This week marks five years to the day of my first attempt on Rainier. I was a rookie. Completely out of my element. Completely unprepared for what I was going to go up against. It was my first peak, my first glacial climb, and my first time using an ice axe. I wanted to do Rainier to prove that a freshly graduated boy from Miami had what it took to make it in the mountains. Rainier in 2012 was one of the most harrowing experiences of my climbing career. It was a moment that made me nearly quit climbing outright. In all essence, it was a trial by fire. But it was also the moment that taught me about strength, endurance, and fortitude in the mountains and in other aspects of life. Five years later the mountains are my life. But that day in May, 2012 was a defining moment.
May 20th, 2012 – 3:00 AM
There was an excited commotion around the tents at Camp Muir. I rustled from my sleeping bag and quickly zipped my layers. Outside, the guides had prepared hot boiling water, and I downed two packets of instant chicken soup and two cups of coffee. There was a light snow falling, and the air was crisp but the wind was low and the few clouds above revealed a magnificent snowfield. I slipped into my plastic boots and grabbed my ice axe. I was so excited. This is everything I’d ever wanted. After zipping the tent, I went to the edge of the Nisqually glacier to join my rope team. We had done a practice run up the glacier the day before, which let us examine the ocean of crevasses in front of us.
An hour later we were crossing the snowfields of the Nisqually Glacier, and my guide pointed out the cliffs in the dark which were a veritable shooting gallery of boulders and icy projectiles, held together in the frozen night. Ahead of us were the fixed ropes of Disappointment Cleaver, which would be the crux and the access point to the easier upper reaches. We stopped several times on the glacier and I took the opportunity to stuff myself with beef jerky and M&Ms, trying to find every ounce of energy that I could. I was in great spirits.
We started to make our way up the Disappointment Cleaver. I clutched the fixed lines and confidently made my way up the icy steps, my crampons grabbing securely to the snow and my ice axe heartlilly plunging on the upper slope to keep my balance. At the top of the Cleaver, we stopped for another break, and I watched the sunrise over the Tatoosh Range nearby. What I didn’t know at the time were that clouds were ominously starting to encapsulate the upper sides. What I thought was a clear day was progressively becoming foggier. Still I elected to keep on going up.
Of the original members of our group who had started the trek, it was now down to four of us plus one guide. I was tied in the back and on the upper reaches we started the standard switchbacks as I felt that the summit couldn’t be too far away. While the wind was starting to pick up, I didn’t think much of it and just thought it was part of the fact that we were traversing on exposed ledges. Still I could tell that the clouds were getting lower and a light snowfall was starting to fall.
The bootpack was well trafficked, but I was steadily becoming more exhausted and I didn’t feel like my crampons were grabbing the snow as well as the ice down below. Furthermore, I felt like I was being dragged along by the rope and having a hard time keeping up with the rest of the team.
I don’t remember the moment that it happened, but at some point, on the upper stretches of the mountain, we walked into a cloud and never came out again. My visibility of the person in front of me dropped to near-zero, the wind picked up and icy crystals started to blast my face. The temperature dropped considerably and I was kicking steps in fresh snow. To make matters worse, every time I plunged my ice axe, it would fall in all the way up to my knuckles, and I could pull it through the wall like a knife through warm butter. I started to breathe harder and yell ‘wait!‘ to the rest of the group ahead of me to so that I could get my bearings but my voice was lost to the wind. I could see the blue hazy mass of my rope-mate about seven feet in front of me but I couldn’t tell if I was the only one who was struggling. I saw two climbers from another party coming down and yelled at them how far we were from the summit. They said 15 minutes.
Only 15 minutes.
I don’t know if it was the fear or the altitude that left me gasping for breath. I was wearing my ski goggles and the condensation had fogged the inside, with very little room to stop and wipe them off. As we took another switchback, I tripped on something, whether it had been own boots or a snow-pile I’m not sure, but I fell to the upward side and tried to lean on my axe for support, which was sinking deeper into the snow. I was beyond worked. Having halted the rope-train, my guide looked back and saw me in the snow trying to pick myself up. Heartbreakingly, he made the decision to turn back to Muir.
We weren’t out of the storm yet. visibility was down to near zero and we had to still traverse the rocky ledges and downclimb Disappointment Cleaver to get back to Muir. In my exhaustion, I was short-roped to the guide, who warned me that a fall from the Cleaver on down could be potentially fatal. I gingerly placed my steps but I felt a sense of shame, embarrassment, and sadness being the one who turned the group around. As we passed under the cliffs of the Nisqually Glacier, the terrain had turned from beautiful to treacherous. The snowfall was now threatening to pummel boulders and large snowballs off the cliffs onto the trail and just above Camp Muir, we were nearly in a full run to get out of the danger area as quickly as possible.
We walked into camp, still in the midst of a whiteout, all cold, wet, battered by the weather, and in low spirits. I got into the tent alone and laid on my sleeping bag. With the snow falling heavily and the wind slamming the walls, I took into account what I’d just been through, and feeling enormous embarrassment, shame, and exhaustion, I broke down. This was my first peak. I wanted it to be my moment. I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. I was scared. At that moment, I turned the camera on myself and I took a photo which I’ve kept privately since that day. It was so personal that not even my family has ever seen it. It was the moment that I knew how wrong all of this had gone.
Fear is a natural drive for even who we consider to be the bravest. In 1961, America launched it’s second man into space, astronaut Gus Grissom. Upon splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean, the hatch of Grissom’s capsule blew open prematurely, filling the interior with water and forcing Grissom to abandon his spacecraft. Under scrutiny for abandoning his capsule, which subsequently sank, Grissom faced a commission about his actions. When asked if he felt his life was in danger, he simply responded “I was scared a good portion of the time.”
“I was scared.”
In the five years since that incident, I’ve learned to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. I’ve learned to endure and even enjoy the suffering. But it was that moment and that trial by fire which defined me as a climber and a mountaineer. I needed that moment to understand what mountaineering was about.
In this, I learned not to fear fear, but to appreciate it.