be acquiring Katrina the next day when we left for the mountain.
The day mostly consisted of some skills training and equipment checks. We went over all of our gear first. I brought just about everything I owned with the intention of leaving behind the stuff that wasn’t necessary on the advice of the guides. I was even surprised a couple of times with what they suggested. I had brought some convertible pants in order to use the shorts on the approach with the intention of switching to some heavier (not by much) pants for the rest of the week on the snow. They told me to leave the heavier ones behind an go with the lighter pants the whole way. Additionally, my layering was blown up because of the relative heat. I would spend the entire week wearing just one light hiking shirt instead of a base layer and light fleece that I had intended. I left the base layers behind entirely and only put the light fleece on for summit day when we would be climbing in the cold and dark.
After checking gear, we worked on knot tying a bit. The guides would handle the heavy duty stuff like the main rope, but we had to know how to tie a few things to work on crevasse rescue and fixed line travel later on. It’s also a good idea to have some knowledge in the knots you’ll need for later. This was, after all, a skills seminar that was meant to prepare us for bigger climbs and give us the base of knowledge that’s needed to tackle bigger mountains. We cut some cord down and created some Prusik loops that we’d later use to make hitches and pulley systems. We would those hitches to practice getting ourselves out of crevasses—but we didn’t have any of those in our current location—so we worked with the climbing wall on site. A bit of practice there and some talk about the route, how things would work for the rest of the week and a bit of getting to know each other wrapped our day.
The World Cup Final was also on that day. We didn’t get finished quickly enough to actually see much of a competitive match. The USWNT was up 4-0 by the time I got to a television, but I’ll take that. From here, it was dinner some final packing and getting myself to sleep in the bunkroom at Whittaker’s Bunkhouse.
Cell service never materialized while in town. The Bunkhouse had wifi, but it was a little bit spotty. Not being able to reliably communicate with my family back home, and knowing that there would be zero chance of communicating for the rest of the week, got me off to a rough start.
The day began early. I had to get myself up, compulsively pack and repack, then repack again. Then I unpacked and took some more food out (inexplicably leaving behind one of my Snickers bars) and packed again. Then the van arrived and I was basically forced to stop unpacking and repacking. After my approximately seven packing jobs, My 105 Liter pack was still way too full. I wasn’t alone in being that way, but I still felt like a rank amateur. I was. I also came to the horrifying realization that I had worn Vans to drive up to Ashford, and the only other shoes I brought were some camp slippers and my massive, heavy plastic double boots. It was going to be a long day.
The ride from Ashford to Paradise is about 45 minutes normally. There was some road construction on our trip and it took about an hour. I was hoping it took six days. At this point I was incredibly nervous. Remember that spotty wifi? Yeah, iMessage wasn’t working for me as a result and my phone kept trying to send texts instead. With no service, I would immediately get back an error message and nothing would go through. Ultimately, I had to send an email to Christy letting her know that I was leaving and she’d hear form me at the end of the week. It was Monday morning and I would return to spotty wifi on Friday afternoon. That didn’t help with my nerves. I just wanted to talk to my favorite person one time before heading off to do something that I was scared of doing and unaware of what to expect while doing it.
We arrived in Paradise and unloaded the trailer. The guides divided up the group gear. There was a piece of a tent for each of us and either a canister of stove fuel or a shovel for each of us. One person would have to carry the camp cooking pot instead of gas or a shovel. The pot was the last thing to get taken every single time.
One slightly unexpected thing I learned when we arrived at Paradise was that it was go time. It was get your boots on, pack your shit and we’re moving out. No hanging around the visitor’s center. No chatting up other hikers and climbers. We had a job to do and the job was starting now. My super full pack still needed to get the tent fly in, and the next five minutes probably taught me more about packing a backpack than any other five minutes has taught me about anything in my life. Katrina came by and just started stuffing everything in my pack down. It was an impressive sight. All my decently folded layers and well placed miscellaneous items were a problem. Just put the big stuff in and stuff the hell out of the soft stuff. That tent fly went in like it wasn’t even there. I had used my pack’s hood to hold some things as well. Katrina told me that would be coming off tomorrow and I would not be using that on the outside of my pack again. We just needed a few minutes to pack up properly. I took that as a challenge because I was filled with some really useful knowledge now.
