I have been wanting to climb to the summit of Washington’s highest mountain, Mt. Rainier since I moved to Seattle in December of 2004. I can remember the first time I saw the mountain, majestic and mocking in her sheer size and prominence – like she was looking down over the city, a clear winner in the contest of who’s bigger and badder. My first attempt at climbing Mt. Rainier was with International Mountain Guides in 2011. Like most guided first-time climbs – we went up the DC route but were unfortunately turned around due to high winds and very low temperatures about 500 vertical feet above the top of the cleaver.
That first experience on the mountain was a great lesson in how the mountain has its own weather and how unpredictable she can be. I can remember thinking to myself that I had never in my life felt that degree of physical cold. It was terrifying. I remember desperately needing to drink some water from my Nalgene which had partially frozen despite being in my backpack and weighing my aching thirst with my fear of taking my hand out of my glove to unscrew the cap which was stuck. I remember the disappointment at having to turn around coupled with the sheer sense of relief that the team wasn’t planning on pressing on into the night while that weather raged because it would have brought untold suffering.
Being so stubborn about attaining goals I set for myself, however, I know that had the guides deemed it safe, I would have continued no matter how much it hurt. In other words, I was glad that in that instance, it wasn’t my decision to make.
The following summer, a dear friend of mine, Karsten Delap, was in Washington State training for his American Mountain Guides Association certification, and offered to help lead my boyfriend and I up the DC for our second attempt. Once again, we experienced very shitty weather: not quite as cold, but definitely very high winds. Additionally, we were faced with what has become another hazard on the ever-popular DC route – especially in the high season for climbing that is July – and that is the human traffic jam that lines the route all the way from Camp Muir to the summit.
In crossing a section after the Cleaver that was notorious for rockfall, I watched as a football sized rock fell from overhead without warning – narrowly missing my friend Karsten. He looked at me, shaken, urging us to press on through that section much faster. Later, as we came to what I remember as the endless switchbacks of snow about a 1,000 feet higher than our first attempt had gotten us, we caught up with the crowds of people on the mountain who had now come to a grinding and painfully slow stop-and-go line. A long queue had formed heading to the summit.
Karsten became agitated, and as the wind picked up, he started cursing as he noticed the number of inexperienced climbers doing stupid shit like sitting near an open crevasse eating snacks unclipped from their team’s rope. This, combined with the worsening weather and the fact that we were unable to push on at a pace that would result in us getting to the summit with a reasonable safety margin to return before the snow/ice had softened to a dangerous level led him to pull the plug on our ascent.
That being our second attempt, I felt crushed. As we descended to Muir, we realized the wisdom in Karsten’s decision as the wind had now picked up to the point where you would see these bursts of color flying by as tents below us at Camp Muir were being ripped off the mountain, one by one. I remember him picking up the pace and managing to secure his yellow Black Diamond tent which had had 3 of its 6 stakes yanked out by the time we got to it.
To add insult to injury, we experienced what so many climbers must face on their descent to the Paradise area and parking lot: day trippers asking dumb questions/comments when they see you descending in mountaineering gear.
“Wow! Did you climb all the way to the top?”
“What’s it like up there?”
“Oh…you didn’t make the summit? Did you get too tired?”
“How long does it take to walk up there?”
“My sister did it last year and said it was super easy.”
You get the idea. Mostly you just grit your teeth and smile, but it eats away at you as you watch them smiling back in their jeans and toddler on their shoulders laughing because they can’t believe there’s snow up there “in the middle of summer!”
My boyfriend was super miserable after that climb and declared he was done with the mountain and wouldn’t attempt it again. Conversations with friends about our experience were also not helpful and anytime someone would point out that they had had a successful summit climb on their first attempt, it made it worse.
What people don’t understand is that it takes just as much physical effort to get within a 1000 vertical feet of the summit as it does to summit. It also takes, by order of magnitude, a hell of a lot more effort to get close to the summit in really bad weather, than it takes to make the summit on a calm, bluebird day.
For several years, I tried to forget about Rainier.
But then she’d always just be there. Staring at me as I drove across the bridge. Taunting me. Reminding me of how I hadn’t succeeded at something. Somehow, she became a metaphor for lack of accomplishment in my life.
In 2014, I decided to take a course in climbing with the Mountaineers. I thought it would be a great way to learn the skills I needed to have another go at the mountain by myself with a team of friends I’d make in the class. What I didn’t realize was that the other 500 students who’d signed up had the same idea…and Rainier climbs got filled, literally, within seconds of them posting to the website. You’d be lucky to get “Waitlisted number 14”. That issue, coupled with the fact that I lost my job that May and decided to spend the majority of the summer hiking and climbing in Peru (on 18,000 foot peaks that didn’t count at all toward my Mountaineers climbing badge) meant I didn’t really make the kind of connections I needed to form my own climbing team, nor did I get a chance to go with any of the basic climb leaders that year.
