RETURN TO RAINIER
Preparation and Persistence
by Archer Bell copyright 2001
THIS ACCOUNT OF MY 2001 RAINIER CLIMB HAS TWO PARTS, PART 1 DEALS WITH THE PLANING OF THE TRIP. PART 2 DEALS WITH TIME ON THE MOUNTAIN.
On June 21, 2000 my long time friend, Bob Deevey, and I decided to come off a rope team on an expedition that was climbing Mt. Rainier. It was two o-clock in the morning and we had reached the Ingraham Flats section of the Ingraham Glacier. We had left from Camp Protection at 9,600 feet two hours earlier and had sprinted, climbed, scrambled, and fallen over ice, snow, and rock to the Ingraham Flats at 11,000 feet. We were winded, wet from sweat, shivering and at that moment not having any fun. We were about to reach the point of no return and decided to come off of the rope team to avoid the risk that the other members of the expedition would have to turn back because of us. One of our guides put us in a tent from another RMI expedition group and told us that they would be back in seven to eight hours. It was during those hours that the question of whether or not we could have made it with the rest of the group crept into both of our minds. At that time it was a question that I could not answer and it would take one year and one day before I would know the answer.
Bob and I returned to our homes from that week on Mt. Rainier much wiser and with a newfound respect for the sport of mountaineering. Susan, my wife accompanied me, when I flew out to Washington for the weeklong expedition seminar on Mt. Rainier. Susan planned on sightseeing with her youngest brother while I was on the mountain. On this first trip I was pretty sure that I would reach the top of the mountain if the weather cooperated. The weather cooperated better than we could have wished for, but Bob and I never saw the top of the mountain. Both of us wanted to see the view from the mountaintop. I am not sure if we decided that we would go back or if we ever doubted that we would go back, I just know that we wanted to stand on the top of Mt. Rainier. I was not ready or willing to admit defeat. I viewed this as a postponement of our summit. We also had a much better idea of what to expect and how to train for a return attempt.
Bob and I had purchased all of our personal equipment for the climb and that equipment supplied by Rainier Mountaineering Incorporated (RMI) for the expedition was not that different from the equipment that Susan and I use when we winter backpack in the Smoky Mountains. The only equipment stumbling block was that Bob refuses to sleep in a tent with me. He claims that I snore so loud that he gets no sleep. We would need separate tents when we returned.
I had enjoyed the alpine experience of just being on the mountain. I explained to Susan how I had seen views from the mountain that no camera could possibly capture and I wanted her to climb up to Camp Muir at 10,080 feet and experience the alpine environment first hand. We could spend some time together while I acclimated to the altitude. I was sure that she would enjoy the experience and it also gave her a goal to attempt. She accepted the challenge with some reservations. One of them was that she wanted to loose ten pounds of body weight before she would even attempt to climb. I agreed and we started to watch our diets more closely as I also wanted to loose some of my body weight before I got back on Rainier. I now had commitments for another climb attempt, setting a date was the next step.
The week of June 18-24, 2000 had almost perfect weather on Mt. Rainier, I thought that there was a chance for a repeat in 2001 so I planned the trip so that we would be on the mountain June 17-23, 2001. I called and made our airline reservations. This would allow us to fly into the Sea-Tac Airport on Saturday and spend the knight at the Paradise Lodge next to the trailhead that leads up to Camp Muir.
I was confident that Bob and I could climb the mountain on our own if we properly equipped and in good condition. As I have previously mentioned I knew that a lightweight tent that could stand alpine conditions would be needed. I knew of an outfitter in North Georgia that had a lightweight single wall tent that weighed less than five pounds. It would be perfect for my return to the mountain if I was going to have to sleep solo. The first time I got back to North Georgia after the trip I purchased a Garuda, Kusala single wall tent to use on Mt. Rainier and hopefully other alpine climbs in the future. This tent is light enough for me to carry by myself yet large enough for two people if necessary. I also started to research lightweight mountaineering ropes. There was no rush on the rope. The later I bought the rope the better because of the limited shelf life.
Although I have an ice ax it is not the ideal tool for driving in snow pickets. I had selected one of the lightest ice axes available and therefore I didn’t think it had the mass to drive a snow picket into hardened snow. I thought that an ice tool with a hammerhead would be ideal to supplement the light ax and would also make a great emergency anchor in the event a crevasse rescue was needed. I added the ice tool, a snow shovel, and pickets to my Christmas wish list in hope that Susan and my Mother might help out. Beyond what I had read in books like Freedom of the Hills and the RMI expedition seminar I had no other alpine experience. Before I purchased any other gear I decided to contact Adam Clark who is much more experienced than myself.
Adam Clark was one of the guides on the RMI expedition where Bob and I had gotten our initial alpine experience. Adam is young in years but I quickly realized that he is very experienced in mountaineering. I decided to contact Adam for advice on additional equipment recommendations. I was able to get in touch with him at the University of Montana where he was enrolled as a freshman. In my initial letter I had inquired if he ever just climbed for fun or if all of his climbing time was scheduled through RMI? Adam contacted me by letter and replied that he did in fact take some days off and spent some of them climbing for fun.
I called Bob and ask him what he thought of asking Adam to join us on our summit attempt. Bob was as excited as I was at the prospect of having an experienced mountaineer join us for the summit attempt. I wrote Adam and gave him the dates that we would be on the mountain and asked if he could take some time off and join us. Adam replied that with this much advance notice he was pretty sure that he could get a few days off and climb with us. Adam explained that it would not be like a guided trip, we would have to supply all of our equipment and planning. Adam would meet us at Camp Muir and we would then cross over the Cathedral Rocks onto the Ingraham Glacier for our start. I was ecstatic over the possibility of Adam joining us. I called Bob with the good news and we started our plans to return to Rainier.
Equipment and the trip itinerary would be the easiest part of the preparation, the hard part would be to get Susan and me physically prepared for what we had to do on the mountain. I knew from the previous attempt that you couldn’t fake it on the mountain.
