In June 2003, I had the pleasure to climb Grays Peak and Torreys Peak in Colorado with my good friend, Alan Arnette. I was still living in Maryland and moving to Colorado was the farthest thing from my mind. Still, I had the climbing bug and wanted to take advantage of climbing whenever I had the chance. Alan mentioned the possibility of climbing Mt. Rainier in Washington. I had done a little reading on Rainier and felt that it was out of my abilities. It is “only” 14,410 feet and I had already done four Colorado “14’ers,” but Rainier is a titan. It is an active volcano with 27 glaciers and can be a very hostile environment. It made Colorado 14’ers look like a playground. There is no other mountain like it in the lower 48. Still, I was intrigued by Rainier. I went home to Maryland and did more research. Before I knew it, Alan and I were committed to going and he was drawing in other friends of his with climbing experience from around the country and even Canada. One thing led to another and with that, “The Rainier 9” was formed from 5 Americans and 4 Canadians.
Mt. Rainier is not something that you can train for over a month or two. Ideally, you should do a 6 month program, which I started in January amidst the craziness that Shannon and I were going through in planning our move to Colorado. I won’t bore you with the details, but it was the hardest training I have had to do. After moving to Colorado in late April I felt that I was starting to round into shape.
As July approached I felt good, but was still struggling with doubts about whether I was up for the climb. I left for Ashford, Washington on Thursday, July 8. Upon landing in Seattle I found myself on the wrong side of the plane to see Rainier until the last minute. Stretching myself almost into the seat in front of me I caught a glimpse of her. The first words out of my mouth were, “Oh S---!” She was huge and far bigger than anything I had climbed. I snapped one picture and she was gone. Little did I know it at the time, but she would hide herself from us in the clouds until the first day of our climb. Then she would show off. I took a shuttle to Ashford and met Alan at Whittaker’s Bunkhouse. He had climbed Mt. Hood two days before with Bryan and Ian.
That night the four of us went to dinner at the Copper Creak Inn and enjoyed Chinook Ale and fine Pacific Northwest salmon. The next day was a rest day as we waited for the remaining members to arrive. That morning I met Lou Whittaker, a legend in American mountaineering. He had led the first ascent of Everest’s north face and his brother was the first American to summit Everest. He is 75 and looks like he is 50. He took the time to talk with us for 30 minutes and I had a picture taken of the two of us on the bunkhouse steps. It was a thrill, but I spent the day wracked with doubt. I simply did not feel good about what was coming. My legs were tired and I had no strength. I went for a short hike on Tahoma Creak with Alan, Ian and Darryl and felt better, but still was plagued with doubts. I kept repeating Phillipians 4:13, “In him who is the source of my strength I have strength for all things.”
The next day we started our one day climbing school. Our instructor was Phursumba Sherpa, a Nepalese who had been in Ashford for 36 years guiding on Rainier. He was a Sherpa on the first Indian expedition to Everest in 1960 and had been on it’s South Col. I found myself climbing on the lower Nisqually Glacier learning how to self-arrest with an ice axe and travel on a rope line from a Sherpa! What a rush! All day long he encouraged us and stressed the importance of rest stepping and pressure breathing on an alpine climb. I had studied these techniques before, but never appreciated them until that day. He called us his “heroes” and told us that if “We are successful on the mountain, we will be successful in the valley.” I passed the school and started to feel better. I still don’t know why I felt so bad the day before. My legs felt great and I was ready to go.
The next morning we met our guides for the climb. Jeff Justman was our lead guide. He summitted Everest in May and had climbed on other 8,000 meter peaks in the Himalaya. His pedigree was long and extensive and yet there was not an ounce of condescension in him. To boot, he had a great sense of humor. He talked to us at length about what we were about to do. He had summited Mt. Rainier 95 times and Mt. Everest once. He said that Rainier was a “mini-Everest” since it had everything that Everest did, just smaller. Our junior guides were Dave Conlan and Corey Raivio. You would expect these young guys to be cocky, but they were far from it. They followed the lead of “JJ” and always put our safety first.
