Mountains are never conquered. The realization of every dream of alpine glory requires both the providence of the mountain itself, and the price paid through the commitment and willingness to endure.
The plan to climb Rainier was first hatched back in February while trading belays at one of D.C.’s local climbing gyms. Naturally, the mountain had been on various must-climb lists for some time, but none of our group (all climbing partners in the Potomac Mountain Club), had any firm plans or time table by which we planned to climb it. But in one short conversation, after Dave casually mentioned the prospect of climbing the thing this year, that all changed.
After some discussion, and the accompanying amounts of excitement and enthusiasm, we decided on mid-July as our best shot at getting up the thing and pegged the standard Disappointment Cleaver route by which to do so. As we were climbing without guides, it was felt that the ‘standard’ route was the smartest option in case we ran into trouble. That, and we could always come back to Rainier to try more difficult routes.
And so we began training in earnest.
Mountaineering is a test of endurance (both mental and physical), and an exercise in withstanding sometimes extreme levels of discomfort, fatigue, and hauling spine-compressing loads up steep terrain day after day. Something on the order of 10,000 climbers each year arrive at Rainier with dreams of a successful summit, but less than half of those actually realize those dreams. Our best shot at being in that minority was to get fit. Very, very fit.
Many assume that basic fitness routines (weights, running, etc.) are enough to train for big mountains. While it’ll get you in a state of general health, mountain fitness is a whole other matter entirely. So every weekend, to supplement our weekday fitness regimens, we loaded up our packs and headed into the Shenandoah to bust ourselves into shape. Four months of early wakeups, long days, 3.5-4,000 feet of vertical gain over short distances, heat, rain, and 50-60lbs on our backs got us as ready as we thought we could be. It was hard, and committing, but the hope was that it would all pay off. By mid- June, all that was left was to hit the mountain and see if we had worked hard enough.
Five of us (Dave, Nate, Ethan, Paul, and myself), met up in Ashford, WA the night before we would start up the mountain. Two of our party (Aris and Rachel), had already made arrangements to meet us at Camp Muir so they could get an extra day’s worth of rest and altitude acclimatization. To combat this latter hazard, some of us chose to take Diamox as a precaution against Acute Mountain Sickness. For my part, it worked like a charm. But it does tend to make you urinate quite a bit, which is not fun in a tent in the middle of a cold night, let me tell you.
After re-sorting our gear and packs, and snatching just a handful of hours of broken sleep, we left the Whittaker Bunkhouse around 5:15am for the Paradise Ranger Station to register, get camping spots, and get started. It was to be the start of a very long and very tiring 37-odd hours. Fortunately for us, the weather on the hike up to Camp Muir was beyond stellar, granting fantastic views of Rainier and the surrounding peaks: Adams, Hood, and Mount St. Helens.
Unfortunately for Paul, the warm sun and soft snow had him second-guessing his decision to ski up to Muir. Sun-cupped soft snow and slush do not make for efficient skinning. But it did let us get some great photos of him catching up.
The short, paved trail (which is less than fun in big mountain boots), quickly gave way to patches of snow and dirt track through beautiful alpine meadows. All the while, the great bulk of Rainier loomed ever larger before us with each step we took forward. In terms of pure overall height, at 14,411 ft Rainier doesn’t strike one as an excessively large mountain. Many of us had been at similar altitudes before in Colorado, the Tetons, or Mt. Whitney. But the sheer bulk of the mountain is what struck us. An incomprehensibly large bulk of rock, snow, and glacier, Rainier dominates the landscape for many, many miles in every direction. It rises over 13,000 ft from the surrounding lowlands, and the full trip to the summit from Paradise involves slogging up over 9,000 ft of elevation gain. To say our first sight of it wasn’t intimidating would likely be something akin to a small lie.
We managed to make it up to Muir by around 2pm, after a pretty leisurely sub-six-hour trip, stopping frequently to admire the astounding beauty of where we were. With each upward step, we gradually left behind the world of civilized comfort and entered the dominion of the mountain. Every so often, Rainier would serenade us with the thunderous sound of massive rockfall, echoing from some unseen face of the mountain. It was a reminder of the real dangers inherent in climbing. But hell, I daresay that hike to Muir alone made all of the hard training worth it.
