In January of this year, I had been made an offer to join a wealth management practice in the bay area and assumed I would be moving to Oakland around May or June. As such, I decided I had to have another go at Rainier before I officially had been away so long that Seattle didn’t feel like home anymore.
I signed up for the Peaks of Life All Women’s climb of Rainier via the Emmons route, July 21-22, 2018.
I spent the first 3 months of this year traveling around West Africa and I certainly didn’t get much exercise. I started training for this climb in April, but more seriously starting in June – getting in at least one or two 3-4000 feet of gain hikes each week as well as cross-training at the gym. The opportunity in Northern California fell through, and I was struggling to decide what to do next with my career. As such, training was hard and the stress of looking for work made me question whether I had the physical and mental stamina to go through with the climb, and whether I was going to be able to fundraise enough $$ to hit my goal (especially since things were financially tough not working.)
All this stress began to take its toll, but I pressed on and managed to get close to reaching my target fundraising goal and felt relatively and adequately physically prepared for the climb.
What about mentally? For me, time spent in the mountains can be very contemplative and almost meditative. But it can also be additionally difficult to concentrate and focus when there are lots of emotional obstacles in life to contend with at the same time.
It was during this difficult time of transition in my life that the week of the climb began to approach, and along with my trepidation about being ready or not came the anxiety fed by memories of three previously unsuccessful summit attempts.
If that weren’t enough, the climbing rangers put out reports the week of the 17th of July that suggested the route was getting broken up, that navigation had become far more difficult, that running belays might be necessary through a re-route that would make the journey through the Emmons much steeper and more of an intermediate climb for teams. I distinctly remember feeling quite alarmed when I read that the route presented the potential for “team-eating snow bridge collapse”.
That didn’t sound good.
The 3 climbers and the 2 leads from Peaks of Life – Forrest Barker (Brooke was unfortunately, taken sick) and Eve Jakubowski gathered over dinner at the Himalayan restaurant on the Thursday before the climb to discuss options. Personally, I wanted to delay the climb by a day and do the DC route on Sunday through Monday when we might have a shot of getting a walk-up permit. Kara was able to follow through with that plan, but Christina couldn’t take the day off.
Forrest assured us that the weather forecast looked really good and that simply put, if we still wanted to do the Emmons together, he felt confident that he would be able to guide us through it and set protection along the way where necessary. You could see the gleam in his eye that always lights up at the thought of guiding newbies through somewhat hazardous, challenging terrain. He thrives on that and I knew he wanted us to go for the Emmons. Eve was on board too – and the plan would allow all 3 of us to see our fundraising goal through to its potential fruition.
We all agreed we would stick to the original plan.
That night I had horrible dreams about crevasses, climbing on steep snow and falling into a dark void. I felt very uneasy about the weekend, but I set about packing my gear in any case – I had volunteered to drive down Friday afternoon and obtain our climbing permit before 5pm so that we could hit the trail at sun up.
That Friday I hit the most horrendous traffic that Google Maps failed to anticipate and I missed the permit office being open by over an hour. I felt additionally despondent when I realized that I had forgotten my annual park pass and was charged $30 to get into the park, and I was informed that no camp spots were open.
Things turned around when a couple at the very first campground I drove past were kind enough to let me pitch my tent on their site which had plenty of room. I was so grateful, and managed to sort out my gear and re-pack it, since in order to leave the house by 2 I had literally thrown a bunch of gear in my back seat and then realized all the stuff I’d forgotten as I drove south (Diamox, an extra Nalgene, AAA batteries, caffeine gel shots – shout out to Eve who was kind enough to grab those items for me and bring them down Saturday!)
The campsite was by a lovely stream and I settled happily in my sleeping bag after enjoying a cold beer and managed to get one of the earliest nights before a climb ever.
I broke camp early and met with the rest of the team at the Ranger Station at 7am the next morning to pick up our walk-up permits. I had freshly baked banana bread for each member of the team as we stood in line and Forrest made coffee. We managed to secure our permits and were given the harsh warning about the state of the route before we headed on up to the trailhead parking lot.
We finally headed on out up the trail around 9am. As usual, my main concern was being a slower hiker than everyone else. No matter what I do in terms of training, I usually find myself to have a slower pace than most which makes me extremely anxious doing group climbs such as this one. Whenever the group made a stop, I would press on because I knew they would catch up sooner or later and I didn’t want to hold everyone up.
