Camp Protection - 9,750'
“That looks pretty solid.” Rob advised as he held the tent that was attached to the picket I had just installed. The picket was sitting on top of a seemly impenetrable ice layer, and then buried with about eighteen inches of heavy, wet afternoon snow. Before closing on the job, I gave the picket two more good hits to see if I could get it through that ice. No luck. I was not totally happy with the placement, but had to agree that it did, in fact, seem worthy of securing a tent. At that point, Gary was just beginning to open the tent bag, containing my tent, and I knew that he would need some assistance. Verifying that Rob was good to go with the rest of the anchoring, I turned my attention to Gary.
Gary was not quite ready to pitch and was still messing around with things on his pack. He was quite grouchy about the extra weight he carried up from Paradise(another story entirely). I took this opportunity to shoot some video of the process. The weather had turned cold as the sun had sank behind the upper mountain. The wind was reported as a steady twenty-five miles per hour with gusts up to forty. That seemed an accurate assessment. Reviewing the video later, one can clearly see our well built snow walls and elaborate anchoring systems that we used. Which made the next set of events quite surprising.
Just after I shut down the camera on the camp setup scene, one of those forty mile per hour gusts ripped through. This one seemed to deviate from the west to east direction of the steady wind. In one quick motion, Rob's tent, anchored by various buried snow anchors, including the picket I placed, shot straight up into the air. As I looked up, I saw the picket seemingly leading the tent vertically into the air like a booster rocket. Now caught in the steady twenty-five mile per hour wind, the tent stayed airborne for a distance, came briefly back down and then was hurled over the ridge onto the Cowlitz Glacier below.
Rob had given chase, and running on adrenaline, was standing on the very edge of the ice looking down onto the Cowlitz. He was yelling at the tent to stay as the picket briefly caught, and the tent seemed reachable. Judging by his reaction, it then moved on. We began to formulate a rescue plan, but after reports from Patrick as to the amount of rockfall he was witnessing in the tent vicinity, we thought the wise. The edge from which we would have to anchor and lower also looked suspect for collapse. However, I failed to communicate this concern adequately to Rob who was still running on adrenaline. I simply said “I don't think it's a good idea.” to his desire to anchor off and rappel to the tent. This was a big lesson in communication for me, especially when there is high tension, and emotion on the mountain.
In the end, we talked it out, and ended up hunkered down; three people in each tent. Needless to say, that night at what we learned was called “Camp Protection” was not so comfortable.
A Rebuilding Day
The next morning, four of us, Gary, Marschinda, Rob and I, attended a crevasse clinic that we had registered for with RMI. We were mostly familiar with the technique, and had practiced as a team, but figured the hands-on experience would do us good. Because we were now down one tent, we changed our plans slightly, and Rob and I took off very early to descend back to Paradise. We then made a trip out of the park to the Summit Haus store where Rob purchased an OR Bivy, and some more anchors. We also took the opportunity to enjoy some coffee and stock up on cliff bars which I would later leave in the car.
Freshly loaded with some new provisions, we made the 0900 rendezvous with the RMI group at Paradise. The RMI clinic was great, and the hands-on practice valuable; especially for those who train in the crevasse free peaks of Colorado. The guides were great to talk to, and a wealth of information.
After class, Marschinda, Rob and I slogged back up to camp protection, while Gary, who had not been “feeling it” all day retreated to Paradise to locate a bunk house. His plan was to return to camp the next day by 1400.
Upon reaching camp, we found that Patrick and Chris had been hard at work. The tents were now anchored together by numerous buried anchors and the walls had been built higher and re-enforced. There were paths cut between tents, and the area resembled a village. Water had been melted, and the only thing missing was a hot dinner.
I was already very impressed with how this group was working as a team, with everything.
Rest Day at Camp Protection
After hiking with full and nearly full loads between Paradise and just shy of Muir twice in two days, we decided that we should stick to the plan of day three being a rest day. Adding up the vertical of two trips to camp, plus vertical gained during class, we declared ourselve in the 10k' of Gain Club. I spent about 4 hours melting water in the vestibule, turning out about 20 liters. Those who say that Jet Boils are bad in the snow and cold are lying; I have exclusively used them in the snow. While I churned out water, Rob, Patrick and Chris worked hard at building even higher walls around Rob's bivy, mostly to protect the gear that sat outside.
The wind and cold remained throughout the morning, with fast moving clouds all around us. We each made trips over the dirt hill to Muir to use the facilities, and found ourselves quite cold on the return. Taking the “glass is half-full” view of things, I maintained that the cold front had been a blessing, especially since the freezing level had now dropped to about 7,500' or so and firmed up the route.
That afternoon, the weather cleared, or more accurately the wind stopped, and we decided to rehearse our rope team from Muir to Cathedral Gap. With five on the rope, we worked well together and made good time to Cathedral Gap. Communication, rope order and group morale seemed high, but this would change.
Upon our return to Muir, it became apparent that our summit team for that night would be down to four: Chris, Rob, Patrick and I. When it comes to the final push, it is an individual decision that effects all on the rope team. I firmly believe that you have to respect people's decisions when it comes to “Go/No-Go”.