We left Ashford on a shuttle bus to Paradise at the foot of Rainier. I had been in Washington for over 48 hours and still the mountain was hiding from us. I had not seen her since almost falling out of my seat on landing in Seattle over two days before. The first day of the climb was spent going from Paradise at ~ 5,000 ft. to Camp Muir at ~ 10,000 ft. It was only a five mile hike, but gaining 5K ft with the equivalent of a 6-year-old child on your back was a chore. The highlight of the day was entering the Muir Snowfield, where finally Rainier came out of the clouds and showed off to us. We were the first team to arrive at Camp Muir at 2 p.m., which allowed us the privilege of choosing our bunks first. The Camp Muir hut is about the size of your average bedroom, yet had three levels of bunks to sleep 30 people on wood slabs. RMI was generous enough to supply “sleeping pads,” if you want to call them that. We were told to hydrate, have dinner, get ready for summit day and be in bed by 6 p.m. I spent much of my time sittinh on the rocks listening to Third Day songs on my MP3. I was in bed by 6, but could not sleep a wink. I went outside at sunset and took some great digital pics of Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Hood. I was back in bed by 8 and quickly fell asleep. I managed to sleep until 10:30 p.m. I was thrilled to get more than a couple of hours. When I awoke I realized what a room smells like with 30 men in different stages of trying to sleep. It was a mixture of snoring, bad breath, stale air, sweat and flatulence! I knew that I was up for the count until the guides would wake us at midnight. I thought about what was ahead of me and kept repeating Phil. 4:13, “In him who is the source of my strength, I have strength for all things.” My legs felt great and my energy was back. All of the doubts that plagued me two days before were gone. This was what I had worked for over 6 months and I was pumped.
Before I knew it, JJ was busting through the door at midnight yelling, “OK ladies, lets rock and roll!” I got up, used the luxurious RMI outhouse then got all my gear on. A sobering moment was putting my avalanche becon on, although the risk at this time of the year was minimal. I had a breakfast of backcountry oatmeal that was actually very good. By 1:30 a.m. we were getting into our rope lines on the Cowlitz Glacier base. Corey was our guide on my rope. Since I had the least amount of experience in glacier travel, I was next in line. John was behind me while Darryl anchored our rope. We nailed it for weather. The temp was 30 degrees with a perfectly clear sky, rare for the Pacific “Northwet,” and the Milky Way above with a crescent Moon. We climbed in long underwear, windstopper pants and fleece jackets, in addition to our plastic boots, crampons, gaitors, packs, helmets, ice axes and headlamps. It was a special feeling to be on a rope line crossing a glacier in the middle of a July night with stars overhead. Headlamps stretched across the glacier in a slow methodical line leading up to Giblartar Rock. In 20 minutes we were across the Cowlitz and climbing across the loose rock scree of Cathedral Gap. The magic of kicking steps in the snow was gone and I quickly learned to hate climbing on scree in crampons. I found myself saying, “Snow good. Rock sucks.” Within an hour we were over the gap and onto the Ingraham Glacier where we took our first break on the Ingraham Flats. I could faintly make out the outline of Little Tahoma, a spur of Rainier’s south slopes, in the dark. Otherwise, all we could see was the line of headlamps plodding up the mountain.
I found myself struggling with doubts again. Disappointment Cleaver, the crux of the climb, was next. I could see headlamps on top of it and could not believe the vertical gain to it’s ridgeline. It was steep and intimidating. I knew that if I could get through this I would make it to the summit. The first 75% of the Cleaver was scree. As I tried to keep my footing I kept repeating Phil. 4:13. It seemed like an eternity, but finally the scree gave way to the Cleaver’s snow. I got into the rhythm of rest stepping and pressure breathing and began to feel strong. I could start to taste the summit.
We found ourselves at the break area on top of the Cleaver at sunrise. I had made it over the hardest part of the climb. It was a surreal and hostile beauty that I had never experienced before. We sat on the exposed ridge of the Cleaver with the early morning sun on our faces. However, the low part of the climb started for me. At the break I had a hard time getting my parka zipped and my gloves back on. I was having a “wardrobe malfunction” on my Super Bowl day! I made the mistake of keeping my gloves off while I took digitals and ate a honey/peanut butter sandwich that JJ gave me. Before I knew it they were more than cold. We started onto the Emmons Glacier and I could barely feel my hands, while trying to hold the rope and my ice axe. I kept sneaking a finger at a time into the mitt of my gloves and finally the feeling came back to them over the next hour. I learned to never leave them exposed in that kind of environment.
The Emmons Glacier was high and exposed. Despite the clear skies and more sunshine with the rising sun, the wind was howling and cutting through us as we started to feel the effects of less and less oxygen. Each rest step was followed by the whistling of the pressure breathing and I started to realize the benefits of these techniques. I felt strong and I kept asking myself where it was coming from. Each time I started to tire I would repeat Phil. 4:13. The next hour was spent making our way to high break camp at 13,500 ft.. We took a quick 5 minute break and were off again, this time with no other stops.
Mt. Rainier is an active volcano that has a crater-rimmed summit marked with numerous steam vents. The true summit is on the other side of the crater. After leaving high break camp the rocks of the summit rim came into view, but we were still 45 minutes away. We rest stepped through countless switchbacks, all the while not seeming to get closer to the top as we went over one false summit after another. Finally, we saw the gap in the rim that we were shooting for and entered the crater. Corey gave us high fives, but reminded us we still had to cross the crater to reach the true summit. Still, I knew I had done it. There was nothing that would keep me from the top now. We went to the crater’s center and dropped our packs. Alan was there and gave me a big hug. The idea he planted over a year before on Grays and Torrey’s Peaks had become a reality. I was on top of Rainier. I had done the longest endurance climb in the lower 48. It was 6:43 a.m. and I had done my “mini-Everest.” As we made our way to the true summit 20 minutes away a ton of emotions and thoughts flooded into me. Phursumba had told us, “If you are successful on the mountain, you will be successful in the valley.” I realized that topping a mountain like Rainier would give me strength in a transcendent way. I would never forget it and always remember the strength I felt on the climb. This was why I climb. For me it is spiritual. I feel God in the mountains and I felt his grace in a deep way, not just at the summit, but more along the way. I have realized that reaching the summit is not what matters most, but how you go about getting there. The Rainier 9 climbed to the true summit and took a group picture. We were nine men separated by one or two degrees from America and Canada, but came together and climbed as if we had been doing it with each other for years. I signed the summit log and wrote Phil 4:13. I realized how much I missed Shannon and the kids while I was sitting on top of a volcano. I reminded myself that summiting was optional, descending was mandatory. I had forgotten my cell phone at Camp Muir, so I couldn’t try to call her to let her know I was OK.
We left the crater and started a brisk pace down the Emmons. Descending became the hardest part. My legs felt like jello and I struggled not to catch a crampon on one of my gaitors. As we made our way back down the Disappointment Cleaver we saw the route we had traversed in the dark through the Ingraham and Cowlitz glaciers. Our path had wound around huge crevaces and seracs that we could not see in the morning darkness and I kept asking myself, “We climbed through that!” We made it back to Camp Muir where we took an hour break. I downed a liter of water and tried to call Shannon without luck. The climb from Muir to Paradise was much harder than I anticipated. Half way down the Muir Snowfield my big toes started to scream at me. The downward pounding that they were taking was beating the snot out of them. By the time we reached Paradise they were throbbing. I took my boots and socks off on the bus back to Ashford and discovered that the nail on each big toe was black. Alan told me it was a mountaineering condition called, “Black Toe”( How original!) and that I would lose my nails over the next number of months. The experience of Rainier would stay with me in one more way.
That night we had dinner again at the Copper Creak Inn. Dave, one of our guides, was able to join us. He informed us that the Rainier 9 had set the season time record for the Disappointment Cleaver route in 5 hours and 20 minutes! It normally takes 6 ½ - 7 hours. No group had done the route faster than us and it was three months into the climbing season. Our egos were pretty swollen.
The following morning I hitched a ride back to Seattle’s airport with Alan, Bryan and Robert. Rainier was out from the clouds, so we were able to admire her views and think about what we had done. I got on my plane and asked our pilot if Rainier would be on my side. She told me it would, so I fired up my digital. She came into view shortly after take off. Again the first words out of my mouth were, “Oh S---!” I did not conquer her. She let me climb her. Two hours later my plane dipped below the clouds outside of Denver. I saw Longs Peak, the first big mountain that I climbed. Further south in the distance was our home and Pikes Peak, the next biggest hill that I had done. It was a disservice to them, but they looked small. These Colorado titans that I had topped looked small! Rainier was behind me, but I knew that she would always stay with me and that “In him who is the source of my strength, I have strength for all things.”