Fortunately the county recreation department had recently built a gym complete with an exercise room full of machines designed to build strength and endurance. Susan and I got a membership and began working out several times a week. I also checked out my twenty-eight year old bicycle and after replacing the tires it was ready to ride. Susan’s seventeen-year-old bicycle only needed air in the tires, so we now had two roadworthy bikes.
By alternating between bicycling and the gym we were on our way to shaping up for Rainier. There were several evenings when one or both of us really didn’t feel like exercising but I would remember how exhausted I felt when I decided to drop out from last years climb and was determined not to let that happen in 2001. The recreation department also had racquetball courts where we were exercising. I called an old friend, Jim Roussos, who used to play racquetball with me years ago. Jim agreed to start playing again and we started meeting twice a week for a few games. Jim always won the games but it was fun and great exercise. I could tell that my endurance and speed were being helped by the routine.
A CHANGE OF PLANS
Bob had reached the point in his police career where he was eligible for retirement. An opportunity to change jobs presented itself and Bob decided that the new job plus his retirement pension would allow him a welcome change in lifestyle. Bob started a new job and retired from the police department. Unfortunately his new job would not allow him to take any time off for ninety days.
This change meant that Bob would not be able to get off for our scheduled climb. This was a big disappointment for me, but as I told Bob the mountain will still be there for a future climb. I was not sure if this change would jeopardize the planned climb due to it only leaving two people on the proposed rope team. I called Adam to inform him of the change and ask his opinion. He said that he would be comfortable with just me on the rope with him and that the climb could still be made. I mentally went through a list of my friends to determine if any of them might be interested in making the climb with me. Most of them thought that I was crazy for climbing mountains and had no desire to join me on a climb. There was one exception however, Jonathan Evans. Jonathan had actually done a good bit of alpine climbing; he had been on Mt. Rainier several times and had also climbed in Canada a few summers.
The next time I was in A.W.O.L., our local outdoors outfitter where Jonathan works, I ask him if he might be interested in climbing Mt. Rainier with Adam and me? Later he got back with me and told me that he just might be in Washington around the time I planned to climb and he thought that he could join us. I was excited about the idea of him joining the climb. It wasn’t a commitment but a probability.
I called the park information number and made reservations for a climbing party of four to be on the mountain for the chosen dates. I also learned that the park had not received the normal six hundred inches of snow that normally falls. Only half of the usual snow had fallen. One of the climbing rangers told me that due to the lack of snow on the mountain that some glacier crevasses that normally aren’t visible until August could be seen early in May. I wasn’t sure just how this would effect our climb.
The planning was coming to a close. I purchased a new rope and added it to the other alpine equipment that had accumulated. I strongly believe in testing out equipment before you actually use or need it. I started rigging “C” and “Z” pulley systems and rescuing my garden wagon by pulling it up a stone ramp in the yard. It took me several attempts before I could get it right without consulting a crevasse rescue booklet that I had purchased.
I also loaded all of the equipment that I would need into my pack. It was heavy! I didn’t want to load Susan’s pack with anything except what she would personally need. With Bob dropping out of the trip I now was going to have to carry all my personal gear plus all of the group gear. With everything loaded my pack weighed NINTY-SIX pounds! I called Adam and went through the group gear list. He told me that I had too many carabiners and sewn slings. Other than those items I needed everything else. I started going through my personal gear and pulled a few items that I could do without. Re-packing the pack and stepping on the scales showed that I had reduced the weight by nine pounds.
I started walking around a trail that we have on the property with the pack for sessions up to an hour. I knew that when we got on the mountain that I planned rest breaks after each hour of climbing. This was the heaviest pack that I had ever put on my back.
Susan and I packed everything we would be taking into duffel bags that we hoped would survive the airline baggage handlers and loaded them into the car. We were ready to fly to Seattle.
Saturday June 16, 2001
Susan and I headed to the Augusta airport early that morning for our flight. Once at the airport we discovered that I had made a mistake about our departure time. Our plane had already left! The ticket agent noticed that if we left for Atlanta immediately by automobile we could catch our connecting flight in Atlanta. We loaded our bags back into the car and headed to Hartsfield-Atlanta International Airport. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t re-checked the departure time, there was also another change made by the ticket agent. We were not flying directly to Seattle as originally booked; we were going to change airlines in Denver. We made our connection in Atlanta and found ourselves in the first class section of our Delta flight. When we landed in Denver we were directed to a United Airlines gate at another concourse.
I went to get our boarding passes when we got to the gate and was told by the United employee that she couldn’t enter our Delta tickets into her computer without a number she needed from Delta. I found out what I needed to do and went on a mission. I ended up running from one concourse to another talking with people that were clueless about what I needed. I finally found a Delta employee that could help me and got what I needed. Returning to the United gate I got in line and was told that the plane was full. I felt a major temper eruption starting to surface but before it took place the first United employee that I had talked with spotted me at the counter and handed me two boarding passes as soon as she typed in the number she had sent me after. We were flying first class to Seattle.
Susan and I were relieved when all of our luggage finally made it onto the conveyer belt at the baggage claim section. A nice surprise came when we got to the Budget Car Rental desk; the size car that we had reserved was unavailable so we got upgraded to a Chrysler Concord. All of our luggage easily fit into the trunk. We left the airport headed to Ashford. There were still a few items that we needed before we started to climb. I wanted a bundle of bamboo tomato stakes. These lightweight sticks are used as markers by adding some type of flagging at the top. The other items we needed were fuel, and gas canisters for our stoves. The fuel cannot be carried on commercial airlines.
I was unable to find any stakes to use as marking wands on the way from the airport to Mt. Rainier National Park. I had called ahead to an outfitting store, The Summit Hause, in Ashford and had already purchased the necessary stove fuel and reserved two avalanche beacons. Susan and I stopped and picked up the fuel and beacons along with the latest information about conditions on the mountain. We were encouraged to learn that several climbing attempts during the last few days had been successful. This was good news because I had heard that at the beginning of the week some climb attempts couldn’t get past Camp Muir.
