The following trip report is a detailed record of the three years leading up to a climb of Mount Rainier by a couple of old high school buddies from Montana (Matt and Braden). The account of our climb in late July of 2012 doesn't start until about halfway down if you wish to skip ahead.
As best as I can remember, the first discussions of this trip were during a climb up Black Mtn (MT) in 2009. Pictured is Matt climbing the Y couloir.
While mountaineering in Montana in the summer of 2009, my friend Matt (elchivoloco) proposed an interesting idea for a trip: What if we climbed Mt Rainier, but instead of starting at a usual trailhead (Paradise, Sunrise, etc.), we started at sea level on the Puget Sound and only used human power to attain the summit. This would involve road biking from sea level, then climbing to the summit for a two part adventure that we would later call Sea 2 Summit (S2S). Matt had previously worked in the Tacoma area and apparently this giant mountain had been inspiring him to push the limits of cycling and climbing. I was skeptical but offered to support him by participating in the climbing portion of the trek. I'd been interested in climbing Rainier for almost a decade, but I was living in Montana and never had an easy opportunity to schedule a climb. Conversely, while I owned a road bike, I'd never taken it on a ride any longer than 15 miles, so the thought of biking 75+ miles from sea level to over a mile up just wasn't that appealing. He seemed to accept that answer at the time as he had local biking friends in the Tacoma area that might be interested in joining just the bike ride portion.
Hard training on a bike was new to me - such as this ride on the Going-to-the-Sun Hwy early one spring.
But by January 2010 (after a few more climbing and skiing trips with Matt), I was fully engrossed in the idea of completing the entire trek. Matt's original idea was just to complete the S2S bike/climb in one day (24 hours), as that would be a feat in and of itself. After researching the idea myself, I started to wonder just how fast one could travel from the sea to the summit of Mount Rainier, using only human power (this was the only other record I could find in my internet meanderings - but this trip has been brought to my attention since posting this trip report). So I offered a counter-proposal: I'd join in for the whole S2S trek, but with the goal of pushing ourselves to complete the journey in the fastest time we could muster. This seemed to be in the neighborhood of 12-14 hours, based on some rough calculations. The idea of competing against the clock was not foreign, as we'd both ran cross country and track in high school and participated in numerous other timed events. That history may have made the idea all the more appealing. Unfortunately, an attempt of the S2S in 2010 wasn't possible as I was working on data collection and analysis for my Master's thesis that summer.
Stretching my knee on an easy ski tour at the start of my recovery in the spring of 2011.
In the fall of 2010, we started discussing potential trip schedules and training regimens for an attempt of the S2S in June 2011. We decided that the route we would attempt on Rainier would be the straightforward Disappointment Cleaver, with a direct ride from the Puget Sound starting in Steilacoom and ending at Paradise. But before we got very far, I injured my knee on a skiing trip in December 2010. After numerous doctor's visits and physical therapy over many months, I was on the path to recovery by late March 2011. But this did not leave me enough time to adequately train for the strenuous demands of the S2S, even at an easy pace. I had kept Matt in the loop with regards to my injury, but in mid-April we decided to call off the trip for 2011. It was a difficult, but necessary decision.
Flash forward to 2012. Matt and I started training in late winter for a 2012 attempt at the S2S, building on a base of backcountry skiing over the winter (Matt had been in Colorado for a few years now and I was still in Montana). We'd actually pushed back our attempt from June 2012 to July in order to complete more training on real roads and mountains (vs. a gym), which ended up being quite fortuitous as the weather in June ended up being miserable and wet on Rainier. [The only downside was that my wife would be 34 weeks pregnant with our first in late July...] Our training consisted of road biking, mountain biking, trail running, and mountaineering. Over the next few months (April-July), we both put in hundreds of hours training and by the middle of July, were both well prepared for the S2S attempt that was only a week away.
Final Prep and Dry Run
The Crew: Braden (me), Andy, and Matt, left to right
Matt arrived in Montana on July 23. He brought a friend along (Andy) who was going to help us out by joining our dry run climb and shuttling a vehicle/setting up a basecamp at Camp Muir during our S2S attempt. We spent the next day riding a local mountain bike trail, organizing our gear, and reviewing glacier rescue techniques. After paring down our gear to the basic necessities, we crammed our gear into Matt's Impreza. The next day we drove to White Pass in Washington and on the morning of July 26, we were in Paradise. We'd decided long ago that we wanted to complete a dry run of the Disappointment Cleaver route prior to the S2S. There were many advantages to this, including getting first-person beta of the route (which I had never climbed but Matt had), figuring out our climbing pace and clothing systems, and getting some time on the rope together (we didn't have the opportunity to climb together at all during our training in 2012). The primary disadvantage was that it would tire us out, even with a few days rest.