My alarm went off a 0115, just as planned. Departure time was intended to be 0200, which we actually came close to. Hitting the snooze, I pretended(mostly to myself) to sleep out the next nine minutes. Patrick and Chris were organizing, and the commotion motivated me. Within about thirty minutes, I was ready, and by 0245 we were standing at Camp Muir ready to rope up. My water that I had slept with to keep from freezing was already nearly frozen. Chris and Patrick had left before me to hike over to Muir, and Rob was right behind me. Carrying the rope, I was taking my time as the lack of calories and sleep was not helping. Arriving at an empty Camp Muir, I was informed that Chris had forgotten his ice axe; a critical mistake. Further, Chris declared that he was “not feeling it” and would return to and remain in camp. The summit team now had its final roster of three. As we flaked the rope, we agreed to maintain of original order, minus those who opted not to go for the summit: myself, then Patrick with Rob on the anchor. Ahead we could see the last of the RMI teams snaking up and around Cathedral Gap.
At 0300 on the nose we left Muir and made quick time to Cathedral Gap. Quickly clipping to short-rope, we made good time up the switch backs, passing the first set of retreats from the RMI groups ahead of us. We continued to traverse, and quickly came out on the Ingrahm Glacier with view of the camps at Ingrahm Flats. Ahead we could see the RMI groups snaking up the Disappointment Cleaver(D.C.). The trail went past the camp, and for a moment I was thinking we were following a route to Ingrahm Direct. I came to find out that the route was going high to avoid huge crevasse openings in the Ingrahm Glacier. The route had only recently been changed to avoid these hazards. After circumventing some large cracks, we then gave up some altitude to drop toward the D.C. Just past the rockfall zone at the D.C. we went back to short rope.
The D.C. was very melted out, and resembled a crumbly N. Maroon Peak in Colorado. Following a steep loose trail, we attempted to stick to rotten snow to avoid removing our crampons. After a few hundred feet of this scrambling, we moved back onto steep snow that lasted till we reached a flat area above the D.C. where we fueled up. Just as the steep snow started, we passed the last of the RMI clients that were retreating and being guided down. The D.C. was living up to it's name, at least for some that day.
Totally bonking at this point I layered up with everything I had. Shivering hard, I chugged the rest of the Gatorade Chris had given me at Muir. It actually gave me an ice cream headache. A frozen Cliff Bar and a Gu02 shot served as a tasty chaser. Now shivering really hard, Patrick was asking me if I was ok. I threw on my overmitts, and said I think I will be fine once we move. For some reason, I just could not generate heat. Looking back, it had to be the lack of calories. Heading off into the stiff wind, I began to warm and within fifteen minutes, the calories kicked in hard.
The route then becomes a bit of an exercise. There are several wanded paths to follow, but you truly have to do a bit of route finding. The previous week's melt outs caused the route to change several times. At about 12,600' there was a traverse leading out onto the Emmons Glacier; but we opted to head straight up through seracs and crevasses towards the crater rim.
The route was aggressive in terms of pitch with various sections that narrowed and exposed us to crevasse fall. We ran belays off a couple pickets, and maded use of the one fixed rope we found. The glacier was breath taking. At around 13,850' we ran into the first of the RMI teams returning from the summit. Looking for any excuse to rest, we anchored off trail to let them pass. They were quite appreciative of this fact. Near 14,000' the second and last of the RMI teams passed us on their descent, and gave us some good encouragement to "Get er' done".
Finally, as my altimeter clicked 14k' that long awaited adrenaline kicked in. However, I was the only one that felt it, and there is no “I” in rope team. Sometime around 0900 we were sitting in the crater of Mt. Rainier where the wind was dead, and everything was calm. Steam vents quietly exhaled around us, and the occasional smell of sulfur lead to an accusatory glance. The finale was clear; straight across the well traveled ice cap, up the dirt and traverse to Columbia Crest. We only saw two other people up there, and they were gone shortly after they arrived; opting not to hike to Columbia Crest and settling for the "tourist summit". I reality, the hike over to Columbia Crest was quick, but in deep snow could take time.
Feeling very good, I charged ahead to film our triumphant crossing of the crater and ascent to Columbia Crest. On top of Columbia Crest, the wind picked up again. We did not hang out too long, but did get some good shots. We had an awesome view of Liberty Cap, but did not feel the urge to hike over to it. We were well above the cloud layer and had unobstructed views of Adams, St. Helens, Hood and Baker. I could have taken fifty more pictures were it not for the wind. Hands that were removed from the protection of gloves went numb quickly in the cold steady wind.
Back in the crater, we roped back up, ate and drank, and reminded ourselves to focus on the descent at hand. We still had the entire crater to ourselves and I was ready to just bivy. We were out of the wind in a spot that was nice and flat.
The descent was uneventful. The cold had given way to summer like temperatures, and I was down to a t-shirt by the time we reached the D.C. Which was the exact point where I had been shivering uncontrollably only hours earlier. Amazingly, the snow was firm and there were no signs of loose slide potential. Feeling quite comfortable, I killed my battery in my new HD camera on the descent. We took time to shoot forty minutes of video, and over one-hundred-fifty stills. A new definition of “lolly-gagging” on the descent.
Approaching Camp Muir on the return, I could see people watching us. As we closed in, I realized it was Chris, followed by Gary. Climbing off the glacier to Muir, we de-roped. Chris and Gary showed up to help us with carrying gear back to camp. This was very welcome being as we had been out for eleven hours.
Back at camp, they had water melted, Gatorade brewed up and stoves ready to go.
As we closed out the climb, I can say this: I have worked with many teams in my life, on many different tasks, but never have I worked with a team for the first time and seen things work so flawlessly with a single goal of a successful and safe summit. There were no personal agendas, only a team agenda to which we succeeded. To Gary, Chris, Marschinda, Rob and Patrick I say thanks, and I look forward to climbing with you again.
All the details, photos, videos and other items will soon be on http://www.14erquest.com ETA for completion of webpages is August 26...
If you are interested in a DVD of the video from our climb, send me message through Summitpost, and I will be glad to burn one for you.