We drove into the park and checked into the Paradise Lodge. It took the bellhop three trips to bring up our luggage. Susan and I ate in the lodge’s dining room and then returned to our room to assemble our packs. We were now ready to begin our climb after a night’s rest and picking up our climbing permits.
June 17, 2001 Father’s Day
I awoke early on this morning because my body was still on eastern daylight time. I let Susan sleep because there were several things that I needed to do before we left. I took down the empty duffel bags and put them in the trunk of the car and then stopped by the ranger station.
I filled out the necessary paperwork to complete our reservations and got the latest weather forecast. I returned to the room and found Susan up and getting ready. We both showered and put on the clothes we planned to wear to Muir. After we ate breakfast at the lodge we loaded up the packs on a bellhop cart and headed to the lobby. I was not anxious to put that heavy pack on my back and was going to roll it as far as I could.
Clouds were still hanging around the lodge and the snow began at the edge of the parking lot. Visibility was limited to about 400 yards so we were unable to see mountain. It was around 11:00 a.m. before we started climbing the mountain. Although the snow came all the way down to the lodge I could tell that it was not nearly as deep as it had been the year before. There were plenty of people on the Deadhorse Trail that leads away from the lodge up toward Camp Muir. We saw families led by anxious children pass us by and some early starters had begun to return from Glacier Vista, 850 vertical feet above Paradise.
There were many comments about the size of my pack as people passed in either direction. It came as no surprise that we were not passing anyone. Three or four groups of climbers in lines of four or five went around Susan and me as we climbed. I looked longingly at their seemingly small packs wishing that Bob could have joined us and shared the task of hauling some of the group gear to Muir. The clouds rolled in and out at the lower part of the climb. The first time the clouds cleared enough for us to see the full mountain I had to stop in my tracks, what an awesome view.
I had forgotten how beautiful Mt. Rainier could be. Susan had let me lead the way because I normally climb faster than she does, when I turned to see if she was taking in the view I saw that Mt. Adams was also visible behind her. “Turn around and look behind you.” I prompted. “Is that Mt. Adams?” Susan asked. “Yes, isn’t this incredible!” We stood there for several minutes taking in the view that had opened up around us.
Standing around with ninety pounds on your back is not very restful. I suggested that we step off of the trail and grab a snack and some water. We tossed our packs onto the snow and took a break. After fifteen minutes or so we were ready to continue climbing. To get the pack on my back I resorted to an unusual method. I placed the pack in an upright position and then sat down in front of it. Next I slipped into the shoulder straps and twisted over to a position where I was on all fours. The last step was to stand up, fasten the hip belt and make the final adjustments on all of pack’s straps. This is not how I normally put on my pack but I didn’t want to chance twisting my back while lifting so much weight. I had done all of my training without using trekking poles to increase leg strength. Both Susan and I were using them for the climb to Camp Muir and they were really helpful, especially when I stood up after putting on the pack.
Our camping permit for the first night specified, Muir Snowfield, which gave us plenty of area from which to select. Any altitude from 7,400 feet to 9,600 feet was approved for campsites. We knew that once we climbed above Pebble Creek on the trail that we could start looking. As the day continued we both felt that weight of our packs was really wearing us down. Our home is about 350 feet above sea level so we were also coping with the increased altitude. I had planned to spend as much time as possible to acclimate and didn't plan on climbing much past Pebble Creek. I kept checking my altimeter and was disappointed at how slowly we were approaching the 7,000-foot level. Susan was beginning to frequently inquire, “How much further?” We finally reached the creek and it was flowing at about half the volume of last year. The higher we got the more I could tell how much the reduced snowfall of the past winter changed the look of the mountain. The clouds that we had climbed above were also ascending the mountain and had caught back up with us when we rested for a while at Pebble Creek.
The day hikers that had been so numerous earlier in the day had thinned out as we got higher. We began to see more people descending the mountain than climbing. We could tell the ones we passed that carried large packs were coming down from climbing attempts. We asked some if they had been successful and most had made it to the top. There was one large group that seemed in very high sprits that was nearly running down the mountain. One of the members told me that they had spent the night in the crater on the summit. These climbers were on a RMI advanced seminar that had gone up the Kautz Glacier Route, spent the night in the crater, and were now returning down on the Ingraham Glacier Route. They were traversing the mountain. It was clear that they were having a good time with this climb.
As I watched more of the group descend past us I recognized one of them. It was Adam Clark. “Adam!” I called. He looked over and changed course toward Susan and me. “Archer, it’s good to see you, I can’t believe you spotted me in this group!” Adam is about six foot four or five so he was easy to spot. I introduced him to Susan because I didn’t think he would remember her from last year’s brief meeting. We asked him about a good place to set up a tent close by. He told us that it would be better to climb over a few more ridges and then go east off of the trail. He was a guide on this advanced seminar and said that these guys had elected to come down a day early so that they could shower and eat in a restaurant. They planned on spending the next day playing in the snow at the base of a glacier. We wished him a safe descent and told him we would see him later in the week.
Susan and I had a conference and decided that we had climbed as much as we wanted to for one day. We were high enough on the Muir Snowfield to camp anywhere so we moved off the trail and started looking for a flat spot. We found a small valley between two small ridges not far from the trail. There was no view because the clouds had closed in around us. I pulled off my pack and helped Susan get hers off. I took the snow shovel from my pack and started leveling off a spot for the tent. While I was working I noticed that there still seemed to be a lot of people in the area. I was beginning to think that this might not be far enough off the trail when a couple of skiers came over the upper ridge and went by less than ten feet away. Susan had also noticed the traffic and we decided to keep moving. Before we got our packs back on the clouds cleared and we spotted an area above some rocks that looked good. I decided to scout it out up close before we lugged the packs any higher up.