So over July 26 and 27, Matt, Andy, and I ascended to Camp Muir, rested for 11 hours, and then completed the climb to the summit of Rainier in the wee hours of the morning. The dry run turned out to be invaluable, as we learned just how difficult it was to pass other rope teams on the DC, especially the larger and generally slower guided groups. We had originally planned to summit around 4-6 am during our S2S attempt, but we realized that there was no way we would be able to maintain a good pace if we kept running into other groups of climbers. Our goal for a summit time would have to be earlier to avoid the crowds, as would our start time at Steilacoom. The original plan was to start the bike at 4 pm, but we decided 2 pm would be more favorable and would hopefully keep us in front of other groups summitting that morning.
After finishing the dry run, we scouted the bike route along the Mountain Highway back to the coast. There were two substantial hitches along our intended bike route. One was the closure of a few miles of Hwy 7, which we had known about since June. The detour through Eatonville ended up adding 1.5 miles to our route, as well as additional elevation changes. It seemed there was no option but to take the detour, despite the more narrow and winding roads it followed. The second hitch was that the roads we intended to use south of Tacoma were far too dangerous for cycling, with fast traffic and non-existent shoulders in places. Thankfully, we had a couple of rest days to find a suitable, safe route and were successful in re-routing that part of the bike.
Mike and Andy, our support crew, on their way to Camp Muir.
While resting between the dry run and S2S, we visited two friends in the Seattle/Tacoma area. Our second host (Mike) decided to join Andy in supporting our S2S adventure at Camp Muir. Both decided they would haul their skis up to Camp Muir and ski down the morning after our climb. Mike's place in Tacoma served as our base of operations and we organized our gear on his front lawn and ran through our crevasse rescue techniques again before heading out for dinner and a beer at a local pub.
The Sea 2 Summit Attempt
The car packed with a small mountain of gear, ready for our S2S adventure.
I woke up the morning of July 29 earlier than I expected at 7:30 am. Matt was awake as well. We'd hoped to sleep in until 10 am or so, as we weren't starting until 2 pm and would be climbing through the night. But both Matt and I were too excited to keep sleeping, so we got up and made a few last minute preparations to our bikes and packs. Something was bothering me, however. I'd had an itch in the back of my throat the previous evening that had gotten worse through the night and now my lymph nodes were swollen. I decided to play it by ear and see how I felt closer to noon, but let Matt know that I wasn't feeling all that great.
A little after noon, Matt and I sat down to discuss our options. He wasn't feeling 100% either but wanted to get going rather than wait a few days to see if our health improved. I really wanted to be at 100%, not 90%, as we'd put in so much effort into training for this attempt and I wanted there to be a high chance of success. In the end we decided to go for it, with the explicit understanding that if either of us felt we absolutely needed to stop, the other would comply.
Around 1:40pm we arrived at the ferry terminal in Steilacoom, WA. The temperature was around 70°F, the sun was poking between clouds, and you could smell the salt in the air. We did a last minute lube of the bike chains before heading to the water. There's a public boat ramp next to the ferry and we were able to start with our rear wheels touching the water. It was thrilling to get going after years of prep. This was it. At 2 pm on the dot, we set off for Rainier. Mike and Andy took off for the mountain as well to grab their permit to camp at Muir and turn in our climbing permit.
Matt set a quick pace as we snaked through south Tacoma, progressing from Steilacoom to Lake City to Parkland and then Spanaway. The roads we had chosen were fairly wide and only had minimal traffic on a Sunday afternoon. The traffic lights seemed to be turning in our favor and we only put our feet down at a half dozen or so times as we sped through town. Things were looking good, although the pace was a bit quicker than I expected. The scratchiness in my throat appeared to subside in the first few miles of the ride, but that could've just been due to the adrenaline. I meant to take photos during the ride but kept forgetting to get my camera out.
By the time we passed the junction to Hwy 507, we were in a nice groove. Matt would pull for a few miles, then I'd take over and lead the next few miles while he drafted. We cycled like that all the way to Eatonville, snacking occasionally and hydrating heavily. It wasn't ridiculously hot, but far from cool. We rolled through Eatonville at 1 hr 48 min into the ride. The uphill south of town on the detour was a little steep, but manageable. A few minutes after cresting the hill we had our only close call with traffic: a truck blew by us with less than a foot to spare and nearly knocked us off the shoulder. Otherwise, the cars passing us were giving us wide berth and even slowing down when traffic was thicker. The detour was certainly the most dangerous section of the ride and I was relieved to be past it and back on Hwy 7 before too long.
