Ugh…the 14 hours of hell. If you’ve ever driven 14 hours straight then I salute you. For you sir or madam, are a true champion. Also, I truly feel that paying this price for
a mountain should tell you just how much we wanted to experience Rainier. Tyler, Jason, Bri (who was not climbing) and I (Anders) began our journey at about 2 AM, leaving Salt Lake City and heading straight for Paradise, WA for our permits. I think the worst thing about this drive is the portion through Oregon where you can only go 55 or 65 and they make you feel all posh by not letting you fill your own gas tank. It made me long for the stretches in Utah of I-15 where they give you an 80 mph limit. The only redeeming thing about the Oregon stretch is the preponderance of Dairy Queens. My belly ached for a constant supply of cookie dough blizzard. The little voice inside me said, “Not yet…you only deserve a treat after you summit Rainier.”
Cast of characters:
We arrived at the Nisqually park entrance at about 3 or 4 PM. I wasn’t thinking too clearly because we had received some very aesthetically pleasing views of Rainier. We were hoping we could get our permits right at the entrance. We rolled out of the car and went inside the information center. There was a precious model of Rainier, a topographical map type thing. I can only imagine all the kids with jam hands who have touched it, but I didn’t even care. I didn’t hesitate to trace the Disappointment Cleaver route with my finger, suppressing the impulse to wash my hand. Finally we walked over to the ranger sitting at his desk. He was a pleasant young man and our conversation went something like this ( it probably didn't happen):
“So, we want to climb the mountain,” said Tyler, brimming with confidence.
I can only imagine what the ranger was thinking. Here we were…three guys and a girl all wearing flip flops and shorts and smelling of car funk. “What mountain?” He asked dubiously.
“I’m sorry,” I said, being a real sicko. “I thought we were in Rainier National Park. Aren’t we in Rainier National Park?”“Oh,” he said, still perplexed that people in flip flops wanted to climb the mountain. “What kind of gear do you have?”
The ranger then instructed us to head to Paradise. From there it was a fun little drive up the mountain to the Jackson Visitor Center. Once there we filled out the form for our $44 (each) climbing passes and the nice lady ranger hooked us up with a group permit. I was named climbing leader of our small and yet sexually charismatic party (Bri’s words). I think I was picked mainly because I think Jason and Tyler didn’t want to fill out the form. I would later have to suppress giving commands like, “take a picture of me over here,” or “feed me a stray bird.” Anyway, it was probably the best form ever and we never talked about who was leader again. We wandered around for a bit and then made our way to Spanaway, WA to spend the night with Bri’s
aunt and uncle. Just a short digression…they were very nice people and their farm was really pretty. Their horses were pretty much flirting with me to take their pictures the whole time.
We started hiking up the trail from the visitor center at 9:15 AM. There were a few clouds obscuring the summit, but there were no other clouds in sight. It was looking to be a very good day. Soon we were off on the snow plodding up the hill. We met a guide who gave us a few pointers. Jason had actually gotten off trail, but the guide pointed us in the right direction. We pulled out some false bravado and told him we were going for the summit and butchered Ed Viesturs motto that “getting to the top is optional.” Instead we said, “getting to the top is mandatory. Getting back down is optional.” Despite saying this many times no one thought it was funny. Okay, let’s have a “realtalk” moment. My climbing partners and I have actually turned back on plenty of
mountains. Weather, time, or snow conditions can really dictate if you will press on or not. The mountain will always be there…unless it explodes like St Helens…but even then I guess it’s still there. So, we just enjoy the experience for what it is and live to come back another day. We were actually humbled by the magnitude of the mountain and were trying to keep our spirits light and our motivation high. Okay, real talk moment over.
We passed a few day hikers who were struggling up the steep slope beneath Panoramic Point. Now this was more like it! I l appreciated the steepness of the hill but the sun was coming out in full force, making me
sweat. I was wearing a sleeveless Marmot trail running shit and my Arcteryx Rampart rock climbing pants. Despite the thinness of my clothing my body refused to stay cool. It was as if we had brought the Utah sun with us and
unleashed the fires of hell. Seeing as how I had been a good boy all day this hellfire didn’t make much sense to me. Throughout the course of the day it would only get worse.
