On Monday, July 18th we woke up at 6am, had a really good carb-rich and high protein breakfast at the Paradise Inn, and then checked out of our room. We threw on our heavy packs-- with tent, sleeping bags, clothes, food, stoves, water, and climbing gear, they weighed 50 to 60 pounds each—and, at 9:20am, began our climb from Paradise Inn at 5,500 feet to Camp Muir at 10,080 feet. Our original plan had been to spend one night at Camp Muir for acclimatization and then establish a high camp at Ingraham Flats (11,000 feet) on Tuesday in preparation for a summit bid early Wednesday morning. After summiting we would return to Camp Muir for one night and hike out on Thursday morning.
After talking it over, we decided to make our high camp at Muir and, if we felt strong and the weather was good, to get a couple of hours sleep and make an initial summit bid early Tuesday morning. Knowing the unpredictability of weather on Rainier, we wanted to take advantage of every window for the summit. If we summited on Tuesday, we would also have more time to recover before our attempt on Mount Hood at the end of the week.
Having familiarized ourselves with the route the previous day, we made good time up through the Muir snowfield to Camp Muir. As we gained elevation, we made a conscious effort to stay well hydrated, pace ourselves, and keep our energy levels up with fruit snacks and bagels with peanut butter and honey. Consequently, neither of us experienced any ill effects from the altitude. With a couple of 20-30 minute rest breaks along the way, we made it to high camp at 3:00pm feeling strong.
We set up our little 4-season Bibler tent after digging out a good level platform on the snow, and carved out a sheltered spot in the snow bank for a cooking area. I laid out our sleeping pads and bags, and organized the interior of our tent, while Jody unpacked our food, set up the Jet Boil and the micro stoves, and began melting water. With our campsite complete, we began re-packing our climbing gear and filling up our Nalgenes for the climb. Before turning in for some much needed rest, Jody prepared a nice teriyaki soup for dinner.
The alarm on my cell phone went off at 11pm. Actually, we were already awake because of the fierce wind beating against the sides of our tent. As we lay in our down sleeping bags, we overheard one of two RMI guides who were out evaluating the conditions say, “It’s doable, but to what end?” Not promising. So with gusts around 40 mph, we decided to wait it out and hope for better conditions.
At 2am, the wind was still blowing hard, but with a little less sustained intensity. After noticing that one of the guided groups was heading out, we decided to go ahead and make an attempt for the summit. Jody quickly heated up a nice breakfast of oatmeal and hot chocolate to give us a good start. We then pulled on our climbing harnesses, strapped on our crampons, slipped on our packs, and tied into the rope. Turning on our headlamps, we started out from camp at 3am. Though we would have to fight the wind, the night was clear with a beautiful ¾ moon.
Camp Muir to the Summit and Back
3 am Tuesday, July 19th
We set out from Camp Muir, climbing up and traversing across the snowfield below Cathedral Rocks. A couple of guided groups from RMI were about an hour ahead of us. In the distance, we could see their headlights ascend and then crest Cathedral Gap. Our camp neighbors (Chris and Amy, a husband and wife team from Hawaii who used to live in the Seattle area, and their friend Mike) were about 20 minutes ahead of us, crossing high on the Cowlitz toward the Gap as we left camp.
The strong, persistent wind made progress difficult across the upper Cowlitz. As we traversed from left to right toward Cathedral Gap-- a steep 300-foot chute to the top of Cathedral Rocks-- we crossed above two large crevasses, making sure our foot placements were secure and solid along the way. Pausing to re-tie my boots, I lost my grip on one of my liner gloves and watched helplessly as it fell down the dark slope below me. Jody offered a belay, but I decided it was much too risky and left it behind. Better to have a cold hand than a broken ankle.
Climbing the Gap was the first, significant challenge to our summit bid. Without a snow cover, we had to scramble up through fine, loose, sandy gravel and scattered boulders, roughly following a gully to the top. In the dark, it was very difficult to discern a path of any sort, even with our headlamps on. And just as we began our climb, we heard, but could not see, a loud and substantial rock fall off to our immediate left. A very scary moment.
With several stops, starts, detours, and slides, we finally clawed our way to the top of the Gap. Back in snow, we wound our way up and around Cathedral Rocks, passing the two descending RMI teams who, at the direction of their guides, stepped off to one side and politely let us through. Judging by the tired faces, the absence of any summit excitement, and the early hour of the day, we figured they must have turned around somewhere below the Emmons glacier.