Despite the weight of my pack, I felt that I was progressing along the trail much better than I had almost 11 months ago. The extra time and energy I’d put into training and gaining elevation was paying off – even if I was still slower than everyone else on the team.
By the time we hit the interglacier, I was hitting my stride and only suffering from the sweltering heat of the day. We put on crampons and headed up in a much more direct route than we’d taken a year ago – luckily there was more of a boot made staircase this time around, which makes steep ascents on snow much smoother.
Steamboat Prow crept closer, the last 30 minutes or so of that long steep trudge was a challenge, and I was very thankful to finally sit and take a break and eat some food. We were making good progress time-wise, we were just now going to need to rope up for the final hour’s glacier crossing up to camp.
The crevasses were wide and open and Eve (with whom I was on a two-person rope team) applied her climbing experience to route finding our way up, over and around the gaping holes in the snow. By the end of this climb, I was getting used to stepping over these wide cracks that led to deep dark blue ice of unknown depth.
We arrived into camp six hours after starting out. That was an entire 2 hours faster than it had taken us the previous year and I was feeling good about it. Even more lucky – we managed to secure two tent sites from folks who were just leaving – meaning the amount of snow shoveling and leveling out the ground for our tents was minimal.
After setting up our base camp, we set about melting snow for water and dinner. That was when our first disaster struck – we ran out of camping gas. One of the canisters brought up was thought to be full but later we determined it to be near empty. We were in trouble – and Forrest thankfully traded some gear for another used canister from a bunch of climbers heading out. In any case, we were going to be limited in how much snow we could melt for the summit push, and to make matters worse – Forrest had forgotten his water bottle and ended up getting quite dehydrated in the process.
I had my 3 liters which was recommended for the summit, but by the time I drank some that night and with “breakfast” – I only carried two bottles for the summit. We all became quite dehydrated during the following day – which turned into an epic, almost 22-hour day of physical effort.
After dinner, where I had very little appetite, I took a hit on my vape pen to try and calm my nerves and relax myself enough that I might catch an hour or so of sleep before we had to get up again. I was having a lot of anxiety – especially knowing that we were going to be getting up at 9pm to leave by 10p. This was it. The big moment. A large part of me knew the pain that I was walking into and I wanted to pull the plug and just stay in camp.
I buried those feelings and tried to settle in Forrest’s circus-like tent for what amounted to about 90 minutes of sleep.
All too soon the alarm was sounding, and adrenaline took over. I packed my gel shots loaded with caffeine that I knew I’d need (thank you Eve!) warm layers including my summit jacket that only gets used on climbs like this. Gaiters, crampons, ice axe, helmet and headlight on.
Ok…deep breath…here we go.
The next few hours were kind of a blur. We were keeping a quite brisk pace up solid snow that had a steep incline to it such that you often had to duck or French step with the points of your crampons to ascend. We would stop every 90 minutes or so to drink fluid and take in snacks. Christina would take a power nap. I would just keep the thought patterns in my head spinning in a positive direction as best I could. I felt strong, but the mental fears of needing to turn around perhaps, again, kept creeping into my consciousness.
We deliberately slowed our pace when we realized we would top out before sunrise if we kept going the way we were. The trail edged up, relentlessly. I was breathing hard, wondering just how much longer this steep gradient was going to last.
That’s when Forrest announced that things were “about to get steep” as we hit the section of the trail that was the ranger re-route. “What?! Steeper than it’s already been?” It involved a far left traverse followed by a far right traverse to reconnect with where the original trail goes to the summit more directly.
This section was so steep it really hurt one’s ankles. I was so glad it was still dark because if I shone my headlamp down mountain, I could see just how steep the run out under us really was and I tried to suppress the thought that a single misstep could have me hurling down that icy slope, yanking Eve off of it with me.
No, don’t think about it. Just one foot in front of the other.
It was so cold that I put my summit jacket on and found that I could still climb with it on and not get too warm. The wind was pretty calm and Eve said this was the best weather she’d ever experienced on Rainier. It certainly was the best I’d experienced!
These moments are both the best and worst of alpine climbing. You are so totally alone out there on a rope with the next person 30 feet or so in front of you just putting one foot in front of the other. All you can hear is the sound of your own breath, and the crunch, crunch, crunch, of your crampons and ice axe hitting the snow. And then there are your thoughts: nagging at you. Willing you to quit. Asking questions like “what if someone on my team gets AMS? They didn’t take any Diamox like you did. Both of them haven’t been above 12,000 feet before! What if one of us bonks out? Will we all have to turn around?” – and fear sets in which you have to actively ignore and go back to your breath and each step.
