I am indeed powerless to describe the enchantment and the instinctive love which drew me to the mountains.

- Benoit Marti of Berne

June 3, 12:15 pm – The big day is finally here, and so are the butterflies. Months, in fact years, or preparation, have led up to this climb. The last few days at home have been a frenzy of activity with me organizing gear, trading phone calls with Randy, organizing gear again, packing and re-packing. The excitement has been building for the whole family. I am sitting at Chicago Midway waiting for the plane to Seattle. Nervousness running through me: Am I ready? Can I do this (I CAN do this!)? Did I remember everything? What will the weather be like on the mountain? Will my backpack make it to Seattle (It WILL!)? The plane leaves at 1 pm and makes two stops, Kansas City and Salt Lake City. Right now, 5:40 pm seems like an eternity. Randy is flying a different airline, so I’ll be meeting him at the airport in Seattle. From there, we’ll head to Ashford, WA and Rainier Base camp.
Kellie and the girls dropped me off just about an hour ago. They were very happy and full of good luck wishes. I’ve got my usual array of good luck pictures, courtesy of Rachael, and a special good luck quilt from Kellie. I miss them already, but I’ll be carrying them with the whole way. I can’t wait to tell them all about the big adventure.

June 3, 9:00pm – Sitting on the porch of Whittaker’s Bunkhouse watching the clouds swirl around the area mountains. We’ve got a full moon, nice skies, and fresh air. I can’t believe I’m here and we’re starting our climb tomorrow. On the drive in from Seattle, we were able to see The Mountain a few times, mostly obscured by clouds. Its enormous size dominates everything around it. There’s no snow on the ground here but we’re told that several feet are on the ground at our training site tomorrow. We find out who our guides are tomorrow morning. 

June 4, 9:45pm – It’s the end of the first day and I’m even more excited about mountaineering and climbing Rainier than before. We spent the day today learning basic skills: ice axe arrest, team arrest, roped travel, stepping and crampon techniques, and much more that I’m forgetting. We left Ashford at about 9am heading for Paradise. The drive was beautiful, passing through lush rainforest, glacier-fed rivers, winding up into the mountains. As we started walking from Paradise to the training site, the cloud cover rolled in blocking our view. For a few minutes, we could see Edith Creek Basin, where we would train. They recommended coming back here later in the season, as the area would be consumed by wildflowers. 

After today’s climbing school, we came back to Ashford and spent time learning different knot tying techniques. We reviewed gear and made our final rental and purchase decisions before heading to the mountain. There was some initial concern by the guides about the hood on my down jacket being too skimpy, but I think we’ve resolved it. I bought another Gore Windstopper hat that should calm their fears. 

June 5, 7:00am – Activity has started at the bunkhouse with climbers packing for the day. It’s raining outside…not good news. We don’t know what the weather is like at Paradise, but people are pretty quiet here. We’re hoping it’s better up higher. I just spoke with one of the employees here and he’s hopeful that it’s better at about 8500’. However, there are no guarantees. I need to finish packing and get ready to go. 

June 5, 6:00pm – We’ve had a long hard day hiking to Camp Muir. Whiteout snow conditions the entire way with a stiff wind blowing. It took about 6 hours, an hour longer than expected. Two members of the team turned back at our second rest stop at about 7,500’. The hut at Camp Muir is, well, pretty nasty. It looks to be about the same quality as a fort I built as a kid. Wires spanning the width of the building are holding the building together. It’s very crowded with 22 people stacked three high, but quite an experience. We’ll be good friends by the end of the trip.

Paul Meier and Tim O’Brien, two of our guides, are giving us a rundown of the next few days. Tomorrow will focus on skills practice and learning about crevasse rescue. The expectation is that we won’t beat ourselves up too bad on Wednesday, as Thursday is the planned summit day since the forecast is getting better throughout the week. 

The guides are really good and very attentive to their clients. At each break, they are reminding us how to keep in control of our bodies, stay warm, eat right, and drink regularly. They spend a lot of time telling us about the terrain, glaciers, etc. 