The hike began in earnest and we headed toward the Golden Gate Trail. That would be our route to the Paradise Glacier, where we’d spend a few days doing some things that make you miserable and some things that you’d love to keep doing. I was especially happy in the choice of convertible pants, because the shorts option was absolutely necessary. It was hot. This would be a recurring theme for the rest of the week.
The hike would last us a few hours. On it we got lessons in how we should keep ourselves fresh and alive throughout the climb. For instance, when we stopped for a break, rule number one is sit, drink, and eat before anything else. Fuel yourself before you start taking pictures. That was me on the first break. I was the example. I didn’t break that one again. The hike wasn’t overly hard other than the heat and the fact that I was wearing eight pounds on my feet and tripped over my laces a couple of times. Had I thought of it, I would have (and I totally recommend) brought my trail runners to wear on this approach. It would have been worth carrying the weight on my back for that day because my feet were miserable. This repeated itself, only with a week more wear on the hike down. Bring the lighter shoes if you have bulky boots.
No one could say how long the hike would be that day. That’s because the Paradise Glacier was probably a good half mile receded from the furthest point the guides had seen it before. The heat was taking its toll on the mountain. This would be evident later in the week as well when it came to the summit route.
Eventually we arrived at our spot for the first camp. Now, it was shoveling time. We had to carve out a flat spot for the three tents to be set up. The guides would handle themselves. With three shovels and eight people, it went like this: shovel hard for a minute or two while the rest of the team walked around on the snow to compress it. Switch off and continue for approximately an hour. Yeah, it took us that long. We were doing hockey shifts, only working way harder than any hockey player could imagine. Shoveling is hard. In the end, we were probably six inches short of making the platform the right size, but nobody cared.
Then, we got to put the tents up and learn to guy them out without the benefit of those awesome little plastic guy line things that come with literally every tent in the world. Nope. We used some new knots and hitches to make this work. It’s not that bad, but I can’t remember how to do it right anymore, which bums me out, because it’d feel pretty badass to do that on a camping trip with friends. Finally, with tents up and camp ready, it was time to rest a bit. We weren’t done for the day, so resting was pretty nice. Three people in a three-person tent is not the most roomy situation. I got the smaller vestibule of the two for just myself, which was nice.
This is where the advice I had read started to make sense. That advice: sleep with your stuff. I slept with my hat, socks, and at one point a jacket because they got wet. Socks are always wet—not from snow leaking thorough, but because your feet will sweat. So you bring a couple of pairs of socks and always sleep with one of them in the bag. Not on your feet. Next to your chest. I didn’t know how this would work, but it worked brilliantly. They dried. That’s cool. So do that if you’re in this situation.
After our rest time, we got a few lessons. We learned self arrest with our ice axes, how to walk different ways in the snow—the German Technique, the French Technique, and, of course, the American Technique. They all make walking a chore, but walking up a mountain is a chore no matter what position your feet are in.
Dinner consisted of each of us breaking out our dehydrated meals and standing around a pot of melting snow waiting for the water to boil. At this point in the evening I felt particularly lonely. I wanted to have someone to tell about my day, which despite the long hike in heavy, hot boots, was pretty cool. I learned a lot and got to know some cool people a little better. My routine consists of this every day. I get to come home and talk to someone about all the good and bad. I couldn’t do that today. I actually had trouble eating my dinner (lasagna with meat sauce). And not eating your dinner means you have to pack the remaining and carry that shit off the mountain. Along with your literal shit (in handy blue bags). So not eating is a big deal.
As it got closer to the time to turn in, I needed something to distract me. Rene saved me on this night by needing someone to play cards with him. We played a game that was somewhat like Uno but he said it was the national game of the Czech Republic (Rene was originally from Prague).It was a good time and something that allowed us to talk for about an hour before turning in. I was tired and we’d have to be up pretty early.
The goal of today was to get on the ropes and climb to a second camp, where we’d spend two nights. We didn’t have to get up at an ungodly hour, so that wasn’t bad. We broke down, got repacked (the pot went last again) and hit the road. After spending the night on snow, we had to trek over more rock and snow to find our spot to get roped up and not leave snow again for a few days. That was probably about a mile away.