We passed a few more people and realized that the snowfield seemed to go on forever. There were a few AT skiers slogging up and they passed us. I’m pretty sure I mumbled curses at them as they passed us. It wasn’t because they were going faster; please don’t get the wrong idea. I was jealous of their skis and wanted some of my own.
The snow was quickly becoming a mess. I’m grateful for the many people who had broken trail before us, because it made the going so much easier. Anytime we got off the beaten path we would post hole like…old man Winters digging holes for posts back on his farm. If you want to know more about Old Man Winters…just think of the guy who would yell and get belligerent if a Frisbee landed on his yard. Our team became increasingly more spread out; Tyler in front, me in the middle, and Jason bringing up the rear guard. It is a well-known fact that I do not do well in heat. It’s pretty much my kryptonite. I sweat too much and it just so happened that I hadn’t brought enough water. I had one liter of water and a liter and a half of Poweraid. There was no way I was breaking into my full liter of Poweraid, as that was to be used for the summit day. This meant that I became increasingly belligerent the hotter it became. I began to throw snowballs at complete strangers, but in retrospect I’m pretty sure it was just Tyler. I began to just put snow in my mouth and let the volcano that was my insides melt it. It worked somewhat but eventually I noticed that Tyler had stopped to rest on some rocks. I was glad for the rest and I couldn’t see Jason behind us, so it was probably for the best. I’m not sure exactly where we were below Camp Muir but we put it at about 1500 feet maybe. I downed a few breakfast bars and 300 calories later I was feeling pretty good. We took quite the long break and I took the opportunity to take some more pictures.
About 30 minutes after our break spot we were hit by a cloud that whited out our long rang vision. I literally couldn’t see more than a hundred feet or so in any direction. I loved it. Along with my increased caloric intake, the lack of direct sun made me feel even better. I’m pretty sure I should only climb at night or in white outs now. At first I was saddened that my cloud friend left, but as it departed I was graced with the sight of
Camp Muir only a few hundred feet before me.
It was 2:00 PM when I waddled into Camp Muir. So it took us about 5 hours to make it up 4500 vertical feet. Considering the hot nature of the day I was fine with this result. Tyler was sitting on a rock in the sun whistling the song of his people (he is a ginger). We chit chatted with one of the guides as we waited for Jason to arrive. He was a nice guy and gave us some good information about our summit day. He seemed pleased that we were pushing to Ingraham Flats and let us know that would make our day easier. He also told us to try to be off the Disappointment Cleaver by around 9 AM because the shallow snow there had been turning to mush in the heat. I ate some more Sunbelt raspberry filled breakfast bars as we listened to the guide. I contemplated eating the banana in my pocket, but I decided not to just yet. Jason arrived about 20 minutes after I did and we had a good time laughing and reminiscing over our journey. We put on our crampons and harnesses and were off again about 3 PM onto the Cowlitz Glacier.
We gave Jason the sharp end of the rope to set our pace and I was given rear guard duties as I have more mass than Tyler or Jason. We figured I would be a good anchor if Jason fell through a snow bridge. The sun was really slapping us about now. Despite reapplying sunblock several times I could feel the sunburns coming.
We crested a small hill and we could see where our camp would be on Ingraham Flats. We could also see the trail through Disappointment Cleaver. I must admit that it looked intimidating, as the trail just seemed to traverse a slope where if you fell it would be a short trip into a crevasse. I just told myself that it must not be as scary up close and it’s still only class II. I might have also told myself that there was a cookie dough blizzard waiting on the other side. I might lie to myself like this all the time.
By 5 PM we were all snug in our tents. I had changed into clean clothes and was covering up my sunburns. For dinner I used my Jetboil stove to boil water for my Mountain House spaghetti with meat sauce meal. It’s probably my favorite right now and it was just what I needed to send me into a food coma. I also made some Swiss Miss hot chocolate (sorry for all the product placement). I also made sure that I would have enough water for summit day. I would have 2 liters of water and a liter of Poweraid. Our talk and laughter died down and by 7 PM we were trying to get a few hours of sleep.
