Moving up in the world: Climbing Mt. Rainier

[Category: Climbing] [link] [Date: 2011-06-05 21:18:45]


An elemental part of me has always been attracted to mountains. To me the sight of a snow-capped peak symbolizes a certain level of wildness and commitment to adventure that other environments rarely provide. Last spring I hiked an extended section of the Appalachian Trail in Maine. Preparing for the trek gave me focus and a desire to progress forward. Months after I completed my walk in the wilds of Maine, I began to sense a void in my life. I had nothing that I was moving toward. My success on the trail inflated my ambition and I was soon pondering a more committing, audacious adventure. I wanted to move up in the world and test myself on a true mountain. Something with glaciers, bulk, and formidable size. This eliminated anything in the east, and I eventually ended up throwing caution to the wind and focusing on the most glaciated peak in the contiguous United States: Mount Rainier.

Last December I received a note from an old high school friend who invited me to go skiing. I obliged, and it took less than 15 minutes for me to blurt out the details of my next adventure. The excitement was likely apparent as I outlined my intentions, and there was evidently enough energy behind my descriptions to convince Matthew to join me. Up until this point, I had been operating under the pretense that I would be pursuing this objective alone. A majority of my friends lack interest in such activities, or cannot afford them. Matt was the rare case that didn't fall into both categories.

With a new goal in mind, I began to prepare. It took many months to schedule everything, purchase necessary gear, and physically train for the climb. As a somewhat excessively detail-oriented individual, I tracked all expenses, purchases, and dates with the utmost care. I can tell you exactly how much I paid for the entire trip, to rent gear, or to purchase food. This is a process that I go through so as to not mask the true cost of such adventures. It's easy to lose sight of the expenses these trips incur since the costs are distributed over long periods of time. Organization pays off in other ways as well. I returned and exchanged many items that I purchased, and the organization of receipts and tags made this a smooth process.

Training was considerably more rigorous than my plan for my wilderness trek. I ran 3-4 times a week, sometimes for an hour. I also began to do more technical climbing in a nearby bouldering gym to work on core and upper-body strength. I dislike going into any activity entirely blind, so I arranged to take two mountaineering courses through Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) that also included an ascent of Mt. Washington in February. I learned all of the basic mountaineering skills and felt much more confident about all the technical aspects of the larger climb to come. Once the time came to leave for Seattle, I was in the best shape of my life. My scrawny 130lb body had bulged to almost 150lbs.

To prepare, I took a few mountaineering classes and climbed Mt. Washington in February

Our flight departed from Cincinnati around 9:30AM, and we landed at a mere 10:42AM in Seattle due to the three hour time change. We were shuttled to and from the airport by Luis and Mike (respectively) who both work for the Bellevue branch of the company that I work for. This saved us the monetary hit of renting a car, but it severely limited us in terms of mobility once in Ashford. After checking into the bunk room at Whittaker's Bunkhouse, we began our first stretch of boredom. We had flown in with a day to spare, since I had planned on one buffer day on each side of the trip. We learned to play a card game named Cuarenta (forty), and even made our own variation of it. Even so, the next few days dragged on forever. After we picked up our rental gear I remember looking at one another and then Matt saying "Let's just go up! We have all the gear!". Every hour or so we would go outside to scan the horizon and look for any signs of The Mountain, but it never revealed itself among the ever-present blanket of clouds that brought such unpredictable weather to Ashford.

Back to school

When participating in a Rainier Mountaineering (RMI) guided program, it consists of an orientation, a snow school, and the climb itself. At the orientation, the guides give an introduction to the program and verify that the team participants have the necessary gear. Each participant also introduces themselves to the group. The experience of individuals varied, but I was happy to find that I didn't identify anyone that I was concerned about. Numerous participants were marathon (and ultra-marathon, mind you) runners, and a handful had prior climbing experience as well. After everyones gear was thoroughly inspected and approved, we all retreated to our rooms and anxiously waited for the following morning to come when we would finally get on the lower slopes of the mountain.

Before RMI lets you haplessly wander up the mountain, they require that program participants complete a one day snow school that covers the basics of mountaineering. This considerably lowers the liability that clients may pose to guides and themselves once they are roped up on the more dangerous slopes and glaciers found on the upper reaches of the mountain. I enjoyed the training day, and the only new skills were those involved in rope travel. During the training we got our first glimpse of the upper mountain through a break in the clouds. It elicited both excitement and apprehension.

Snow school with Thomas (pictured) and JJ

Our group appeared strong. The amount of praise being distributed to our two teams was seemingly excessive, but I agreed that we all seemed focused and dialed in to our objective. The day ended by walking down to the parking lot in crampons. After the days conclusion, there were some final words from our guides before we were released to relax and mentally prepare for the next two grueling days. I opted to consume the majority of a pizza on my own, where I saw the somewhat famous Peter Whittaker. He seemed occupied, so I stayed focused on my food while he drove off in what I believe was a Chevy Cruze.