Walking without the pack on my back seemed alien at first. I found a route through some rock outcroppings and located a spot that looked good. Looking back down at Susan I could see just how close our original selection was to the trail, we were barely off of it. Returning back to Susan I helped her get her pack on and pointed her in the direction of my footprints. She headed off as I attached the shovel back on my pack. Just as I got to my feet with my pack on I heard Susan scream. Looking up I saw that she had broken through the snow as see neared the rocks and had sunk up to her pack. “Are you alright” I asked? “No, I can’t move with this pack on” Susan informed me. “I’m going to have to take it off to get out of this hole, can you retrieve it?” “I guess I can, just walk up to the place I pointed out.” We met at the chosen campsite and I dropped my pack and then retrieved Susan’s. The sun heats up the dark colored rocks causing snow to melt out from around them. This sometimes causes large melt holes near the rocks with a thin vainer of crusted snow on the surface. This is what Susan found when she broke through the crust near the rock.
Once again I pulled the shovel from my pack and started leveling off a spot on the snow large enough for the tent. While I had the shovel out I went ahead and dug a small pit to hold our food. Last year Adam had shown me how he dug a pantry in the snow to keep the marmots and other animals out of the food.
We knew that the marmots were around the exposed rocks because we had heard them give warning whistles when we approached the rocks. I set the tent up while Susan got our Thermarest pads inflated. Within half an hour or so we had the camp set up and we could relax. The clouds had completely cleared from around us and we could now see Mt. St. Helen’s, Mt. Adams, and the top of Mt. Rainier.
I set up one of the two stoves that we were carrying and started melting snow for our dinner. One of the advantages of climbing in June is the amount of daylight hours during that time of the year. It starts getting light before 5:00 a.m. and stays light enough to continue working without a light well past 9:00 p.m. Soon we had enough snow melted into water to refill our water bottles and cook a noodles and sauce meal. Susan wanted me to boil the water in a couple of the bottles so that she could use them as hot water bottles and heat up her sleeping bag. I had only brought enough fuel to melt water not boil it. I didn’t have the heart to refuse her the water bottles so I boiled the water hoping that I could replace the fuel from someone with spare fuel at Camp Muir.
As we ate our supper, several small birds visited us. I had forgotten about how the same type of bird had always appeared last year on the RMI expedition at meal times. These birds are about the size of a sparrow and have iridescent coloring on their feathers. The colors are shades of brown and olive green. I have only seen them on Mt. Rainier and they eat the many small bugs that get swept up on the mountain and dropped onto the snow or ice by strong winds. These birds have also learned that climbers often drop small scraps of food while preparing and eating meals. They can be quite bold and often hop around within an arm length while picking up the small food scraps. We also saw a marmot that climbed up on some nearby rocks to survey our campsite and us. Once you get above the meadows you don’t see much wildlife on the mountain.
The Sun was dropping behind the top of mountain and the temperature was falling just as fast as the setting Sun. We pulled out the fluffy jackets and started getting ready to turn in for the night. Anything left outside of the tent was either placed in the food pantry or staked down in the event that the wind picked up. Susan and I settled into the sleeping bags after adjusting the clothing we would wear that night. It was comfortable and warm in our bags and we were soon asleep.
June 18, 2001 Monday
Susan and I awoke early due to the increasing light on the mountain. I dug out the food from the pantry and started up a stove. It was a clear morning up where we
were but you could see that there were clouds near Paradise. While I boiled water for breakfast, Susan packed up the sleeping bags and pads. After a few cups of tea and a bowl of oatmeal we loaded up the packs and walked toward the trail. When I packed up the stove I noticed that we had used much more fuel than I had expected to use on that first day.
I had forgotten how big the Muir snowfield is. Susan and I walked for hours and hours on the snow and it seemed as though we were barely crawling up the mountain. We would occasionally find foot tracks on the trail that matched our stride but mainly I was kicking steps into the snow as we climbed. My stride was a little long for Susan so she found it hard to walk in my steps. As the day went on other climbers were coming up from Paradise and passing us. Comments about my pack size were almost always made as we were passed. One of the things that keep our spirits from sinking were comments from climbers that had successfully summited as they passed on their way down.
One group of climbers came down early without summiting due to a team member getting ill. One member of that group had a bottle of fuel hanging from his packbelt and I inquired if they had any extra fuel. “Sure if you will take it all!” was the response. “Do you have an empty bottle handy?” I was asked. It’s almost empty and it won’t take me long to get at it I replied. I dropped my pack and pulled the bottle out. We exchanged the fuel by pouring it from his bottle into mine. We parted, each a little happier. I had fuel for one more day and he had a lighter load to carry down.
Clouds were making their way up the mountain faster than Susan and I were climbing. Susan expressed concern that we might find ourselves in whiteout conditions if the clouds enveloped us and I could tell her pace picked up a little. I was already starting to bog down from the weight that I was packing and let her go on past me. Hiking up to Camp Muir reminded me of trying to reach the horizon. It seems that it moves away from you at the same speed you approach. I was in some type of mind numbing trance wondering if I would ever get to Camp Muir when the strangest thing happened, my cell phone rang. I didn’t even think that it was on! Susan was over one hundred yards away so she couldn’t get the cell phone off my pack for me and I couldn’t reach it with the pack on. I had no choice but to dump the pack and go for the phone. I pulled the phone off of the pack that I had just tossed onto the snow and it quit ringing.
The screen displayed “1 missed call”. Pushing the menu button a few times got me to “Deevey, Bob”. I pushed the talk button and Bob answered “What are you doing?” were his first words. “I’m climbing up the Muir Snowfield as we speak!” “Ooh you’re not having any fun right now are you” was Bob’s second sentence. “Thank God you called, I needed a reason to rest!” I replied. “What are you doing with your phone on if you are climbing?” Bob asked. I told him that I didn’t even know that it was turned on and I was surprised that he could reach me. We talked a few more minutes and then I told him that I needed to go so that I could make it to Muir sometime that day. Susan had turned around to check on my progress and was curious as to why I was sitting on my pack talking on the phone.
I returned the phone to its protective case after carefully checking to make sure that it was turned off. I crawled back into the pack and stood up to continue my climb. Once Susan saw that I was again making progress up the mountain she also continued to climb. The clouds that had threatened to enclose us had evaporated before they ever reached us. The Sun was bright and the snow was reflecting right back, there were no shadows on the snowfield. I stopped and re-applied sunscreen to try and prevent the slow roasting that can take place in the alpine setting. Would we ever make it to camp? The last group of RMI two-day summit climbers passed me off to the right. I looked longingly at their light 30-pound packs. If I had a pack that light I would be at Muir by now.