The hike over included a few spotty patches of glacier and tons of running water below. That made for some sketchy spots where guides had to go out ahead to check for crevasses, as we really weren’t quite aware of them yet. There were a few places where we had to route around some bad spots, but with the watchful eye of a few experts, there wasn’t much danger.
Once we reached the base of the more permanent glacier, we took a break and got some lessons on how to travel with the rope. There would be a guide and either three additional people or two, since there were just eight of us climbers. We got lessons on how to put on and wear crampons as well. Finally, we were gearing up to the full extent: harnesses, gaiters, crampons, helmets (maybe not entirely necessary yet, but as a rule always while rope traveling), gloves, ice axes, glacier glasses, and anything else I may have forgotten. This is why you climb, right? To do it with style.
Geared to the hilt and ready to go, we got roped up. I was on Eric’s rope and was told to get on the back loop. It would be Eric, Amir, Victor, and me on this rope, with Katrina’s rope directly behind us. One bonus to being the back of the rope is that you’re just a couple feet from the guide on the next. It gave me the opportunity to chat with Katrina when I was capable of it and to get some tips, lessons, whatever. And if she hated that, I would never have known. It was maybe one of the most helpful things about the entire seminar. I was able to basically get one on one time with a guide during the most boring drudgery we’d go through.
Pace is huge on these climbs. I think a lot of people would be the type to say, “I like to go hard and rest frequently.” Sure. But the Great Chase Nelson imparted words that will probably stick with me forever: “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” Take it easy. Train yourself to withstand the short term boredom for the long term success. I once was told by someone before I did my first half Ironman distance race that I should avoid getting my heart rate above my lactate threshold. If I did that, I could avoid the faster fatigue that I’d face if my heart rate got above that number. It’s a principle that applies on the mountain. Why push it and force yourself into more frequent and, ultimately, longer breaks when you can go at a smoother pace? Because your heart rate will absolutely elevate. And it’ll feel like you’re running harder than you’ve run in a while. And it will last longer than you would ever subject yourself to at that type of pace. Because everything takes longer on a climb, so slow it down and take it easier.
So we’re on our way up to the second camp. You probably forgot that’s what we were doing here. It’s steep. Like, steep steep. I had “trained” on some decently steep terrain—the Mount Rose Southeast Ridge and the Jones Creek Whites Creek Trail have some—but this is a different world. A thousand feet in a mile, while switching back is kinda legit. But, it was our first real run at this stuff as a group. We had a relatively easy day. We reached the second camp site and settled in. And by settled in, I mean had to build another tent platform in the snow, get camp set up, not do that fast enough, then rest, then get our asses up just as we were finally falling into a really welcome nap so that we could move on to the day’s real training. You know—as you do.
The training on this day would consist of anchor building. It’s the base for what we’d do the next day. There were a couple of ways we learned. We drove pickets in as one way, dug out a narrow cut in the snow for another. We learned to check them using the ERNEST method—Equalization, Redundancy, Non-Extending, Solid, Timely. A lot of the anchor training was talking through the reasons for doing what you do with them, like setting up redundant anchors, how far to drive pickets in, why you want to avoid extending the rope length, and things like that. Then we drove a few in, practiced tying off knows to secure a person to them, and dug out some holes.
At this point, one thing the guides told us about anchors is hitting home with me: that it’s a perishable skill. They have to practice it annually because it’s something that you have to keep up on to remember steps and all of the proper things to do. I can fully understand. I nailed a lot of it that day but can barely remember any of it now. Luckily, I recorded myself talking through each day on my phone and was able to listen to that day’s recording to refresh my memory because I couldn’t even remember that ERNEST existed. The only real thing I have to remember is my dented handle of my ice axe, which I used to hammer in pickets. I think that’s kinda badass.
After anchors, it was dinner time. We ate, then huddled around Katrina, who gave a talk about avalanches. She talked through the science with them and gave us a tip on how to best deal with them. That tip is one I’ll give you for free. Avoid them. We then buried a beacon and practiced finding it with our own beacons.