The climb

Still yet to fully adjust to the time change, I was up well before it was necessary to be on the first day of the climb. I took my time packing and eating then relaxed for a short while before gearing up and heading out. The weather was looking bleak in Ashford. I had let go of the annoying concept of using garbage bags for my gear, but a small fear of moisture grabbed hold of me as the guides seemed to advocate the use of a garbage bag. I grabbed one but never used it. The drive up to Paradise yielded ever-improving conditions until we were free of any precipitation. We left the parking lot with low visibility. After only an hour, the heat was oppressive and everyone was down to their base layer and climbing pant. As the morning turned to the early afternoon we progressed upwards by placing one foot in front of the other thousands of times. Each step up revealed more of the mountain, and the skies cleared to give us a clear look at our objective. Eventually, Camp Muir was visible and it seemed to be mere minutes away. At such a large scale, and with few reference points, the distance was misleading. It took over a half an hour to reach the small cluster of buildings that seemed so close.

The peaks of the Tatoosh range often pierced the veil of clouds

Our first full-featured view of Mt. Rainier while hiking up to Camp Muir

Resting between pushes up to Camp Muir

Our team was moving like a well-oiled machine

Taking one of our final breaks before reaching Camp Muir

The first hour at Camp Muir was somewhat confusing. Part of you wants nothing more than to drop your pack, lay down, and rest. Not necessarily because you are tired, but because you know that you've just done the easy part and every bit of energy you can conserve will improve your performance for the climb through the night. On the other hand, you want to drink lots of water, eat food, unpack your backpack, make a claim of where you will "sleep", go over what gear you'll need, re-pack your backpack, choose your snacks, dry your socks, and so many other little things. Being the near obsessive compulsive individual that I am, I kept busy by making lists and shifting my packing strategies to accommodate the oncoming summit attempt.

The stone buildings of Camp Muir

My choice for dinner was macaroni and cheese. I should have stuck with my more standard ramen noodles with a bagel. Either way, there was the issue of what to do with the extra liquids from my meal. The hardcore way is to drink any excess from your food preparation. After some repeated gagging I had most of my hyper-diluted, orange-tinted, now cold cheese water out of the picture. I should have utilized my cooking system from Maine wherein I simply cooked in a thick quart-sized plastic bag and ate out of it. Any remains you did not want were simply stored in the re-sealed bag. I'm not sure what prompted the sudden change. Luckily, I had brought a peanut butter bagel which I enjoyed thoroughly.

Early after arriving at Camp Muir I had made my bedding claim to the least accessible bottom bunk space that was closest to the door. I had foolishly brought a rather aggressively rated sleeping bag and was concerned I was going to fry given the small volume of the bunk house. It was hard to access, but I could still get in and out without stepping on someone. I also had plenty of extra room to dump gear I deemed impossible to leave outside. I did as much as I could to prepare for the final leg of the climb, and once 6pm rolled around everyone began the desperate process of trying to gain some strength by attempting to sleep. Most of us had drank an unearthly amount of water to re-hydrate and combat the effects of the altitude. It came as no surprise that every five to ten minutes the door to the bunk house would open and drag across the iced entrance floor. While there was no true sleep, there were stretches of time that I could not account for where I was in some ill-defined no man's land between consciousness and sleep.

The door flew open and the sound of numerous pairs of hard mountaineering boots alerted everyone that this wasn't a weary sleep-deprived climber returning from one of the now standard restroom breaks. It was a bit after midnight and the time had come. I was not feeling fantastic, but I felt well considering I seemed to have shaken the headache I was grappling with when I first arrived at Camp Muir. I managed to consume a dual serving of oatmeal in the hut, though it wasn't easy. I stepped outside into the dark. The flurry of motion was evident in the gleaming white LED-powered beams that were darting from side to side as climbers prepared their backpacks and roped up. A little past 1AM all of the teams began their march upwards.

The ground danced with headlamp beams as we all readied to climb through the night

The first hours went by with disturbing haste. At night and in the dark, my world was reduced to a small sphere illuminated by my headlamp. Every so often I would power it up to it's maximum capacity only to have the light swallowed by an unmentionable void. Our team would verbally reassure each other sporadically, though we seldom communicated. Only when some hazard posed a threat to climbers behind us was the silence broken. It became colder and colder, and soon I was regretting my decision to deviate from my original plan to use a mid-weight pant base layer on summit day.

A weary climber (me) side-stepping up a moderate slope in the darkness of night (Photo by Kel Rossiter)

Dawn eventually came and brought some much-desired warmth to some chilled climbers (Photo by Kel Rossiter)

There's only one place to go: up! Me with Little Tahoma featured in the background (Photo by Kel Rossiter)

Eventually, the darkness yielded to dawn. The ambient light seemed to change hue and intensity by the minute as the bleached white landscape shifted between shades of blue, gray, and soft orange. My world steadily grew until the sun was above the horizon and I could see the grand scale of the mountain. We had progressed upward further than any other team in the past week had managed. Without an established route past approximately 12,000ft, the teams in the lead were required to kick steps to establish a safe path to move upwards on. Forced to take our high break early by a sizable crevasse above 13,000ft, we sat down for what would become a rather extended break. The snow bridge that had provided the safest crossing was decaying rapidly as climbers worked their way up it.