Our rate of climb had so far been pretty good. Total time en route from high camp to Ingraham Glacier and the Flats was an hour and 15 minutes. And the first light of the new day was just peering over the horizon. We passed the Ingraham Flats camp off to our right. I realized at that point that our original plan to summit from the Flats was toast. If we didn’t make the summit today, we would not be able to go back to Muir, pack up the gear, and return to the Flats before the day was out. We’d just be too tired and it would be too late in the day to safely make the return. So we were committed. Either make the summit on our first attempt or, at best, take a rest day and give it another try from Muir before our high camp permit expired.
As we continued up the slope following the wands in the direction of the upper Disappointment Cleaver cliff line, I became concerned that we were heading up the Ingraham Direct route. And I knew from reading trip reports and guidebooks that it was too late in the season to safely navigate the Direct route. The crevasses would be much too dangerous.
About 100 yards below the Cleaver, we joined a group of 4 taking a rest break in a little area that had been dug out of the snow for a tent site. From the conversation, I could tell that one of the guys was a professional guide, so I asked him if this path took us to the Direct route. I was relieved when he told me that, no, just above where we were sitting, the route made a 90 degree right turn following the cliff, leading to a steep, rocky,
approach path to the ledge on lower Disappointment Cleaver. He also mentioned that we’d find a fixed line put up by RMI, which we shouldn’t clip into but we could hold with our hands as we went up. Good information.
As we munched on snacks and drank some water, the group made a decision to turn around and head back to camp. One climber, with obvious disappointment, explained to me that it was a problem with someone’s boots. Another told Jody it was too late in the day. It may have been a combination of both, I don’t know. At any rate, the apparently happy and possibly relieved guide made a speech about safety and the mountain still being there to climb another day and headed them down.
As we made the first few movements to get going again, another team of 2 walked up, looking rather frazzled. They rested briefly, conferred a bit, and then headed back down too. This was not a positive pattern of behavior. In moments like these you have to wonder if someone knows something you don’t. We slipped on our packs and headed out.
Sure enough, the footpath turned to the right, so we paralleled along the base of the cliff toward the lower Cleaver. At one point, we climbed over a recent avalanche covering the footpath-- a reminder of what can happen very suddenly up here with disastrous effect. Nearing the end of the Cleaver, we stepped back on dirt and rock - short-roped again, with our crampons on – and followed a narrow, sloping path around and then up the Cleaver. As advertised, we found an RMI fixed line on the steepest section. We appreciated the protection and respected their wishes by not clipping in. Many thanks to the RMI guys for grooming the DC route!
On the Cleaver ledge, we passed our camp neighbors taking a break. (An interesting altitude effect-- later that day I couldn’t figure out how we got in front of them!) The climbing became much steeper -- 35 to 40 degrees-- and really sapped our reserves. By the time we hit the switchbacks on the Emmons Glacier, our legs were hurting. No wonder so many people turn around here before they reach the summit.
We took a 20-minute break at 12,500 feet, downing more water, fruit, and a bagel with peanut butter and honey. Soon we felt our energy coming back and became increasingly confident we’d reach the summit. It couldn’t be too much further! Packs on our backs, we rose to take on the Emmons.
We walked across, jumped over, and passed around several crevasses along the way, followed by seemingly endless switchbacks. The snow bridges were still pretty strong – though we did have to divert around one that had recently collapsed. And despite the sun, the snow was still in pretty good shape. But the wind! The wind was getting stronger as we gained altitude and seemed to make every step harder than it should have been, or at least harder than we wanted it to be!
Just as I was wondering when we’d see the summit, a figure came bounding toward us from above. It was a Frenchman who, like ourselves, had set out from Muir and was now returning to camp. He assured us that we were not far from the summit crater—about 800 feet he guessed-- and encouraged us not to give up. He told us that when we saw a group of large rocks we’d know we were there. Just the sort of good news we needed to hear. He also mentioned that there was no one else on the summit, so we would have it all to ourselves, a prospect that seemed both inviting and vaguely frightening at the same time. I realized that if our neighbors, who we had not seen lately, had turned back, we might be the last team off the mountain.
We started back up the Emmons, more rising switchbacks of course, but a nice moderate climb. And there they were--- rocks on the horizon! The Frenchman was right! We couldn’t help but start smiling from ear to sunburned ear. The wind was still pushing us back, but we didn’t seem to mind as much. Almost there!
We stepped on to the Rainier summit and crater rim at 10:20am, tired, wind-blown, sunburn, a little out of breath, and thrilled. We made it! We took photos of each other, propping ourselves as best we could against the wind. Given the conditions and the hour of the day, we thought about turning around and heading back down --- the ranger had told us that most people justifiably regard this point as the summit and call it a day --- but the crater was in front of us and we didn’t want to leave any unfinished business.