2014 became 2015 and then 2016 – each of those years posed serious career challenges and climbing took a bit of a backseat as I struggled financially.
Last year, however, I became more involved with a non-profit here in Seattle called Peaks of Life. I’d met the founders – a couple called Brooke and Forrest (I know, it’s the cutest pairing of names for a nature loving couple ever) at a prior Washington Hikers and Climbers event up at Mount Baker – but we didn’t connect until I joined them on one of their “Adventure Series” hikes to Lake Serene in June. This Adventure Series was designed to raise awareness of their non-profit which seeks to bring groups of mountaineers together to climb local peaks and raise money for uncompensated care at Seattle Children’s Hospital. So…I could find a group of people who loved to climb AND raise money for charity at the same time? Seemed like a winning combination to me!
Peaks of Life had a Rainier climb scheduled for the summer of 2017, however it was already full. I joined them on climbs of Mt. Adams and I also summitted The Brothers independently with a good friend of mine. I was in great shape from hiking and climbing all summer – and I was finding my joy in it again. When a member of the All-Women’s team had to turn around near the summit due to AMS – Forrest offered her the chance to have another go via the Emmons route in August – and he was kind enough to offer me the chance to be 3rd on the rope team.
This would be my 3rd attempt at Rainier and 5 years since my last attempt. Plus – this was a new and exciting route. I didn’t have to climb to Muir – a huge bonus in my mind alone (I’ve hiked to Muir so many times and I really don’t enjoy it.) I was excited to go with Forrest – he is genuinely a climbing savant and an all-around wondrously talented, funny, and generous human being.
So, one Saturday very late into the climbing season, we ignored the warnings of how broken up the route had gotten (relying on Forrests’ navigation skills to get us through the maze of crevasses) and heartened by a decent weather outlook, the 3 of us set out to Camp Schurman on the Emmons route which starts at White River.
My first recollection of that day was putting on my fully loaded pack and thinking “Hmmm…this is so heavy, I’m not sure I can make it out of the parking lot!”
I managed. But it was a long, slow, and difficult trudge for me up to camp. It took us 8 hours, though we were delayed for about an hour while Forrest set off after some rather expensive looking gear that a hapless climber must have lost in a gust of wind.
When we got to camp – we were the only group there! Forrest told us that during the height of the season, there could be 50 groups heading up the Emmons. I felt lucky. It was a gorgeous evening and sunset…with only a very light breeze in our faces as we fired up dinner and good conversation.
The plan was to head out around 2am so we tried to get to sleep as early as we could – around nightfall.
I was anxious, but really vibing off of the positive energy and outlook of my two teammates. I was finally gonna get my Rainier Summit!!
I woke up around 2am, but not to the sound of my alarm clock. I woke up to Christine’s face literally on mine, her body rolled on top of me like she was trying to smother me. I remember saying something like “what the hell is going on?” and she replied with “Look up!”.
I did. It soon became obvious that a storm had rolled in and brought high winds with it that had torn several holes right through my rainfly which was now flapping helplessly. The poles keeping the tent up were being bent almost in two, causing the tent to collapse on Christine’s side, hence her having to roll up and on to me, flattened by the bending structure of the tent itself.
I couldn’t help but laugh. It was a hysterical moment. I remember how loud the wind was. I really needed to pee, but I had no idea how I was going to get outside the tent, let alone manage to stand up once I was outside.
We heard Forrest call out to us. He said something about wanting to come talk to us, but not being able to, and that we would give it another hour or so and see if the wind abated a bit.
In fact, after managing somehow to pee (with the spray going in every which direction let me tell you) – back in our tent, Christine and I were forced to dig out our goggles because the dust was being blown into the tent with such ferocity that we couldn’t open our eyes. We tried to get more sleep – but being pressed into each other like that was just not amenable to shut eye and we ended up chatting and giggling into the morning hours when it calmed enough to get some sleep.
Unfortunately, it was now too late to attempt the summit as we wouldn’t make it back in time for the glacier to be safe to traverse.
Christine and Forrest had a great attitude about it, and I tried as best I could to bottle my emotion and disappointment as we headed back to the car. Carrot cake and beer cooled in the river certainly helped…as did my new life-long friends.
Did I mention that climbing forges the best of friendships? Going through experiences like this with people you dig is priceless. Knowing Christine and remembering her on me like that in my slashed tent will always make me laugh. It was a wonderful start to our friendship.
And so…this brings me to 2018 and my decision in January to sign up for the Emmons All-Women’s climb of Mt. Rainier and finally bag this bitch of a mountain once and for all.
Part II will tell that story…