Camp Muir – Oasis in the clouds. Sanctuary to tired climbers. Last bastion of civilization before heading into the thinning air. Not exactly.
There are worse places to camp for certain, but Muir has a tendency to be crowded, somewhat dirty, noisy, and, depending on the direction of the wind and location of your tent, imbued with the sweet, lingering scent of backcountry waste facilities. But those ripe toilets beat the pants off of using a blue bag higher on the mountain. Just ask Ethan…
We met up with Aris and Rachel at Muir, and after establishing camp, cooking meals, and melting snow for water, we had to decide whether or not to go for the summit early the next morning or to wait one more day and rest. The forecast was optimal (insofar as mountain weather can be predictably optimal), for the next two days, but the rumor of a chance of poorer weather and freezing fog pushed us to attempt the summit ahead of schedule. The extra day of rest and acclimatization would have been ideal, but we trained to be able to make a short summit window if necessary, and the Diamox would prove essential. It was on…
…but for Nate, something was off. More specifically, his pants.
Not long after setting up camp, a man (who’s name I cannot recall, but who we colloquially referred to as “Pantsman”), wandered into our camp asking if anyone had an extra pair of backpacking pants, as he had forgotten his in the car at Paradise. Given that this gentleman was an AMGA certified mountain guide, we were a bit perplexed as to how he managed to forget such a critical item, but it just goes to show that forgetfulness can strike anyone on the mountain. Nate, being a good sport, offered up his backpacking pants in exchange for extra water. Nate never got the water, or, so far as I know, his pants back. But that’s not the last time Pantsman enters this story…
…back to the climb!
And so we rushed to top off our water bottles, strip our packs, and prep our gear for a 1 a.m summit attempt the following morning. Oh yeah, and we tried to snag a few hours of sleep somewhere in there.
I managed about two non-consecutive hours of sleep that night, in between a bout of almost dangerously overfilling my pee bottle in the dark, probably thanks to the side effects of the Diamox. My very vocal surprise at the unexpected volume was enough to spook Nate, my tentmate, into wondering whether or not he’d wake up covered in some kind of very organic liquid perfume.
My watch alarm blew up at 11:30 p.m., rocketing me out of a deep slumber that had taken far too long to achieve. But we were here to climb this thing, so it was time to get moving.
Even though most of our equipment was prepped, we still allotted a good hour-plus to eat, gear up and join the other rope teams heading for the top. Moving around in the cold and the darkness, all while still very groggy, isn’t conducive to setting any speed records, so the extra prep time can be essential.
After “breakfast” (which for me consisted of a Cliff bar and two packs of caffeinated Cliff Block Shots), we roped up and did our final checks, and set off into the chilly darkness.
With no wind and no cloud cover, we set off at a decent pace under a blanket of clear, bright stars. The long train of climbers’ headlamps snaked its way across the glaciers and onto the mountain’s upper slopes, accompanied by the soft crunch of our boots on the snow. We passed under and around icefalls and crevasses, who’s massive size was hidden from us by the darkness and would not be revealed until the way back down.
As we passed through Ingraham Flats (the higher campsite on the Cleaver route, about 1,000ft or so above Muir), we noticed guides already bringing clients back down the mountain after only an hour on the rope. The realities of the less-than-50% success rate were made painfully clear.
Eventually, we gained the Cleaver itself and the climb became an exercise in short-roping (reducing rope-length distance between climbers to facilitate quicker movement and reduce the risk of generating rockfall), and patience in scrambling over semi-steep, loose rock in big boots and crampons. The sound of metal tips scraping against rock is a cringe-worthy test of enduring atonal cacophony. It was here that route-finding also became a challenge, as the wanded route wasn’t easy to find…owing to the fact that in some places there were wands planted in every direction.