I was having a wonderful dream. I had just won the Quidditch world cup and Hermione…uh…then I started hearing my name being called. A burst of adrenaline must have shot through my heart because I was up in a start.
“What time is it?” I heard myself ask.
“I wonder how cold it is…”
“If you want a Ginger’s guess…I’d say it’s 38. Want to know how I know that? Sleeping outside every other week.” (Tyler is a guide for a company that takes troubled youth and adults on wilderness retreats all over Utah). It would later turn out that Tyler was spot on with his temperature gauge.
Jason fired up my stove to boil some water for his breakfast of chicken and rice. The Propane/Butane mix was cold and so the stove took its sweet time boiling the water. Apparently one should sleep with the propane in their bag to keep it warm for best results. I contemplated making some brown sugar oatmeal but the thought of it made me want to never eat oatmeal again. I put down more raspberry breakfast bars and called it good. Jason asked if anyone wanted some of his meal and I happily obliged myself. I was all ready to climb so I just stood around shoveling the food into my face.
Soon we were all roped up and ready to go. I had my audiobook playing in my earphone (I leave one out so I can hear my partners or nature. It’s the best of both worlds). We were the last to leave camp at about 1 AM. We could see the stream of headlamps before us, and we followed the beaten path. The snow was perfect. Our crampons eagerly bit into the icy crust and held up our weight nicely. It was a large contrast to the postholing we did during the daytime.
Finally we made it to the upper cleaver and we said goodbye to the fixed ropes. It was about this time that I could see the line of lights from Camp Muir. It looked ike they were kind of close, and I wondered if indeed they would catch us. We just continued to plod on and upward. It was a great night. There was just a little bit of wind to keep us from overheating. I was so warm all I had on was a base layer and a softshell jacket. Even my gloves were my thin hiking gloves. Remarkably, the line of lights below never approached too closely.
It was around 2:30 AM when we reached the top of thecleaver. The guides had their climbers sit down and put on their down jackets.
They were very positive and motivating, telling them that they had just done the hardest part, but that if anyone wanted to turn around they should do so
there. What? I thought. You just did the hardest part! The mountain
is right there! But lo and behold, some of the climbers wanted to turn
back. We noticed the nice climbing duo (who had lent their shovel to us the day
before) headed out. After eating some more bars I was chomping at the bit to go.
The wind decided to pick up a bit more at the cleaver top, but it was by no means
fierce or strong. It didn’t have the bite of winter but felt more like the
caress of spring. We started up again just before the guides prodded their
clients to move. Jason set a nice even pace for us. The next section was pretty
steep too, but I think after the cleaver we weren’t about to let anything phase
us. I felt very comfortable with it. The snow was perfect and the night was
beautiful. The constant pounding of our spikes in snow was rhythmic and even
cathartic. I lost myself in the working of my muscles. The night kept my body
cool and my limbs were poised in case either of my partners slipped or fell.
Our feet were sure and any such heroics were not needed.
The higher we plodded up the lighter it became. The sun was
still a ways from cresting, but I switched off my headlamp. It had become
apparent that it was shining much more dimly than everyone else's. I had extra
batteries, but I figured it gave enough light. We started to see the topography
of the mountain. Crevasses were everywhere. Giant blocks of ice seemed fixed in
place like the scales of some mythical beast frozen in place.
We caught up to the duo at the crossing of a crevasse. A
ladder had been set up to bridge the gap. We set up an anchor and belay for
Jason to cross, and he crawled to the other side. Once there he anchored
himself and set a belay for Tyler. I came across last and took a few pictures.
It was now light enough to do so! We continued our methodical pace ever upward
and eventually we overtook the duo. They had stopped for a quick break.
The sun crested the horizon and it was such a splendid
sight. It is moments like those that make me return over and over again into
the mountains. The mix of red on white coupled with the perspective of being up
so high made me almost giddy. I made my companions stop so I could try to
capture the sight with my camera.
