Mount Rainier Adventure
I’m sitting on a plane coming back from an incredible adventure and I just needed to write it up and share. A friend of mine’s personal goal is to summit Mt. Everest. Every time I see him we spend some time talking about mountain climbing. Mt Rainier (pronounced Rain-air) in Washing State is a very popular and challenging climb and a great starting point for anybody looking to get into this hobby. It’s the tallest volcano and most heavily glaciated peak in the contiguous United States. Mount Whitney in California, the tallest peak in the lower 48 at 15,505 feet is only 88 feet taller than Rainier.
So looking to breaking up my swim, bike, run routine and try something new I signed up with a guide company called RMI last September for their 4 day Rainier Summit trip. http://www.rmiguides.com. Most of their trips sell out shortly after dates are published so you need to reserve these way in advance. Frankly, after already spending a day hiking on Mt. Rainier a few years back, I thought this “climb” was going to be a glorified long and challenging hike with a bit of mountaineering thrown in for color. Boy was I wrong!! This was the real deal, alpine mountain climbing at its best.
A week prior to departing on the flight to Seattle I started reading the live blog RMI posts on all their climbs. For two week none of the teams that started their climb were able to summit. Extreme weather, avalanche warnings, ice fall and other unsafe conditions were to blame. They were making it up to about 12,000 feat and were being forced to turn back. The disappointment of being turned back on a summit attempt plus everything going on at home and work made me almost cancel this trip.
I arrived on Monday. Rainier is about a two hour drive from Seattle. First day started with a 3 hour orientation. 18 folks were broken up into two teams lead by guides. I got Paul, Josh and Eric. Paul has summited Rainier over 100 times, has over 25 years of climb guiding experience, and sounded like it. Very fatherly and authoritative. The other team was lead by guides Mike, Frenchy and Gilbert. Mike summited Everest a few years ago and just got back from a Mt. McKinley summit in Alaska. Aka Mountaineering God, and looked the part too. During orientation there was also a gear check performed to make sure everyone had everything that was needed. Here is the equipment list that was provided. Everything was available for rent or purchase or you can bring your own:
70 liter back back, sleeping bag rated 0° to 20°, compression stuff sack, lockable carabiners, trecking poles, headlamp, bowl, spork, climbing helmet, ice axe, climbing harness, crampons and an avalanche transceiver. Of course my rented avalanche transceiver wasn’t working. It’s good to find these things out before starting.
The clothing list was just as long. This is what was required to be worn and brought along…
Light to medium weight top base layer, light insulating layer, long sleeve synthetic shirt, soft shell jacket, hard shell jacket, insulated parka with hood, climbing pants, base layer under pants, hard shell pants, neck gaiter / balaclava, glacier glasses, light gloves, medium gloves, heavy gloves, light weight pants that convert to shorts, gaiters, wool or synthetic socks.
And the list of stuff goes on and on..
Baby wipes, baseball cap, goggles, 2 1-liter water bottles, 2 garbage bags, thermos, toilet paper, sunscreen, lip-screen and lots of high calorie/energy food. Candy bars, granola bars, dried fruit, trail mix, energy gels and the “just add water” type meals. Their guidance was to consume 400 calories per hour while climbing because of how much your body burns and how much energy you need out there in the elements. More on that later.
The guides checked most of our equipment and explained in great detail the specifics of each piece of gear and clothing and why its important. Everyone also got a chance to get acquainted with their team. Most of the folks on my team were my age or older. All super nice. Geri Winkler was on our team. Geri, a teacher from Vienna, Austria, was the first insulin dependent diabetic to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. Very inspiring individual. He went on to also complete ALL seven summits. The Seven Summits are the highest mountains of each of the seven continents. Summiting all of them is regarded as one of the greatest mountaineering accomplishments. Kilimanjaro (19k ft) in Africa, Vinson Massif (16k ft) in Antarctica, Koscuiuszko (7k ft) in Australia, Everest (29k ft) in Asia, Elbrus (18k ft) in Europe, McKinley (20k ft) in North America and Aconcagua (22k ft) in South America. Attempting a Rainier summit for a guy of that caliber gave the challenge of this trip new meaning.
