Climb the highest points in Oregon (Mount Hood 11,249) and Washington (Mount Rainier 14,410) in the span of one week. Seeing as we all (but one) had zero experience with glacier travel, we would first go through school low on Mount Hood, then climb Hood (via The Hog's Back), and then climb Rainier (via Emmons-Winthrop Glacier).
Consisted of 5 individuals from Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Becky Gibbs 23, My girlfriend, a last minute addition to our team, but a vital addition none-the-less. No technical mountaineering experience.
Jake Ingman 26, My brother, no technical mountaineering experience.
Joel Schwarz 27, My brother's (and mine) longtime friend, no technical mountaineering experience.
Scotty Schnieder 24, My buddy from college, took a 1 month NOLS mountaineering course – a vital member of the climb as he was the only one who knew his stuff and put us through school.
Ben Ingman 23, Me, no technical mountaineering experience.
Ben and Becky
Travel, Gear, and School
Day One: Travel
In spite of the months of planning we had done, we were still piecing things together at the last minute. It probably didn't help that my girlfriend Becky decided that she would come along “to hang at base camp” while we climbed and we needed to get everything together for her in a matter of minutes – packing her mountaineering gear “just in case.”
The drive from Mankato to Hood River, Oregon is long and boring, but part of the deal. We arrived in Hood River without incident the next day.
Day Two: Team Introductions, Gear check, Planning
In Hood River, we met up with Jake, and Joel. One of our planned partners, Matt, had a last minute change of events, and couldn't come with on the trip. This put us down one person, which turned all eyes to Becky, the current "extra" person. Becky pretty quickly agreed to climb with us in lieu of Matt.
It amazes me that this is how climbing teams are almost always assembled. First, there is the core individuals who want to do the trip, then they recruit a few people, then a couple of them bail at the last minute, while others jump aboard at the last minute. You never really know who will actually be there climbing with you until you are standing at the base of the climb.
This day was spent with everyone assembling the necessary gear. We discussed in depth what each individual will need, how we will organize our rope teams, and what we will need to carry for our first climb – Mount Hood. We ended up buying a few things at the local climbing store, and were finally set to go.
Day Three: Introduction to Mountaineering
This day was spent at the base of Mount Hood going through school. We walked up in full attire on a snowfield and found an ideal snow slope that trailed off into a safe snow-filled gully. Scotty showed us the proper ways to self arrest and every member of our team perfected these techniques (falling forwards, backwards, sideways, etc.).
After everyone felt competent in their arresting abilities, we assembled rope teams and practiced traveling on a glacier (simulated on the low angle snowfield). We held mock situations (falls, Zero's, crevasse rescues, etc.) practiced anchor placements, etc. etc.
After Scotty had shown us all of these techniques and we were comfortable with ours (and each other's) mastery of them, we felt ready to tackle Hood.
Day Four: Mount Hood
At 2:00am we were in the car, not really even fully awake yet (except Joel, who was driving). All the gear was packed the night before and all that was left to do was throw on our clothes and jump in the car.
By 3:00am we had registered for the climb and were climbing the lowest snowfield by headlamp. I saw other climbers higher up on the mountain than us, but was still confident that we got an early enough start to make it to the summit in good time. The stars above are inspiring for the morning weather, and everyone on the team is keeping up a good clip on the first snowfield – trying (though failing) to contain our adrenaline of starting the climb under pristine conditions.
By 5:00am we were at the base of the hog's back (on the South face). The climb ahead looked technical, but we were already over 1/2 way up the mountain, making great time - everyone proved to be in excellent physical condition.
At this point we were left with a decision; either we would rope up here, and risk becoming entangled with a higher falling group of climbers (like what happened in 2002, here) or we proceed unroped and leave it up to each individual to arrest his/her own fall. The group talked it over, and everyone felt comfortable with his/her own ability to self arrest on the slope of question, so we proceeded unroped, but still with ropes in tow in case we reached a section where we decided to use them.
Our decision to stay unroped later proved to be a good one, as we ended up crossing right beneath a team of 7 and their guide all strewn across one 60meter rope. We also passed a team of 3 on what looked to be a 15 foot static cord (6mm?). Apparently this was the place for rookies (like us) to learn the trade, whether it be the right way or not.
The bergschrund at the top of the hog's back was too large to cross, so we, taking cue from the tracks and other parties, traversed left to gain the ridge left of the Pearly Gates.
By 7:43am we had reached the summit - what great time! The sky was a perfect blue and the summit was pleasant enough to have lunch and change clothes! We posed for photos and noticed Mt. Rainier in full view - it looked quite humbling, even after a speedy ascent of Hood.
On descent I began to feel a headache coming on, as I had made the wonderfully predictable mistake of not drinking enough water. Once we reached the snowfield I glissaded and ran down ahead of the group, thinking that the drop in elevation would help my head, and it did. We were all back at the car by 12:00pm. Up and down in 9 hours - not bad!
