An RMI Expedition Seminar on Mt. RainierThere are two schools of thought that I follow about learning new skills. The first is the trial and error method. Through experience I've found this is a long and normally hard method to use with the limited vacation time in my busy life. The other method is the schooling method where learning is faster but of course more expensive. Since we didn’t know any mountaineers we could learn from we signed up for an expedition seminar course with RMI in Ashford, WA. The course spends 6 days on the mountain learning the basics of all the skills needed to survive on a climbing trip. Weather permitting we would have an attempt at the summit.
Our arrival in Seattle from three directions within two hours (unplanned) started us off on the right foot. Besides me the group consisted of my brother Axe and our father, Old Guide. Soon our rental SUV was packed and we were headed south and then east to Ashford.
Our arrival in Ashford on Saturday was in the middle of Rainier Mountain Days. We checked out the exhibitor booths, listened to the live music, browsed through the used gear and saw some famous faces. While I would not travel to Ashford from Colorado just for the Mountain Days it was a nice addition to our visit. I recommend checking it out if you are within driving distance.
That done we headed off for a drive to Paradise, our starting point up the mountain. Having only been to Rainier in June previously it was nice to see the mountain meadows changing with the colors of fall instead of the early season snowfields.
The following morning we met the rest of our team (8 students and 3 guides), were assigned group gear and food necessitating our repacking and the evaluation of every item in the pack. The question was “Is it needed or is it a luxury item?” For “fun” we weighed in before loading the shuttle for our trip up to Paradise. All the packs were in the 50 -70 pound range which can be a pain on flat terrain and terrible on a 4.5 mile climb uphill to our first camp.
We made it to our first high camp at 9200 feet where we stayed for two nights getting used to living on the mountain and for all of us being at higher altitude. Our RMI guides, Jeff, Nate and Shawn helped us set up camp and started our learning. Axe, Old Guide and I shared a snug 3-man winter tent for which I came prepared with earplugs.
The next day we traveled, without the heavy packs, to Camp Muir at 10,200 feet for a review of basic snow skills with ice axe, crampons and rope. We took the long way home by climbing down one glacier and then up another to a short ice wall where we were introduced to basic ice climbing. Dinner was very welcome that evening.
After breakfast we packed up camp and headed slowly uphill to Camp Muir. After dropping off more “luxury” items to shave a few more pounds off the load, we continued across the Cowlitz glacier, through the Cathedral Gap to our final campsite at 11,200 feet on the flat part of the Ingraham glacier. The glacier was covered with large uneven divots ‘sun cups’ of ice and snow where we carved out a tent platform twenty feet or so from several major crevasses. These crevasses were our classroom for the remainder of the week. The remainder of the day and the following we worked on ice climbing, crevasse rescue and self rescue skills using the crevasses around camp. We each took turns being lowered into the crevasse while our rope team rigged up a Z pulley system from the rope and carabineers to allow the ‘fallen’ member to be rescued from the crevasse. Then we practiced the rescue again and again reducing our rescue time each attempt.
The weather for late September so far had been warm, too warm actually. On Wednesday night Axe mentioned that gaining the summit in such nice weather would not be a challenge. Later that evening a wind storm settled on the mountain which continued for the next 30 plus hours. Our tent felt like it was going to fly off in the wind even though we had it well tied down. Sleep was in short supply due to the wind and the worry that it would cancel our summit attempt the next morning.
At 330 am Jeff came by to tell us to rest till 5 am due to the winds, which weren’t any better at 5! We packed our summit gear, had breakfast and roped in hoping the winds didn’t pick up as we went higher. We left camp at 7 am right at sunrise with high hopes. Our first challenge was the large rock ridge, known as the Disappointment Cleaver, which was behind camp. The cleaver had an active transition zone (between the glacier and the rock) that we quickly crossed without any rock fall to be dodged. Once on the cleaver we continued up it for 1300 vertical feet up rocky switchbacks and gravel slides while trying to keep our footing in the strong winds that now were gusting even stronger at what seemed to be coming from random directions.
The top of the cleaver was a chaotic jumble of sun melted ice and snow, not the smooth glaciers we had experienced the last two years we visited the mountain. Some of the ‘sun cups’ were melted out to where you could fit a hot tub inside. The glacier above the cleaver was very fractured which committed us to large switchbacks that took us across a large section of the mountain. The path was narrow in many places due to the ridges between all the sun cups. In other sections the snow bridges spanned very deep crevasses that made me wish I could get a photo to show the depth. This wasn’t a good idea while roped into a team and moving with the wind blowing. It was amazing how narrow, yet strong, the bridges were compared to how they looked. Snow is such an amazing material!
We took our next break within sight of the rocky summit rim. What looks to be close when in the mountains normally turns out farther and larger than it appears. Many of my photos fail to show the scale since they often lacked people in them. The winds at this high break were the strongest so far. The air temperature started to feel cold for the first time for me. We fueled up with water and snacks while sitting on our packs burrowed in our puffy down parkas which maintained our body heat. Only one more segment and we’d be on top.
The last push was timed to take and hour and a half. Due to the glacier conditions we took a short cut, yet another narrow bridge over a deep crevasse, at the base of summit that got us to the crater rim in less than an hour. Nestled behind a rocky outcrop we were out of the wind and warmer while we refueled and rested.
The summit rim wasn’t the highest point. To stand on the top we had to cross the crater and climb a small hill called Columbia Crest to the top. Along the way we also stopped at the summit register log to sign in our hard won view of the top. The winds were the strongest yet. Our time on top lasted long enough to enjoy the 360 degree view and to take a couple of photos. A return trip across the crater took us back to our packs where we planned our return to camp.
The descent went very quickly. It took less than half the time to get down as it did to go up. The winds stayed with us so the narrow paths and bridges forced us to pay attention so we didn’t all of a sudden find ourselves falling. With backpacks on we were a larger target for the wind. Often it would tug at our packs threatening to spin us around, and off, the trail. With all the uneven terrain unless you fell off a bridge into a crevasse you wouldn’t slid very far. We arrived back at camp just before sunset.
While the group organized gear the guides started dinner. Several of us took advantage of this time to take a nap before dinner. Dinner was quick as everyone wanted to crawl into the tents to sleep. With the winds, the anxiety, and the long day we were all tired. The winds died down sometime during the night.
The final morning dawned clear and sunny with no wind. Several people were anxious to get back to civilization so the camp breakdown started soon after breakfast. Several of us took the morning to do more ice climbing in the 100 foot deep crevasse twenty feet in front of our tents. Going down into the crevasse 60-80 feet and then climbing out may not be for everyone but Axe and I sure enjoyed it. We also practiced travel along fixed ropes similar to what we would expect on larger mountains such as Denali.
We soon finished our packing and strapped the backpacks on for our trip down. A quick stop at Camp Muir (10,200 ft) to pick up the gear we left only made the packs that much heavier. Almost three hours of downhill over snowfields and NPS maintained trails brought us to the parking lot at Paradise and the end of our 6 day adventure. First stop was for an ice cold beer.
The amount of skills taught and subsequently practiced over the six days was extensive. I learned far more in a week than I could on my own reading and practicing in Colorado. The cost of the seminar, transportation, etc. was steep but it accelerated my comfort and experience level enough to start planning trips to higher mountains.
Skills LearnedIn the course of a week we were taught and practiced:
Self arrest techniques
Crevasses rescue, Z-pully, etc.
Ice axe and crampon use
Effective backpack packing
Fixed line use