A quick shot of my watch at the Park entrance.
Matt and I passed by the towns of Elbe and Ashford, still rotating the lead (although Matt's pulls were longer), and arrived at the Rainier Park entrance at 5:15 pm. We filled up on water thanks to a ranger who had just come off duty as there weren't any publicly accessible water spigots. Our arrival was a bit earlier than I expected, but we'd kept a fast pace over the first 60 miles. I took a photo of my watch to record the time and we set off a few minutes later after downing a couple of snacks (gels, bars, etc.). Matt took the lead up the road and the grade of the road started to increase.
I wasn't able to keep up the pace we'd had before, but Matt seemed fine to stick with me for a slower climb, despite this being his strength. As the road steepened, my calves were straining to even maintain a moderate speed and I slowed further as my legs grew weaker. As we passed Longmire and Cougar Rock, I could feel my legs starting to cramp up and had serious doubts about even making it to Paradise. I started thinking we'd gone way to fast at the beginning of the ride, and that there was no way I was even going to make it to Camp Muir without a serious second wind. Matt kept providing encouragement, but eventually I had to stop. We rested for a good 11 minutes as I tried to find the strength to power on for another 2100 vertical feet to Paradise. I just didn't know if I had it in me. Failure seemed imminent and I had basically lost all mental focus. I don't remember how, but a few words from Matt brought me back just far enough to keep going, away from that dark pool of self-doubt, anger, and disappointment. I was f%#&ing frustrated, but got back on the saddle and kept pushing, one pedal stroke after another, plodding up the hill at what seemed to be a snail's pace. Thankfully, the uphill traffic was basically non-existent in the park that evening, so at least I didn't have to focus too much on keeping my bike on the shoulder.
Another shot of my watch at the Paradise, about halfway through our 25 minute break.
A mile or so shy of Paradise, I insisted that Matt forge ahead and find the car in the overnight lot. He sped off up the hill and out of sight. I couldn't remember how much further it was at that point and figured another few switchbacks were ahead. But almost out of nowhere, I rounded the last bend and saw that Andy and Mike had left the car almost next to the road in a great location. Matt had already pulled our packs out of the back and was scarfing down some food. The time was 7:06 pm and it hadn't even been 2 hours since we'd entered the park. I gingerly hopped off the saddle and stashed my bike on top of the car. It felt good to get off the bike. It felt even better to eat some real food and change out of our sweaty bike clothes. Still, I was extremely concerned about my energy levels and needed to get on the trail to see if I should call off this attempt for the summit.
I left the lot 5 minutes ahead of Matt at 7:32 pm and started climbing the asphalt trails above the lodge. As we'd sat down to eat at the car, a fog had rolled in and it was now extremely thick. The maze of trails above Paradise was easier to navigate due to our wanderings on them days earlier, but I was still worried that one of us might take a wrong turn. Everything seemed familiar, though, and my energy levels seemed to be picking up. The muscles I was using now didn't seem to be as ragged as when I was on the bike. Around 6500 ft, the fog broke and my spirits lifted as I looked up toward Rainier. I passed a few climbers coming down the trails and had them relay a message to Matt that I was still ahead of him and would meet him at the Muir snowfield. My legs were feeling stronger and being able to use trekking poles really helped out.
Matt on the Muir snowfield
I crossed Pebble Creek at McClure Rock and washed my face in the crisp water as I waited for Matt. He rounded the bend minutes later and we rested a few more minutes before starting up the snowfield. The snow conditions were actually quite favorable – just hard enough to keep from sloshing around but soft enough not to need crampons. The climb up to Muir seemed to race by and before we knew it, the Muir huts were visible. I raced ahead to find Mike and Andy and arrived at Camp Muir just after 10 pm.
The original plan was to have Andy and Mike prep a hot meal and melt some water for us at Muir. Sadly, they had only arrived 30 minutes ahead of us and were just starting up the stove. We set to work getting the meal ready and melting additional water for our summit push. Andy dug around in his pack for a few pieces of climbing gear we'd pawned off on him. I took a visit to the lovely outhouses at Muir and was lucky enough to talk to a couple of climbers who had a spare liter of water to give us. It probably saved us 15 minutes of melting water. We ate, drank, geared up, and set off from Muir just over an hour later. There had been one headlamp crossing the Cowlitz Glacier during our break, but it looked as though we'd beat the rest of the groups out of Muir. Matt took the lead of our two-man rope team and we charged off into the dark just after 11 pm.