Regroup and Travel
Day Five: "Rest Day"
This day was spent drying out gear, resorting gear, and driving from Hood River to the base of Mount Rainier. Driving from one mountain to another is not the best way to spend a rest day, but was the best we could do with the schedules we had. We wanted to allot as much time as possible to hit a weather window on Rainier, and this meant spending as much time as possible on the mountain. In hindsight, this lack of a true rest day was foolish, and would eventually jeopardize our ascent of Rainier.
The evening was spent planning how much gas, food, water, etc. to bring, and dividing gear among each climber's pack. This process was far too abbreviated and extra time spent on logistics would've been time well spent (as we would later find out).
(Special thanks goes out to Dane for letting us do this to his house - and, more importantly, for the Full Sail.)
Day Six: Mount Rainier: Base to Camp Schurman
Up at 5:00am in the campground in Rainier National Park. We packed up camp and drove out to the registration station. It is only once we are here that we realize how much longer the route is than we originally anticipated – which prompted Scotty and I to spend our time studying the map, trying to memorize it (never a good idea). We realized that the map that we had (National Park Map) was totally inadequate in comparison to a map of the actual intended route.
We also got word that the weather was supposed to turn bad in the next few days and stay bad for a while – adding urgency to the climb. All eyes were now turned to Camp Schurman, and getting there as fast as possible.
With our awful map in hand we started the approach, which is beautiful along the side of a glacial runoff – but the weather was not promising, with heavy rain persistent for the majority of the hike. Our athletic group made short work of the approach, and we were soon the snowfield below the Inter glacier. We stopped at the last possible stream, drank as much water as possible and filled our nalgenes. From this point on we would be roped up for the duration of the climb. Our rope teams were Scotty, Jake, and Joel on a 60 meter rope, and Becky and I on a 60 meter 1/2 rope doubled back.
The rain stopped, but we quickly climbed into a snowstorm, which eventually developed into a whiteout. We knew we needed to break out left from this glacier about 1/2 way up, but once the whiteout boar in, it was impossible to tell how far up the glacier we actually were. Scotty was leading at this point, and took an intuitive gamble out left. With our poor map in hand, and in the face of this whiteout, it was anyone's guess.
This turned to be too early on the glacier to break left as the trail eventually lead to huge crevasses which we recognized as being low on the Emmons glacier. We backtracked back onto the Inter Glacier and continued prodding our way up through the whiteout.
After some time, we found ourselves on talus and off the glacier, which was not supposed to be part of the route, not good. We consulted our map and altimeter. The altimeter read over 9,700ft. - higher than Camp Schurman. We realize that we were in fact on top of the Steamboat Prow (elevation 9,720ft). This was a terrible realization. We had missed our turn out left but saw that Camp Schurman should be just 200 feet below us to the southeast. We made an attempt at trying to go down the ships prow, but the loose rock conditions and fall potential quickly turned us back onto the Inter Glacier. This was all, mind you, still in a whiteout.
We began heading down the eastern ridge of Steamboat Prow, hell bent on not missing the break to the East onto Emmons Glacier. As we climbed down we could hear other climbers ascending up to our left (the West). We couldn't see them, due to the whiteout, but we realized we are close enough to communicate with them. Our conversation went something like this:
Us: “Hey! Are you guys climbing to Camp Schurmann?”
Anonymous Team: “Yes.”
Us: “Isn't the turnout down lower on the Inter Glacier?”
Anonymous Team: “No, it's higher.”
Us: “Have you been to Camp Schurman before?”
Anonymous Team: “Yes, five times.”
Us: “Do you mind if we follow you?”
Anonymous Team: “Not at all.”
We reasoned that if this person has been to Schurman (five times at that) then they obviously knew where they were going, and we are currently lost in a whiteout - no brainer.
We climbed over to the other team, and, once they are within view (about 20 feet away) I reasoned that if they continued up the Inter Glacier, they are going to end up on top of Steamboat Prow. After checking his altimeter, their leader says, “No, we haven't reached the turn yet.” I conceded to follow as he was confident in his technology and I realized that my experience on this glacier was limited. Both of our rope teams filed in behind their rope team, following pre-kicked steps (which we later realized, were the steps we had kicked on our way to the top of Steamboat Prow).
After re-climbing to the top of the prow, we were cold, tired, and frustrated. Morale hit an all time low at this point, so the team had a meeting on top of Steamboat Prow behind a stray boulder. We made brief checkups on everyone's condition. I could tell that Becky was worried when she asked, “What if we never find Camp Schurman?”
We decided to absolutely disregard anything the other team did, and distance ourselves from them. We headed back down the same East ridge until we found the gateway onto the Emmons. Upon reaching Emmons, the weather began to clear. We climbed the final 300 feet up to Camp Schurman, victorious in finding the camp, but we had been climbing for approximately 12 hours, and the work to do at camp had only just begun.