Wednesday was crevasse rescue day. That’s what we did. It was an all day adventure in dropping a team member into the hole and getting him or her out. We divided into two teams of four each and had two people rescue while one oversaw and talked them through it. The fourth was, obviously, the rescued member.
While the guides emphasized that this is a critical thing to know while traveling on a glacier, the also noted that they never had to actually do any of it in the real world. That’s because there are several things that factor in when someone falls into a crevasse. The first is that they might be able to simply walk out. Yes, not all crevasses are bottomless pits that signify impending doom upon your descent. Sometimes you can simply get lowered a few feet and walk out the side. That would be the easiest solution. Other times, especially if the team is very alert and conducting themselves well, you won’t fall far. The rope system will stop the fall before your head is lower than the ground level. In that case the team might just choose to hoist you out using brute strength. But if the fall is far or you’re hurt in it, then you might need the team to construct a pulley system and lever you out. That’s the most dire of rescue situations and what we practiced.
The guides began by building the anchors for us and ran us through the routine. In short, you stop the fall, hold the weight using the middle person on the rope, build the anchor (we had that done already), transfer the load to the anchor, then build the pulley system to get them out. I went first as the leader and we nailed it. I probably had the best order of doing this for learning the process, so that by the time I was the one tying and taking orders, I had seen everyone else doing it and could handle it quickly.
Hanging in the crevasse, while slightly uncomfortable, is pretty cool. They’re beautiful inside and pretty amazing natural works of art. I was in at the same time as Cameron and he got a shot or two of me along with some video. He was in all of my shots since the crevasse grew on his side of it. On my side it was pretty boring—one of those situations you can walk out of if you had to do that.
After crevasse rescue and a rest, we worked for a bit on how to use a running belay. A running belay is basically using a fixed line on the side of a hill to attach yourself using a short rope to prevent from falling off of a particularly steep section too far. You’re still attached to your rope team, but this is a secondary step in areas where falling might be difficult to stop by the other team members. It’s not a difficult task by any means, but one that practice helps with.
Dinner followed along with a discussion on just about anything we wanted to know. Some questions were regarding altitude drugs that people may take, fitness, equipment choices, how to find people to climb with, etc.
We awoke to break camp and hit the trail for Camp Muir. We had about a 2,000 foot gain ahead of us and wanted to get there around noon. We had to navigate a few crevasses to make our way to the Cowlitz Glacier. From there, we’d be able to see Camp Muir and some teams making their way back across Ingraham Flats on their returns from the summit.
In order to get around a couple of the crevasses, we had to do that one thing that I probably hate more than anything else (and I doubt I’m alone here) while on a climb—go up and around only to descend to a safer place. Descending when the ultimate goal is above you is mentally draining. It’s mentally draining because you know that the physical part is going to be harder and you’ve used some of that uphill energy only to give that elevation back. Simply put, I hate this.
We rested in between a couple of beauties when it comes to crevasses. Grabbed a snack and some water, then made the trip up. I will say this about climbing a mountain. The distances between the places you stop isn’t huge, but the effort it takes to get between them is. When we stopped, we could see Camp Muir and people all over the place up there. But we still had almost two hours of climbing to reach it. This may not come as a surprise to some people, but it was my first time on a mountain like that, and the way you can see everything in front of you from far away messes with your head.
It was at this point that I had the most difficult time physically. The exertion combined with a warm day and a really steep climb made me sweat. The sweating and venting of such through my shirt fogged up my glasses, which you have to wear, and made me unable to see the steps in front of me. Keep in mind that the trail is forged with specific steps for everyone to follow in to make the climb easier. I was missing and slipping and blind and tired. I finally asked Eric if we could take a minute to rest and so that I could gather myself. Thankfully, he agreed to it and I was able to tell him what I was going through. He helped by slowing it down a bit, which alleviated all of the above problems. I was able to continue on at a decent pace.
We stopped once more on the way, then arrived at Camp Muir around noon, like we had wanted to do. RMI keeps a hut there with bunks that we would use for the night. We had the option to use a tent, but no way. I wasn’t going to sleep in a tent on purpose when there was a perfectly good structure that, in theory, would keep warmer and help me get better rest for the push to the summit the next day. We had to wait a couple hours for that day’s summit teams to get back and clear their gear out before we could move in. So we just sat around, took pictures, brief naps, whatever. There was even a place to dump the glorious blue bags we’d been packing the whole week. And bathrooms. Hideous bathrooms, but better than not bathrooms.