I’m very tired. I did well but could feel myself weakening through the climb. The upper mountain (above Camp Muir) is significantly more difficult. I’m trying to pay attention to regular, strong breathing, drinking, etc. I can feel a headache coming on and I’m trying to fight it. It’s about an hour since we arrived at Muir and they said to begin to feel the effects. 

June 6, dinnertime – Another big day! I woke up with a wicked headache and feeling a bit nauseous. It made me pretty nervous as I thought altitude sickness was taking over. I fought it hard and drank as much water as I could, ate, and started to feel better. When I woke up, I went outside to use the bathroom and was amazed at the view. We’re well above the cloud layer at 9,000’. Off to the South, we had a beautiful view of Mt. Adams, St. Helens, and Hood poking through the clouds. All around Camp Muir, we could see the Cowlitz Glacier, Gibraltar and Cathedral Rocks, and part of tomorrow’s route to the summit.

Today, we started learning crampon techniques on harder snow, climbing Muir Peak along the way. We had a great view of the crevasse-filled Cowlitz from this point. Next we move on to practicing various anchor techniques in preparation for the afternoon’s crevasse rescue practice. After lunch, we roped up and practiced hiking with crampons over a rocky ridge. Very unnerving as I looked down the ridge to either side. Oh, I forgot to mention that the clouds rolled in again and the snow started, whiteout conditions again prevailed. After the ridge, we crossed the Cowlitz Glacier and even hopped two very thin, but very deep crevasses. We were roped up for safety, but again innerving. We finished the day practicing crevasse rescue, in an actual crevasse. One by one, members of the team were lowered into the crevasse and hauled out by the rest of the team. Randy got a chance to go in. I might have a chance tomorrow after the summit climb, but that seems a bit unlikely.

As we were on the glacier, I was amazed at how quickly the temperature changed. As the clouds, and resulting snow, moved in and out, changes of 20 or more degrees occurred in seconds.

June 7, 7:30pm – I stopped writing suddenly last night because Art, one of our Senior Guides, joined us to talk about the Summit Day. After he left, we scrambled to get our gear together to prepare for the summit attempt. Two AM this morning, Art came in to wake us up. We gathered everything and left at 3:45 am. We would be attempting the Disappointment Cleaver route. We began by crossing the Cowlitz Glacier and headed up a steep rocky area named Cathedral Gap. Rest stop 1 was at 11,100’ at Ingraham Flats. Randy and I were on separate rope teams so we met up at the rest areas. We were both feeling good at this area and continued on. After the rest stop, we crossed the Ingraham Glacier, right under the Ingraham Icefall. I was amazed at the size of the seracs in the icefall. Between Ingraham Flats and our second rest stop at 12,500’, we met with probably the most difficult part of the route…Disappointment Cleaver. The DC is a high ridge of mixed rock and ice terrain and highly exposed. It was both scary and exciting. Walking on rocks with crampons is difficult and unsteady. Add several hundred feet of exposure on either side and the scary part is magnified. However, being up on the ridge with the wind whistling and the glaciers to either side and the clouds floating by below us made it very dramatic. We took our second break at the top of the cleaver and I was feeling pretty beat up at this point. The rocky terrain took its toll, but I knew that there was no more rock and only snow, so I keep moving. Randy was feeling good too and opted to join a different rope team. The climbing was steeper in this next section and started to get quite windy. Up until now, the weather was perfect, and even now it was still very good. Leaving Camp Muir at 3:45 am in a full moon was awesome. The moon reflected off the snow and lit everything up to the point where we didn’t even need headlamps. The sky was cloudless which made it fairly cold at the start. The trip all the way to the summit would be cloud free. 

Our next rest break was at 13,500’ and I came in feeling even better than at 12,500’. Although the climbing was steeper and very windy, I was doing well. When it was Randy’s turn to leave the rest stop, he turned to me and gave the thumbs up/thumbs down signal, as if to ask how I was feeling. I gave enthusiastic thumbs up, thinking he was just checking on me and he returned with a “thumb in the middle”. Randy was iffy. He sat down for a minute, and then got up to make a go for it. I gave the thumbs up signal again and was looking forward to seeing him at the top. As his team headed out, he took a few steps and I could hear him call to Art. He couldn’t go on, and he returned to a small group of others in the same situation. It turns out that he hadn’t brought enough water, although he followed the guide’s recommendations, and got dehydrated. At this point, we had lost 7 climbers on the mountain to various things, from dehydration to altitude sickness and physical and mental exhaustion. One other climber unfortunately had altitude sickness get the best of him at Camp Muir and was unable to leave with the rest of the group earlier this morning. It had been a pretty tough day for all and tougher for some.