Susan and I were so far apart from each other that we were out of communication with each other. That may have been a good thing because I knew that she also had to be suffering because exhaustion was overtaking my body.
I was the one that had encouraged her to make this climb. We had reached the point of no return, it was easier to keep climbing than to try and go back to the lodge. I had just gotten to the point where I could make out the tiny “A” frame structure that housed the climbing rangers. I though that I could be at the camp within an hour. I would take thirty steps, stop and then take ten breaths before counting off another thirty steps and repeating the process over and over.
As I closed the final distance to Muir I could see Susan sitting on wall that formed the edge of the helicopter pad. I changed my direction slightly to set a course directly to her. I was almost on the verge of tears when I got to her. I had so many emotions swelling at once I could barely contain them. First I was so proud of Susan for the great effort that she had put out to get to the camp. Second, I was so glad that I would not have to carry the great weight any higher. Finally the preparation I had spent nearly a year making was paying off as expected. I kissed Susan and told her how proud of her I was and that I was indebted to her for her great effort. I told her that I was close to tears and she informed me that she had already cried while she was waiting for me on the wall.
I dropped my pack and we looked around for a place to set up our tent. Camp Muir had a very different look from the last time when Bob and I had been here. Only half of the snow that normally falls on the mountain had fallen this past winter. First we looked in the public shelter that can sleep up to twenty climbers. It was dark and the floor was wet I am glad that we had not planned on staying in the shelter. There was a small valley that linked the guide shack to the Cowlitz Glacier that had not existed last year. There were several abandoned tent platforms on the sides of the valley and we decided to set up camp on one of them.
We pitched the tent using snow pickets and rocks to anchor to the snow. Susan dove into the tent and I handed her sleeping pads and bags to lay out. I grabbed a trash compactor bag from my pack and went uphill with the snow shovel to bring back snow for melting. I was glad to see that the snow above camp was clean except for the fine volcanic silt that blows off of the exposed rocks around camp. We would learn that no matter how clean the snow looks you would always have black silt at the bottom of the pan when the snow is melted down into water. If I ever get the chance to camp on Rainier again I will remember to bring coffee filters to remove silt.
We had arrived at Camp Muir around 6:00 p.m. and by the time we set up camp and melted water for supper the Sun was dropping behind the mountain. We were almost too tired to eat but we knew that we had to re-fuel our bodies and hydrate to prevent altitude sickness.
Just as I got the stove going one of the climbing rangers came by the tent and introduced himself. He asked if we had our climbing permits and gave a short orientation about Camp Muir. We explained that we would be acclimatizing for a couple of days before the rest of our group joined us. He inquired about our alpine experience and seemed to be satisfied with our answers. Before he left our camp he pointed to the small “A” frame building and told us we could find him there if we needed any help.
While we were preparing something to eat a group of climbers from the St Louis Missouri-Belleville, Illinois area set up camp next to us. There were six climbers in the group, two women and four men. They set up two tents, one on each side of the valley. We introduced ourselves to each other, the women were Marge and Kate, and the men were Max, Chris, Jim, and Al. Several of them worked together at a YMCA in a Life Adventures program. Al and Kate were a couple and were taking some time off between jobs. After we ate we made a few adjustments to the tent and I secured some items that would be left out overnight. There was still plenty of daylight left but we were very tired so we turned in for the night. It wasn’t until I was lying in the sleeping bag that I realized how exhausted I was. Sleep came easily that night. I either dreamed or remembered hearing the RMI two-day summit groups leaving around midnight. There is no mistaking the sound of crampons crunching on frozen snow, other than that we were undisturbed.
June 19, 2001 Tuesday
By the time I awoke on Tuesday morning the Sun was already lighting up the tent. Susan mumbled something and I rolled over to say good morning. What I saw was shocking! Susan’s lips were swollen to at least three times their normal size. “Oh my God your lips are huge!” were the first words Susan heard me speak that morning. She immediately dove into her personal items bag to retrieve her mirror. “You don’t want to do that.” I warned her. She didn’t listen. “OH MY GOD!” she mumbled through swollen lips as she saw her reflection in the mirror. “I’m going to have to have plastic surgery to fix this!” Susan’s lipstick that she had worn on Monday must not have had any sunscreen and her lips were roasted. “Well at least I know what I would look like with collagen injections.” Susan commented, trying to make light of a painful situation.
I did a quick check as I got dressed and was pleased to only find a few areas under my forearms had turned red from Sun radiation. I selected a long sleeve shirt to protect those over radiated areas and climbed out of the tent to start melting snow. A bright cloudless sky and just a slight breeze greeted me.
While I was getting breakfast ready I had a chance to talk with our neighbors, which I will call the St Louis Group, and found out that they had no alpine experience. Several members had extensive rock climbing experience, but none of them had been on a glacier. I had noticed the night before that I had not seen any type of snow and ice anchors but thought that there may be other members joining the team that would bring the necessary equipment. I asked them if they planned on practicing glacier travel before they left. Max told me that practicing was part of their plans for that day.
I mentioned that I needed someone to practice my skills with and wondered if they would mind me joining them. I knew that Susan didn’t need to be out on a glacier until her lips had time to heal. Max and Jim invited me to join them and I eagerly accepted. I had hoped to stay active while I was acclimating to the altitude. Susan assured me that she wouldn’t feel left out if I joined the St Louis Group. I had limited alpine experience but I was willing to share what I knew.
As the day went on we talked about how to set up the team members with climbing harnesses and prussiks and pack leashes. Chris had packed up a brand new 60 meter climbing rope and enough kernmantle cord to make everyone prussiks for ascending the rope in the event someone fell in a crevasse. We quit talking and started making the foot and waist prussiks by using the ones that I had already tied as a guide. We also practiced tying knots commonly used in mountaineering. The only one that was new to the group was the butterfly knot used to make tie-in spots on the main rope. It was interesting seeing the different equipment being pulled out of the tents and backpacks of the St Louis Group.