After grabbing our hut space and briefly settling in, we went back out to practice some fixed line climbing and descending. We grabbed a steep section near camp and the guides built a small section of fixed line, showed us how to use ascenders or to use the ropes we already had as them, and turned us loose. The climbing part is a bit slower. Steepness is obviously a factor in this, but the clipping and unclipping takes its time when you’re new to it. The descending is fast. It seems almost counter-intuitive to descend on a fixed line because you lean downhill. Loop the rope around your arm, grab it, and lean into the descent. You go fast doing that, but it’s incredibly controlled. This would also be how we crossed the couple of ladders with fixed lines that spanned crevasses on the summit day. It’s hard to make your body do it the first time, but once you overcome that, it makes perfect sense.
After that brief practice, we met with the other summit team that would be going up with us in the hut. We were briefed at about 3:00 and we chatted for about an hour. Dinner would be at 5:00, then it was time to get some sleep. We would wake around 10:30 and leave camp at midnight. The climb would take about six hours, we’d get some time on the summit depending on how fast we were and the conditions, then have to get back down before it got too warm. Warmth makes rocks and ice break up and fall. There would be a couple of spots on the route that would be susceptible to icefall and rockfall, and we did not want to be around them when it happened. So, we leave in the cold of night.
My nerves at this point were better than they had been early in the week, but not great. I was able to eat. David and Hayley had this awesome salami thing that they were looking to unload, so I took a bunch of that. It was the missing piece to my food for the week. I laid down around 6:00 but probably didn’t sleep until 8:30 or so. I dreamt, but I can’t remember what it was about. Had I not, I would have been unsure whether I had even slept much, so I actually felt pretty good waking up. I was ready to go.
Getting dressed and ready to summit a legitimate mountain via glacier travel and rope teams in the pitch black only afforded by an area without electricity other than that provided by AAA batteries used to power headlamps that focus their beams intensely on the immediate area in front of themselves while also enduring somewhat freezing cold weather and mostly immobile footwear is not as easy as it sounds. Seriously, though, there is not much light to speak of. Your hands don’t cooperate with your mind either because they have gloves in the way or they’re too cold to properly respond to the commands being given to them. There are about a dozen and a half other people in a somewhat small space wanting to do what they need to do, which specifically means you’re in each other’s way. The amount of time to do all the things necessary is probably about 120% of the time allotted (mostly because you’re slower than you think and these things take a lot longer than you think). Also, you’re nervous.
Here is what I had to do to be ready:
- Change socks
- Acquire breakfast (on this day, a single packet of Maple and Brown Sugar instant oatmeal that I literally poured the water into because that was just easier than getting a bowl out)
- Stay warm
- Gather my gear to move it outside where there was actually space to get dressed
- One last look over what I was bringing and leaving behind for the summit
- In my pack—six snacks, two liters of water, two pairs of gloves, rain pants, extra socks, medium insulation, parka, rain jacket, camera
- Not in my pack—sleeping bag, sleeping pad, way too much food, tent pieces, shovel that I had carried all week—essentially an awful lot of the weight I had carried, so this was a relief
- Get dressed
- Clothing—underwear, base layer pants, base layer shirt, climbing pants, light insulation (a fleece that I love still and might hang on my wall when it wears out), light gloves, ball cap, Buff, helmet, easily accessible glacier glasses
- Gear—boots, gaiters, headlamp, avalanche transceiver (worn over the base layer so layers can be added without removing it), harness with all my carabiners and cords, ice axe, and finally, crampons
Ready. Now, a quick pep talk and some instructions. The six snacks and two liters of water was very specific. We would stop six times—four on the way up, two on the way down—and would ration our food and water accordingly. Just about 10 ounces of water at each stop should be plenty. We had already been told how to divide up the snacks by calories—about 200 per snack—and that number should be more than enough as well. My Snickers bar was my go to for when I didn’t feel like really eating anything. Who can say no to one of those? But my real reward would be a pretzel bagel with a packet of olive oil and some salt to sprinkle on it. That was the summit snack.