The next, and last, 1,000’ would take about an hour and was just as steep and windy. The terrain become more gradual as we approached the crater rim. As we neared, we came across several false summits and I kept thinking, it’s just around the next roll. Suddenly, we crested the top and were looking at the crater rim. It was amazing! To enter the crater, we crossed an enormous steam vent, although I didn’t see any steam at the time. (We did smell a very strong sulfur odor at about 13,000’, which reminded you that the mountain is truly alive). The crater is about ½ mile across and ringed with a rock and snow wall. Our rope teams crossed to the windless center for a well-deserved rest. In all, 14 of 24 original members of the team made the summit. As soon as we crested the rim, the headache hit so I was feeling drained. Despite that, I hiked across the rest of the crater with a small group to sign the summit register and stand on the true high point, Columbia rest on the mountain’s west edge. (Reaching the crater rim counts as an official summit). I thought the climb was windy, but it was nothing compared to the wind raging up the western side of the mountain. I could barely stand but it didn’t matter because the view was magnificent. To the south, we had a view of Adams, Hood, and St.Helens. It was most definitely worth the trip. Before leaving our spot in the center of the crater, I took a picture with the quilt Kellie had made for me and the good luck picture from Rachael. 
The last part was the hardest and by far the most important: getting down safely. The sun had been warming the mountain all day long and as soon as we got out of the wind up high, the heat took over. Not only were we warm and continuously shedding layers, but the snow as softening making it harder to come down. My crampons kept balling up with snow and I had to knock it out with my ice axe. Looking at the terrain that we had just come down was even more exciting from this direction. The entire east and south sides of the mountain were laid out for us and we could see the glaciers and the path they weaved, like a spider with its legs going in every direction. The steepness was magnified in this direction, and this was the easy route! The guides were great though, continuing to remind us of proper walking and breathing techniques. Victor, our rope team leader, was especially proud as this was the first rope team he had led and his entire team made it to the summit, an accomplishment that no other guides would have this day. We were all quite tired on the way down and ready for this adventure to end. One member of our team was having particular trouble and slipped a couple of times on the descent, but remained in control and never created any added danger for the team. It took about 3 ½ hours to come down to Camp Muir. 

June 8, 6:00 am – The wind is blowing hard and it’s snowing again. In fact, it’s snowing right up the route we’re planning to descend to Paradise in a few short hours. The plan was to spend time this morning at Muir learning rappelling, fixed rope ascending, and other rope techniques. It doesn’t look good if the weather stays like this. God was looking out for us yesterday, giving us a dream summit day and holding this weather off. This cabin stinks of 22 climbers and their gear. I stink. I’ve been wearing the same shirt and long underwear since Tuesday. I suppose a “hardcore climber” would think that’s no big deal, and maybe someday I’ll think the same.  Right now…I stink! I’ve hardly slept over the past three days and I keep tossing and turning. Each morning I wake up with a raging headache. I “woke up” this morning, ate a Pop-Tart (a Camp Muir staple), drank some water, and I’m feeling better. Just about everyone is awake now and looking at the morning’s weather. We’re starting to talk about ways to manage our packing without having to spend much time packing in the wind. I think we’ll be bringing our packs in in shifts to load up. In guide terms, the weather is “nuking” and we’re heading into it.