We take a rest at high break (me on the left) (Photo by Kel Rossiter)

While sitting down during our extended break, many other climbing teams began to enter the queue from other guiding agencies. Jokes likening the scene to the Hillary Step on Everest began to circulate. At one point I decided to put my hard shell pants on, which proved to be a mistake as the effort it took and the body contortion required to put them on ended up involving what felt like an inordinate amount of energy expenditure. Then our turn came on the crevasse. When I received the signal I made my first attempt to make the initial high step onto the bottom of the other side of the crevasse. The foot hold disintegrated as I placed weight on it. For my second attempt, I wrapped my arm around the fixed line that had been placed, which ended more successfully. My glasses had now fogged and I could hardly distinguish details in the white in front of me. My hard shell pants had sagged down below my waste and I suddenly felt less than comfortable, but was glad to have the crevasse behind me.

This is what the large crevasse above 13,000ft looked like (Photo by Kel Rossiter)

I watched the rest of my rope team proceed safely across and up the obstacle as I was transferred in, out of, and between prusiks, lines and anchors in order to be safely secured. I had brought only one locking carabiner, which turned out to be a regrettable decision on more than just this occasion. Not far after the crevasse the weather turned sour as winds increased and visibility dropped. After pushing on for another half an hour the radio crackled and we learned that a climber had punched through a hidden chasm up to his waste. With all the variables stacking against us, the guides made the executive decision to turn around.

For the most part, our descent was without incident and the teams arrived back in Camp Muir after getting blasted by some moderate winds just prior to passing through Cathedral Gap and onto the Cowlitz Glacier. Knowing that we had a limited amount of time at Camp Muir, I focused on re-hydrating and preparing my gear for the descent down to Paradise. We learned that numerous other teams were in very reduced visibility and high winds. Their descents took hours longer than ours, even though they had only proceeded an extra few hundred vertical feet. Despite no one tagging the top, the mood seemed positive. Everyone was safe, and no one could say that their trip was without adventure. The descent down to Paradise was quick, only taking a bit over two hours.

The shuttle took us back to Ashford where there was a ceremonious presentation of certificates to everyone who had participated. Then it was over. All the planning, effort, and training I had focused on in the past months had coalesced into what happened over the past 30 or so hours. We would pass the remaining time in Ashford slowly as we waited for our ride back to Seattle for our red eye flight the next day.


Most important to me is what I would do differently based on what I learned from this climb. The easiest way to organize these changes is in bulleted form. I would...

  • Purchase a buff for $20 (it just seems too versatile to not have)
  • Bring my own tent to relax and sleep in (as crazy as that sounds)
  • Use another insulating layer such as a light primaloft jacket in place of the soft shell
  • Return to my now-standard food plan and cook in disposable bags to make trash/waste management easier
  • Stick with the normal fatty/salty options that I have utilized in the past for snacks
  • Schedule the flights with less buffer time
  • Bring more things to occupy free time
  • Utilize dry bags for any important items that couldn't get wet and ditch the garbage bag concept entirely
  • Add a bit more to my rack such as a a few extra lockers and slings
  • Use water bottle insulators to keep the liquids from turning to slush (which made it hard to stay hydrated)
  • Consider bringing a mid-weight base layer pant

Most of my outdoor experiences have been in the company of only myself or few others. I was taken aback by the number of people moving up and down the mountain. Camp Muir was busier than a city bus stop. One of the primary reasons I go outdoors is to feel distant from everything normal and safe in everyday life. Increasing my distance from people, work, and the comforts of modern life leads to a simplification unlike any other I have found. Unfortunately, the brevity of the climb and the proximity to others detracted significantly from these feelings I have come to seek over the past years. This isn't to say that I was in any way disappointed with the experience, nor is it saying that I would not pursue anything similar again.

To me, climbing is about learning. Whether it's a single pitch sport route or a week long expedition to a craggy peak. From a distance, it may appear that physical strength forms the basis of a good climber. The truth, I believe, is that the game is more of a mental exercise than anything else. Planning, preparing, and progressing forward requires mental resolve above all. I didn't make it to the top, and neither did any of the other climbers that day. It would be rash to say it was a waste of time when considering what was achieved. Early on, after I made the decision to climb Rainier, I resolved that I would much rather have an unsuccessful climb that was adventurous and challenging than a stairway to the summit, and I am happy to have received just that.

Goodbye, Mt. Rainier!

If you enjoyed my account of climbing Mt. Rainier and have copious amounts of free time consider reading my entries about my hike of the 100 mile wilderness in Maine. Many of the pictures I used in this log were taken by Kel Rossiter of Adventure Spirit Guides. Guide Jeff "JJ" Justman also used a GoPro helmet cam to capture some of the climb, view it on his facebook page here.

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