Climbing Mt. Rainer, what a great idea! Pat started it in June 2001 when he, Scott, Steve and Darryl were in Colorado just after we got done spending a few days climbing Pikes Peak. We were looking for something to do the following year, Pat had a good idea and we all jumped on it.
We spent most of the next year learning about the mountain (volcano actually), researching and practicing climbing techniques, buying equipment and clothing, and training. For me this adventure really motivated me to increase my physical activity. I was running for 3 or 4 times a week, but with the prospect of climbing up 9,000 vertical feet with a mega-pack full of equipment, clothing and food, I knew I had to put forth more training effort. Part of my training was hiking with a weighted pack. It was a little weird hiking with a huge packpack and practicing with trekking poles in White Clay Park in Delaware at 200ft above sea level. The people picnicking, walking around and college kids playing Frisbee golf would often give me questioning looks.
We all had a lot of fun researching and buying equipment and clothing. There were many debates over what we needed and how to buy it cost effectively. We bought used equipment, went to “overstock and last year’s models” web sites, and rented and borrowed equipment to keep the expenses down. Speaking of that, Steve did a wounderful job getting airline tickets. He watched the airfares everyday. When they got down to $300, I called Steve thinking that was a great price. Steve said “No way, they’ll go lower the closer we get to leaving.” I hung up somewhat concerned. A few weeks later and not long before we were scheduled to leave Steve bought our tickets for less than $200.
Fast forward – It’s July 6th at 7 am in the parking lot of Mt. Rainer’s Paradise Ranger station at 5,000 feet above sea level. Everyone is putting on their packs, they weigh more than our training packs, 10 minutes later we are sweating, stripping off clothes and are out of breath. This is going to be a long day. About ½ hour later we step on snow, we are at the bottom of the Muir snowfield. At first there is snow and rocks, the trail meanders left and right, and we cross several small glacier run off streams. We are now past the point where casual hikers go. Finally we are on the glacier, no more rocks, no more streams, just a sheet of snow and ice rising up the mountain for another 4,000 vertical feet to where we will set up camp. We traveled together for several hours and now we begin to separate, everyone going at their own pace, and getting lost in their own thoughts. For the next several hours I contemplate my life, past and future and take in the beautiful scenery. It’s a bright sunny day, dark blue, almost black, clear skies with a few puffy, cotton ball like clouds, crisp white snow underfoot and jagged mountain peaks to the left. Occasionally, snow and rock avalanches would rumble over on the Nisqually glacier off to our left. It was an impressive sight seeing avalanches pour over the cliffs and disappear down the mountain. As the day goes on I spend more time thinking about my current life, as in “take 50 steps then rest for 15 seconds, then do it again and again.”
Approximately 12:30 p.m. we arrive at Camp Muir, 10,000 feet. Pat and Steve picked out a great spot for our tents, on the peak of a small ridge at the edge of the camp with great views of Cathedral Rocks to our left, Cowlitz glacier below us and a sharp little mountain peak jutting up into the sky to our right. Setting up camp meant more work, drop the packs, pick up the collapsible snow shovels and dig out flat spots for the tents and build a snow kitchen. We spent the next 6 to 7 hours melting snow for water, eating and getting ready for the summit climb, which we decided to begin at midnight. Camp was exciting, with other climbing teams getting in and preparing for the night’s climb, we saw some teams coming down from the summit looking tired and dragging but very satisfied. There was a small crevice near our camp that you could see down into the glacier about 30 feet before it got to dark to see any further. The translucent white blue ice was as beautiful as it was scary.