Clip into the rope and let’s move. We made it across Ingraham Flats and left snow to climb up a small set of switchbacks to gain our first real elevation. It’s important to note that we did not stop to remove crampons for the rocks. Footwork becomes critical and so does paying attention. When climbing with a leader and a headlamp offering you a very narrow view, I don’t think you realize the extent of what you’re doing. It’s just one foot in front of the other and go, go, go. We reached the top and began ascending up glacier once again. At just over 11,000 feet we hit our first break of the day.
We stopped and sat in what seemed like nothing but inclined ice all around. Orders are as such at breaks: pack off, parka on, water and food consumed. In the black there are no pictures to be had, so focus on staying warm, hydrated and fed. And sit the fuck down. Save energy.
That inclined ice turned out to be the edge of a massive, gorgeous crevasse. We saw bits of it as we left the break, but on the way down in the daylight it was utterly remarkable. I highly recommend a visit.
Up next was more climbing and what was described beforehand as the toughest part of the climb. We made our way above that crevasse and to the base of Disappointment Cleaver. Before I go any further, I have to say this: fuck Disappointment Cleaver. It was absolutely the toughest part of the climb. We stopped at the base and the guides shortened up the distance between us on the ropes. That’s because the Cleaver is basically a scramble for a solid half mile or more up. Rock would be falling so be alert. It was still dark. Heck, I have no idea, but it was probably 2:00 at this point. It’s really weird when you have been up for four hours or so and there’s still no sign of the sun. Anyway, the dark made it so, again, you can’t really tell what the extent of what you’re doing is, but it was a slow process. There were times we were at the edge of some snow, so there was a bit of trudging, but crampons over rocks with many places that you had to use your hands is a tough bit of work.
When we were finally informed that it was break time and we had successfully conquered the Cleaver, I silently celebrated. It genuinely sucked. We were through the toughest part of the climb and had nothing but glacier in front of us to make it. That I could handle.
Still in the dark, we took our beak and made our way up. The next section featured several ladders. We had crossed a couple prior to the Cleaver, but crossed seven in total on the way up. I can’t emphasize enough how much being in the dark changed the experience. Crossing ladders over what could be small or massive crevasses was rendered indistinguishable while relying completely on your headlamp to simply see the person twenty feet in front of you. It just seemed like a pretend danger, I guess. A couple of the ladders had fixed ropes, which made their crossing easier, but none of them were particularly hard or particularly frightening.
The sun began to rise as we approached what we called High Break. That would be at around 13,000 feet and not too long before reaching the summit. The going wasn’t particularly fast. The route is generally a single file system where many teams are all on the same exact path. If one team has to stop, say, because one member has to take a shit (seriously), you all wait. In certain places, each rope team had to make their way across the bottom of an icefall while the others waited because you don’t want a bunch of people caught up in it if everything goes to hell. Also, in a couple of areas, there were some steps up that required some careful maneuvering, and it just slowed everything down.
At this point, I was feeling very good about my fitness. I was able to carry on a conversation at 13,000 feet while also lugging a few pounds on my back and keeping a certain pace. That’s a good feeling. I mentioned this before, but being at the back of the rope gave me access to a guide that others didn’t have. Since the person in front of me was twenty feet away and you have to keep the rope tight, we never were able to really chat. But the leader of the team behind me could walk just a couple feet away, which gave us the opportunity to have a real conversation throughout the climb. That was Katrina for me, and she was awesome. We talked conditioning and general stuff about climbing, which kept my mind off of the mindless slog that is walking uphill on snow for five miles. I honestly don’t know how the others did it. I was the lucky one by having her near me, and it helped me tremendously.
As we took our spots at the High Break, the sun was gracing us with its presence. It was cold as we settled down for those few moments, but nothing unbearable. In fact, Eric remarked that the weather was perhaps some of the best he had ever seen on a summit day. This is a guy that was about to mark his 99th time on the top of Rainier, so I imagine he has a small bit of expertise in this area. Despite what a skeptic might think, I believed him. It was positively beautiful. The sky was clear, there was virtually no wind, and the temperature was pretty reasonable for being this high up. I had been to the top of Mount Whitney at around the same time of year and it was cold. Not standing on a glacier cold, but cold.