Everyone left orientation excited and ready for day 2 which was training day on the mountain. We loaded our packs onto a van and were driven to Paradise. Thats the name of the location which is at 5,200 feet ( 1 mile high ) where many hiking, camping and climbing trips start from. In the middle of June there is still a ton of snow at this level. This was a sign of the amount of snow to expect at higher elevations. We divided into two teams and in full gear hiked up about 30 minutes to the training area. There we spent 5 hours learning skills we would need for the summit attempt. Rest step – kicking a step into the snow with your boot and using it to hoist yourself to the next rest step. Mountaineering is many great things but it is SUPER SLOW. Step …. by ….. step ….. by ….. step ….. is how you get 10,000 feet higher from where you started. Pressure breathing – filling up your lungs to full capacity, purse your lips and force all the air out quickly. Without getting into the technical benefits, this is a must know breathing technique at high elevation. Self arrest – using your ice ax and legs to turn yourself into a human anchor to stop your slide down the mountain in the event you fall. Rope travel – having a rope attached to the climbing harness you’re wearing using a locking carabiner and walking/climbing with others attached to the same rope at every 10 feet. Team arrest – when on a rope team, having the entire team become the anchor if someone falls and starts to slide or falls into a crevasse. We practiced all this a lot because the threat of someone on the rope team falling off the trail and starting to slide down the mountain is very real.
During our ride back to town from Paradise we learned that the team attempting to summit today was turned back at 12,200 feet. Not a good sign but our guides were optimistic that chances for a successful summit attempt were improving. I felt that was just a sales pitch to keep us motivated but didn’t care too much at this point because I was having a good time with a some great folks.
Day 3, the adventure begins. Before we pack up the van to head to Paradise Paul asks if I mind joining Mike’s teams. I’ve never been traded before. After getting to know the guys on my team for a full day it felt strange but I didn’t mind having an opportunity to meet the others and to be guided by a guy that summited Everest and McKinley. I went from one of the youngest to one of the oldest. Didn’t matter, everyone was great.
We started at Paradise at around 9 AM with the destination of Camp Muir at 10,000 feet. Camp Muir is a camping hut built in 1921. I wish I could say it was a scenic hike but we were in a cloud for most of the day. Visibility was close to non existent. I’m sure there was a ton of natural beauty around us. Regardless, we starting getting a real taste of whats its like to go on long climbing trips. Wearing a 50 pound pack, step…. step…. step….step, up , up, up the mountain. We stopped every hour for a water and snack break. Those were actually fun. The packs are so bulky, you just drop if off your back onto the snow and use it as a chair and sit around to shoot the shit for 15 minutes while you fuel up for the next stretch. Break time was also the time to adjust clothing. We would add or subtract layers deepening on the temperature and conditions which kept changing throughout the day.
Slowly but surely it started getting a little harder to breath as we got higher. The weather was just miserable and seamed to change with every 500 feet of elevation gain. Miscellaneous combinations of cold, rain, snow, wind through the first 5 hours. We got our first incredible view when we broke through the cloud cover and took a break at around 7,500 feet . Sitting on Mt. Rainier, above the cloud line and seeing Mt. Adams sticking right out of the clouds right in front of you. This was the 1st of many spectacular sights and got everyone pretty excited. It got steeper from there as we made our way to Muir and finally arrived there at around 4:30 PM. Camp Muir serves as base camp for summit attempts. Its as basic as it gets and pretty primitive. A 20 by 40 hut made out of stone on the outside and 3 rows of sleeping area where you just unroll your sleeping bag along with 30 strangers and get some rest for the big day. Since we were in between two cloud layers it was perfectly sunny, around 40 degrees and a perfect site to lounge around and soak in the rays and views of the Cascades.
