Lack of "luxury"
Drinking Alaskan Amber and biting on a thick and juicy burger at the Alpine Inn restaurant, I see others in my team enjoying as well, and I say, “Every bite of this is worth the effort we all put in, as a team, to summit a mountain with the most vertical gain in the lower 48’s – That’s Mt. Tahoma, in the local language, or more famously known as Mt. Rainier.
It was during my climb on Whitney
, that I and Rocky had hauled all the stuff on our backs, probably for the first time. I surely missed the luxury called “porters” who take quite a bit of load off your back (this happens in the Himalayas). But then, we were only two – so, it was still ok! Now, we were eight of us, along with four guides, so, it was different!
The first 4000 vertical feet
It was also the first time that we climbed with a guide service
, on a mountain, to tackle the huge number of crevasses that the climb entailed. With backpacks weighting about 65 lbs, we were dropped off by good ol’ Larry (the transportation and logistics supervisor) at the White river trailhead inside Mt. Rainier National Park.
Initially, the trail winded through the devastation caused by the heavy snowfall last November, but later, it was pretty, meandering through tall trees, small patches of snow, occasionally crossing over fallen trees and big riverbed rocks. It is only when Jason (our lead guide) mentioned that the duration on the trail had increased by half an hour to forty five minutes, that I realized the force of nature, and what it can do. A break every thousand feet of climb seemed appropriate for everybody to re-hydrate and re-energize. The second break was almost at the end of tree line, called glacier basin camp.
It was just after this break, that the endless snow started,
with all of us pulling up our gaiters, to get ready for it.
A little glacier travel and self-arrest practice followed on the snow patch, which made me wonder, “have I really learnt all this?” thinking about the Basic Mountaineering Course
I did way back in 1998. All of my US stay in the mid-west had not really helped me much in polishing the skills I learnt in that course. While we were practicing the skills, two of our guides, Greg and Aaron went ahead, to set up some campsites. It was good to see campsite locations set up, so we only had to put up the tents
. After the approximate 4000 ft. climb, a hot soup was welcomed by all, with an equally tasty broccoli – cheese – rice-like dinner, which Aaron prepared. The regular photo session of the magnificent scenery, some fellow climbers on inter-glacier, and Rainier was followed by the good night call.
Day to Relax and discuss climbers on Tahoma
Next Day was relatively less strenuous, as we were supposed to ascend only about 1500 feet, up to camp Schurman; at an elevation of 9460 ft. This was the camp, where we had an alternative to the famous blue-bags – the outhouse
. In other words, for all nature-call purposes, we were either given blue plastic bags, to carry “it” down, or we were to use the outhouse. With the horrible stench (which stays with you all the way to the tent), and flies flying around, I still chose the outhouse, over the blue-bag option.
That day was just for recuperating from the previous day’s climb. All of us sat basking in the sun, occasionally looking at climbers on Rainier and how its size dwarfed them on its slopes
. As it was the pre-summit day, after packing our backpacks for the D-day next day, we forced dinner through our throats at 4 pm, and went to sleep at 6 pm, amidst summit chats of another group just outside our tent.
D-Day and Memorable Conversation !
12:00 am, 5th of July – wake-up call from Jason. We all scrambled out of our tents,
to put on the gaiters, crampons, and get ourselves clipped in a rope. My rope team was guided by a twice Denali summitter, Greg, with me as a middle-man, and Rocky as end man. We started the climb exactly at 1:20 am. It was a full moon night, just a night ago, making the majestic Mt. Rainier glow white in the moonlight, right in front of us. We all could see some headlamps flickering on the slopes, an hour away from us. With an inspirational “Guys, let’s climb Mt. Rainier” and “Do you want to do this?” from Jason and Greg, we set out for the 5000-odd vertical feet to the summit. The ritual of a break every 1000 feet continued, and was definitely a well-deserved one, when we had to make sure we are anchored well enough, take the parka out and wear it (to trap the body heat), eat our energy bars, drink water, take photos, pee (if needed), put the parka back in, and load the backpack – all in 15 minutes!