We established camp on the southern end of Schurman, warmed ourselves up, made some water and dinner. It was while making dinner that we realized our rushed logistical planning had come back to bite us in the ass. As it turned out, there was miscommunication on who was bringing what gas, and how full each gas canister was. We thought we were bringing ample gas to last a few days at Schurman in order to wait for a weather window, but in reality, we only had gas to make a few liters of water and meals for one day. This was very disheartening and frustrating. After working so hard to make a summit bid, it was logistical miscommunication that would prevent us from summitting this mountain.
After much conversation within the group, the reality of a summit attempt was all but thrown out the window. We realized that due to the late hour, we would have to stay up until 1:00am making water in order for each individual to have the recommended 2 liters to take with on the climb, and whoever stayed up making this water would have to then get up at 3:30 or 4:00am to have time to make the summit.
After climbing Mount Hood, the hard day climbing in a whiteout, and the promises of poor weather moving in, we begin to joke about our expedition on Mount Rainier as a massive failure. “At least we climbed Steamboat Prow!” etc.
We made enough water to get down the next day, and when we went to bed, the plan was to descend after breakfast. We fell asleep wondering what would give first, the poles of our tents or the anchors we buried deep in the snow (quite windy).
Day Seven: Mount Rainier: Camp Schurman to Summit to Camp Schurman
I woke up early, I don't know why, because I went to sleep very late after the hard day of climbing, but I was up. I realized that the warm sun was shining on our tent, which immediately excited me to pop up and check my watch... 5:43am. There was still time!
I popped my head out of the tent to see pure blue skies. Not a cloud! Perfect conditions for a summit attempt! I quickly roused the crew and convinced them to go for it with me. My excitement was contagious and everyone was willing to disregard their tired legs and make a true attempt at the summit.
We quickly realized that our water worked out to one liter per person, which was less than the recommended amount, but, we thought, ample for an attempt. The summit looked like it was right there, and we thought we could maybe sneak in and stand on the top before the weather turned. Scotty and I had a brief debate about the reality of this summit attempt. Considering our late start, if either of us saw anything that even moderately resembled threatening weather, we would immediately turn back for Schurman.
Everyone was quickly geared up, and before 6:15, we were embarking on the climb. Personally I still did not really believe that we would stand on the top, but trying was certainly more fun than descending with our tails between our legs. The weather was coming in from the South, which was discerning because we were climbing on the North side of Rainier, completely blind to incoming weather. This caused us to have our eyes glued on the summit ridge, obsessively watching wispy innocent looking clouds with a wary eye. We were ready to dart in the opposite direction if a cloud of substance appeared above us, but luckily, the weather held.
This climb was also highlighted by the worse false summit I have ever encountered. The entire morning was spent with the understanding that the summit was close, and our tired legs could get us at least that far, but when we climbed up over this summit, we saw the rest of the mountain and realized that we were at best only 1/2 way through the day's climb. It felt like there was a mountain on top of the mountain. Our pace was steady, and route-finding was difficult at times with several large crevasses intersecting the route, but Scotty did an excellent job of finding the way.
After another two false summits, we were getting really tired and beginning to feel the physical hell we had put our bodies through. Climbing Mount Hood, not resting after this climb, climbing 12 hours yesterday, setting up camp, not sleeping much, now climbing again for a long day, and now at 14,000 feet - we were beat! The pace slowed drastically over the last 1,000 feet, but finally, at 1:30pm, we were on the Summit of Mt. Rainier - 14,410 feet!!
The wind was whipping and all members of our team were quite tired on the summit. My brother later checked Mt. Rainier records to find that when we were on the summit it was 7 degrees F with 48mph winds (this translates to a -21F windchill). Cold! We posed for a few quick pictures, and instantly began heading back down as we did not want to be on the summit any later in the afternoon.
Now, on the summit ridge, we could see the clouds rolling in from the South. They looked innocent, but certainly added a little kick to our step. We were back at Camp Schurman about 2 or 3 hours later, still in awe that we had just actually climbed the mountain, and totally wasted from the physical stress we had just endured.
Day Eight: Mount Rainier: Camp Schurman to Base
Still in awe that we had actually summited, we packed up and begin our descent. The weather had moved in (like they said it would) and most parties were saving their summit bids for another day.
The descent was enjoyable, highlighted by comfortable glissading down the Inter Glacier, and a muddy hike out through snow and rain. Once back to civilization, we did what all climbers do after a good outing: ate way too much pizza and drank terribly cheap beer (Rainier Ale).
In spite of all the mistakes we made, and the rushed schedule uncustomary to mountaineering in the northwest, we had a completely successful trip, learning quite a bit, and bagging a few peaks along the way.