Finally everyone had all the equipment we needed to head onto the Cowlitz Glacier.
We decided to get a snack before we headed out. I asked Susan if she wanted to head out with us before we got our crampons on. She declined but told me to go have fun. Max had decided that he would not attempt the summit with the group so I roped up with him for our trip onto the glacier. Jim, Marge, Chris, Al, and Kate clipped onto the their rope at evenly spaced intervals where we had earlier tied the butterfly loops. I had Max lead onto the Cowlitz Glacier. It felt good to be using my crampons again.
Almost a year had passed since I had walked on a glacier. There was a small opening in the snow covering the glacier where we could practice crevasse rescue. I asked Max to follow the trail toward that opening.
About sixty feet from the opening of the crevasse I had Max go to a sitting anchor position and belay me. I pulled out my snow probe and checked the area where I wanted everyone to gather. The probe found solid ice under the snow everywhere I checked so the other rope team came up to where Max and I were now sitting. I explained that I had been checking for hidden cracks in the ice and cautioned them not to gather in an area until such a check had been performed. Pulling two three-foot snow pickets from the side of my pack I demonstrated how to make an anchor. I think it was Marge that helped me clip in the webbing so that the tension on the pickets would be equal. We then clipped Max into the anchors and he belayed me as I approached the crevasse. I had tied my pack onto the free end of my rope and was ready to toss it into the opening so we could rescue it.
Several surprises awaited as I tossed my pack into the crevasse. The first was that the pack pulled in at least twenty feet of rope after it and the second was that as the rope grew taught it cut back into the lip of the opening at least seven or eight feet. I used my ice ax and tool to form an edge protector so the rope wouldn’t cut any further into the snow. We then used the other team’s rope to form a “C” pulley system rescue to extract the pack. I was going to show them a “Z” system but couldn’t quite get it right. I made a mental note that I needed to get that straight before my climb. When the pack was pulled up to the rim I needed to chop away at the edge until we had a straight shot at pulling the pack up. Max eased me closer and closer to the edge until I could see into the crevasse.
Holly Cow, I thought as looked down into the crevasse. It was at least eighty to ninety feet deep. I immediately knew that we would not be lowering anyone into that huge gape for practice! I carefully chopped the overhanging lip until the pack could be lifted over the rim. Each time I swung the borrowed ice ax I watched as the ice chunks dropped. Unlike the crevasse that I had been lowered into last year, this crack was frightening. “Y’all might want to check this out from the edge but we don’t need to be sending anyone down this thing”. Max pulled in the slack as I made my way back to the group. Everyone took a turn being belayed to the edge and looking into the crevasse. I then explained how to make a traveling belay using snow pickets and carabiners before we headed back to camp. I could sense the newfound respect for the glacier the St Louis Group had acquired. Their questions now asked about problems that might present themselves on tomorrow’s climb. I answered them the best I could by remembering what I had read, practiced, and studied the past two years.
Once we were back in camp I offered them the use of my helmet, ice tool and snow pickets for their climb. Jim took me up on the snow pickets but declined on taking the ice tool and helmet. Jim said it would be hard to determine who would wear the helmet. While I was passing over the pickets Jim and Al asked if I could join them on their climb. I was flattered to be asked but knew that making two summit climbs in three days was probably more fun than I could physically handle. I asked if they had rented avalanche transceivers for the climb and offered the two I had when Jim told me no. I gave a quick class on how to operate the transceivers before I turned them over to the group.
Susan and I joined the group as we prepared a pot of black beans and rice for supper. The Sun had crossed to the West side of the mountain and we were now in the shadow of the rock structure known as the Cowlitz Cleaver. This allowed Susan the chance to socialize without risking further damage from radiation. We had found out the day before that Max and Marge were Social Workers, the same profession as Susan. The social workers engaged in conversation about his or her work and it was a nice break from talking about the mountain. Chris or Marge mentioned that they would need to be getting up for their climb around midnight so they were heading to the tent to turn in. Before Chris turned he set up the rope outside of his tent so that all the group needed to do was find a loop and clip in. Susan and I wished them a safe climb and turned in ourselves. When we said prayers that night we prayed for the St Louis Group’s safety and success.
June 20, 2001 Wednesday
The next morning brought another unwelcome problem. Susan’s right eye was swollen to the point that she couldn’t open it all the way and her left eye was slightly swollen. She said she would check with one of the climbing rangers on her way back from the outhouse Later she came back and reported that the ranger thought that it might be altitude related. I ask her if she wanted me to take her back down to Paradise. She thought for a minute and decided not to leave just yet.
Max emerged from his tent and reported that his group had left around midnight for their summit attempt. Everyone in the group seemed to be confident and excited as they headed out. We stepped out of the valley and looked toward the summit. The top was free of clouds and there were no signs of high wind. “Max it looks like they have great weather for climbing” I commented. “Yeah it looks like the weather is good, they should be headed back by now” Max replied. We had been asking some of the RMI guides how long the climb should take, and what time should they be aiming for to be at the summit. The standard answer had been that it was about an eight or nine-hour climb to the top and a four-hour return from Camp Muir. The group had planned on summiting around eight o-clock that morning. If they had climbed on schedule then they would be back in camp between noon and one o-clock.
Around eleven o-clock a few climbers started returning to camp. We asked how the climbing had been and got rave reports. The summit had been calm and the weather was perfect. I began to doubt if I had made the right decision by not climbing with the St Louis Group. I could tell that Max was anxious as he constantly looked across the glacier for signs of his returning group. I asked Max if he wanted to rope up and go meet his friends out on the glacier. Max liked the idea of meeting them so we started getting our equipment on. By the time we started out onto the Cowlitz Glacier the first RMI group was returning. Some of the members were elated about their experience giving fellow climbers high fives and talking about how awesome the climb had been. Other climbers in the same group had that thousand-mile stare and were overwhelmed by how difficult the last twelve hours had been. I wondered if I had looked like that last year on the Ingraham Flats.