A “5-minute warning” and “2-minute warning” used to get issued by all guides to their respective rope team to get their stuff packed, and ready for the next 1000 feet. I felt really tired between the second break (11,500 ft.), and the third break (12,500 ft.). Later, when Jason christened that patch as a “real-calf-burner”, I was assured that I wasn’t the only one.
It was during this break that we witnessed one of the most spectacular sites – the horizon glowing with a tinge of orange, slowly turning to yellow, as the sun was rising. The early morning mist seemed to have engulfed the countless mountain ranges below, slowly lightening up the dark night. Like a mother does to her baby, it felt as if the soothing orange light was slowly caressing and waking up the ranges, along with the tiny towns, dotted on their flanks and valleys, for a fresh start, and a brand new day. It was indeed a refreshing moment for all of us, when we breathed hard and long, soaked in the beauty, and got ready for the last patch, before the summit push.
After the last break at 13,500 ft, we were greeted by winds and snowdrifts, which made us all, sway a little, while climbing. Going past a last ledge with caution, we could see the summit calling us. It is here, when the following memorable conversation (which I will never forget) took place:
– Hey Greg, the wind is making it very tough to climb consistently, as it is pushing me off the trail constantly. Could we take a 2-second pause, whenever we have wind?
(Shouting over the howling wind) – “Do you want to turn around?”
That’s all he asked.
– No (immediately and vehemently, as if his question woke me up from sleep)
– Then, you don’t have a choice but to climb in the wind.
We all summitted the mountain at around 9:30 am, i.e. after 8 hours of climbing. Winds continued howling and were somewhere in the range of 65-70 mph. Unlike other summits, this one was special, as in, the appearance. The “summit-crater” looked beautiful, like a BIG BOWL, filled with snow. Climbers from the disappointment cleaver route usually summit on the other side of where we were sitting, cross the crater, and sign the summit log. We had magnificent views of Mt. Baker, Glacier Peak, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams from the summit. Everybody indulged in the usual summit activities – signing the summit register, taking photos (I took the regular tricolor photo with chat and rocky), replenishing themselves. One hour just flew past us in no time, and we hit the road back home.
It is only after descending endlessly for hours together one realizes that climbing is more preferable. We took two breaks on the way down, and reached the camp around 2:30 pm, finishing off the 13-hour long activity. Everybody’s sore feet, sun-burnt skin, tired legs, sweaty body, sleepless mind and a satisfied soul – bundled up in a package, crashed on the sleeping mat, woke up for dinner in a half-asleep-state, and then again, crashed on the sleeping mat.
After dinner, some of my photos managed to capture the mountain ranges, which seem to have been floating over a sea of clouds, mesmerizing me with some kind of a mysterious feeling.
The day slowly faded into night, with all the team members proud of their achievements, sleeping peacefully, to wake up the next morning and head back down.
Glissading down the inter glacier probably cut our time in more than half, and we made it to the crystal mountain ski resort around 1 pm.
Back to the first shot: Drinking Alaskan Amber and biting on a …...
It was there, during lunch, sitting right opposite the guides, in the restaurant, that a parting thought crossed my mind, “It is so fortunate for me to be in the company of these experts, that I wish to, someday, reach a stage, where I could be like Greg, who summitted Denali, did two climbs in the Sierras, and accompanied us on Rainier (all in a month), or Aaron and Tyler, who had the abundant energy to attempt Little Tahoma on the same day, after summitting Mt. Rainier, or like Jason, our lead guide, one of the recipients of the American Alpine Club's prestigious Sowles Award in 2001 for his role in what became the world's highest mountaineering rescue
at 28,750 ft. on Everest's North Ridge, while giving up his own summit (from 500 feet
) and guided us on Rainier for the 107th time.
I hope god fulfills my wish.