Just keep climbing. Just keep breathing.
Every time we got to a section of the re-route that a stumble/fall could produce a team pulled off the mountain scenario, Forrest would place a picket and a running belay as we moved through. One section was quite a vertical climb of snow with steps kicked in nicely. This sort of turned a corner and it felt like we were finally within an hour or so of the summit.
I started to get excited. The sky was glowing amber as the sun rose and there is that wonderful and albeit surreal visual of the stream of people with headlamps in front of you getting ever lighter with each passing minute – and it is just so beautiful it takes one’s breath away. I had a feeling that we were going to make it!
The final push to the summit presented a challenge to me that I could not have imagined. Penitentes. These are extremely sharp snow formations that stick up like thousands of ice picks and form in the same way as sun cups, from rapid thawing and re-freezing. That last section required us to walk on top of these Penitentes and it was by far, the toughest physical and mental challenge of the ascent so far. Each step, your body weight was only distributed through about 10% of your foot as you had to balance precariously with your crampons, all the while trying not to fall over because these things were sharp and painful.
I cursed those penitentes of death under my breath (and out loud) the whole rest of the way which seemed like the longest hour of my life. We finally got to a rocky scree slope that Forrest told me lead all the way to the summit. This was where we could remove our crampons and head up without packs.
What he and none of us realized was that the rocky scree led to even more penitentes! And this time I didn’t have crampons on that helped grip each step as I precariously balanced on each one. I was falling, stumbling every which way and my feet were being pummeled. I have morton’s neuroma in both feet and this enlarged nerve was flaring up from the pressure of these nasty ice formations. Oh, how I hated them!
Then the summit of Columbia crest was in sight! The air was thin, my heart was beating out of my chest. I was the last one to clamber up and when I finally stood on the summit, I became overwhelmed with emotion.
Disbelief, pride, exhaustion, accomplishment, a sense of “Finally! I have made it!” 8 years after my first attempt – I was finally atop Rainier.
Most of all – I had this overwhelming relief that I would never have to put myself through this again. Ever!!!!
We took our obligatory summit photos and posed with the Peaks of Life Banner. I cried tears of joy and took a video expressing my gratitude to Forrest and Eve for their help getting to the top of this monster of a mountain, unfortunately, the playback is almost inaudible due to the wind howling. All you can see is my facial expression and tears – and that will be enough when I look back on it in years to come. We were the only ones out on Columbia Crest at that time – 8 and a ½ hours from when we had left camp the night before. We later learned that the DC route was out and that was why we were lucky enough not to have to share our photo spot with a large group of other climbers.
Thank goodness we had stuck to our original plan of climbing the Emmons!
By 8am we began our descent and I continued my cursing of the Penitentes of death once again and willed for that section to end.
Then it was the long, long, long, slog down the steep snow back to camp – this time, however, we could actually see what we had walked up during that long cold night. About an hour into our return, we realized that we must have taken a wrong turn and we were on the original route instead of the re-route. Forrest and Eve decided that if we moved quickly we could minimize any hazards and so that’s what we did – basically eliminating probably over an hour of extra walking since the original route is much more direct.
The downside to this fact was that it put us about 1500 vertical feet below where Forrest had placed his protection in some of the sketchiest parts of the route. Being the mountain goat that he is, he took off back up the mountain to retrieve his pickets and we thankfully took the opportunity for an extended break.
The sun was so strong at this point and those who haven’t climbed a glaciated mountain cannot fully appreciate just how much glare and UV are constantly reflected back on any of your unsuspecting skin that you haven’t doused in sunscreen- even the insides of your ears and nostrils. We kept adding snow to our almost empty Nalgene bottles, hoping the sun would melt them enough that we’d have some more to drink on our descent.
Forrest finally caught up and now we were fully plunge stepping through soft snow all the way to camp. At this point, my quads were totally fried and I was physically quite useless. Every few minutes I would fall backwards, unable to stay upright, sitting in the snow and cursing my legs. Eve was so patient with me. She would pull on the rope telling me that we just “had to get moving!” and each time I would explain that I going as fast as my broken body could carry me. I was doing my best!
Getting into camp I desperately wanted to just lay horizontally for a while – but I soon found that it was way too hot inside the tent to get any sort of rest. Taking off my boots and letting my feet breathe provided a measure of relief. Every single cell in my body did not want to have to walk back to our cars that evening. I wished we had enough camp fuel and food that we could simply rest and recover that day.