We reached the top of the Cleaver sometime around 5:30am (or a bit later, I can’t recall), as the sun slowly started peeking over the horizon and the low mountains to the East. Our chief priority at that point, however, was Ethan’s sudden need to test out the blue bag waste disposal system. Not to go into too much detail, but we were in something of a hurry to find a safe rest spot and avoid a potentially messy-yet-hilarious cleanup situation. Fortunately, it did not come to pass. We found a nice, level spot at which to stop, fuel up, and…take care of business, all under the backdrop of the beautiful alpine sunrise.
Just above this point, our party of seven became one of five as Rachel and Aris turned around due to symptoms of AMS and cramping. They seemed in relatively good nick, and agreed to wait for us lower on the mountain with stove, food, extra warm layers, and a radio with which we kept in constant contact should we need to turn around. About an hour later, we received word over the radio that Pantsman (of all people!), had happened upon the pair and was taking them back down to Muir rather than waiting for us on the way back down from the summit. After a radio check to make sure no additional assistance was needed, we continued upward. When we eventually got back to Muir, we found them fast asleep in the tent, getting a well-earned rest.
As Dave, Nate, Paul, Ethan, and I continued gunning for the top, it slowly dawned on us that we were going to make it within our generous time and weather-window. Clouds gathering on the Northwest side of the mountain gave us some pause, but there was no indication of incoming severe weather, just the the probable lack of a view.
We reached the final section before the summit crater just after sunrise, passing under intimidating-yet-breathtaking seracs and icefalls, and leaping a few crevasses with the help of a fixed handline or two (which was awesome, and even more fun on the way back down!). It was difficult not to stop and gape, even though we knew that hanging out under a serac is generally not the safest thing in the world to do. For my part, the excitement and anticipation of a successful summit was definitely building.
And then we started to slow down.
A party of about seven or eight had passed us just above the Cleaver while we were reshuffling our rope teams and getting Aris and Rachel set up and comfortable. Now we caught them up, and it appeared that a few members of their party were suffering quite badly from AMS and exhaustion. We fell in behind them in a start-stop pattern of ascent, reducing our once steady pace to a haltingly slow crawl.
At this point, Dave (who had been battling a cold for most of the last two days), had almost totally lost his voice and had the hilarious intonation of a female octogenarian whenever he tried to speak, and my lack of sleep had finally caught up with me (coupled with the depletion of my caffeinated energy goo and likely the diminishing effect of my last dose of Diamox). I was trying not to doze off whenever we stopped after every few feet of upward progress. It was annoying for sure, but not anywhere outside of our margins of safety, and for my part I forced myself to wake up an concentrate. Had we been able to move at a steady pace, it would not have been an issue, but hey, things happen.
Stop-start. Slow trudge. The crunch of snow. Hit the switchback. Switch your axe position. Cross over the rope. Move up a few steps. Stop. Start. Stop. Again and again up the final slopes. I lost track of time, but we pushed on in this way for at least over an hour in the same quiet, arrhythmic monotony, moving ever so slowly to the rim of the summit crater.
Eventually, around 8:30am or so, the steep uphill slope fell away and we made the short descent down into the crater rim. After a brief, windy stumble-trudge across the crater basin, we stood (or in my case, sat) on the true summit of Rainier: Columbia Crest. We had nothing to look at other than our own tired-yet-satisfied faces, as cloud cover and weather socked in the entire summit, but it was no less fulfilling. My one regret is that I didn’t think to stand up for the summit photo, but the ground just looked too comfortable and by that point I was thinking more of refueling my system.
We rested for a few minutes near the edge of the crater to re-rope, eat, drink, and (in my case, owing to buying too may of the wrong, non-caffeinated Cliff Block Shots), scavenge some more caffeinated goo from the other summit party to supplement existing food (caffeinated jelly bellys? yes please!), and started on down at a romp.
The descent to Muir was relatively uneventful, apart from the envelopment in cloud and light snowfall that accompanied our progress. While we didn’t get a view from the summit, the descent in cloud created a feeling of fantastic isolation on the mountain, and surrounded us with a blanket of unbelievable silence. There was no connection between us and the world far below, no sight, no sound, no sign of human habitation. Just us on the mountain, and nothing else.