Max and I followed the trail leading from camp onto the Cowlitz. The many climbers that had gone out over the last few days had packed down the snow and the walking was easy. We met a returning rope team and asked if they had seen the St Louis Group, we identified them as a team of three men and two women without helmets. They weren’t sure but thought that a group matching that description was on the Ingraham Glacier behind them. Max and I decided to go up Cathedral Gap and see if we could spot them from there.
We stopped at the South base of the gap and coiled our rope in so we wouldn’t drag it over the abrasive rocks. I explained to Max what we needed to do if a rock fall started while we were in the gap. The temperature was climbing and we could see where rocks up to the size of bowling balls had come down to where we were standing. As Lisa, an RMI guide from last year’s climb, had described the necessity of avoiding falling rock, I told Max it was dodge ball for your life! We picked our way up the switchbacks that threaded the way through the crumbling pass known as Cathedral Gap. I couldn’t help but remember the first time I was herded up the gap at a breakneck pace. Lisa wanted to get us through the gap as quickly as possible to avoid the chance of falling rocks, I didn’t know which was more dangerous being hit by a rock or tripping and falling into the rocks. I chose a slower pace and Max and I made it up without having to stop and gasp for breath at the top of the gap. There was a good wind blowing through the gap. It appeared that as the sun warmed the air above the Cowlitz Glacier it was being funneled through the gap. Max and I unclipped from the rope and set it down. We could see Little Tahoma Peak for the first time and could look West-Northwest onto the Ingraham Glacier. We could see a couple of rope teams making their way towards us but none of them had five members. Max decided to get behind one of the rocks so he could rest out of the wind. We would wait here for the St Louis Group.
We waited for about twenty minutes before another rope team came through the gap. We asked if they had seen our group and they though that they remembered seeing a rope team fitting our description at the summit. They said that one of the women was having a little altitude sickness. They couldn’t remember whether or not they had on helmets so we weren’t sure if we were talking about the same rope team.
I asked Max if he wanted to rope back up and walk down to the Ingraham to see if we could locate them. Max seemed to be happy waiting where we were. We had heard some small avalanches break off from the West Side of the Cathedral Rocks and we weren’t that anxious to get below any part of the mountain that was falling. Another rope team came through the gap and told us that there was a group matching the description we gave them resting just around some rocks above us. We left our packs and rope where they were and investigated. Sure enough it was the St Louis Group.
We were happy to see them and I think they were glad we came out to meet them. It was confirmed that Marge had some symptoms of altitude sickness at the summit but she was doing somewhat better as they had descended. We asked if they needed us to help carry anything from their packs but everyone was comfort-able with what they had.
We told them that our packs and rope were just around the rocks and headed back to get ready for the descent.
Max and I let the group get down to the Cowlitz before we followed just in case we knocked any rocks loose. Both of us noticed that there were several large rocks that had rolled across the trail at the base of the gap that had not been there when we started up the gap. Several times when we were descending we heard rocks falling down from the Cathedral’s.
Once we were on the glacier we closed the gap that had opened up between the group and us while we waited for them to exit the rock fall zone. It was easy to see that they were very tired it was getting close to four in the afternoon. By the time we made it back to camp they would have been out for over sixteen hours. About half way across the Cowlitz a crevasse was opening up on the trail. Max and I had just stepped across it hours ago, but now it was at least four feet wide and growing. I asked Max to hold up about ten feet before the opening so I could get into a sitting anchor position. I coiled up about fifteen feet of rope and got set. Max jumped the crevasse and then set up on the other side to belay me. After I jumped the glacier I wondered if I had been over cautious for such a small crevasse but then I remembered looking down into the eighty-foot drop of the small crevasse we had fished my pack out of. Better safe than sorry.
At Camp Muir most of the group threw off their packs and headed for the tents. Kate collapsed on the trail that went through the valley. The sunscreen that Kate had put on her face had mixed with sweat and rundown into her eyes. That had to be painful at the least but the chemicals in the sunscreen had reacted with her contacts and caused them to cloud up. For all practical purposes she had completed the last sections of the climb blind. Susan looked in her first aid kit and found a small bottle of eye drops that she offered to Kate. Al was able to get some of the eye drops into Kate’s eyes but she was so exhausted both physically and mentally that she refused to move for quite some time. Marge said that she had felt rather ill at the summit but she was just tired by the time they got back into camp. I pulled off my crampons and climbing harness and headed toward one of the outhouses.
On my way back to the tent I saw Adam Clark in the doorway of the RMI guide hut. He was guiding one of the two-day climb groups that would be heading up later that night. We were able to talk a little about our upcoming climb. While we were talking he was eating a fresh salad that he had packed up that day. I had imagined that guides ended up eating pasta and sauce or rice and beans while they were guiding. Adam told me that the guides ate just about anything they wanted unless they were guiding an expedition climb. Even though I could have talked with him for hours I knew that he had other responsibilities so I said goodbye and continued on toward the tent. Susan told me that she had seen Adam and that they had briefly talked while Max and I had been on the glacier. I noticed that the swelling in her eyes seemed to be going down.
The last time my cell phone had worked was when I had talked to Bob on the Muir Snowfield. When I turned it on several bars on the tower strength indicator would show but when I pushed the talk button redialing would instantly appear. I had not heard from Jonathan and had expected him to be at Muir by now. Much to my frustration the cell phone would indicate that I had voice messages that I couldn’t retrieve. I knew that someone was trying to contact me but I didn’t know why.
After a few hours of rest some of the St Louis Group started emerging from the tents. I helped Chris remove the butterfly knots from the climbing rope and he coiled it up. He said that once they reached the summit it was absolutely beautiful in the crater. There was hardly any wind at the top, a rarity on Mt Rainier. They had crossed the crater and signed the register that is kept at Columbia Crest. Jim came over and brought back the avalanche transceivers and snow pickets. He said that the snow pickets came in handy a few times and he was glad that they took them. Jim concluded in hindsight that they had spent too much time sightseeing and playing in the crater. Coming down the mountain can be more dangerous than going up. Most mountaineering accidents happen on the way down from the summit climb.
