“Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”
– Ed Viesturs
Ok, so the mountain bug bit me hard and I thought it was time to take it to the next level, so I planned a trip to climb Mt Rainier. From the time I committed to climb with Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI) and made travel plans, it took about 6 months to get all of my gear ready. This would be one of my largest endeavors to date and I hoped my training was adequate and that the mountain would grant me passage. Our basement was completely cluttered with my climbing gear and the supplies I would need for the trip. I finally had things organized, laid out and K helped me with the checklist, twice. K was going to stay at Rainier base camp while I climbed and then we would spend a few days in Seattle after the summit attempt.
Mt Rainier is a massive stratovolcano located southeast of Seattle, WA. It is the most heavily glaciated peak and the most topographically prominent mountain in the continental United States outside of Alaska. The broad summit of Mt Rainier has three named peaks and the true summit is Columbia Crest at 14,411 feet.
We took a direct flight from Denver to Seattle and drove southeast to Ashford, Washington, which is where RMI is based. K went with me to the orientation class given by our RMI lead guide. He went over the history of mountaineering on Mt Rainier, what to expect and what their expectations were of our team of eight. After our brief orientation, we gathered our packs and boots, and the guides went through all of our gear and equipment to make sure it was functional and that we had everything we needed. We were then dismissed, as we had an extensive training class planned for the following day to make sure everyone knew what they were doing and how to deploy the proper equipment.
The team met up at Rainier base camp the next morning for training and we made our way up to Paradise at about 5,000 feet. This training was a good refresher, but it was nothing I had not already learned through the Colorado Mountain Club. We went over rescue techniques, rope travel and the proper deployment of ice tools. After a full day with clear blue skies, we were ready for the climb.
7:00 am came early the next day and K dropped me off at base camp. This time we said our goodbyes and she wished me luck as I carried my pack over to the group. Excitement was in the air as we boarded the bus, but there was a slight lack of optimism in the weather. The team that attempted to summit the day before was forced to turn around at 13,000 feet due to 80+ mph winds and whiteout conditions. There was a low pressure weather system that blew in and it was now raining at base camp. Unfortunately, there was another low pressure system following this one, so our optimism for making the summit was low. We had light snow and low visibility at the Paradise trail head as we gathered our gear. We stepped off about 9:30am and headed up the trail from 5,400 feet hoping the weather would improve.
We slowly made our way up the mountain in soft snow trying to follow the footprints ahead of us. We were still in a cloud, so there was no scenery. One step at a time, praying for the weather to break, we kept pushing on. About an hour or so into the climb, we took a short break. The temps were in the low 30’s, which was actually warm considering we were on the side of a mountain. We had 4,500 feet of elevation to gain the first day before we made it to Camp Muir, 10,080 feet above us. We continued on, taking breaks every 1,000 feet of elevation or so and readjusting our clothing for the cooler temps, re-hydrating and eating.
We could not see Camp Muir until we were literally on top of it, so there was no way to gauge our distance. We only had the footsteps in front of us, our breathing techniques and the rest step to concentrate on. We were all glad to finally arrive at Camp Muir around 4:30pm. We dropped our packs and began getting our sleeping bags ready for the brief “break” before gearing back up at 12am. As we were eating dinner, we noticed slight breaks in the clouds. This gave way to partial clearing which revealed 12,281 foot Mt Adams in the distance and the Cowlitz Glacier in front of us that we would later traverse. We were elated to see the sun and what looked like promising weather ahead, so we snapped a few photos and videos and then returned to the bunkhouse.
I don’t think anyone slept as every time someone would get into their sleeping bag, someone else would get up. It must have been the excitement in the air, or the over-hydration for the upcoming adventure… After a few sleepless hours, it was my turn… I got up to go to the bathroom and looked up to nothing but stars. The moon gave off just enough light that you could see the cloud deck far below us and a huge shadow of a mountain in front of us, Mt Rainier.
At 12:00am, we woke up, got dressed and got our packs ready. I choked down a double dose of instant coffee and oatmeal. Not exactly the breakfast of champions, but we needed to start with some energy in the tank. We attached our crampons to our boots, put on our harnesses and helmets, grabbed our ice axes and roped up.