June 9, 8:00 am – We’re back at Ashford at Whittaker’s Bunkhouse. We got back yesterday at about 1:30 pm and haven’t stopped talking about the week since. The trek down from Muir started out in a blizzard. We put on the ski goggles, balaclavas, and everything we could find to cover exposed skin from the wind. We began the descent with Art leading and watching his compass and Tim following to make sure we didn’t lose anyone on the way down. Not even 1,000’ into the descent, we came out of the clouds, quite unexpectedly to the entire group. The view of the valley below and the distant mountains was perfect. We widened out from our single file line into a large group, talked, and enjoyed the hike. The snow was soft and as we reached a few rolls in the terrain, we took the opportunity to glissade. (Basically sledding without a sled). It took about 2 ½ hours to return to Paradise at 5,400’ from Camp Muir at 10,080’. The difference between the two places was amazing. Not only were we now in a populated area with tourists and school busses, but also the snow was very different. Up high, everything was white and felt remote. We felt as if we’d been away for weeks, months even. Down at Paradise, the snow was dirty. It hadn’t snowed in a few days and the crud from people’s feet coming off the parking lot turned the snow black. We snapped our few final pictures, climbed on the bus, and headed for Ashford. The bus ride was chaos of conversation as friends shared the experience and talked about the next adventure. We talked with the guides about Mexico, Everest base camp treks, and why they guided. At times, you envied the fact that they are doing exactly what they love to do and are getting paid to do it. Then you realized that the lifestyle comes at the cost of living in a ‘76 Mercury Zephyr and eating beans from a can 5 days a week. There are exceptions to this rule, like Tim O’Brien, who guides part time and works with the outdoor education program at Oregon State University the rest of the time. Tim was a real down-to-earth guy who truly enjoyed being in the mountains with a group of like-minded people. It was nice to be treated as a friend rather than “a client”. I would look forward to the chance to climb again with Tim, wherever that may be.

June 9, 7:30 pm CT – I’ve gotten onto the second plane of the day, this one in Kansas City. Our flight out of Seattle was delayed an hour, making the connection in KC very short. I made it and I’m truly hoping that my backpack made it too. I called Kellie from the Seattle airport and it was so nice to talk to her again. I didn’t want to get off the phone. I wanted to tell her everything that happened during the week and tell her all about my adventures. 

  • As I’m writing, the memories of different events during the week keep popping into my head:
     
    Randy arriving at 12,500’ at the top of the Disappointment Cleaver. Tim is leading his rope team with Randy immediately following and Tim asks, “how’s everyone doing”? Randy blurts out, “I’m getting pulled backward and forward and something needs to change. A team member behind Randy was having trouble on the DC and ended up stopping for the day at this point, as did a few others. A good effort on a very tough mountain.
  • Asking Art about the weather conditions at Muir on Friday morning. When asked if the weather qualified as “nuking”, he replied by saying, “When we need to run a line from the bunkhouse to the outhouse so you don’t get blown off the mountain, that’s nuking”. I believe they’ve seen that weather before.
  • The confidence shown by the guides in their abilities, knowledge of the mountain, and their experience. You never had the impression that they were making things up, even though that’s often the nature of climbing when you can’t control the mountain. They provided a lot of positive reinforcement as a group of novices learned the ropes. No superiority complex!
  • Standing on the crest of Cathedral Gap watching the sunrise along side Little Tahoma.
  • The lush rainforest on the drive between Ashford and Paradise. I’ve never seen a forest as green and as full. The size of the trees was incredible.
  • The walk from Cathedral Gap back to Camp Muir. Muir seemed so close, yet the closer we got, the farther away it seemed. It was like the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail where Camelot keeps getting farther away as they walk towards it. I finally had to yell to Victor that I couldn’t walk that slowly. He started blazing a new trail alongside the other rope teams so we could get back faster.
  • The fun our entire group had on Friday morning taking pictures in the bunkhouse after naming the shelves the Basement, Mezzanine, and the Penthouse. The fact that there were no arguments while crammed into such a small space for 4 days is impressive. I hope the group stays in touch. 
  • Going to dinner (real food) on Friday evening with Mark and Tonya, Bill, and Randy and laughing about the week, learning about each other, and talking about next trips.
     
    The pilot just announced that we’re about 15 minutes from Chicago. The adventure is over…for now. 

 

Mountaineers in print rarely do justice to themselves or the dignity of their subject
– Robin Fedden

(Thanks to Lyndon Gritters and Randy Bauer for the use of a few photos).

72 Responses to “Mt. Rainier Journal”

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