Introduction / PrefaceMount Rainier 2006 – 14,411’
Start from Paradise
I originally wanted to simply write a trip report but I guess my thoughts and reflections came out as well. Hopefully you'll allow a novice a chance to vent out the feelings that come along with such a life event. Thanks.
Over the past few years I have received that dangerous and nagging disease known as the outdoors. Symptoms include consistent daydreaming, lack of motivation at work and sudden urges to “go” (and I'm not referring to the restroom).
For me, the symptoms manifested first as hiking and kayaking, but quickly spread to the call of higher places. That is where the idea of Mount Rainier developed. My college roommate and father had already made numerous trips on the mountain and were a perfect fit for a novice. After almost a year of planning the trip was incorporated into a month long roadtrip. July 5th 2006 saw the car packed and tire marks leading out of New Jersey. The climb would involve a team of three. I was along for the ride. My team was a college roomate of mine, Alex and his father, Wren. Both are Seattle natives and have been on the mountain numerous times, Wren being our guide as this was, I believe, his 9th.
Day #1 - July 17th, 2006
3:30am seemed "late" only a few months ago at college. However, the outdoor lifestyle and pursuit of mountains has changed me significantly more than just the time of day at which I wake up (or go to sleep for that case). A two hour car ride to Paradise Visitor's Center followed as the sun rose over a glorious July day in the Northwest. Conditions were brisk at the visitor’s center as we waited to check in with the park rangers and obtain our final permits. I enjoyed the feeling of wool socks and sandals because I knew that kind of comfort was going to be lost for a few days.
The Paradise Inn construction was a stark contrast to the tranquil morning fog rolling in and out of the area peaks. I soon got another slap of reality as I shouldered the 60lb pack (something, I admit, I am not used to doing often enough). The trail from Paradise starts off as paved and soon shoots off into various dayhiking trails. Another first experience, mountaineering boots (not plastic thankfully), made me happy to see dirt trials. The snow of the Muir Snowfield an hour or so in was an even more welcome sight. Between the rock steps on the lower slopes of the mountains and snowfield, elevation gains consistently throughout the day. As the sun burned off a lot of the rolling fog, Mt Adams, St. Helens and Jefferson all came into view during the glorious breaks on the Muir Snowfield.
Camp Muir at last. Rest stop before Cowlitz Glacier over to Ingrahm Flats.
Numerous hours and nearly 5,000ft later, Camp Muir was in sight. The trip up the snowfield was uneventful and seemingly very long. As I laid my pack down on the rocks of Camp Muir, I checked my watch and found that it indeed was very long. After a 7:30 departure from Paradise, this section of Day 1 took until about 1:30. Most of the morning I realized I was traveling fairly slowly, at one point being passed by three college females in shorts and running shoes. After numerous groups of dayhikers to Camp Muir passed, I quickly realized and convinced myself that the speed at which I travel is the one that allows me to keep going.
As nice as Camp Muir was in this desert of snow and rock, I had known all along the day was far from over. Our plans had us camping at Ingrahm Flats, a glacier, rocky scramble and another 1,000ft away. After a lovely experience in the vault toilets at Camp Muir I was ready to head out (and being breathing again). A quick lesson was necessary as our crevasse rescue practice was schedule for the next day. I had done self arrest before and had a good general knowledge of everything but had not actually been roped up before. Shortly after starting across the Cowlitz Glacier adjacent to Camp Muir, I began to feel comfortable.
That comfort soon changed to doubt as we reached Cadaver Gap and a pretty sketchy, late day rock scramble. We had been warned that rocks were extremely loose as the weather had been extremely warm in the past week or so. The gap did not disappoint. Thankfully we had left off crampons for the time being. After crossing the gap onto the east side of the mountain, it was a short, impressive hike over to basecamp and Ingrahm Flats. I was shown the dots on the snow that were tents, seemingly teetering on the edge of huge crevasses and seracs.
Ingrahm Flats basecamp from Cathedral Gap.
The day began to wane as we dropped our packs at about 5:30pm. As much as dangerous rock falls were a problem, one benefit of the consistent weather was that campsites stayed very well. We were able to quickly set up camp as the sun set over the west side of the mountain and the wind picked up. There would be no hot dinner this night, as we snacked and were in our sleeping bags by about 7:30. It had been, probably, the most difficult and physically demanding day I had ever had. However, I was laying in a tent on the east side of Mount Rainier listening to 35 mph winds buffet our tent walls. I didn’t listen long as I was able to sleep for close to 12 hours.
Day #2 – July 18th, 2006
Sunrise over Little Tahoma.
A late start: 7:30am. This day was meant for relaxation and education. Our plan was to melt snow, get some good food in us, melt snow, go over our crevasse rescue skills and melt some more snow. This went off famously. The stove did not stop pumping out a nice flame from breakfast, at about 8:30am, until after lunch, at about 1:00pm. While this was going on I was truly questioning my ability to summit this mountain. The day before had taken a big tool on my body. One thing I was happy about was the fact that altitude was not affecting me. I had a pretty terrible experience in Colorado earlier in the year but the altitude drugs were working their magic here on Rainier.
Fortunately for me, the Mountain House beef stroganoff did the trick in helping me feel much stronger. It is odd how much being on a mountain does to your body and the swings you can go through. Our crevasse rescue practice went of great, as I laid with my face in the snow, crampons and ice axe dug deep, for several minutes at a time simulating a self arrest after a teammate falls in.
The rest of the day was uneventful. The weather was perfect at 35 degrees or so and bright sunshine. The warmth did cause numerous rock falls throughout the day. A plane flying by meant instant rock falls. From our camp we could watch teams heading down from the summit, hoping nothing would happen as snow melted and rocks fell. And thankfully the wind died down significantly from the night before and summit attempts for the next day seemed in order. After freeze-dried mac and cheese, and another sunset over the top of the mountain it was time to hit the tent once again, this time with the alarm clock set for 12:30am.