I would recommend to anyone attempting the Emmons to turn the climb into a 3-day trip rather than 2. The hike out proved to be painful for me.
We used up the very last of the gas to melt about 400mls of water for each person – we vowed to re-hydrate at the river that crosses the trail at the base of the interglacier.
And so, with heavy heart and even heavier feeling legs, we packed up camp and re-roped up to head down the Emmons over to Steamboat Prow. Everyone got off the rope at this point and it was each man for himself.
This is when my self-pity kicked into high gear as I watched the rest of the team tearing down the face of the interglacier and I struggled to keep pace – my legs and feet were screaming. I decided to try glissading when the glissade chute seemed to offer a viable and faster alternative to kick stepping – however, I did a terrible job of fixing my crampons to the back of my pack and ended up losing them and a bunch of other gear on my first attempt.
Taking time to reassemble my pack and put on gloves – I re-entered the glissade chute and used my ice axe to brake strongly as I wasn’t a big fan of speed on steep slopes like this one. I could see everyone else on my team already drinking water at the river – Forrest appeared to be waiting for me to get down the chute.
After refilling my water bottle, waiting for a chlorine tablet to sterilize it first, I decided to keep walking down the trail ahead of everyone because of how slow I was moving. Forrest had hidden his approach shoes among the rocks and marked the GPS on his phone but was having a hard time locating them. I didn’t want to hold everyone up (again!) so off I set down the trail…wishing and wishing that I had trail runners to change into as well.
Mountaineering boots are wonderful as torture implements. Something about the stiffness of their soles and wearing them for 22 hours straight make them so painful that you’re swearing under your breath at them, just waiting for the moment when you can take them off and throw them into your car. Those last few miles of trail were the hardest for me – especially once we made it back into the easy forest trail that skirts the river.
It seemed to continue for hours and all four of the others passed me. I told them in no uncertain terms to please not wait for me at the car – to please go ahead and find food and text me the restaurant they were at and I’d meet them there. I didn’t want anyone waiting for my sorry ass.
The pain on the underside of my forefeet had taken on a whole other level. They felt so swollen and my nerves so inflamed that each step felt like I was stepping onto the head of a nail. My pace slowed to a crawl, and by the last 2 miles, tears were rolling down my cheeks and I seriously wondered if I could somehow get rescued? Every step just shot up my legs and into my eye sockets. I needed the parking lot to appear. Now. And then there would be another turn and another – still no campground or parking lot in sight.
Finally, around 7:30pm I emerged at the trail head. I was suffering so much though, that I couldn’t initially remember which direction we had parked in. I knew if I made a mistake and turned right instead of left I might be forced to make hundreds of sharply painful steps in the wrong direction. I opted for walking straight ahead and then found some people who took pity on my face and pointed me in the right direction – offering their congratulations as I miserably trudged away.
When I finally saw my car, I was alarmed to see that everyone except Christina was still there! I angrily asked them what the hell were they doing there and why had they waited for me? I was being super irrational because of the pain. Forrest claimed they’d only gotten back ten minutes before me and apologized for telling me that we were close to the trailhead when he and Eve had passed me.
Lies! Hahahaha. I got my pack off and feet into my flip flops – and I was alarmed that the pain actually intensified rather than feeling that typical relief as the blood starts to flow back in and around one’s foot. Hunger and exhaustion were equally tugging at my brain – and I knew that I was also going to be forced to drive another 2 ½ hours home at this point as I’d brought my own car. We elected on a burger/brewery in Enumclaw and headed over.
I stopped on the way to get gas and realized I also hadn’t stretched and so took the time to work out my hamstrings and quads, calves and hips while waiting for my tank to fill. I got some strange looks – but I couldn’t care less. My body was a mess.
On arrival we asked for water, right away – but our waitress was overworked and distracted so I got up and let her know why we were all so dehydrated and she immediately gave me a pitcher to take back to the table. No matter how much we drank – we didn’t feel it quite satiate our thirst. The physical push of the day, the lack of fluids and the extreme heat was taking a toll. Turned out we weren’t all that hungry either and after eating half of our plates, the desire to crash set in with such fervency that we bid good night and raced to get home before falling asleep at the wheel.
That was a pretty tough drive home. I had the windows open and my music blaring – even still, it took all my strength to keep my eyes open. Leaving all my gear in my car, I walked into my house and almost directly into the shower where I let the water wash the day away.
We had done it. We had gotten to the summit of Mt Rainier. Though I still couldn’t feel my feet, I fell asleep with a big grin on my face.