After months of training-filled, REI-obsessed, anxiety-filled days, our weekend to climb Mt. Rainier had finally arrived. It meant more than just the $1244 we had spent on the 3 ½ day trip, and the nearly $2,000 on gear. It was about the almost six years that I had gazed at this mountain every time I drove across Lake Washington. Each time I saw it haloed in a pink sunset as I drove south on Rainier Ave. Every time it exclaimed its presence in a made-for- postcard photograph of downtown on a clear day.
The mountain had been calling me for a long time, and I had finally answered.
“I am ready.”
We arrived in Ashford, WA on a beautiful and sunny Saturday afternoon for our group gear check. We were introduced to our lead guide, Josh, who seemed competent, professional and very mild mannered. The kind of guy you like to have around in an emergency.
I learned a great deal that afternoon about gear, and more specifically- how to pack it. My tips will be highlighted in a future post.
The morning we set out for Camp Muir (We were taking the standard Disappointment Cleaver or “D.C” route) was a blue-bird day, with bright sunshine and not a cloud in the sky. The guides set a nice, slow, but steady pace on the ascent- which really helped to allay my fear of being the slowest member of the group. We took five minute breaks every 60-90 minutes, and you made the most of the time by grabbing a snack and water quickly then resting your legs by sitting on your pack as soon as possible.
I was feeling very good about my fitness as this point. All the workouts had paid off, and compared to when I had first climbed to Camp Muir over six weeks ago, my conditioning had surely improved. The climb itself is about 4500 vertical feet of gain over 4.5 miles. Arriving in the late afternoon on my first attempt, I remember truly struggling during the last hour to keep my legs moving; collapsing in a giant heap on arrival.
This time around, I was even able to chat to my fellow climbers on the ascent, and before I knew how much time had passed, I looked up to realize “oh, we’re here!”
Despite my ease with the ascent, a short rest before dinner was definitely in order and we all retreated to the hut that was to be our overnight accommodations to unpack necessary gear and take a nap. I was happy I had brought earplugs along, as Gordon (who we thought strongly resembled Sean Connery) showed himself to be a very loud snorer almost immediately upon closing his eyes.
International Mountain Guides, Alpine Ascents International, and RMI make up the three guiding companies that have permits to lead trips up Mount Rainier. IMG and AAI “trade off” the nights that they use the hut at Muir, and the tents at Ingraham Flats – our destination for tomorrow’s second day hike. They also have a cozy semi-permanent tent structure used for group meals, where everyone sits on plastic gear containers while the guides show off their impressive culinary skills. That first night we were treated to some rather delicious burritos; though everything tastes better on a mountain, especially after a hard day of climbing.
Our group was a rather merry and cohesive bunch: Arnaud and I made the only “couple”, there was also a father/daughter team who were climbing the highest point in all 50 states together, two friends from Oklahoma, a Microsoft”ee” who was raising money for the National Park System on her climb, and a school teacher from Montana. Between the eight of us were four guides, so each rope team would consist of two clients and a lead guide. That is an impressive ratio and makes for personal attention and a great sense of safety.
After hearing another very calmly presented brief on the following days’ activities (this got to be a thing with Josh and we teased him about it mercilessly) we all retired around 8pm for a long night’s sleep.
We would need as much rest as possible, since our start time the following night would be at midnight or 1am for the summit.
I slept pretty well, but when we awoke we quickly realized just how unreliable the weather forecast could be. The wind was kicking up a storm, it was completely clouded over and the temperature with the wind chill had a sharp edge to it. The forecast had called for calm, sunny skies again.
After a hearty breakfast of bacon, pancakes and coffee, we all put on our crampons for some glacier travel training. Andy, the German guide (who later helped Arnaud and I form Team Euro trash by being our rope team leader) taught us methods of climbing that would keep the work mainly in the quad instead of the calf muscles: the “Duck Walk” and the “French Technique”, basically a side stepping, flat footed method. He also had us practice descending on high gradient slopes so that we learned to trust that the spikes on our boots were going to keep us from falling so long as we placed them with force and did not tread in them with trepidation.
Next, we learned how to self-arrest and take a life-saving position should one of our team take a fall. I found this part to be somewhat difficult, though not for physical reasons.
About a month ago, my guide from the trek I took to Mount Everest last year, Suzanne Allen, was killed in an accident while guiding a team of four on a descent from the summit of Denali. Suzanne was a fearless leader, and her compassion, humor and generous nature impressed me during the time I knew her. During our gear check, Josh had pointed out that the majority of falls on mountain climbs were due to poor crampon use, and that a guide had been killed on Denali earlier in the season when one of her team’s crampons had come loose causing him to trip and hurtle down the mountain pulling all four members of the rope team off the mountain with him, tumbling for over a thousand feet. I got a lump in my throat as he said these words because I knew who he was talking about.
Having Suzanne on my mind made it difficult to hear my team mates’ voices calling “falling”. On summit day, especially during our climb of the Disappointment Cleaver, a narrow ridge of steep rock and snow, I thought intensely about Suzanne and what it must have been like on that fateful day. This made me quite emotional- especially when I later ran into some of her AAI colleagues from the Everest Trek on our return.
After some snacks, it was time to harness up and get on rope for our 1,000 or so foot climb up to our high camp on Ingraham Flats. The weather had really taken a turn for the worst, and I felt a fear creep into the pit of my stomach for our summit bid. We climbed in zero visibility and winds that battered our bodies at every step.
There were moments where I found myself losing balance and felt as though I would be blown off the side of the mountain. With every step, it was crucial to maintain two points of contact with the ground- so I moved my ice axe up before taking my next step, which was sort of counter-intuitive.
Strange as it sounds, I found that hour and a half climb to be more physically and mentally challenging than the previous day’s climb to Camp Muir.
On arrival at Ingraham Flats, I was cold to the bone and crawled into our tent and quickly got into my sleeping bag trying to warm up. It was pretty futile, and I grew almost resentful of Arnaud who happily started snoring as soon as he got in his bag. His ability to sleep anywhere, at any time, makes him a better alpinist, I swear!
The winds were really picking up outside and it proved very challenging to relieve yourself, your butt attacked by the now driving snow and biting wind. It’s funny now, in retrospect- but it was painful then, and it took a long time to warm back up.
We dined in a little tent around 3pm on a bowl of pasta and Italian sausage. Josh gave us the dire news that they were expecting 35 mph winds at this altitude and 55mph at the summit around midnight. They were due to begin calming down through the night, but as he explained, we simply wouldn’t know the exact situation until we were in it. He told the group that he would wake around midnight to check conditions, and wake the group at some point between then and 2am when he felt the weather was optimal. I have to admit at this point, I went to bed at 5pm with only a little hope left in my heart for success.
But I guess that depends on one’s measure of success- is it reaching the summit of a mountain, or returning home safe and sound with more experience than when you set out?
Find out what happened next in Tuesday’s post.