All of the monstrously wonderful features of ice and rock we passed blindly in the dark were now visible to us, and the sheer scale of where we were became plainly apparent. Icefalls and seracs the size of small buildings lined the route, and we gaped at crevasses wide and deep enough to swallow some of the largest of man’s creations with little trouble. Most of all, the cloud cover brought out the deep blues within the glacial ice (something not usually visible in bright sunshine), illuminating centuries-old stratified bands of frozen color.
After a few more hours (and a nice shortcut around the loose rock of the Cleaver), we arrived back at Muir to reunite with our other two party members who, as I mentioned, were fast asleep. The decision was then made to head all the way back down to Paradise that evening, and so after grabbing an hour or so of sleep, we broke camp and headed down the mountain for good.
Weather had rolled in while we slept, and we descended the first 2-3,000 ft from Muir in fog and cloud that didn’t allow for the same views we had on the hike in, but it was still wild. We were also lucky enough to be able to glissade (basically sliding on your backside), down the Muir snowfield for a little over 2,000ft in about 30-45 minutes. Given our state of fatigue, this quick descent was a godsend…and a helluva lot of fun.
We reached the parking lot around 9pm, after 37 hours on the mountain. We’d done it, in less time and much harder fashion than we’d anticipated, but it was satisfying to know we could pull out such a tough summit under those kinds of conditions (essentially on no sleep, no rest). All of our hard training had paid off.
As we drove away, toward the hard-earned reward of food, beer (!!!), and a deep, dreamless sleep, the clouds briefly cleared and granted us one last view of the hulking mass of ice and rock that was our home for the last day and a half.
…of course, the next day (our original summit day) yielded bluebird skies, but it was better than getting fried on the glacier.
The mountain means different things to each person who sets foot on it. For some, it is still a box on a tick-list, but the idea of the ‘conquest’ of the mountains is something of an anachronism held over from the bygone days of Empire and man’s desire to exude ‘mastery’ over nature, whatever that means. The climbing of the mountain is more than just those few accomplished moments on the summit, it is a mastery of self, grit, will, desire, and judgment. The exploration of the high country is just as much an exploration of the self, as it is about the experiencing the natural grandeur of the great summits.
And for whatever the mountain means to each individual, we all must get up and down it together. The compressed intensity of life in the mountains, the close quarters, the severe consequences of poor judgement (all of which make life in the mountains so starkly different and refreshingly simpler than life back home), necessitates the members of a climbing team functioning as just that: a team.
Yes, nerves fray, tempers flare, and other such inevitable frictions can occur in such close, sometimes stressful, quarters, but with the right team, these pitfalls can be minimal, and each member combines to share in some bigger, ethereal, and unforgettable experience.
Gear list: (Just for the curious, this is what I wore on Rainier. None of these companies are paying me to vouch for any of this stuff, but if they'd like to, I would be more than happy to comply!) Boots: La Sportiva Baruntse (Best money I've ever spent on footwear, hands down. Climbs great, hikes great, super warm. Some think double boots are overkill on Rainier, but I get cold feet and you can adjust layers elsewhere accordingly.) Lower Body: REI Lightweight base layer (Had for years, bomber) Patagonia Alpine Guide Pants (The freaking Cadillac of climbing pants. Windproof, waterproof, burly, breathable, and warm) Upper Body: Mountain Hardwear lightweight t-shirt (Also used as only upper layer on hike to Muir.) REI Lightweight Baselayer (Same as the lowers.) Wild Things Windpro Hoody (Hands down, best freaking midweight softshell ever. Wind/waterproof, warm, and stylish. Like the Patagonia R1, but cheaper, more modular, and windproof. Get one. Now.) REI Shuksan Jacket (Fantastic hardshell. E-vent fabric works like a dream. Can't find it online presently.) EMS Helios Down Parka (Got it on the cheap two years ago and has never let me down. No pun intended.) Miscellaneous: Black Diamond Arc Glove (Excellent midweight glove that provides both warmth and dexterity.) Outdoor Research High Camp Glove (Modular and very warm. Great for the descent when you're not working as hard) Outdoor Research Alpine Hat (Nice warm, windproof fleece hat. Didn't wear all that often, but great for when the temp drops.)