Time to get up! Its 11.15 pm, it is very crisp night with no wind and just off the full moon. We move quickly to prepare for the summit push. We lay out our ropes, attach our prussicks, decide on the climbing order, determine each person’s tie in spot on the rope, debate on clothing choices, check and double check our equipment. It’s very exciting and I’m a little nervous, so may decisions to make with so many unknowns. A little after midnight we head out of camp, Steve leading, Scott second, Darryl third and Pat on the end. Out across Cowlitz glacier we go, footsteps crunching on frozen snow, over to Cathedral Rocks. When we get there the path we have to climb is through loose scree and up over rocks. We do this with our crampons on and it goes well. We are back on Ingram glacier heading up before we will need to turn to the right and cross Ingram Flats to get over to Disappointment Cleaver. With the moon light shinning bright Pat and Darryl turn off their headlamps. Looking around it is hard to believe that we are this far up on the mountain in the middle of the night. The views are impressive even though there is not much detail. Dark spires of the mountain offset by moonlight reflecting in the snow. Up ahead we can see another climbing team’s headlamps flashing back and forth across the glacier. Disappointment Cleaver presents some more challenging climbing. Towards the top of the cleaver we could see other, larger, guided climbing teams’ headlamps several thousand feet below, just little bright dots of light moving like a line of sugar ants in search of food.
We get off the cleaver and begin to switchback on the icy upper part of the mountain. This will continue until we summit. It’s getting much colder and the winds are picking up. Steve keeps a good pace going with plenty of short rest stops, not much talking between the team. When resting I would plant my ice axe, lean into the wind and close my eyes, it felt like I was sleeping standing up. I mentioned this to Pat later and he said he too felt the same way. Up we went, the colder it became and more wind. Around 5:30 am the sky began to get lighter, sunrise was huge! Being near the top of the mountain gave us a horizon that went forever in both directions and we were actually looking down at the sun coming up!
We got to the summit and crater rim at around 7 am. It wasn’t any warmer and wind continued to blow. We spent around an hour at the top, going into the crater, hiking over to Columbia Crest (the highest spot on the mountain, 14,410 ft.) and resting. Going down we turned the rope around and reversed the team order with Pat leading. The sun was full up by the time we began the descent and the wind died off. With every step down I began to feel better and stronger as the air began to thicken. In daylight we could now see the details of the mountains. Crevasses that were hidden at night were now available for us to enjoy (from a distance!). As it got warmer the snow began to get softer, which helped cushion our downhill steps, but lessened the bite of our crampons. At one point a trash can size boulder came rolling down the mountain 50ft in front of us. We had one small crevasse to cross, we had to take only one precarious step on the snow bridge to cross it. Of course it held and we all got across safely, but it was exciting just doing it! We arrived back at camp a little after noon. We were beat, tired, hungry and a sweaty, stinky mess.
One of my favorite parts of the trip was after getting into cleaner clothes and sitting for several hours in the snow chair that either Scott or Pat made and watching the mountain and ever changing sky. I sat melting snow, with the soft hiss of the 2 stoves, with out any worries. Clouds were passing, and occasional small avalanches rumbled as the mountain heated up and rocks would break off and roll down the glacier. I had nothing to do but tend the stoves and eat ramon noodles. I was really too tired to think thoughts other than just how enjoyable it was to just there. It was fun watching other climbing teams come down the mountain. Across they came from Cathedral Rocks, and slowly became larger as they crossed the glacier and then hear the ringing of carabiners, the crunch of their footsteps and the happy shouts and comments as they entered camp. Most of these teams struck down their tents and continued down and off the mountain. We decided to stay another night and continue to enjoy “our” mountain.
By the next morning there were only a handful of tents around and most of the people weren’t there since they left for the summit during the night. We were up at sunrise and climbed up a rocky ridge overlooking our camp. We took some great pictures of each other, the camp and Mt. St. Helen’s far off in the distance. After taking in the views we headed back down to the camp and packed up. I was dreading the going down the snowfield with the full pack. Scott brought a pair of small skis. He clipped his climbing boots into his 3 foot skis, threw his 80lb. pack onto his back, and took off across frozen crud and was soon out of sight. Steve, Pat and I began to hike. We came upon a smooth trail in the snow, what was it? Someone was glissading! “Hey let’s glissade too.” We sat down and began sliding down the mountain. What fun! By glissading we soon caught up to Scott who was way off to our left. After awhile Scott strapped his skies back onto his pack and joined us glissading. We only hiked about 20% the way, the rest of the time, glissading!
Back at the car it was 70 degrees, just yesterday we were in 10-degree weather with 40+ mph winds, what a difference 9,000 vertical feet makes!