After six months of training and preparation I finally flew out west to test my skill and my evolution as a climber on the slopes of Mt. Rainier. It was a week that served as my introduction to mountaineering, climbing on snow, and ultimately having to make a difficult decision. Although our early morning climb began in the best of conditions, it quickly turned sour as my two companions, my guide and I had to fight our way back to camp in the midst of a raging snowstorm. As physically prepared as I was, nothing could have prepared me for my own personal drama at 13,000 feet.
“Alright everybody up lets go!”
Our guide, Paul rattled the tents at 1 AM and we scrambled out of our sleeping bags in the predawn darkness. With only a headlamp to guide our way, we eagerly fitted ourselves into our plastic boots, crampons, harnesses, and helmets. Outside our guides had already prepared hot water containers for breakfast. It’s important to eat as many calories as possible before climbing, so my breakfast consisted of two packets of oatmeal, two packets of cream of wheat, a packet of instant chicken soup, and a Snickers bar. The weather was cold but not unpleasant. A light wind had rattled our tent all night and a soft snowfall fell under clear skies. After properly insulating ourselves, our group of five set out into the night towards the first leg of our climb.
There was an eerie silence as my crampons crunched into the hard snow. We climb at night because the snow is frozen and harder, giving better traction to the spikes attached to our boots. In the distance I could only make out the pitch blackness with dozens of small lights, the other teams making their way up, strung up like an invisible line of Christmas lights walking uphill. In my mind I was focusing on my gait and my breathing. Although we had been up at the 10,000 foot Camp Muir for two days, we have to take a deep breath with every step to give ourselves more oxygen and conserve energy. Our step is called “rest stepping” where we rest the weight of our back leg on our skeletal structure, and the front leg on our muscle to reduce exertion.
Coming up to Ingraham Flats around 4 AM, I was in good spirits and excellent condition as the faint glow of morning came out from behind Little Tacoma. We stopped to break here for 15 minutes before climbing the fixed roped route of Disappointment Cleaver, the toughest and steepest part of the route. The wind had died down and the sky was pleasantly clear. Here I drank my Gatorade infused water and sucked on several energy gels before continuing my way up. We hiked under the Ingraham Ice fall, a constantly moving glacier notorious for it’s icy landslides that can be a dangerous hazard to climbers. As we moved faster under this dangerous section, we listened closely for any falling boulders, which luckily due to the cold weather are locked in place.
Approaching the fixed lines of Disappointment Cleaver, we set our ice axes on one side to stabilize ourselves and clutched the lines with the other, pulling ourselves up a steep 3 foot wide trail with a massive drop off on one side that ended in the mouth of a crevasse. Our moves were slow and methodical, and I wasn’t looking over the side as much as I was thinking about having one foot in front of the other. Although this was considered the physical crux, or toughest part of the climb, I had barely felt it, and the summit felt much more in reach.
It’s now 5 AM, and our group was taking our second break while watching the spectacular sunrise from the peak of Disappointment Cleaver, named so for an unfortunate climber who believed he’d already summited. At this point, three of our climbers felt that they didn’t have the energy to go on and began to make their way back down to camp. My guides asked me how I was feeling and I eagerly told them that I felt fantastic to go for the top. At this point in the morning I had still been seeing only clear skies, and although the wind had picked up considerably, i’d only associated it with having been much higher.
I was not expecting what I was about to walk through.
6:30 AM, we were now at 13,100 feet. In the upper registers of the mountain we are taking switchbacks, moving back and forth as opposed to forcibly pushing our way through the middle of the peak. At the point I noticed the wind had picked up considerably but I was feeling good enough to keep going. As my watch read 13,500, the snow had kicked up and was becoming inconvenient as I was losing sight with my companion in front of me attached with a 4 foot rope. I saw two climbers who were on their way down and they told me we were only 15 minutes away from the summit, but as I passed the next switchback, my glasses iced up and I couldn’t see the trail under my feet. By now we were facing 45-50 mph gusts and the flying snow stung. I tried to plant my crampons but the snow had become slushy and deep which combined with my lack of vision caused me to become extremely disoriented. I fell down and I tried to keep up with my companions who were having it easier, but falling over to the side and then trying to plant my axe in the snow was taking a considerable amount of my energy. I could hear my guide asking me if I was ok and I was convinced that I could pick myself up and continue moving. I affirmed that I needed a moment but the determination deserted me and I fell over again, this time to my guide announcing that it was better that we turn back.
My guide walked back down to my position and attached a short rope to my harness to help walk me down as full exhaustion from trying to pick myself up had set in. Walking down the upper side of the mountain I was quickly trying to place my feet in front of the other but I was still half blind and the snow now was slushier and higher. My guide warned me of several places where I had to be particularly watching my step as there were large crevasses underneath. With the snow now moving down the mountain, and the temperature considerably colder, we reached the first break above Disappointment Cleaver where I drank water and I was able to temporarily clear my goggles and regain my composure. Even though my legs felt shot, I wrapped my arm around the fixed lines and was able to guide myself down with minimal help.
As we approached the Ingraham Glacier and icefall, the storm had move downwards towards Camp Muir and approaching the camp we were met with could gusts and hard snow. Walking quickly passed the icefall, I noticed large boulders in the trail which meant the snow had shaken the ice loose and we had to move quickly. I could hear the slight creaks and groans as the ice cracked and displaced. In the 2 1/2 hours it took us to come down from the summit, I was overjoyed to see the familiar yellow tents of our campsite.
When we arrived back at our tents at Camp Muir, we had only an hour to catch our breath, quickly pack the remainder of our packs, and then we’d have to hike back out in the snow to reach the bus to take us back to Base Camp. In no shape to walk, I asked one of our guides if I could remain in the tent another night but he told me that the storm was getting worse and that we’d have to move now. I packed up my belongings and in a frenzy to move out I forgot to put on my gloves. When I stepped out into the snow, my hands were instantly numbed and the condensation around my fingers had literally turned to ice!
I quickly switched to my heavy mittens and having gotten my composure together our group of seven plus some of the other teams moved out into the snow. The storm was now raging throughout the Muir snowfield and the gusts were blowing strong however wearing our hard shell pants and jackets made a difference. About halfway through our hike, the snow mercifully died down and we had our moment of clarity. At some points, the hills had become snow covered enough that we could actually use them as slides and save time and energy just taking these natural ice slides across large swaths of the landscape.
For three hours we hiked nearly five miles back to Paradise, the entrance to Rainier National Park. By the time I got to the bus to take us back down to Base Camp, my legs were so exhausted I had problems just walking up the steps of the bus. As we arrived back in Ashford, my day ended with falling asleep for a full 12 hours.
I failed to reach the top but I didn’t fail in what was my objective, to attempt Rainier at the best of my abilities, and I feel that I truly put my heart into the six months of training and preparation as well as being ready for that early morning wake up call. This was my first true mountaineering experience, and although I will continue climbing, I would like to eventually try it again. I feel that we were beset by some truly unfortunate circumstances and it was the ultimate learning experience, to see when things go wrong and how to react. In closing i’d like to thank RMI for the opportunity to experience this climb and my three guides Paul, Leon, and Cody especially when it came time to coming back down.
Although this might have not been the ideal ending, this isn’t my last time in the mountains.