They have some solar power for light and to melt glacier water for drinking and boiling water. Lipton Cup-O-Noodle soup never tasted so good! I was amazed at some of the “just add water” meals some of the folks brought. After “dinner” we got a 20 minute talk on what to expect next. Paul, the head guide, explained all the sections of mountain were going to be going through the next day. Sections named Cowlitz Glacier, Cathedral Gap, The Flats, Ingraham Glacier, Disappointment Cleaver and High Break sounded both scary and exciting at the same time. Search for “disappointment cleaver route” on google images to get a great visual. They wouldn’t tell us the start time for the summit attempt but explained their process of checking on weather, forecasts and conditions and how they were going to determine when we would start. They insisted on lights out at 6:30 and said they would wake us anywhere between midnight and 2 AM. It was going to be a very long day! Oh, and then someone asked if today’s team submitted and the answer was no again. They got to 12,700 and had to turn back. By now summit expectations had all but vanished but everyone was still pretty excited to get in as many sections and as much elevation as possible. We just wanted to beat 12-7. Thats mountain talk for elevation…”i got to 11-5 today…they made 12-3 yesterday”
I’ve only been in a sleeping bag 3 times in my life and a hut like this once 30 years ago in Switzerland. It was impossible to fall asleep. I was amazed at how some folks were out immediately. For the next 3 hours all you heard was tossing, turning, wood creaking, wind howling, farting, snoring and the door opening and closing as people were going outside to use the outhouse. Jet lag and being tired overcame the anxiety of the upcoming climb and I think I fell asleep around 10. That didn’t last long as our wake up call aka Josh arrived at 1:30 AM. “Rise and shine boys and girls, who wants to summit Rainier today?”. He gave us 1 hour to eat and get ready and wanted everyone outside with gear packed, crampons on (those things with metal spikes you attach to boots), climbing harness on, helmets and head lamps ON! Yep, climbing up treacherous trails with headlamps as the only source of light. Frankly, I think half the people would turn back if they actually saw where they were. Descending later via the same route in daylight exposed everything. OMG is the only way to put it. More on that later.
It was around 25 degrees outside when we started with no wind. Not bad at all but that would change. Based on what the guides observed in us “wanna be climbers” over the training and hiking day they divided us into 6, 4 person rope teams. I got on Mike’s (Mr Everest) team. I thought awesome! I can pick his brain all day while we climb on what Everest and McKinley were like. Silly me, I thought I would actually be able to have a conversation during the climb. Around 2:30ish the first rope team started off with every other one going about 5 minutes apart. There were 2 teams ahead of us and 3 behind us. 45 minutes in we got one of the other many incredible sites of the trip. 3:30 in the morning, total darkness and the teams ahead and behind you look like little christmas trees moving up the mountain. Those little had lamps everyone had on made for a really cool site from afar. By 4 AM the moon broke through the clouds and added to the visibility and it became very obvious exactly where we were climbing. Picture a tiny path about a foot wide carved into the side of 75 degree glacier. One wrong step to the right and you better pray your rope team has their team arrest technique down solid. In some areas we were hiking along a ridge where I wasn’t sure what was worse – the drop on the left or the one on the right. Some stretches were so trecherous that there was actually rope previously installed that you can hold on to. For added safety the guide was actually clipped into the rope so worse case if the team took a fall he was attached to the safety line and we were all attached to each other. Not a fun thought but as dangerous as this sounds, every precaution possible for safety was taken.
Sunrise at around 5:30 AM at 12,000 feet treated us to some more absolutely spectacular views. It was literally like sitting on top of the world. We could see as far south as some of the mountains peaking through the clouds in Oregon. The higher we got the prettier it got and more difficult it became to breath. Four quick steps and you were immediately winded. Step….step….pressure breath….step…..step…..pressure breath was the only way to go. You needed some serious strength for each step too. If you didn’t kick in enough with your boot there wouldn’t be a step to get on to. If you didn’t dig your crampon into the hard snow hard enough you wouldn’t get enough traction for the next step. Words can not describe how hard this was. The steepness increased with every hour while the temperature decreased. At every break, the first thing we needed to do was to put on our heavy parkas so that we wouldn’t loose any body heat. Then you had to force food down your throat. Loss of appetite at high altitude is normal. So you have to eat, hungry or not. Quality is secondary to calorie quantity.
That was my biggest rookie mistake of the day. After two days of high calorie snacks I just couldn’t stand the sight of any more trail mix, snickers or granola bars and took in very little. I also miscalculated how much water I would be consuming during the trip so I didn’t back enough Gatorade and Carbo-Pro powder to add to my water. Water alone does not replenish all the electrolytes you lose during strenuous activity. With every hour I was getting more and more tired. Staring with the second break people started bailing. Too cold, too tired, too hard, too scared. What ever the reason the rope teams were getting reset and guides were being sent down with the folks that couldn’t go further. We were getting tough speeches at every stop. “If you have an ounce of doubt at this point, its only going to get worse”. They were very direct with us and rightfully so. It was getting scary.