We drank some more water, and then descended into the crater, noticing with relief that the wind eased up quite a bit as we did. Still on rope, we crossed over to Columbia Crest on the other side of the crater, both of us knocked out that we were actually on the summit of Mount Rainier. More pictures, more ‘wows’, more ‘incredibles’. As we headed back across the snow-filled crater, we saw our neighbors coming over the rim. With smiles all around, we met in the middle of the crater, where we exchanged congratulations and cameras for team summit shots. Parting with a wish for a safe return, we began our descent at 11:30am. The day was getting late and I was becoming increasingly concerned about rock fall and weak snow. Time to get down.
Jody took the lead for the return trip, down through the switchbacks and back across the crevasses. We took extra care with the snow bridges. The snow seemed a bit mushy
and, in at least one case, I could see through a hole in the bridge down into the deep crevasse below. We made sure that we were ready to catch each other in the event of a fall.
It felt great to be heading down. One, because we were still giddy with the thrill of making the summit, and, two, because it’s always a heck of a lot easier on the body than going up. About 45 minutes off the summit, we passed a team of 4 slowly heading to the top. We wished them well, shared the Frenchman’s advice about the rocks, and continued down the Emmons. We couldn’t help but be a bit concerned that it was getting awfully late in the day to be heading for the summit.
We took a bathroom/lunch/rest break on our return to 12,500 feet – stopping at the same little rock outcropping we had used on our way up. The views of the horizon on one side and the high cliffs across the glacier on the other were spectacular. And even better, there were a couple of very butt-friendly rocks that made it an ideal place to take a breather. As Jody returned from the facilities, I heard a few rocks falling somewhere on the other side of the glacier. The sound grew as I finally spotted some fairly large boulders cascading down the opposing cliffs. Suddenly a large section of the cliff line -- perhaps 200 feet high and 100 feet wide-- collapsed in a thunderous roar, throwing up a billowing cloud of dust and debris. We were stunned.
After a few hushed comments about the need to get down before conditions deteriorated, we finished off our lunch and grabbed our gear, now with a heightened sense of urgency. Time to go. Apart from weakening snow conditions, we still had the Cleaver to deal with-- traditionally an area of high risk for rock fall—and the Gap. This climb was a challenge and it wasn’t over yet.
As we made our way down the Cleaver, we passed beneath several towering snow faces that, in the brilliant sunlight, seemed paused to crash down on us at any moment. Remembering the rock fall we had just witnessed, we agreed it was prudent to limit the sounds of our passing and refrain from talking as much as possible. Our years of rock climbing helped us out here. Hanging on crags, we’re accustomed to working together in tight situations where it’s very difficult to communicate verbally-- so we’ve gotten pretty good at one word paragraphs and hand signals. Thank goodness there were no other teams around to raise the noise level or slow us down.
Jody did a great job at the lead, navigating through several areas where the route had diverted because of rock fall and collapsed snow bridges. All the while, she maintained a good even pace to keep us moving down the mountain. To get off the Cleaver, we had to down-climb the same steep and narrow, but now very wet and slippery, path. Our thanks again to RMI for the fixed line! Back on snow, we traversed along the base of the Cleaver, ever mindful of the evidence of avalanche we had seen that morning. It was difficult and harrowing work, completed in silence. Shortly before leaving the base of the Cleaver, I heard a familiar sound and turned to watch rocks fall across a portion of the path we had crossed just minutes before.
The descent to Ingraham Flats was a relief and a chance to breathe a little easier before taking on the Gap. A climber at the campsite walked up and offered us hot water and a chance to take a break, but we declined, eager to get through the Gap and back to Muir.
We had hoped that the Gap might be a little easier to navigate in daylight. Gratefully, this turned out to be the case, with Jody taking us through the twists and turns efficiently and with good speed. The gravel and loose rock, however, made it a bit of a challenge to stay on our feet and off our backsides (Jody did, I didn’t). And the repetitive rock fall off to one side was a concern. But Jody got us down the Gap safely and back on the arcing traverse across the Cowlitz snowfield to Muir. Camp Muir! We did it!
As we approached the tents at 5pm, we were greeted by the Frenchman, who congratulated us on our success and then cautioned that a crevasse had opened up in camp! Somehow that just seemed fitting and wasn’t particularly a worry. We were far more concerned with getting something to eat and crawling in our sleeping bags. We did both-- hot potato soup and 12 hours comatose.