Despite the great weather, I was noticing that we were just kind of generally becoming more tired. That’s understandable, I suppose. We were at a legitimately unnatural altitude. We had been working for about five or six hours to get here. We were cold. And we had all been staring at either a headlamp-filled cone of white or a dawn-filled sea of white the whole time. It’s mind numbing. But we were damn close. My Snickers bar came out, was promptly eaten (although having braces and carrying a Snickers in below-freezing temperatures in a pack for several hours is not recommended), and I finished my first liter of water. Tired or not, it was time to get this done.
Oh, this was also when I noticed my GPS watch had shut down. I had received the alert about an hour before that the battery was low but had no way to fix that. My battery on this thing lasts for about 20 hours of use, which is a really great amount. It should have been enough to track the entire climb. But I had forgotten to turn it off at both camps when we arrived earlier in the week, which wasted at least three hours of its life. So, an hour before summit, I lost it. What a dumbshit.
The final push was on. Nothing truly remarkable happened in this last hour, other than me cursing myself quite a bit about the watch battery. What can you do? Oh, you know, pay attention and turn it off when you are supposed to. But whatever. We made a loop around toward the western side of the mountain and when we finally crested into the crater, it was almost anticlimactic. There we were, standing atop Mount Rainier. The steam vents along the outer edge were kind of surreal. We were literally standing inside the crater of an active volcano. I was tired. It could have blown at that moment and I would have maybe found some peace. I would have been pissed that I had lacked cell service to talk to Christy all week, but what could I have done, right? I also would have been pissed that I didn’t get to sit down and eat my pretzel bagel with olive oil and salt yet.
We were able to unclip at this point and have a seat. I got the parka on and laid back. As we got to the top, a cloud cap rolled in and started snowing on us. One side effect of snowing at the top of a mountain is that the visibility goes from something to nothing in a hurry. We couldn’t see anything from the top. Well, we could see snowfall and clouds, I guess. A group got together to go to the registry and get the best view in zero visibility possible, but I elected to stay behind. I could eat my bagel and rest up, because I hate the downhill about as much as I hate the uphill.
I got the bagel out. I got the olive oil out. I got the salt out. This was about to be glorious. But it wasn’t. The bagel was hard to tear apart, the olive oil didn’t want to open (due to gloves first, followed by cold hands—remember this part), and the salt spilled everywhere but the bagel. So, I ate the bagel mostly plain. Yup. My week’s anticipation of a truly awesome snack at the summit was ruined by general mountain climbing circumstances. The bagel was fine, but not the greatest thing I had ever eaten, which it was supposed to be. Oh well. I ate it and tried to stay warm while maybe, just maybe, getting a little tiny nap in while waiting for everyone to return.
Except, I couldn’t get my warm gloves on. Yeah, my hands were wet and the gloves all of a sudden felt small. I had experienced a problem with my hands on Whitney where they got stupidly, comically large. #fathand. They weren’t even close to that here, but it didn’t matter, really. I couldn’t get my hands in the warmest gloves I had. Luckily, I had borrowed a pair from my son that he had for snowboarding. They were basically my emergency pair in case everything else got soaked. They slid right on and felt amazing. In fact, I wore them all the way down to Camp Muir and I’d have to say they saved my hands that day. Lesson: bring those other gloves that you don’t think you need. Other lesson: save yourself the disappointment and just plan to eat the bagel plain (I blame the Cleaver).
When my team returned, we got ready to head down. We’d be breaking at the top of the Cleaver and at the same spot as break number one for the day. Then, it was to Camp Muir to pack up and head out to Paradise and back to town. In all seriousness, that’s a really, really long day. It looked like it on paper and it was it in reality. You wake up at 10:30 PM to summit at around 6:00 AM and return to camp at 11:00 AM only to have to leave camp at 1:00 PM and get to the van at 4:00 PM. Eighteen hours or so isn’t a joke. Also, try the whole damn thing in plastic boots then tell me it’s easy. Screw that, man. My feet hated me. But I’m getting ahead of myself. There was still a ton of work to do.