Matt and I double check our gear before leaving Camp Muir for the summit
As we crested the Cathedral Gap, there was still only one light on the route ahead and a bit of activity at the Ingraham Flats camp. We'd left our crampons off for the rocky climb up the gap, so we secured our crampons and set off to get ahead of the groups at the camp. The route across the Ingraham Glacier had become more circuitous in the few days since the dry run as more crevasses had opened. We almost thought we'd gone too high before traversing and dropping back to the base of the Disappointment Cleaver. Luckily, Matt was able to stay on route and we made it to the cleaver without getting lost.
The cleaver was a slog, as it had been on the dry run. I hate wearing crampons on rock/sand. We'd discussed removing them a few days prior but decided it would be too much trouble. I watched Matt's crampons spark on the rocks and we started up a conversation as I'd shortened our rope for the cleaver. The conversation actually helped as it distracted me from my increasingly tired legs and a slight headache that had settled in. By the top of the cleaver we really started to slow down. We'd been going strong for over 11 hours and the elevation and cumulative effects of hours of hard activity were starting to show. The headlamp ahead of us on the glacier was encouraging, though, and we pushed on to the switchbacks awaiting us in the dark.
Energy was waning fast as we hit 13,000 ft. We could climb for 2-3 minutes but then had to rest for 15-30 seconds. The wind started to pick up and the temperature was now below freezing. Matt and I yelled back and forth, making sure both of us were still warm enough in our minimal clothing. Neither of us really wanted to stop to put on another layer unless we had to. We finally caught up with and passed the solo climber around 13,500 ft. He watched us cross a snowbridge and I offered a belay, but he declined. At this point, we knew we were getting close and I think we subconsciously picked up the pace. Matt told me later that the whole climb between the cleaver and the crater had been mentally taxing; this section had been much easier on the dry run when the sun had started to rise and we could more easily monitor our progress. I think we still made great time, but it did feel like forever.
Exhausted elation in the middle of the night on the summit of Mount Rainier!
The crater rim came into view, and I felt a surge of energy. We were so close! We topped out at 2:34 am and I wound up our rope for the trek across the crater. The last ¼ mile went by in a flash as we pressed on to the summit, though we did stop twice to catch our breath. But in almost no time, we were there. It was 2:44 am, 12 hours 44 minutes 30 seconds since our start at sea level! I let out a hoot and we snapped a quick photo in the dark. Matt waited patiently in the biting wind as I sent a SPOT message to my wife from the summit to let her know we'd made it. I was elated and drained at the same time. We'd pulled it off! Retreating to a calm nook just below the rim, we put on a few more layers and prepped ourselves for the long trek ahead. Our goal had been reached, but we still had 9,000 ft to descend in order to call this trip a success. As we crossed paths with the solo climber in the crater, we offered our congrats and encouragement through the breezy night air.
Exhaustion had truly set in as we returned to the east rim of the summit crater – just a few feet of uphill travel showed us just how tired we were. And at this point, all we wanted was a cautious and deliberately slow descent back to Camp Muir, but it would still take lots of energy, especially since we could now see the string of headlamps of the other climbers snaking up the mountain. We'd have to pass them all on one of the steeper parts of the route. We made contact with the first group about 700 ft below the crater and by the time we reached the top of the cleaver, we'd passed between 60 and 70 climbers. Thank goodness we had made it out of Muir/Ingraham camps ahead of them. At the top of Disappointment Cleaver, the solo climber caught up to us, and we chatted for a few minutes. Clif, from Vancouver, B.C., was surprised to catch us as we'd been strong heading up, but seemed to understand our cautious approach to our descent.
Matt rests for a bit as we descend the Cathedral Gap.
The rest of the descent down the DC was slow and uneventful. I even had a time to snap a few photos of the glowing landscape as the sun rose. We stumbled into Camp Muir at about 6:20 am and crawled into the Muir hut to get a little sleep in just our climbing attire. I was successful and awoke at 9:05 am to find Matt heading out the door. He hadn't slept much and thought he'd have better luck at the car. I stuck around for almost an hour packing and enjoying the sunshine above the clouds with Andy and Mike as they prepped for their ski down the Muir snowfield. Again, Paradise was obscured below the clouds, still hovering around 7,000 ft. By 10 am, the sun had warmed the snow sufficiently and I glissaded much of the way down the Muir snowfield. Another 50 minutes and I was standing at the car, glad that this trip had come to a close at about 11:35 am on July 30.