Day #3 – July 19th, 2006
Even though our group was over 1,000ft and a few hours above those “masses” at Camp Muir, we still wanted to ensure we would stay out of the mayhem that would undoubtedly be the next morning. We awoke to calm winds and an amazing sky of stars at about 12:30am. Of course, putting on boots that had been sitting in the snow all night was uncomfortable but I had no reservations about using the hand warmers I brought along, poor circulation met its match this day.
After gearing up for about a half hour and swallowing some Quaker Oat Squares and M&M’s, it was time to enter the world of my headlamp. It was unfortunate that I could not just stare up at the Milky Way for hours while we trotted up the mountain. Life became one step. Rope in one hand, ice axe in another. Step. Make sure the rope stay taut. Watch your step, don’t get your crampon points stuck on your gaiters. Cross rock section, hang onto the rock face. Step. Switchback: switch ice axe and rope to opposite hands. Step.
Randomly, I would look out into the darkness. The stars were much less impressive with a bright LED light teetering atop my head. I would then quickly get jolted back into reality as I misstep or my harness gets pulled by a tightening rope. Step.
The first part of the day involved zigzagging up Disappointment Cleaver, a massive outcropping of rock and snow from the glaciers of Rainier. I would only learn later in the daylight how impressive this section really was. Now, it is dark and the next step is all that matters. After getting passed by a group of 5 or so climbers, half of which were “just going to bare-boot-it,” we made our way to our first break atop the cleaver. The sun was just starting to brighten the horizon to the east. It was only 3:30am.
From atop Disappointment Cleaver, the climbing seemed easier. I am not sure if it was a decrease in the perceived danger or sunlight or what, but day had started to break and the mountain seemed to level slightly. And by level I mean, something slightly less than a flight of stairs. Rhythm was the name of the game. I learned that my steps were slightly shorter than the others in my party and subsequently pissed me off when I would lose even a single footstep and have to dance around roped together on the side of a mountain to try to get back in stride.
There were a number of “amusing” instances on summit day. I quote the word because at the time they could have made me scream but now have a much different context. An example being the random static that would come through on my walkie-talkie and scare the living daylights out of me. Or the random phrases or words that would be repeated hundreds of times in my head to keep myself focused. Focus was necessary when we came across a crevasse that had swallowed a ladder only two days before. A tiny snow bridge existed a few hundred yards from where the ladder previously existed. Fixed ropes and a slight backup from teams ahead gave these few minutes a tense feel.
Crevasse at ~13,000'. It has swallowed a RMI ladder only two days before.
Finally, at about 5:15am and 13,500ft the headlamps went off and the sun rose. A light fog lay over the foothills as far as anyone could see. As we took a break, the day seemed to start over. The day light gave a completely different view on the day and even though it was still a step-by-step process, there was a different feeling. The top was actually near and the weather was perfect. I remembered a quote I had read years ago, when I first got into the outdoors and never thought it would apply as much as it did right then:
“"Eastward the dawn rose, ridge behind ridge into the morning, and vanished out of eyesight into guess; it was no more than a glimmer blending with the hem of the sky, but it spoke to them, out of the memory and old tales, of the high and distant mountains." — J.R.R. Tolkien
Group Summit. Wren, myself and Alex (l to r).
From this point we made our way up the ever-forgiving top part of the mountain. The weather was a glorious 25 degrees and wind was fairly calm. We reached the crater rim as the second team of the day. I was convinced to cross to the other side of the crater and drop our packs on some warm volcanic rocks. As we walked up to the summit the wind arrived with us. The actual summit was close to 30-40mph winds. At about 6:30 I had finally made it…half way. I knew there was much more to do that day. But I was able to enjoy my time, signing the register, taking photos and relaxing top Rainier.
Coming off the summit.
The rest of the day was long but thankfully uneventful. A few more quick missteps and views of the danger we faced on the way up, finally in the light, made it an interesting trip back down to Ingrahm Flats. One of the most surprising elements was the number of climbing teams still make their way up to the summit “late” in the day. The warmth of the day had softened the snow significantly and the snow bridge we had crossed, as well as numerous other sections of the climb, were seemingly very dangerous. Thankfully, we were the first team to legitimately summit and one of the first to head down at about 7:45am.
After many hours of retracing our nighttime trek we were back down off the cleaver and nearing Ingrahm Flats. Mentally and physically I was drained and I guess I decided we were in the clear for now and my body went to hell. I began taken numerous missteps and catching my crampons on my pant legs. We were in no immediate danger but I was put into a pretty terrible mood going into basecamp to pack up.
At about 2pm we had packed up basecamp and shouldered the heavy packs once again. Although our trip was a short as it could have been, we had planned for more days and uneaten food was put back into our packs (a sad sight knowing the added weight). In addition, a few safety pins were needed for “blue bag” remnants that had been “used” earlier in the trip.
Cowlitz Glacier back towards Camp Muir.
The descent was lengthy and again, I think I had already believed much of the work was over. Plus, I had hoped for some nice glissading below Camp Muir, which, based on the snow conditions, was not possible. Eventually, at around 5 or 6pm we were back at Paradise and the sandals were on again. The trip had been an amazing experience and something that has made talking and, apparently, writing about it very easy.
I think I've taken up enough of your time. I hope you've enjoyed the trip report / reflections of a newbie. I have learned a great deal getting into the outdoors and mountaineering; about hard work, about other people, about the world and, I believe most importantly, about myself. I am glad to share these experiences with so many others who appreciate such amazing places. Thanks.