They say the majority of mistakes in mountain climbing happen on the way down. That’s because there can be a more relaxed attitude or you may have used the vast majority of energy on the way up. But specific to Rainier is the actual environmental danger. I mentioned before that we left in the dead of night because of rock and icefall. So, the plan is to get to the top, then head the hell back down before this stuff starts breaking up and causing problems. Getting down the mountain is a fast endeavor, so long as safety stays a priority.
Our first stop on the way down was at the top of the Cleaver. What was a nondescript spot on a glacier in the dark earlier that morning was a spot below massive walls of ice. It was pretty awesome to see in the daylight. On the way there, we also were able to see some great crevasse crossings in the daylight. A couple of them might have made me really nervous had I seen them the first time I went over them.
Descending the Cleaver might have been the worst part of the climb. As the back end of the rope, I was tasked with leading the way while Eric stayed in back to anchor us. We shortened the distances again and I led with David right behind me helping to route find. There were small flags marking the preferred trail, but sometimes they were contradicting. I got us into some crappy spots a couple of times and struggled with my footwork a lot. Maybe the only thing harder than going up over loose rocks with crampons is going down over loose rocks with crampons. It was rough. And I was pretty bad at it. We had to stop at one point because of traffic and at that point Eric took back over. I wasn’t unhappy about that.
After the Cleaver, we spread out again and made our way to the first break spot of the day to rest again. We were just about a mile from Camp Muir and took a short break to get ourselves back more quickly. Down the small switchbacks again was a bit easier, but my boots were beginning to make me hate all boots. While they were amazing on the way up—warm, comfortable, helpful—they were brutally uncomfortable on the way down. I wasn’t getting my feet smashed or anything, but the rigid soles and plastic shells were not conducive to movement and flexibility. I would have liked movement and flexibility on the way down. Crossing Ingraham Flats was a decent reprieve and I welcomed the small bit of rest we’d get at Camp Muir.
After packing up and resting for about an hour, we made our way down the Muir Snowfield. It’s about two miles of just snow until you reach the edge and the trails of the park. A rest there and another couple of miles on solid ground didn’t do much for my feet. Actually, it did a lot for them. They screamed at me. I don’t want to spend a lot of time whining about how I felt here, so I’ll just say it hurt pretty badly. I couldn’t wait to get back to my car and regular shoes.
The long day concluded with a little celebration at Base Camp. We had some pizza and beers. Cameron’s parents had met us in Paradise and provided a cooler full of Rainier Beer. That was awesome. Those were some cool people. I should also note that the pizza was fantastic. We didn’t have to pour in boiling water and wait twenty minutes to eat it, either. After spending the night in the bunkroom, I hit the road to Eugene, OR and home from there.
If you didn’t gather this from above, the experience was certainly incredible. While I’m extremely proud that I did this, I’m under no illusions about how significant it is. Many, many people have done the same thing and done it better. Heck, there were probably at least 50 people at the top on the same day as me. But to set out to accomplish something that requires as many skills (that you don’t already have) and as much fitness as this means something. I am thrilled to have done it and can’t look back at the time I was there without wanting to talk about it and tell others what I think of climbing.
As for the ultimate goal, it’s still there. Immediately following the climb, I was a little unsure. It hurt, I was in pain, I was tired, and I remembered how much I missed home. But I can’t look at mountains the same way. I want to be around them and I think a lot about how much I enjoy climbing them. I look at Mount Rose here in Reno just about every day and think about the time I want to spend there. I will get to Alaska one day in the near future and make my run at Denali. It’s in the plans, and now that I know it’s possible, I will make it happen.
I have described this, in short, as being miserable for just about every moment of the climb, but an absolute blast as for total experience. On one hand, it’s staring at snow and ice for a few hours at a time and just putting one foot in front of the other step after step after step. There’s a lot of boredom, there’s a lot of pain, and there’s a lot of snow.
I met some great people along the way as well. I hope that when I go to Denali, I have the opportunity to climb with one or more of the guides I had here. They were patient, smart, insanely talented, and just pretty cool people. If these three were an indication, RMI is an outstanding company that I would recommend to anyone interested in learning to climb or just looking for a service to help them climb. I plan to use them again.