The last stretch was something out of the Everest movies. Picture a solid snow wall over 1,000 feet high right in front of you. The only way to summit is to zig zag up the entire thing. It’s the section called High Break. Step…step…pressure breath….step….step…..pressure breath…..step step…. Getting more tired with every step you take. All I kept hearing in my mind was the guide’s instructions from the previous day… “you have to take in 400 calories an hour or you’re not going to make it to the top and/or not have enough energy to get back to the bottom”. Getting back to the bottom is a story in and of itself but I’ll save that for later. At our last break the guides were having serious conversations with individuals about their ability to go further. I don’t know what I did to spare myself from that talk but I guess I hid the pain well because he probably would have seen it in my eyes and sent me down. I was bonking. My desire to call it quits and come back another day was just slightly overshadowed by the feeling of coming this far and being allowed a summit attempt after two weeks of teams being sent back.
The 30 pound pack (left a bunch of stuff at Muir) now felt like 60 as I hoisted it on for the final push. It was mind over matter at this point. Only 3 teams left and mine was the only one with the original 4 on it. Coming out of break, all roped to each other was like a team huddle. We were determined to summit this puppy and get a glimpse inside of a real volcano. We could see the top at this point but we were still 1 hour away. 20 minutes in we got a real scolding from Mike. When you’re exhausted (like in any sport) you lose form and just muscle your way through things. The rest step process was replaced with a few quick steps followed by some panting. This causes everyone to go at a slightly different pace and puts an inconsistent amount of slack in the rope between climbers. No Beuno and Mike let us have it. The only way I could keep form was to watch and follow his boots which with the incline we were on his boots were at my eye level. Step…step….pressure breath…..step…. step. 45 minutes into the last stretch I was a second away from calling it quits. I had nothing left. Mike goes, “You’ve made it this far and are doing great. Give me 15 minutes and I’ll give you the top of this mountain”. That was pretty motivational and I bought it. For a little bit anyway. 5 minutes later Paul was already on his way down from the summit with the two others on his rope. He stopped to talk to Mike. I thought for sure Mike was telling him to take me down with him and had he asked if I wanted to go down I would not have hesitated for a second. I had absolutely positively nothing left in me and was already looking forward to coming back, eating and drinking right and beating this thing. Paul came by gave me a big high 5 and goes “Can you believe where you’re at? Isn’t this awesome! You’re almost there, good luck”.
Hats off to these motivational guides. Getting to the top and accomplishing a summit after the ordeal of the last few hours was a feeling that I can’t exactly find the words for. All of sudden we’re in a cloud again. Physically and metaphorically. When you stop, the physical exertion creating massive amounts of body heat is over so you instantly start feeling freezing cold. Wind is howling at 40 MPH. It’s hard to stand straight because the packs have so much mass the wind is nearly blowing you over. Ice is accumulating on everyone’s clothes and packs and we’re standing at the mouth of a volcano 1,000 feet in diameter high-fiving each other and taking pictures. There is no point in dropping the packs and reaching for the parkas because its just way too brutal to stay up here to long. On better days they actually spend an hour walking around the rim of the volcano. Thats already one reason to come back 🙂
Our 9:30 AM summit party lasted for about 10 minutes if that and then the reality of the next phase started to sink in. We’re at 14,400 feet and Paradise, physically and figuratively, is 9,000 feet below us and the only way to get there is by hauling our heavy packs down there over the next 5 hours. Step….step….step…. was replaced with a brisk yet cautious downhill walk along with pressure breathing of course. What took 6 hours to summit from Muir took 3 hours to descend. It wasn’t nearly as tough but still pretty complicated as you have to be extra careful going down. All the same risks of going up are still around and those treacherous spots now fully exposed in broad daylight are terrifying and slowing the pace somewhat.
Back at Muir we had 1 hour to eat a bit, drink, repack our bags with everything we left at Muir for the summit and start our way back to Paradise. Its a crazy feeling being at 10,000 feet and walking down into a cloud and bad weather. What was firm snow coming up has now turned into 2 feet of slush and the descent from Muir to Paradise was everything but. It was a painful 2 more hours from Muir but fortunately you’re using different muscles going down and the oxygenated air at lower altitude makes you feel like superman.
Back in town we all celebrated at the bar and were presented with our personalized certificates of achievement. This adventure was nothing short of incredible. I now have a true appreciation for what those folks go through in the Everest movies and will need to have a frank conversation with my buddy that started this. Would I do it again?? Bring it! (with food next time)
Pictures coming to Facebook soon.