We were off at 1:00am and with the stars above and blackness surrounding us, the only light pollution was our headlamps. Looking ahead, we could only see the climber in front of us, our ropes and the trail. We slowly made our way across the Cowlitz Glacier and ascended Cathedral Gap. At one point we had to short rope and move quickly as there were large seracs above us that threatened to fall. We were very aware and listened for anything that sounded like it was coming at us. On a few sections we had one foot in front of the other as the ridge was so narrow. Pressing on up Cathedral Gap and onto the Ingraham Glacier, we finally took a much needed break. Immediately, we dug out our heavy parkas to keep from freezing and to hold onto the heat we had generated. After a brief 15 minutes and taking in some much needed calories and water, we were off again. We headed up the “flats” and up through Disappointment Cleaver. Periodically, you could see a huge crevasse off to one side or the other. These blue crevasses could be hundreds of feet deep. We stepped across a few and crossed one via a snow bridge. At one point, we traversed a crevasse with a board across it that was frozen in place. Don’t look down!! It was really getting steep and we would alternate using the crossover step as you could not keep your entire crampon in the ice walking straight up. I think around this point the sun began to peak over the horizon. The darkness in front of us gave way to a pale blueish gray that reflected from the ice and snow around us. We were far above the sea of clouds below, which provided a strange sensation. As the sun rose above the clouds, there was almost an immediate glow of orange on everything. Even the cold blue ice seemed to be warmed by the rays. We momentarily stopped to take pictures and you could see the smiles on everyone’s face. It seemed to take away a little of the pain, briefly…
We were at about 12,300 feet now and the mountain was not giving up. It was proving to be quite a monster. Our legs were jelly and quivering with each step. Unfortunately, at about this point three climbers ended their summit bid. One was showing signs of altitude sickness, one had swollen and blistered feet and one was exhausted. Remember, making it to the summit is only the halfway point and a one way trip was not an option at the ticket counter. It is round-trip, so you have to conserve enough energy to get down safely. Typically, most mountaineering accidents happen on the descent as this is when fatigue sets in. Some people have a surge of adrenaline near the summit that drains them for the trip down. This provides quite a challenge for the rest of the team to get them and their equipment down safely. Pacing yourself and proper nutrition and hydration during the ascent are the key to making the summit and still having the energy to get yourself down. We did not want to see them turn around, but know that they made the right decision.
After another hour, we took our final break, the “high break”. This was just above 13,000 feet. The low pressure system that was following the first one began showing itself. At first, light wispy cirrus clouds appeared overhead, which quickly turned into thick clouds and snowfall. From here on up, it snowed and the wind whipped our faces. Our visibility went south and the glaciers and snow mirrored the cloudy, snowy sky. The five of us with the guides pressed on through the crevassed glaciers of the upper slopes. Switchback after switchback we slowly crawled up the side of the mountain. Looking up every few minutes, you would think you would see the summit and then another obstacle would present itself. I could feel my feet swelling in my boots, no blisters, just a heavy swollen feeling. Finally, I saw some volcanic rocks through the snow above me. Could this be the Crater Rim?? I side stepped up and it leveled off. We had reached the Crater Rim at 14,000 feet. We probed for crevasses to find a resting point and waited for what was left of the team. We all congratulated each other, dropped our packs in exhaustion, put our parkas on and ate and drank like kings. Frozen Cliff Bars, trail mix and jerky is hardly eating like a king, but I had saved a Snickers bar for the summit. I left it in my pocket to keep it from freezing solid, so I ate it like I stole it. Even though it began to freeze as I was chewing, it was the best thing I had had all day. Our guide knew that two of us were willing and able, so we grabbed our ice axes and headed for the true summit, Columbia Crest. The other three climbers were to stay where they were and rest for the descent, but we continued to the other side of the crater and up the remaining vertical “few” feet, which took about an hour. Even though we had no view because the weather deteriorated, it was awesome to finally be atop Mt Rainier!! After a few quick pictures and high fives, we returned to the team, packed our gear and began the arduous descent.
Descending is sometimes even harder than the ascent, as foot placement is even more critical. Couple that with jelly legs, aching knees and sore feet and it sucks… We made pretty good time until we reached the cleaver, where two members were almost incoherent. They were in the middle of both rope teams, as we knew they were in bad shape. They were falling into the lead climber and tripping over their own crampons. We stopped so we could get them some water and much need sugar and carbohydrates. After 15 minutes, they were ready to keep charging down.
On our return traverse of the Cowlitz Glacier we were really feeling the microwave effect. We were still in a cloud and it was snowing, but because of the sun’s radiation being trapped between the glacier and the clouds, we were drenched in sweat and essentially cooking. Our faces and nostrils were burnt from the reflection of the glacier and a glimpse of Camp Muir was all we wanted. Finally it was in sight and the hardest part of the mountain was behind us, or was it? We rested for about an hour, filled up our water bottles, met up with the climbers who had left us earlier and continued down as a team. I thought this was going to be the easy part… More weather moved in on our way down, which brought driving sleet and near whiteout conditions. There was no trail to follow as we were descending a snowfield. Three hours later the good ole’ GPS brought us to the Paradise parking lot. What a welcome sight!!
We arrived at base camp all telling war stories from our time on Mt Rainier. Of course, as the beer flowed, the stories got better. 😉 After congratulations from our guides and other climbers, those of us who summited received the gold trophy, the RMI Mt Rainier summit certificate. Once back at our room, K said I dumped my pack and was completely out until morning.
What great training and an awesome experience. Mt Rainier, I will definitely be back.
Watch my Mt Rainier movie below: