My trip to Mt. Rainier
By Archer Bell
Copyright, W. A. Bell 2001
The rope team that I was mountain climbing with had just rounded the westernmost point of Cathedral Gap; the wind had gone from non-existent to 30 miles an hour and my legs felt hollow like all of the strength had drained out of them. My headlamp lit the narrow rocky trail between Cathedral rocks on my left and a thousand-foot drop down the Ingraham Glacier on the right. As we made our way in the dark I could see that if I fell to the right it would be very difficult to stop a slide down the icy slope and I possibly could pull the three other members of our team with me. With my next step, the front spikes on my right crampon caught a loose rock and I lost my balance. Thrusting my right foot forward to catch my balance I felt the edge of the trail give way as my weight transferred forward. My ice ax in my left hand sunk from the spike to the head in the crusty snow and I crashed to the trail with a thunk. I dared not move anything but my right leg as I searched for solid footing at the edge of the trail. The rope to the front of me pulled tight and I could see Anne, one of our guides, check over her shoulder to see why the rope had suddenly gone tight behind her. “Are you alright?” Bob, my long-time friend’s voice asked from behind me. “Yeah! I’m OK.” I replied as I scrambled back to my feet. In order to explain what I was doing on that frozen narrow mountain trail at 1:30 A. M. that morning I need to go back about eight months in time and start from the beginning.
I am writing this so that I will remember the details that time seems to erase and to explain how I ended up spending a week on Mt. Rainier in Washington State during June of 2000. I turned 50 years old in May of 2000 and wanted to do something memorable to celebrate living for half of a century. Originally I had planned on trying to climb Mt. Shasta in northern California as my first experience on a glaciated mountain and then working up to Mt. Rainier as I gained experience. My plans changed when my wife and backpacking partner, Susan, decided that she was not ready to climb any large mountain. My friend of over 35 years, Bob Deevey, convinced me that we should change our plans and climb Mt. Rainier.
With our sights on the summit, Bob, who also turned 50 in May, and I made reservations for a weeklong expedition seminar on Mt. Rainier through Rainier Mountaineering Incorporated (RMI). Within a week of finalizing our reservations, I received my registration packet in the mail. The packet had a personal equipment list of items necessary for the expedition and a brochure that contained a single paragraph on conditioning. In this paragraph, there was one word emphasized. The third sentence simply stated it is NOT an easy climb. The last sentence stated you cannot over-train for this trip. I felt I had been forewarned and started to accumulate the equipment that I wanted for the trip. RMI has an equipment rental program for people that need the specialized items for an alpine climb, but after totaling up the rental fees for a six or seven-day usage I decided to try and outfit myself. If I am to be totally honest I must admit to having an equipment obsession. I find that checking out different equipment specifications and making comparisons enjoyable. Susan and I already had enough personal clothing and equipment for winter backpacking. We had spent the past three New Years Holidays backpacking in The Great Smokey Mountains National Park and felt that we had a good idea of what cold weather backpacking was about. While I was pouring through the manufacture’s catalogs in Grovetown, Georgia, Bob was in Elk Grove, Illinois checking out the Internet for every equipment retailer that had a web site.
The reasoning behind buying my equipment had an underlying motive. In order to justify the expense of the equipment, I would need to use it more than once. Bob and I reserved an expedition seminar because of the instruction that would prepare us for independent climbs in the future. We had about eight months to prepare for our climb and felt no need to rush out to buy our equipment. Bob and I made many phone calls to discuss the merits and faults of things like leather boots vs. double plastic boots, down insulation vs. polarguard 3D, etc.
Susan was getting into the spirit of the climb as time drew closer to the departure date. She had gone with me as I made my purchases for crampons, ice ax, mountain boots, and the many other things that were starting to accumulate in the room we call my office. Susan proved to be very helpful in playing the devil’s advocate and inquiring about why are you getting this model instead of that one? By convincing her of the attributes of this model over that model, I confirmed the wisdom of my choices. Susan also began to buy books and videos on the Mt. Rainier National Park and surrounding areas and we enjoyed watching, reading and discussing them. As the time drew nearer to the seminar I decided to book my airline flights. When the travel agent asked for the number of tickets needed I replied one, but was immediately corrected by Susan, and changed the number to two. Susan would be flying out with me. She wasn’t going to climb, but she wanted to see the Pacific Northwest and to be closer to me while I was on the mountain.
Bob and I decided that we needed to put some of our new equipment to the test before we actually arrived on Mt. Rainier. We put together a four-day trip that would take us to unfamiliar backcountry in the Joyce Kilmer Wilderness Area in North Carolina. I had done some research and had determined that an 18-mile loop through Joyce Kilmer (JK) would be just what we needed to help us get ready. If you have never been to JK, and neither Bob nor I had, it is very easy to underestimate just how steep and rugged some of the trails can be. I didn’t read the map very well and managed to get us lost in a surpassingly short time. Nothing was marked in JK and the trails had not had maintenance in some time. With a thick carpet of fall leaves on the ground and many blowdowns, it was easy to lose the trail. There was also the thick pungent smell of burning leaves in the air that made us skeptical about climbing very far from Slickrock Creek. Bob and I cut our trip short and emerged from JK to discover that the wilderness was on fire! We headed back to Grovetown stopping several times near the beginning of the return trip to watch the helicopters dip their water buckets into the lake to help with the fire fighting. On our way back into Georgia we found that the Appalachian Trail near Neal’s Gap was closed because Blood Mountain was also on fire.
The trip into Joyce Kilmer proved to be very important. We found out that Bob’s boots didn’t fit and left him with shredded feet. Bob also had a knee that bothered him enough to have a doctor check it out when he got back to Illinois. My equipment didn’t give me any problems but there was a time or two when I was really sucking air on some of the steep trails we had managed to locate. Bob replaced his boots with a pair of double plastic climbing boots and that solved the shredded feet problem. He also got some good news about his knee; no surgery needed just additional exercise.
That fall and during the spring I got a chance to do some rock climbing in the area around Toccoa, Georgia. A co-worker and I climbed on a 100-foot wall that had several routes that could be climbed from one anchor point. All of the climbing was done from a top rope or a top belay; I did not have the equipment to do any lead climbing. I enjoyed the ropework and thought it would be a good experience for the rope work that we would be doing on Rainier. I purchased an alpine harness that allows you to drop your pants for a nature call without clipping out of the rope. That was one feature that I hoped I would not need to try.
I had planned on doing my cardiovascular training by riding my bicycle after work and on the weekends. Susan and I took the bikes out a time or two but for some reason, it seemed that the bike riding kept getting put off. As a substitute for the bike riding, I started walking around a loop trail that we have on our property. I had loaded up a couple of climbing ropes and some padding in my Bridger pack and would make around six loops in a half-hour. Susan decided to help me out and for my birthday she rented a cabin on Blood Mountain in north Georgia. We spent three days climbing up and down the mountain. I was packing a 60-pound pack and Susan was packless but along for moral support. After a round trip to the top of the mountain, we would drive into Blairsville or Hiawassee and get something to eat. Later in the day we would drive up to Brasstown Bald (Georgia’s highest mountain) and walk the paved walkway from the parking lot to the observation center on top of the bald. Although I had a few sore muscles from that weekend I felt that I was in pretty good shape. I had mounted a climbing “powerboard” over my office door and started doing pull-ups and abdominal curls while hanging from the board. Along with the board work, I was also doing push-ups and sit-ups for my conditioning. I thought that what I was doing would get me into pretty good condition.
As June finally arrived I contained my excitement by packing, unpacking and re-packing my equipment into my backpack. Susan had not decided on a schedule but her youngest brother, Jeff, and his daughter, Joanne, planned on joining her in Seattle.
The start of the trip finally arrived and Susan and I flew out of Augusta to meet Bob in Seattle. As we started descending to land in Seattle we saw Mt. Rainier to the south. From the air, it was easy to see that Mt. Rainier is a big mountain. Bob quickly hooked up with us at the airport by using our cell phones and the three of us loaded up a rented Mustang convertible and headed toward Ashford in search of Lou Whittaker’s Bunkhouse and Espresso. The weather was great so we had dropped the top on the Mustang before we loaded in the luggage. We had sporadic views of the mountain as we drove down the interstate toward Tacoma.
Locating Whittaker’s Bunkhouse was easy; we followed the signs that directed us to Mt. Rainier National Park until we spotted a huge yellow and white tent. I immediately recognized the tent as a Mountain Hardwear base station. The bunkhouse was right next to the tent which was at the Summit Haus, an outfitting store. After confirming our reservations we unloaded our luggage and continued on toward the park. Twenty minutes of driving brought us to the entrance gate of the park where Bob and I would be spending the next six days. We obtained our pass from the ranger and continued up the road headed for Paradise. We drove through lush rainforest past huge trees and over bridges that passed over milky white streams. As we continued up the road we passed scenic pullovers crowded with people and vehicles. Everyone seemed to be out enjoying the great weather. We passed the Longmire Lodge on the right-hand side of the road and Susan gave it a quick visual checkout because she wasn’t sure where she was going to stay while Bob and I climbed on the mountain. A mile or so up the road we spotted the visitor’s center that was also crowded with vehicles and people. Just a little further and the road opened up on the left into a huge parking lot and I spotted the RMI guide house, I recognized it from a “Trailside” videotape about climbing Mt. Rainier.
We had arrived at Paradise. The RMI guide house seemed insignificant next to the Paradise Lodge, a huge log structure that oozed Northwest Pacific character. We had arrived at the base of the Muir snowfield and everything above us was snow and rock with the exception of a few cedars and fir trees that seemed to be pushing up from the snow like a new seedling in a spring garden.
The parking lot was a hub of activity with people carrying skis, snowboards, backpacks and an assortment other snow equipment. I had spotted a public restroom sign as I was pulling into the parking lot and needed to make a visit. As I walked toward the restroom, I noticed that the snow at the edge of the parking lot was eight to twelve feet thick and the parking lot along with everything at ground level was wet from melting snow. A covered walkway lead to the bathroom, it was wet and muddy and a wall of melting snow went from the ground to the walkway roof and I couldn’t help but notice the cold that exuded from the wall of snow. Another thing that I noticed was that there was a “blue bag” depository barrel just outside the restrooms, a true indicator that I had reached an alpine area.
I met back up with Susan and Bob outside the restroom; they told me that the RMI building had closed for the day. We decided to head back towards Whitiker’s bunkhouse and look for someplace to eat as we returned. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant where we ate but I do remember that I did enjoy a meal of Northwest Pacific Salmon. Back at the bunkhouse we saw other guest spreading their equipment out on the lawn for last minute checks of their backpack's contents. Bob decided to let Susan do a final check of his equipment and prepared to have everything slashed to the bone. Before the experience was over there was a neat little pile of unnecessary items ejected from Bob’s pack. The bulk of the pile was made up of food items, some of which would find their way back into the pack before final departure. Susan and I had already gone through my pack weeks before we arrived in Washington. Satisfied that we needed everything that now filled our packs we all retired for some much-needed rest.
The following morning found us trying to scrape up breakfast in the Espresso part of Whitaker’s bunkhouse. There was more espresso than food but I managed to find some instant oatmeal, a bagel, and a cup of some gawdawful spiced tea. All three of us walked over to the Summit Haus for some last-minute purchases and then checked into what we needed for the climbing school that is held on the first day of all RMI events. Bob asked some guy in an RMI vest what we should bring on the first day. We didn’t get good advice and were told that we would not need our crampons. A quick trip back to the rooms to grab the essential items was in order before Bob and I loaded up on the RMI shuttle bus. At 9:00 A.M. we rolled out of the Summit Haus parking lot with about 16 or so climbers headed to Paradise. The weather was cooperating and Bob and I really enjoyed the scenery as the shuttle bus carried us through the park. Once we arrived at Paradise we were directed to the lobby of the main lodge and told that our guides would meet us in a few minutes. The inside of the lodge was huge, exposed beams of native cedar and large tables at each end were sandwiched by large fireplaces that were glowing with burning logs and red-hot coals.
A tall very young man introduced himself as Adam Clark and instructed us to listen up for our names. Both Bob and I were in the first group of names and were asked to grab our gear and meet by the fireplace at the other end of the lobby. Shortly after our group had gathered around the fireplace a petite woman in her late twenties to early thirties joined us and introduced herself as Lisa Rust and re-introduced Adam. Lisa would be the lead guide for our expedition climb and informed us that another guide, Anne Keller would join us later that evening. Lisa explained that we would be working on some snow techniques that day and that she was going to set a fast pace to our practice location. The fast pace was to give the two guides a chance to evaluate our fitness level.
Everyone gathered up his or her gear and we left the lodge parking lot and headed up the mountain. Lisa’s pace was about twice as fast as I normally walk on a mountain trail, I didn’t feel particularly stressed but I was definitely working. Some of the guys in our group jokingly said that they were going to blame their short legs if they couldn’t keep up, but since Lisa was only about five-two or so that excuse was tossed. When we arrived at the practice area we were instructed on different ways to hold the ice ax and got a chance to practice stopping a downhill slide, called a self-arrest. Self-arrest was practiced from all types of positions, feet first on your butt, on your back, and on your stomach. Then we turned it around and did some head first on our back and butt. Each time we started our slide we called out our name so that the guides could get to know who we were.
Somewhere in the contortions that we were going through to plant the pick of the ax Bob got bent into an unnatural position and twisted his back, something that would bother him throughout the trip. There were seven others in the group with whom Bob and I would be climbing. All of the climbers were men and they were Bentley, Sam, Rob, Bruce, Dale, Richard, and Don. After the ice ax work, Lisa asked us to get out our crampons. Bob and I looked at each other and then confessed to Lisa that we had been told that we would not need to bring crampons earlier that morning and had left ours at the bunkhouse. It turned out that the omission of the crampons was not a big deal because we both had our own and we had already fitted them to our boots.
Next on the agenda was some rope work. We broke up into two groups and each guide worked a four or five-man rope team on how to make turns and other maneuvers we would be doing on the mountain. Clipping off of and back onto the rope when you came upon pickets that were driven into the snow required the entire team to stop and start in unison. The guide would drive a snow picket into the snow and attach a web loop and carabiner from the picket to the rope. The rope would slide through the carabiner until the second team member arrived at the picket. Once the climber reached the picket he calls out, “anchor!” The team must stop in unison until the climber can move his rope loop from the trailing side of the picket to the leading side of the picket. When the rope loop has been passed to the leading side the climber will call out, “climbing!” and the rope team continues along the route in this fashion until the last member of the team reaches the picket. The last member will pull the picket and stow it until it is again needed. The ice ax and rope training were fun, I hadn’t played in the snow like that for over thirty years.
Lisa called a lunch break and the group descended upon his or her pack and pulled out a variety of snacks. I think it was sometime during this lunch break that it was reviled that Bruce had brought along six pounds of “gorp”, (good ole raisins and peanuts), and this was his only snack selection. Lisa and Adam recommended that he might want to add a little variety before we went up on the mountain. Bob and I started eating our snacks and once again Bob mentioned that his back was still bothering him. After the lunch break, we practiced making turns and other activities as a rope team until Lisa called it a day and led us back to the Paradise Lodge.
A forty-five-minute shuttle trip took us back to the bunkhouse. In the parking lot, we had been instructed to meet at the Highlander Bar for the evening meal after we cleaned up. Bob and I changed clothes and headed to the bar. The Highlander was quite different from where we had eaten the evening before. If I had not been instructed to be in the bar I probably would have done an about-face and sought nourishment elsewhere. The Highlander had a typical bar atmosphere, there were pinball and video poker games against the wall and to the right of a long bar. A few tables were around a small island salad bar that looked as though they had been placed as an afterthought. Bob and I sat down and a woman came over to inquire about our intent. When we declared we were part of an RMI group she told us we had a choice of two entries. Both of us decided on lasagna and while we were waiting we helped ourselves to the salad bar. Adam came in as we were returning to our table and we asked him to join us. Dale Wagner came in alone a few minutes later and we asked him to have the remaining seat at our table. The rest of the group including our third guide, Anne Keller, filled the remaining tables and the food sporadically appeared from an area behind the bar. As we were finishing up our meal Lisa asked everyone to meet in an open shelter behind the Summit Haus to pick up the group gear we would be adding to our packs.
There were piles of plastic bags and tents in the shelter. Lisa, and Anne, instructed the group to split the tent three ways and grab a bag of group gear. Bob and I drafted Dale as the third member of our tent and grabbed a bag and a part of a tent. I had shared a room with Susan the night before but she had gone to Seattle to pick up her brother, Jeff. Bob wanted to get a good night sleep before having to listen to my snoring so he sprung for a separate room at the bunkhouse. I followed the standard program and slept in the bunkhouse that was laid out like an open dormitory. Bob and I discovered the bunkhouse had a hottub and decided to see if the hot water could relax our tight muscles. We had just gotten used to the hot water when Don Stenger joined us. As it turned out Don was also in law enforcement and we talked about something other than mountain climbing for the remainder of the hotttub soak. I retired to the bunkhouse for some much- needed rest. Bruce had some of the other climbers gathered around him and was telling war stories about Desert Storm. I decided to skip the war story session and turned in for the night.
The start of Monday morning wasn’t much different from the previous one. I avoided making the same tea selection and found a bagel and some oatmeal for breakfast. Bob and I loaded up our packs and headed toward the RMI shuttle busses. A second trip to Bob’s room netted the items we were going to stash at the equipment shed. We dropped off the extra suitcases and duffels that we wouldn’t need and went to load up our packs into the back of a RMI bus. Two things bothered me as I helped load the packs, the hulking weight that the packs now contained (65 pounds or better). Secondly most of the ice axes didn’t have any protection on the spikes that protruded up at angles that ran parallel to the pack to up 45 degrees away. I could just see one of these ax spikes running through my pack.
Once we loaded up the gear we climbed aboard the shuttle bus and the driver pulled out headed for Paradise. Within a few miles, we were driving in the rain, not a downpour, but misty drizzle. This was the weather that I had expected to be experiencing while in the Pacific Northwest. At the lodge, we were instructed to return to the fireplace where we had started from the day before. Once everyone had retrieved his pack and assembled around the fire we started the official introductions. Lisa had postponed this part for one day so that Anne could be part of the process. There were two other climbers that were a pair other than Bob and me. Sam Minor and Bentley Whitman were from Petosky Michigan and had already spent a few days backpacking around the base of Mt. Rainier. Sam was a medical doctor and this added some comfort to know that medical assistance would be close by if any of us found a need for that type of help. Bruce Barr was from Florida and works for NASA. Rich Ahronian an attorney from Fresno, California made sure that we all knew that he had never nor intended to sue any of us. Rob DeGrange was from Ohio and works as some type of project engineer. Bob and I already knew that Don Stenger is a policeman from Minneapolis because of the hot tub conversations. The final member of our climbing party was Dale Wagner a professor of exercise physiology at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, California.
With the formal introductions out of the way Lisa informed the group that on the mountain she would have the final say on any major decisions that needed to be made. She wanted to make sure that everyone understood that she was in charge of this climbing expedition before we set foot on the mountain. No one appeared uncomfortable with Lisa’s declaration so we all loaded up with our packs and headed out of the lodge to start our climb up the mountain.
The sky still was very overcast but the rain had stopped falling. The mountain was hidden in the clouds but I was very aware of its presence as we started climbing its flanks. Lisa’s pace was more relaxed than when we had headed out the previous day and I felt as though I could maintain this pace for several hours, Bob and I were just behind Lisa. We climbed up past the area where we had practiced our ice ax arrest and rope team maneuvers, as we climbed I noticed that the clouds seemed to be thinning. After about an hour of climbing, Lisa called for a rest break. We were told to place our packs on the snow with the back pad and straps facing toward the sky, this way we could use the pack as a seat and the snow would stay off the areas that came in contact with our body. We were encouraged to eat a snack and drink water anytime we took a rest break. Both Bob and I were feeling pretty good at this point and we talked about how much we were enjoying the hike. The break was ended and we all packed up to continue on.
I must have been piddling too much with my pack adjustments because when I started up after the rest nearly everyone had gotten ahead of me. Bob was still up front with Lisa but I was now near the back of the group with Anne and Bruce, who seemed to be lagging behind. After climbing with Bruce for a while I noticed that he was struggling with his pack. It seemed that Bruce and his pack were locked into mortal combat. Every ten or so steps Bruce would stop and grab the bottom of his pack and try to thrust it higher up on his shoulders and within ten or so steps the pack would slide back down so low that the process would need to be repeated. Anne tried to adjust the pack to fit better but a good fit was out of the adjustment range for that pack.
I almost felt obliged to stay with Bruce and Anne for moral support but began to notice that the pace had become so slow that I was beginning to bog down myself. The main group had already walked out of sight by the time I realized how far behind we had fallen. The next time I saw Bob he was hoisting his pack back on after a rest break. He asked me if I was all right and I replied that everything was OK and explained the problem Bruce was having. I needed a rest so I stayed with Bruce and Anne, as we tossed our packs onto the snow while the rest of the group continued the climb. I could see the importance of having three guides with a group this diversified in skill and experience level.
When the lead group stopped for their next rest Adam backtracked to see if there was anything he could do to help. Anne declared that everything was fine. I saw my chance to catch up with the main group and asked Anne if I could go on ahead and climb up to the main group with Adam. Anne said go ahead so off I went in hot pursuit of Adam. Adam was unaware that I was trying to catch up with him and was really moving fast. As Adam rapidly widened the gap between us I started to wonder why I ever thought that I could just stroll on up the mountain at his pace. What was I thinking? By the time Adam reached the main group I had managed to split the difference between the main group back to Bruce and Anne.
I was hoping that when I arrived at the area where the main group was resting that Lisa would give me a minute to catch my breath before continuing the climb. To my relief, Lisa didn’t appear to be in a hurry to go anywhere. I found Bob in the group and explained the mistake I had just made in thinking that I could keep up with Adam as he made his way back to the main group.
After I arrived, Lisa made a comment about us staying the night close to the area where we were resting. We all waited for Anne and Bruce to rejoin the group. Anne and Lisa had a conference and then Anne pointed to an area off to our right and slightly downhill. Lisa moved us all to that area and announced that we were at the head of Pebble Creek and would be spending the night here. The guides showed us how to dig a tent platform to make a level spot on the side of the mountain and then pitched the guide tent. The shovels were then passed on to the climbers and we were instructed to pitch our tents in a like manner.
We all got busy enlarging the platform so that it would be large enough for the three other tents. Each of us spent times digging and packing down the snow to form a flat spot. As the shovel was handed off to the final tent mate the other two tent members started sorting out the tent poles, body, and fly. In short order, we had all four tents up and secured to the mountain. The final steps were to roll out our sleeping pads and bags inside our newly erected sleeping quarters.
While we were busy setting up the tents Adam had been busy remodeling a kitchen area that had been dug out by previous climbers. He had the four stoves blazing away under two large group pots. Adam was boiling water that he had scooped up from Pebble Creek. Lisa had warned us that the water was not safe to drink unless it had been either filtered or boiled. One of the large pots would be used for making dinner while the other would be for hot drinks such as cocoa or tea.
As Adam prepared dinner Anne and Lisa dug out a pit in the snow and lined it with a plastic bag for a latrine. A snow wand had been placed near a rock outcropping to mark a pee spot. Several members of our climbing group, including myself had seen a large marmot run into the rock pile close to where the pee spot was located.
With the tents up and prepared for sleeping and supper cooking in the pot there was time to look around and survey our location. Southeast down the mountain Paradise was visible. You could easily see the large parking lot that surrounded the lodge and the guide house. Looking south the tops of Mts. Adams and Hood could be seen above the clouds. The top of the mountain occupied the entire north, northwest horizon and directly north of our camp the other expedition group was setting up camp about 300 yards up the mountain. It is hard to describe the huge scale of this mountain. It is only while you are on Mt. Rainier and see objects like other people that you get a true perspective of its vastness.
Adam called out for everyone to bring their cup; hot water was available for drinks. While we were mixing in the cocoa or cider, Adam told us to drop off our water bottles when we came back for supper and he would refill them for tomorrow. By the time I had pulled my bowl from my pack the call for supper had gone out. We all lined up for a noodle and sauce dish. I don’t know if the meal was so good because it was really tasty or if it was because I was really hungry but I found the meal very satisfying. I was not the only one that enjoyed the meal because nearly everyone had seconds. Adam made a “last call” for anyone that was still hungry and then dove in and cleaned out the pot with his spoon.
After supper, there was a training session on how to make and use prussik slings using the 6 or 7 mm perlon rope we had been instructed to bring. These slings are used to ascend a rope in the event that you fall into a crevasse and need to climb out. We were also given some time to make any equipment adjustments necessary. Lisa had mentioned to me that I needed to remove the two wet ribs (water bottle and cargo pouch) from the front of my pack due to the potential of them interfering with me clipping into the rope that we would be using to climb to Camp Protection. I removed the wet ribs and stowed them in the pack. I then headed back over toward the kitchen to pick up the two Nalgene liter water bottles that I dropped off at suppertime.
Anne and Lisa were heading up to the other expedition group to talk with a friend, Heidi, who was a guide for that group. I got out my camera and took several photographs of the camp and the activity that was going on. The sun was dropping behind the summit of Rainier and the temperature was dropping as fast as the sun. I pulled out my down parka and put it on in defense from the cold. Bob and I talked about the day and the anticipation we had about climbing as a rope team the next day. Adam started to boil another pot of water for the evening hot cocoa and cider. The guides again stressed the importance of staying hydrated to avoid the adverse effects of the altitude gain.
Everyone except the guides seemed to be tired from the day’s activity and the prospect of turning in for the night seemed to be going through the group’s minds. Bob and I headed for the tent to turn in for the night and Dale joined us shortly after we were in our sleeping bag. Dale and Bob had their head near the front of the tent and I had my head near the rear door. I was glad to discover that we really had done a good job at leveling the snow under the tent and there was no tilt to my sleeping pad. I was quickly overcome by sleep.
My body clock was still set on eastern daylight savings time and I naturally awoke very early the next morning. Even though it was early the sun was already starting to light up the mountain. I couldn’t resist getting up to watch the sunrise. I quickly dressed, trying to disturb Bob and Dale as little as possible and stepped outside the tent.
As I started toward the designated pee spot a large marmot scurried from a rock top into the rock pile. I returned to the tent to grab my camera in hopes that the marmot would show its self again. It was a beautiful morning, the moon was still out and it was perched directly over Mt. St. Helen. I photographed the western horizon in an attempt to capture the view. The marmot had decided that I wasn’t a threat and had climbed back up onto the rocks to catch the heat from the morning sun. There was no one up in our camp to share the moment so I took another photo for proof that the marmot was out.
I looked up the mountain toward the other expedition camp. One climber from that expedition was also out on the snowfield, his body clock was probably still in another time zone like mine. We exchanged waves and then continued to enjoy the morning. I went over to the kitchen and considered starting up the stoves to get the water boiling. After looking around the kitchen I decided to leave the water boiling to the guides. Adam had packed everything up for the night and I didn't want to give the impression that I was plundering by going through the group gear. I started to hear other climbers talking in their tents, the early solitude had been nice but I was ready for some company and looked forward to the others coming out.
Adam was the first person out of a tent and I walked over to the kitchen with him. He showed me how he had formed a pantry for the group food and then sealed it with a snow block to keep out blowing snow and marmots. Within the next fifteen minutes or so everyone was up and getting ready for our climb up to Camp Protection at around 9,700 feet in elevation. Hot water was available shortly after Adam got all the stoves cranked up and we had a choice of instant oatmeal, cold cereal, hot chocolate or tea. Bob and I picked out what we wanted and after we consumed it we started packing up the remainder of our camp. The guides broke down the kitchen and called for everyone to grab a bag of group gear and load up his pack for the climb.
Adam, Anne, and Lisa each laid out a climbing rope with two butterfly knots evenly spaced in the middle. Anne instructed Bob and me to clip into loops formed by the knots on her rope. I had to secure my trekking poles under the compression straps for the rope work. Bob took the forward knot and I clipped in behind him Bruce clipped into the trailing end. Anne checked each of our carabiners to make sure that we had them locked and then clipped into the front of the rope. We left our Pebble Creek campsite and headed northwest up the mountain until we connected with the main trail that leads to Camp Muir. The two other rope teams were ahead of us on the trail.
Shortly after we got on the main trail I noticed that the rope between Bruce and me kept going tight. The longer we climbed the tighter the rope got. When I climbed at a speed that kept slack in the rope between Bob and me I ended up pulling Bruce up behind me. I was pretty sure that I could get up the mountain but I knew that I couldn't get Bruce up if I had to drag him. It didn't take long before I was unable to keep the slack in the rope going up to Bob. As the rope tightened between Bob and me I could see Bob look over his shoulder to check out what was going on. We had been climbing for about forty minutes and by now we had the rope stretched out tight between Anne all the way back to Bruce. This was not the way I had envisioned my climb up Mt. Rainier. Our rope team was falling behind the others at an alarming rate.
The other teams had been resting for a while by the time we got to the first rest break area. Anne coiled in the rope as we each climbed to the rest spot. We dropped our packs and unclipped from the rope. Bob and I discussed the problem of dragging Bruce up the mountain and decided to talk with Anne. I went over to Anne and apologized for my slow progress and explained that I felt like I was pulling Bruce up the mountain. She explained that she knew of the problem and planned on having Bob and Bruce switch places on the rope. The other rope teams started to clip back into their ropes, so we cut our first rest short after drinking some water and we put our packs on in preparation to climb on. Anne had Bruce clip into the rope directly behind her and Bob moved to the back of the rope.
As the four of us headed on up the mountain behind the other two teams I was glad to see that I could easily keep the right amount of slack between Bruce and myself. Bob must have been doing a good job with his slack because I was barely aware that he was behind me. It wasn't long however before Bruce started to wrestle with his pack. Each time he attempted to hoist it back into position he would stop, causing the rope to tighten up between him and Anne. I noticed that there was less and less slack between Bruce and Anne until finally, Anne was hauling Bruce up the mountain like a mule pulling a plow.
Our pace was off from the other two teams and it continuously slowed as the day went on. I was never able to get on my pace. At one time I checked the length of my stride and was shocked to see that we were only moving four inches per step. I really started to bog down at that pace and thought that my trekking poles might help reduce the fatigue that was creeping up my legs. I called up to Anne and asked if we could stop long enough for me to get my poles off of my pack. Anne agreed and we stopped on the trail. Just as I was about to remove my pack, another rope team from the other RMI expedition came up behind us. Heidi Eichner was leading the team and asked what I needed from my pack. She removed my poles from the pack and while she was adjusting the compression straps we introduced ourselves to each other. I thanked her for the help and she then lead her team on past us. Heidi and Anne engaged in a short conversation as she passed and then we were back on the trail.
The poles were helpful as I now felt that my arms could now be used in addition to my weary legs. I normally use my trekking poles when I backpack and was surprised how different it was to climb without them. The poles may have been a case of too little too late, the short steps and slow pace had already worn me down. By the time our rope team made it up to Camp Protection at 9,600 feet the other teams had completed digging out the platforms for the tents and some of the tents were already up. Dale was patiently waiting for the parts of the tent that Bob and I had in our packs. We set our packs down and pulled the necessary items out to get everything set up for the night. The night before we had been between two tents and Bob said that even though I hadn't snored, someone in another tent had risen to the challenge. We went to the East End of the platform area and set up our tent.
Lisa called out for everyone to listen up. She had been on the two-way radio and been informed that nineteen out of twenty-one climbers from RMI had made it to the summit of Mt. Rainier that morning. Considering that the weather could deteriorate as the week went on, Lisa wanted to do a summit attempt early the next morning. Wow, talk about fast-forwarding plans! I had counted on another day of training at altitude to help me get ready for the climb, however, if the guides thought we were ready I was willing to go with their call.
Each climber was given an avalanche beacon and told to make sure that we were wearing it when we got dressed for the assent. Lisa made a recommendation on how to dress for the morning climb. She said that she was going to start out with just a base layer top and base layer with climbing pants for the bottom. She wanted us to make sure that our crampons and gaiters were out because we would start out in crampons. All of your warm clothing should be carried in your pack so that you can easily get to it.
Lisa then went on to explain the game plan for getting up the mountain. We will travel as three rope teams." We will travel together, if anyone has to turn around then we will all turn around. There will be a few spots where we can drop you off if you are having difficulty, but once we pass those spots it will be all or none." Lisa went on to discuss rock falls. "We will coil our rope in before we get into the fall area so that you can move independently. If you hear a rockfall while we are in the area, turn and face uphill, try to dodge the rocks by moving left or right. Don't head downhill, not only can you not outrun the rocks, you can't see them with your back toward them." OK, that was advice that I hoped I would not have to use.
It was still pretty early but we were told to plan on getting into the sleeping bags by 6:00 PM even if we weren't tired. I went into the tent and made some modifications to my pack to reduce it's over capacity and stored the unneeded items in a large trash compactor bag. Bob and I went over everything that we planned on taking up the mountain and we felt that we were prepared for any weather that the mountain might throw at us the next day. After we were set up for the climb we had some time to socialize with some of the other climbers. All of us were pretty excited about the upcoming climb. I used some of the remaining time to get some photographs from our new camp. The day had turned out to be just beautiful; there were fewer clouds than the day before and it seemed as though you could see forever. At Six o'clock everyone turned in to rest our bodies. It seemed strange to be getting into my sleeping bag while it was broad daylight on the mountain. Bob, Dale, and I talked for a short while once we were in the tent but I think we were all asleep in less than half an hour.
Lisa shaking the tent awakened me. "Ok, let's get ready guys, base layer top and fleece on the bottom to start out." I thought we would be getting up around 1:00 AM, but a quick check of my watch was showing 11:55 PM. There wasn't much conversation as we all put on the gear that we had laid out earlier that evening. Everything came together all right and the last things to go on were the crampons. Bob and I checked out each other's climbing harness buckles to make sure we had done it right. "Hot water is ready now" Adam exclaimed from the kitchen. We all made our way over to the kitchen and filled our cups and bowls with our choice of nourishment.
The guides called out our names and had us clip into the three ropes that were stretched out on the snow. Bob and I clipped into the two middle butterfly knots on the rope we were directed toward and I think it was Richard that clipped into one of the ends. Anne picked up the lead end of our rope and asked us to all do a double check of our locking carabiner to make sure it was locked. We all confirmed that we were locked and Anne started up the mountain to intersect with the trail to Camp Muir. It felt strange to be walking with crampons on but it was a comfort to have all those spikes holding me on the mountain.
It was nice to only be carrying a thirty-pound pack for a change. I thought that we had a good pace going but we were the last rope team to leave the camp. As the other teams hit the packed-down trail they put a little distance between them and us. Anne was anxious to close the gap and I felt the rope grow tight as she increased the speed of our pace. I picked up my pace and felt the rope going to Bob tighten up. In a few moments, we all had the proper slack between team members and to my surprise, Anne picked up the pace even more. I kicked in the pressure breathing and matched the faster pace. I could feel perspiration starting to bead up under my base layer top. No doubt about it we were definitely working. For the third time, I felt Anne pick up the pace, I was able to put slack back into the rope for only a moment before I felt the pull from behind, we had reached the maximum speed that this team could maintain. When the rope between Anne and myself grew tight again I didn't have the energy reserve to put any slack into it. Bob was doing a pretty good job of staying in step but I could hear that he had also kicked in the pressure breathing.
My body was working hard and producing a lot of heat. Despite the sub-freezing temperature, I had already heated up to the point that I could feel sweat starting to run down my back, face, and neck. I had on a zip T polypropylene top with a zipper that was already down to the middle of my chest. I had started with a balaclava on my head but I now had that pulled back from under my helmet and around my neck. The guides had taught us a method of walking called the rest step, which allows all of your weight to momentarily rest on the skeletal system between steps. At the pace we were moving, there was no time for the rest part between steps.
I could see that the other two teams had stopped for a rest break and I was certainly ready for one. We had reached Camp Muir, Anne coiled in my rope as I walked up to her and she instructed me to do the same as Bob came up behind me. Once we were all coiled in I grabbed something to drink. Bob and I talked about the blistering pace we seemed to be setting and we agreed that it was faster than we had expected. I told Anne that I was really working and knew that I could not keep up the pace she had just set. She assured me that I was doing OK and we had come up to Muir at the fast pace in order to make sure that we got ahead of the two-day summit climb group that had spent the night at Muir. I could see that there was a lot of activity in the RMI bunkhouse. There were several people encouraging the group to get their equipment on so the guides could make sure it was on properly. There did seem to be some confusion and the two-day people didn't have the cohesiveness of our expedition climb. We probably did want to be ahead of this group. Anne called out for us to put our packs back on and check our clip-in on the rope. We left the confusion behind as we stepped out on to the Cowlitz Glacier.
Anne was true to her word and sure enough the pace was a little slower. We were also doing more of a traverse across the glacier. We had been pulling a pretty steep angle climbing from Camp Protection to Camp Muir. The Cowlitz Glacier was like a huge amphitheater with the Cathedral Rocks forming a semicircular wall. As we got closer to the wall I could see where rocks had crumbled off the wall and bounced or rolled onto the glacier. Some of these rocks were the size of large ice chest. I hoped that I wouldn't have to play "dodge ball" with any future additions of the glacier's rock collection.
We were now approaching the base of Cathedral Gap, the route we would use to cross between the Cowlitz Glacier and the Ingraham Glacier. Just before we got to the rocks of the gap Lisa brought all three teams together and we all coiled in. "We are going to go through here one team at a time to reduce the chance of someone knocking a rock off and hitting a lower team. Look out for falling rock, if you fall, get up, if you lose a crampon pick it up quickly and keep moving." Lisa's tone was serious; I definitely got the impression that this area was dangerous. Our team watched as the other two teams climbed up through the gap. When the second team got to the ridge Anne said, "OK let's go".
Crampons are not designed for walking on rock, or should I say running on rock. When Anne took off up the gap it felt like I was in a race. The pace was way too fast to be climbing, but I was in no position to protest. Bob was right behind me and I could hear him stumbling on the rocks. "Are you alright"? I asked. "No, I've got a rock stuck in my crampon" he answered. "Hold up and let me try to knock it out." That was not what I wanted to hear. I called up to Anne for her to stop long enough for Bob to clear his crampon. "OK let's go," Bob said as he cleaned the crampon with his ice ax. Bob later told me he could see sparks flying from my crampons as we were climbing up the gap. When we reached the crest of the gap a ripping thirty mile-per-hour freezing wind met us.
The sweat on my face and neck felt like it instantly froze. We worked our way down the north side of the gap still moving at a pace faster than I was comfortable with. I was glad when we got back onto the ice and snow. I was not doing very well at this time, my legs felt hollow as though their strength had moved out leaving a void. My lowland lungs were hunting for oxygen that seemed mighty thin at the 10,800 feet altitude. Mountaineering was more exciting than I expected! Once we were through the gap we turned Northwest and followed the Cathedral Rocks. The Ingraham Glacier dropped away from the rocks so quickly that the path was the only way to travel without losing some serious altitude. It was along this stretch of the trail that I stumbled and fell. I've already described what happened in the first paragraph of this story. I should have called out "falling!" as we had been taught, but I was so surprised at how fast I went down I didn't say anything. Once I was back on my feet I started to evaluate my condition.
I was out of breath, sweat felt like it was freezing on my face, neck, and down my back, my legs had no strength and we had only been climbing for two hours. Lisa's words of "If anyone has to turn around then we will all turn around." Had burned into my memory. I didn't want to be responsible for turning this climb around. I knew that I needed to get off of this climb before we reached a point of no return. The rope between Anne and me tightened again. As I moved forward to return the slack, the rope behind me tightened. I wasn't the only one feeling my age, Bob wasn't any better off than me, we were both pooped. Again the front rope started pulling tight. I picked up my pace hoping that the extra work would help warm me up. The cold wind that seemed to intensify wasn't going to let that happen.
We approached a rest stop next to the other RMI expedition group's camp. When Anne coiled me in I let her know that I was done. She encouraged me and said she was pretty sure that I could make it. I told her I might be able to make it to the top, but I wasn't at all sure that I could make it down without some serious leg cramps. I had coiled Bob in by now and he wasn't at all sure that he could make it either. I thought that he was doing much better than me and did not want him to stop just because I was stopping. We argued some but Bob convinced me that he was just as wasted as I was. While we were arguing the wind continued to suck the heat out of us and I started to shiver. Anne came back over to us and told us both that she had an RMI tent for us to hold up in while the rest of the group continued. I left my pack on in anticipation of walking over to the tent. The other climbers had dumped their packs and pulled out warmer clothing to help fight the wind chill. The second expedition started to move out and Anne pointed Bob and me toward an end tent. You guys pull your crampons and boots off and get into the sleeping bags that are in there. Anne could see that both Bob and I were shivering almost uncontrollably. Anne made sure we could take our boots off and then warned us not to go outside of the wanded area around the camp. "We'll see you guys around ten on our way back down," Anne said as she walked back to rearrange the rope teams.
The tent cut the wind and gave Bob and me a chance to evaluate just how cold we were. Both of us were shivering and I decided that the best way to warm up was to get into the sleeping bags. Anne had mentioned that we might want to get some sleep while we were waiting for the other climbers to return from the summit. Bob and I each found a sleeping bag and crawled in. I continued to shiver inside the bag for at least fifteen minutes, I could feel the sleeping bag trapping what heat I was still producing. Bob and I talked about the scramble over Cathedral Gap and wondered what it would look like during the day. As I continued to warm up I could tell how tired my body was and knew that I would soon be asleep.
A guide bringing back a climber from another group awakened us. He was looking for a tent to put her in so she could warm up, The guide unzipped the tent we were in unaware that it was already occupied. He apologized for disturbing us and moved on to another tent. Later in the morning we heard another guide bringing back someone else. We listened to activity as another climber got stuffed into a tent. Again the zipper on our tent was opened, this time the guide explained that we were in his tent and he would find us another tent to continue our wait. Bob and I put our boots on and moved to where we were directed. It didn't take me long to remove my boots and warm up the new sleeping bag. I quickly fell back asleep.
I was awakened by the strong urge to pee. The sky was getting lighter so I put on my boots and ventured out to locate the latrine. I stepped out onto the Ingraham Flats. There were four tents located in an area that had wands marking a safe area. In the lower corner of the safe zone a latrine had been marked. As I headed down toward the latrine I noticed a peak named Little Tahoma being lit by the rising sun.
I was beginning to learn that I shouldn't leave the tent without my camera. After a brief pit stop I returned to the tent and found my camera. The view from this part of the mountain was entirely different from the view at Camp Protection. I took several photos before I returned to the tent to put on some additional clothing. The wind was still blowing at 25-30 miles per hour with occasional gust up to 50 miles per hour. I decided to put on my windstopper pants over the talus pants I was already wearing over my base layer. These pants have full side zippers so I didn't have to remove my boots in order to get them on. I unzipped each leg fully and started assembling the pants around me. This act turned out to be more complicated than I anticipated. With all the zippers open this garment appeared to be more like a flag in the strong wind than pants. When all the Velcro tabs finally got lined up and secured I was able to zip the legs closed and everything came together to form a pair of pants. My gaiters went on over the boots and pants to further protect my legs. A down parka for my torso, gloves for my hands and a fleece cap under my balaclava finished off the additional clothing needed to keep out the wind. My goggles had a lighter tint than my glacier glasses so I used them to protect my eyes from the wind and early morning glare.
The day had dawned clear and beautiful. With the exception of the wind you could not have ordered a better day. I looked up toward the mountaintop and was disappointed that the Ingraham Headwall blocked the view of the summit. Even though I couldn't see the summit there were all types of new and interesting things to see. Next to the Cathedral Rocks was a huge chunk of ice that was about thirty feet high and almost that wide. There wasn't anything above the ice chunk from which it could have broken away. That meant that it must have broken off of the Ingraham headwall and tumbled several hundred yards to rest next to the rocks. There were tracks going up the ice block, evidence that someone had used it to practice ice climbing. There was a gap in the rocks that seemed to be funneling the wind onto the Flats where the tents were pitched. This may have been Cadaver Gap I'm not sure because I never asked anyone and I can't tell by looking at the map.
The trail that everyone was leaving the flats from was visible for quite some distance from the campsite. I was beginning to wish that I had brought my pocket binoculars. There were several areas that I would have liked to check out more closely but it would require being roped up with someone to make sure you didn't end up taking a one-way trip down into a crevasse. Bob and I didn't have a rope and we had promised Anne that we wouldn't leave the area that had been marked by the wands. Bob called from the tent for a current weather report, "What's it like out there?" "It's a great day, just a little windy" I replied. "You might want to bring your ice ax to help keep your balance" I had found some of the gusts that were blowing through the gap were strong enough to require a balance aid. Bob emerged from the tent and made his way to the latrine.
I directed my attention back up the mountain and noticed two figures making their way down the Ingraham headwall. Bob joined me and we both watched as they made their way toward the main trail that would bring them close to our campsite. It turned out to be two men dressed in yellow Marmot coveralls, which I later learned was the uniform of the Climbing Rangers for the Park Service. "Did you guys summit?" Bob asked. "No we got to within 200 feet of the top and had to come down" one of them replied. "Did the wind turn you around?" I asked. "No it wasn't anything like that, We lost a pack while we were resting "the lead ranger replied. He went on to explain that they had stopped for their final rest before the summit and had accidentally knocked one of their packs loose trying to catch a glove that got away from one of them. They had watched as the pack slid 2000 feet before it lodged at the beginning of the headwall. The pack had managed to jump several crevasses, but some of the contents had come out and fallen into the crevasses that the pack had evaded. They had retraced the path of the runaway pack down the mountain. Stopping at each of the crevasses to retrieve wayward contents that had fallen in. "By the time we gathered all the items and the pack we were ready to call it a day, we didn't have the time or energy to try for the summit." We wished them a safe descent as they continued down toward Cathedral Gap.
One of the guides that had brought back a distressed climber emerged from his tent and Bob started a conversation with him. I joined in and we found out that the route was pretty windy but the guide thought that those who could make the climb would make the climb. We were pleased knowing that the rest of our group had a good chance of summating, we would be celebrating later on. While we were talking I noticed two climbers coming down the mountain on the route that most everyone had used. Just as I noticed them the top climber slipped and slid past the lower climber. I pointed out the activity to Bob and the guide. The lower climber went into an arrest position and was able to hold his partner. The two climbers worked for what seemed a long time to get back on the trail. The guide explained that the section of the trail where the climber had fallen was very unstable and that the climbers were taking so long to prevent starting a snow slide. We continued to watch them until we were sure that they were in control of their descent. Two other rope teams started to make their way around Cathedral Gap onto the Ingraham. I thought that they were getting a late start if they planned on trying to summit. As it turned out neither of the teams left the Flats. One group left the trail and stopped in an area that had been dug out into the snow. At first I thought that they were just taking a rest stop but after they didn't move for a long while I think they were taking some type of climbing class. The other rope team went down the glacier about 200 yards to a crevasse and started practicing crevasse rescue.
It was getting close to 9:00 o-clock and I was thinking that our group might be coming into sight. Looking up the mountain Bob and I spotted several rope teams. We were looking for a group of 10 climbers, but this group had 11 people in it. This must have been some other expedition or a two-day climbing group. As we continued to watch another group came into view that had 9 climbers, not enough to be our group. Bob and I were wondering how Bruce was doing on the climb. I decided to get something to eat and that I might as well drink the green tea that I had put into the Thermos bottle much earlier that morning. I got my snack bag and Thermos out of my pack and both Bob and I ducked into the vestibule of the tent to get out of the wind. The tea was still so hot that I had to let it set for a minute before it was cool enough to drink. It was nice to get out of the wind for a while. We wondered what it was like further up the mountain.
The 11-member rope team made their way down the trail and into the camp. This team was the other RMI expedition. Bob and I cleared out of the tent so the climbers could throw their gear in. The climbers were excited about summating and elated to be back at camp. We asked if they knew how our group was doing and someone said that they should be pretty close to getting back. A check of the upper glacier revealed a team of nine climbers making their way towards us. Bob and I thought that we were the only team members to drop off of the rope. By now nearly everyone from the returning group had retired to a tent for an after summit nap.
As the nine climbers got closer we were able to recognize members in our group. Adam's height along with his red helmet made him a standout. Bob and I were proud of their accomplishment and wanted to walk out and congratulate everyone. We went to the edge of the safe area marked by the wands, Back slaps and high fives were given as each member crossed into the safe area. Bruce was not in the group. We were informed that Bruce had dropped off the rope at Camp Muir. Lisa called for a rest stop. Bentley and Sam explained that the climb was one of the hardest things that they had ever done. Several of the others confirmed the difficulty. All morning I had been second-guessing whether or not I had done the right thing by dropping off at the Ingraham Flats. As I went to retrieve my pack and remove my Windstopper pants I knew that I had made the right decision for that day.
Bob and I clipped into a rope that Adam was leading down to our base camp. The return trip through Cathedral Gap wasn't nearly as stressful as earlier that morning. Knowing what to expect and the illumination of daylight actually made it fun. The return pace was also more relaxed so my breathing was much less labored. The walk from the gap was a new experience. The day was so clear that Mt. Adams looked close enough for a day hike, Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson were clearly visible. We were looking across the State of Washington and halfway into Oregon. This day was the clearest it had been in about three weeks. A helicopter was busy making flights from somewhere below to Camp Muir. Each trip brought up supplies for the rangers and the RMI hut and took down waste and trash. I think it came and went about three times as we made our way across the Cowlick Glacier. As we came into Camp Muir Bruce greeted us and wanted to know how everyone did. A bathroom break was called when we reached Muir, a row of out-houses that is maintained by the Park Service.
Bob checked out the public shelter and called me over to look. "We could easily stay here the next time we come up this mountain" Bob pointed out the shelves that are used as bunks. "Yes, we could definitely stay here" I said. We were already planning our return to climb to the top of Rainier. Both of us wanted to see the view from the top of this mountain.
As we returned to the area where our packs had been dumped a ranger with a radio ask us to move from that area because he was expecting a helicopter to use the area to land. We picked up our gear and cleared the area. A few moments later we could hear the chopper making its way up from below. A loaded yellow cargo net was hanging from below its belly. Instead of setting down as we expected the helicopter hovered above, next to the RMI bunkhouse, where someone detached the net. A black fifty-five gallon drum was attached to the cable and the helicopter dropped down the mountain into the low clouds.
Lisa called an end to the break and asked everyone to load back up for the return to camp. I think Bentley ask about getting another RMI staff member to take a group photograph. We all agreed that was a good idea and Lisa recruited someone. Everyone who had brought his camera handed it over to our impromptu photographer. We posed for about eight shots. I was pleased when I got my slides developed at how well the group shot turned out. After the photo session, we all walked down to the camp as three rope teams. Everyone that had summated was exhausted and headed into his or her tent for some sleep. I didn't think that I would be very tired because of the rest I had gotten while the summit climb was going on. Once I got my pack and crampons off the idea of a nap seemed good to me. Bob was also in favor of the nap so we joined everyone else and slept. I awoke to the sound of the stoves' roar. I slipped on my camp shoes and jacket and joined Adam in the kitchen area. He was getting snow melted for dinner and to refill the water bottles. As Adam and I talked other expedition members emerged from their tent and joined in. We asked the guides what was in store for the next day. A trip back through Camp Muir and onto the Cowlitz Glacier for some glacier rescue work was planned. Lisa and Anne joined in to help Adam prepare the evening meal and melt snow.
No one had to be called twice once the food was ready. It had been a long day and everyone had worked up a healthy appetite. After we had eaten and Adam had made sure that the pots were clean Sam and Bentley mentioned that they had forgotten to get a "newspaper photo" on the summit. They explained that the local newspaper back home ran a weekly photo contest. A photo of Sam and Bentley holding up a copy of the hometown newspaper on Mt. Rainier would be a shoe-in for the contest. To recreate the summit mood as much as possible Sam and Bentley "suited up" in the climbing gear they had worn earlier on the summit and brought out copies of the Petoskey News Review for a picture. We all got a chuckle out of the fact that they had actually lugged up a newspaper. The rest of the evening was spent talking about how the day had gone and how great it was just to be on this huge mountain. We were all enjoying the adventure and having an experience that would be unforgettable. Bob and I vowed that we would return to the mountain and make the climb that the rest of the group was reliving in conversation. In spite of the afternoon nap nearly all of the group members including Bob and me retired to the sleeping bags soon after the sun dropped over the West Side of the mountain.
There would be no Alpine start on this morning. It was Thursday the day that I originally thought would be our summit attempt day. As the members of the group awoke each would make it out onto the snowfield at his own pace. As usual, Adam had the stoves fired up and melting snow for drinks and instant oatmeal. There was some talk about some heavy snoring that had erupted during the night. No one mentioned me by name but I was sure that I had made some contribution to the noise making. Lisa gave us a recommendation for the dress of the day and we started getting ready. She warned us that the solar radiation would be magnified on the Cowlick Glacier and warned everyone to use plenty of sunscreen. Bob looked for his bandana to block the sun from the neck. When he was unable to locate it I offered my pillowcase as a substitute. He laughed and said that’s just what I want, a pillowcase on my head. I insisted that he had to have something to block the sun and he reluctantly put the pillowcase between his hat and head. We finished getting everything we thought we would need and put on our helmets and crampons to show that we were ready to go.
Just like the morning before we all clipped into a rope and walked up toward Muir. There was one major difference this morning other than it being daylight. Adam was not at the front of a rope. Adam was bringing up the rear by himself. While we were all getting ready the guides had disassembled the latrine and hauled up the contents in a large plastic bag. The bag had been sandwiched between two snow shovels to form a type of sled. Adam was going to drag the sled up to Camp Muir and deposit the contents into one of those fifty-five gallon drums like the one we had seen the helicopter removing Wednesday. No one wanted to be below Adam just in case the makeshift sled came apart and sent its contents sliding down the mountain. Once we reached Camp Muir a short break was called so that Adam could complete his little chore.
When the break was over we again clipped onto a rope and headed across the glacier in search of a nice big crevasse. We soon found one that would serve our purpose and Lisa and Anne probed the area around us to make sure that we weren't on top of a hidden crevasse. With the safety check out of the way Lisa showed us how to use an ice ax or pickets to make a dead man anchor. When she finished she turned the instructing over to Adam and she and Anne started setting up anchors for the crevasse rescue. Adam demonstrated how to make a boulard for an anchor and also how to use ice screws to provide protection on the really hard stuff. Anne came over and explained how to belay someone on a separate rope if necessary. With the anchors properly in place we were ready to rescue something.
That something turned out to be a guide's pack. Lisa clipped the pack onto the rope and tossed it down into the crevasse. She talked us through each step that was necessary to make a safe retrieval. After the show and tell part we were given a chance to do each thing for ourselves. We each took a turn at belaying, setting up a "c" pulley system, being an anchor and of course being rescued. I was able to take a few pictures while I was down in the crevasse, it's a nice place to visit but I wouldn't want to stay there.
As you can imagine it took a while for everyone to get a chance to try his hand at all phases of the rescue. After Bruce completed his turn Lisa let Adam take him over Cathedral Gap so that he could see the mountain from another side. We all had a good time playing in the snow. I wish we could have tried to climb out of a crevasse using our ax and front points on the crampons but that could have taken a whole day and I knew that our time was getting short. The day had been beautiful and sure enough the solar radiation was intense. Bob really didn't look bad with that pillowcase on his head.
The return to camp was uneventful and as we approached our last day on the mountain we were not yet ready for it to be over. While Adam got the stoves going Bob and I decided to do as much prepacking for the hike down as possible. When we checked our snack bags we were both shocked to see how much food we had left. It was time to unload. Bob made up a cheese, summer sausage, and cracker tray. I had a pack of military-style MRE hot dogs to contribute to the evening meal. We passed around zip lock bags of beef jerky and other treats. Soon there were packets of smoked salmon, M&Ms and other delicacies being passed by others in the group. We ate until we were past full, but no one wanted to lug any more weight down the mountain than necessary.
The only thing we had left to do was get down off the mountain. I awoke and noticed that I could see Mt. Adams out the front window of the tent. No photograph can reproduce a view like the one that I had looking out from my sleeping bag. Once I got out of the tent, an unusual sight greeted me. Bentley had surrendered to the snoring of his tent mates and had slept out in the open just outside of our tent. Soon the guides had the water going for our last hot meal on the mountain. Everyone picked his favorite mix out of the group bag. As I ate my oatmeal I started to reflect on how fortunate we had been to have had such great weather for the week we spent on this mountain that is notorious for unpredictably bad conditions. The trip that the guides had given us was also great. I could not have asked for any better company to spend the week with, everyone got along with each other and we had truly been transformed into a team.
After breakfast we packed our packs for the last time. How is it that you can live out of a pack for a week and yet when it comes time to pack it all up it seems to have grown? Bob ended up having to carry one of the group pots down. We repacked his equipment in and around the pot and managed to get it into his pack. This was the first day that I could start out using my trekking poles. I had become aware of how much I depend on them helping me transmit my upper body strength to the ground. It felt good to be able to use them. We all descended for about an hour and Lisa called a rest stop. Anne gave us all a class on navigation. She pointed out landmarks that we had passed and then told us how we could navigate using compass and known coordinates during bad weather.
After the class, we started down again and some of the guys were like a mule headed to the barn, there was no stopping them! I think Lisa was at the front but to be honest they were so far ahead that I couldn't tell. Bob's knee started to bother him so we went down slow and steady. Adam stayed with us all the way down. Why is it that going down a mountain can be almost as much work as going up? We noticed that as we got below the treeline that the snow had really been melting. Areas that had been covered in snow just a few days ago were now bear ground or rock. As we neared the parking lot of Paradise I recognized my niece, Joanne, from a distance. Then I heard Jeff, Susan's brother, calling Joanne. She ran toward the Mustang convertible next to Jeff. It looked like they were about to leave. I hurried toward the car and caught Susan's attention before she left.
I was so glad that I caught her, we kissed and she explained that she had to take Jeff to the airport. At least we got to see each other before she left. If I had known she was going to be in the parking lot I would have been in that front group! I said a quick hello to Jeff and Joanne and then they all left for the airport. Little did Susan or I know that it would take her four hours to make that round-trip. Susan already had reserved a room so I dropped my pack and headed to the lodge's bar to celebrate the end of a great week with the rest of the group. I thought about taking a shower before I went to the bar but if I did that I wouldn't be able to stand the smell of the rest of the group. Lisa and Anne showed up later after they had showered. We had all enjoyed the week and hated to see it end. I think all the rest of the group was headed back to Whitaker's bunkhouse for the evening. Everyone exchanged addresses, etc. and the group started to load up into a shuttle. Bob and I waved goodbye as the shuttle left and then headed for our rooms.
It really felt good to shower and put on clean clothes. I had actually started to worry about Susan by the time she returned. She explained that the traffic was worse than in Atlanta going to the airport. She told me about where she had been with her brother and said that next time she was going to go with me. "It sounds like you had all the fun" she said. You know what? She just may be right.
Susan, Bob, and I went out to dinner that night and I again enjoyed salmon, one of the delicacies of the Pacific Northwest. After our meal we went back by Whitiker's bunkhouse to retrieve the items that we had stored. We then returned to the lodge and packed our bags into our traveling duffels. Susan was bringing back a souvenir made from volcanic rock, fifty pounds of volcanic rock! Needless to say we had more luggage going back than when we started.
The next morning it was raining in Paradise. We loaded up the small trunk of the Mustang and then tried to put the remaining luggage in the back seat. At first the only way we could get everything in was with Susan holding her fifty-pound rock in her lap. As we pulled out of the Paradise parking lot headed for the airport I felt like a sardine. Thirty miles down the road Susan was in pain from her contorted position. We pulled under a gas station overhang and she was able to rearrange the luggage. It seems that some settling had taken place and created more space.
The trip from the Seatac Airport to the Augusta Airport is another story in and of itself. We got bumped once and had two canceled flights in the process. The only good thing about the bump was we got Delta dollars sufficient enough to buy another trip to the Seatac Airport. Maybe I should change the subtitle of this from "My trip to Mt. Rainier" to "My first trip to Mt. Rainier.