Matt and I celebrate the successful summit on the dry run, knowing that most of our journey is still to come.
Completing the S2S was one of the hardest things I've done in my life. At the top I was gassed and felt like another step up would have been impossible. And by the end at Camp Muir I was about ready to fall on my face. I could have passed out right there on the Cowlitz Glacier or curled up in a ball on the cleaver if I'd given myself the chance in those last hours of our descent. What made it so difficult? There wasn't any single event, no crux of the climb that was especially taxing or challenging, it was purely the accumulation of activity, hours upon hours, that slowly wore us down. Matt thought the hardest part was knowing just how fast to go, as we traveled at a relatively conservative pace until the last thousand feet or so. I can agree with that and honestly thought I went too fast on the bike, putting the whole trip in jeopardy. But everything seemed to work out just right. Part of that was luck, no doubt, but much of it was years of mental, physical, and emotional preparation. All I can say is I'm glad I did the S2S.
Looking back, only a few days ago now, I ask myself, “Why did I do it?” This project, this route had been on my mind for years, slowly building in intensity. For the last few months, it had been my number one priority. But where did it get me? On our S2S climb, I only spent 7 or 8 minutes on the summit of Rainier, a few moments in time. It really was the journey in this case that was important, the hundreds of hours of training, researching routes, finding the perfect equipment, and preparing mentally. It would not have been possible without all that work. But without those few moments at the very top, would I have been satisfied? I doubt it. I would have returned to try the S2S again. I may still return to do it again, to see if I can beat the clock another time. Just not for a couple years...
“It was just a moment in the mountains, but enough moments add up to a life.”
- Douglas Chadwick, The Wolverine Way
Matt and I attempt to calm the butterflies in our guts seconds before heading for Rainier.
This might be a odd section in a trip report, but I'd like to thank the many individuals who made this trip possible:
Andy – thanks for being willing to join us on the cross country journey on short notice, being our basecamp manager, and joining us on the dry run to the summit (see Andy's trip report here)
Mike – thanks for letting us crash at your house as a base of operations and for your support on the S2S run
Becca – thanks for the couch surfing, clean laundry, a back massage, and great meals during our recovery in Seattle
Leigh and Steph – thanks for supporting Matt and I through all of our training and planning of this trip from sea to summit; it has been an obsession
And to Matt – thanks for coming up with this great idea and pushing me over the years to improve as a climber; and most importantly, for keeping me going when I didn't think I could do it – I wouldn't have made it without your teamwork, support, and encouragement
Timeline and Stats
0:00 hours was at 2:00 pm July 29, 2012 (2100 UTC)
0:00 Steilacoom ferry
(4 min break at 702/7 jxn)
1:48 Eatonville (junction of Hwy161 and Eatonville-Alder cutoff)
3:15 Park entrance kiosk (7 min break)
(11 min break halfway up hill, just above Cougar Rock campground)
5:06 Arrived at Paradise overnight parking lot
5:32 Left Paradise
6:34 Bottom of Muir snowfield (10 min break)
6:45 Started up Muir snowfield
8:05 Arrived at Camp Muir
9:07 Left Camp Muir
(5 min break for crampons at top of Cathedral Gap)
10:03 Ingraham Flats Camp
(3 min break at the base of the Disappointment Cleaver)
11:08 Top of Disappointment Cleaver - 12,300 ft (approximate time, I forgot the exact one, ±3 min)
12:34 SE side of East Crater
12:44 Summit of Rainier
Return to Paradise:
16:20 Returned to Camp Muir, slept
20:00 Left Camp Muir
21:35 Arrived at Paradise overnight parking lot
Net vertical gain 14,411 ft
Gross vertical gain (loss) 15,800 ft (1400 ft)
Distance biked 77.3 miles
Vertical biked net: 5400 ft, gross: 6800 ft
Total bike time (breaks) 5 hr 6 min (22 min)
Average bike pace (w/ breaks) 16.3 mph (15.2 mph)
Break at Paradise 26 min
Distance climbed ~7 miles
Vertical climbed 9000 ft
Total climb time (breaks) 6 hr 12 min (80 min)
Average climb pace (w/ breaks) 1850 vertical ft/hr (1450 vert ft/hr)
Total breaks 2 hr 8 min
Total moving time 10 hr 36 min
Total time to the summit 12 hr 44 min 30 sec