Your brain finally registers that the beeping sound is your alarm clock. You can hear the wind howling outside, battering the tent, and every rational thought tells you to stay snug and warm inside your sleeping bag. But it’s 1 AM, and it’s time to set out for the summit. Struggling with heavy eyelids, you start to dress, not forgetting your down parka which will help ease the transition to the cold darkness outside. Gear is checked, crampons, helmet and headlamp are attached. The team finally assembles on the snowfield to rope up together. One final safety check on each harness — and we begin trudging off into the night.
No sound left except for the crunch of the snow under your boots, and the heaving sound of your breath.
This might sound like an odd recipe for fun, but the night time summit climb is the most magical element of mountaineering. It’s difficult to imagine unless you’ve experienced it: but the atmosphere created by the cold starry night, the illuminated path ahead, the crunching snow, and the adrenaline pumping through you as you allow yourself to imagine the sweetness of a successful summit bid is wondrous.
I’ve been trekking in the mountains ever since I was a small child, but it was the climb I did in Bolivia of Huayna Potosi (19,996 ft), that got me interested in alpinism. I love putting my body through extreme physical challenge and finding out what it is truly capable of. I enjoy the re-discovering of eating food as fuel. I love the peace I feel in the mountains, and the scenery that takes me away from the routine of city life. This is where I am most comfortable (when I’m not traveling, of course, although I have tried to incorporate more climbs/treks into my travels as the years go by. I find I now gravitate towards the natural landscapes versus the urban sprawl.)
After returning from my travels in April, Arnaud and I decided to sign up for a climb of Mount Rainier. I have wanted to climb this mountain for six years, but somehow always found an excuse not to do it ‘this summer’. I think having a partner to train with, and ultimately to share the experience with was a huge part of actually making this commitment easier to make. It would also give me a sense of focus and a goal to work toward; something that has really helped me with my “away sickness” since returning from traveling.
At 14,411 feet, and a starting point at 5400 feet, this is no easy mountain. It holds the added complication of having to deal with significant altitude gain over a short period time, especially for those of us that live at sea level. Mount Rainier is the most glaciated mountain in the contiguous United States with 26 major glacier as well as 35 square miles of glaciers and permanent snowfields – so being competent traversingr ice is also important.
We started training for this endeavor quite late in the game, at the end of April. For me personally, this has meant three or four workouts during the week, consisting of a combination of intense cardio like running, stair master, or biking, with strength training like free weights and Pilates. On the weekends, Arnaud and I have tried to fit in at least one big hike of at least 3000 vertical feet, have gradually increased the weight we are carrying as we climb, building up to around 40 pounds.
As our last major training session before the big climb, we got together with a group of friends to attempt the climbingof Mount Baker. Though only 10,781 feet tall, with a trailhead of 3500 feet, and a similar start time for the summit bid, it was going to put us through a very similar scenario to a climb of Rainier.
We climbed the weekend of June 4 and 5th, and we were lucky enough to have fantastic weather. Arnaud and I had learned our lesson climbing up to Camp Muir two weeks before, and elected to wear our new ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ sun hats to protect against the rays of the sun beating down on us, and reflecting from the snow below. Staying well hydrated was also key on this trek – once the dehydration headache begins, it is almost impossible to shake, so drinking plenty of fluid is vital.
We took the Coleman Deming route on the mountain, and given the amount of snow pack received over the winter, most of the crevasses were currently covered — our greatest concern as highlighted by the Rangers at the National Forest Service Station was going to be avalanche. As such, we needed to move our summit attempt up from 3 AM to 1 AM to ensure that we were past the most dangerous part of the ice field before the sun’s rays hit with their full daytime strength.
This was the first time I was attempting a summit of a glaciated peak without an experienced professional guide with me. On some levels, I was nervous and felt under experienced. On the other hand, I knew that we would all turn around if we were faced with a potentially treacherous situation. Luckily, the head of our team had ample rope experience and crevasse rescue skills; however, in hindsight this mountain should not be attempted unless every member of the team has these in abundance.
We didn’t make it into our base camp until around eight o’clock at night, having learned our first lesson: leave Seattle much earlier. Having not found the flat plateau we were promised for our tents, we elected to set up a camp on a slightly undulating slope requiring us to dig out tent platforms using a shovel. Tensions were high, as we were exhausted and hungry, plus the winds were truly picking up.
The following day, we discovered the plateau was only another fifteen minutes or so of climbing ahead of us.
Rehydrated hot food never tastes as good as it does inside a tent after a long hard day of climbing. We soon passed out, though I went to sleep believing that we would all be too tired after only a couple hours of sleep to go for the summit. Looking back, this removed my anxiety about getting up so early, and actually helped me get a full two hours of rest.
Strangely enough, I awoke at 1 AM feeling quite rested and alert. I could hear the other members stirring in their tents. I dressed, and stepped outside onto the snow.
What I saw took my breath away. It was a clear night, stars were twinkling overhead, and the lights from the city of Bellingham shone below like a thousand lit up Christmas trees, creating an orange glow in the lower sky.
I was excited.
Once on the move, our team progressed slowly but steadily. Only five of the seven of us were heading out for the summit, and I was unsure about the condition of two of the members who seemed to be struggling. I was surprised by how good I was feeling despite the lack of sleep… I felt like I could keep climbing forever.
Unfortunately, at about 9300 feet, a member of our team stopped and declared that he could not go any further. He said that his feet were soaked through, and his toes were frozen (I hadn’t realized his boots were not mountaineering boots- Arnaud and I were wearing double insulated plastic boots and our feet were toasty- this is why climbing with the right equipment for the conditions is so essential.)
With only about two hours to go to victory, I was deeply disappointed, but I knew we had to turn around since we were all roped up together and one person’s failure would mean the failure of the entire team. I fought the urge to complain and commiserate with myself out loud, as we began our descent to base camp.
It was still an amazing experience, and I know Mount Baker will be there for me to climb again, this time with more skill and more experience. And I was very happy that Arnaud got to experience one of my favorite things about mountaineering: the nighttime summit bid.
There really is nothing else like it.
Our climb of Mount Rainier is scheduled for the 25-28th of June. I will be following this post with a detailed account upon my return.