A little below the crater rim we took a break at Tyler’s
request. Our now climbing friend duo overtook us as we rested. I ingested more
electrolytes and calories and soon we were off again. It was only a few minutes
before we were standing on top of the crater rim. Columbia Crest was only a
short distance away. I could see vents in the volcano, sending up plumes of
steam…reminding me that the mountain was somewhat alive, but just sleeping.
It was this point that we knew we were going to summit. The
giddiness that threatened to overtake me at seeing the sunrise overtook me. I
laughed and couldn’t stop smiling. It was a perfect day. We crossed the crater
and made our way up the dirt and rock past more heat vents. Our crampons
eventually bit into the firm snow of the summit. Our friends the climbing duo
arrived a short time before us and we shared the summit with them. I looked at
my watch and it was just after 6 AM. We spent a few minutes on top snapping
some pictures and having a bit of fun.
There was actually a crest near us that looked like it might be higher, so we decided
to head over to it. It certainly wasn’t higher, but it wasn’t a big deal. We
continued along the crater rim to where we had first set foot upon it just in
time for the guided group to make it to the rim. We were greeted with calls of
congratulations which we returned in earnest. It was a great feeling sharing
that place with others who had trekked to the top. It also turned out that one
of the guys in the climbing duo had a girlfriend being guided up. He went up to
the top with her and proposed! I’m not normally a sentimental guy but that was
Also, I want to throw out a shout to the guides and climbers
who came before us who set all the fixed ropes and broke all the trail. Our
summit trip was made infinitely easier and enjoyable because of it.
Anyway, we knew that our journey was only half-way over. Our
joke of making it to the top being mandatory was staring at us in the face. We
wanted to make it down before the sun turned the snow to mush. We would have
loved to stay on top longer, but we knew it was time to go. And I’ll tell you
what…it certainly didn’t take long for the snow to begin to soften up.
Soon we were back at the ladder crossing the crevasse. The duo had joked about us
crawling across it so this time we walked across. I thought it was a unique
experience so I took a shot looking straight down at my feet. We all made it
safely across and headed down the steep slopes. We were above the top of
Disappointment Cleaver at another snow bridge. The snow was turning soft, and
my leg actually punched through the bridge. I was practically already on my
belly, trying to distribute my weight across the surface. I felt safe with my
guys there to anchor me though and I wormed across. It was only a few feet
wide, but scary nonetheless. I took a shot into the crevasse for good measure.
I think we all had a little bit of anxiety about descending the cleaver but in
the day it wasn’t too bad. We just took it slow and steady. It was here that I
shed my jacket and had my pant vents open to their fullest. The sun was
deciding to be mean, seeing as we were able to summit the mountain. The snow
was getting slushy as we clipped into the fixed ropes. Tyler mentioned he
thought he could ski down the side of the cleaver, and I decided I’m not ready
for that yet. Anyway, we kept making our way down the fixed ropes and across
the traverse at the bottom.
It was 9 AM that we returned to camp. It was so hot that I hid in my tent. If it
wasn’t for the knowledge that I would have the worst sunburn ever I’m pretty
sure I would have descended the rest of the way in nothing but my harness. I
was in my tent eating and drinking fluids when some of the guides made it back.
They told their climbers not to lie down (and follow my bad example). I was not
tired physically though and I repeat…I only wanted out of the sun.
We packed up our camp and I found that banana from the day before. For those of you who have needed closure this whole time, I finally ate it. After my time in my tent I was rejuvenated and could once again battle the sun. It was only a short jaunt back to Camp Muir and we spent the time laughing and talking about our journey. Once in Camp Muir we were asked about our trip and we gladly recounted our journey. We removed our crampons and harnesses and headed down the Muir Snowfield. OH! How I longed for skis. We could have made it back to the trailhead in about 10 minutes with skis. As it was it took a few hours…mostly sliding on our feet and glissading every chance we got. I could feel how bad I was burned, despite all my efforts to avoid it with copious amounts of sunblock. We arrived at the visitor center at about 12:30 PM. Only 6.5 hours earlier we had been standing on the summit and the huge mountain in front of us. I kept staring up at it. And all I wanted at this point was a cookie dough blizzard and a nice shower. Both were to be attained later that day, but that is a different story!