Kate brought over the eye drops and thanked Susan for her help. She apologized for anything she might have said or done when she returned from the climb that might have offended us. Susan explained that she knew that Kate was stressed and told her of how she had cried after she reached Camp Muir. Susan said that if she had climbed for over sixteen hours she would have also been a total emotional wreck. Susan offered the eye drops back with the explanation that Kate might still need them later.
Max stated that he was going back down with Chris, Marge, and Jim that evening. He needed to meet his wife that was flying into Sea-Tac tomorrow. Max and his wife were planning on going up into Canada and doing some sightseeing. Susan told Max that she had done that with her brother last year when I was on the expedition. She warned Max that some of the Canadians wanted to give change back from purchases made with U.S. dollars in Canadian money dollar for dollar. This practice nets the Canadian an additional 40% in real value. Max said that he would be on the lookout for that practice and thanked Susan for the tip.
The members of the St Louis Group asked Susan if she wanted to go down to Paradise with them. There was still enough daylight left for them to make it that evening. I encouraged Susan to take them up on the offer because she still had some swelling around her eyes. Susan thought about it for a moment and then declined the offer. We exchanged addresses and telephone numbers and I promised that I would let them know if I had a successful summit attempt.
Later in the tent as we were preparing to go to sleep I asked Susan why she had declined the offer to descend to Paradise. She explained that she was afraid that their pace would have been too fast for her and she didn’t want to slow them down. Susan asked me if I wished I had climbed with the St Louis Group. I admitted that I was having second thoughts about not going with them. So far we had been experiencing great weather and I wondered how long it would last. Originally I had scheduled two days that could be used to summit but Adam had been scheduled to work on one of them, leaving me with one chance to go to the top. We said our prayers and turned in for the night. It was almost ten o-clock and the last bit of daylight had faded.
“Archer?” A voice queried from outside the tent door. “Jonathan?” I replied back. “Jonathan!” Susan joined in. “Hang on a second I’ll be right out!” I said as I scrambled to find my clothes. “I thought I recognized your ice tool but I wasn’t sure about the tent.” Jonathan said as I emerged out into the darkness. “I had about given up on you making it up here, what’s been going on?” Jonathan explained that the airline had lost his luggage and he had been holed up at the airport waiting for his climbing gear to arrive. “Do you have any water? I’ve used up all mine hiking up here.” It was clear that Jonathan was tired and dehydrated. Susan brought out a water bottle when she came out to join us and handed it to him. I started up the stove so that we could fix something to eat. Jonathan told us that the public shelter was full so he was going to have to use his bivy sack for the night.
I had a Thermos bottle full of something hot so I took it along with some beef jerky over to the tent platform where Jonathan was setting up. He told me that he had forgotten how big the Muir snowfield was and originally thought that he could make it to Muir before dark. Due to schedule restraints he was not going to be able to climb with me but had come up just to be on the mountain. I was glad to see him up there it was comforting to have a familiar face in unfamiliar surrounding. Susan and I didn’t talk long because we knew that Jonathan must be exhausted and he was probably ready for some sleep.
June 21, 2001 Thursday
The next morning we awoke to another beautiful day. We got dressed and headed out of the tent to see how Jonathan had faired through the night. He was just waking up and crawled out of his bivy sack in his long underwear. The first thing he grabbed was a pair of Gore-Tex pants. Jonathan said “don’t ever lend your Gore-Tex pants to someone unfamiliar with crampons!” Susan and I noticed the multiple patches of silver duct tape randomly attached to his pants. We both broke out in laughter. I’m sure Jonathan had been horrified when he realized his returned pants were as waterproof as a sieve, but at that moment we could find humor in the patchwork. We all made our mourning visit to the outhouses and returned to start melting snow for breakfast. The details of lost luggage and getting a rental car were laid out as we watched snow turn to water. We also went through the chronology of Susan's altitude symptoms. Jonathan had gotten an overdose of solar radiation on his way up to Muir and the left ear and side of his face had turned red overnight. The harshness of high altitude is unforgiving and brutal to an unprotected body.
I told the story of the St Louis Group to Jonathan and later when Al and Kate emerged I introduced everyone. Al and Kate were going to pack up and head down that morning. Susan was concerned about the shelter being full last night and asked Jonathan details of how many people were sleeping on the bunks. He explained that when he stuck his head into the shelter last night all he could see were wall to wall sleeping bags on both the upper and lower shelves that acted as bunks. Susan had planned on staying one night in the shelter when Adam and I went over to the Ingraham Flats. I had originally hoped to talk Susan into going over Cathedral Gap and waiting for us at the tent on the flats when we climbed. I knew that was now out of the question.
“I can take you down with me,” Jonathan volunteered. It was a good idea but I didn’t know if Susan had the same fear of not being able to keep up. “I’m not very fast,” Susan warned. “Don’t worry about it, we have plenty of time,” Jonathan countered. “What if there aren’t any rooms available at the lodge?” Susan asked. “I doubt that will be the case in the middle of the week, and if it's full you can drive to the other one.” I spoke up trying to eliminate any excuses. Susan thought for a minute and then accepted Jonathan’s offer. We started getting Susan’s gear together so that she could head back to Paradise.
Jonathan said that he would carry down any items that I knew I would not need. I made a small pile of items that probably would not be needed and he put them into his pack. They shouldered their packs and headed toward the Muir snowfield.
I walked down the snowfield with them for thirty or forty minutes and then said goodbye. I was expecting Adam later that day and told them to be on the lookout for him as they went down. As I watched them descend a great sense of aloneness overcame me. I was glad that Susan had come up with me but I knew that she had personally paid a great price just to be with me. I know that she had enjoyed the great view from Camp Muir, but had it been worth the sunburn and swollen eyes. Only she could make that determination and it was too soon to tell.
I turned back up the mountain and started the climb back to my tent. I wasn’t sure what time Adam would get up to camp but I knew that he would not want to spend much time waiting for me to pack. I started emptying the tent and putting the items in my pack. I took down the tent and packed it into a stuff sack. I had everything packed into my backpack with a few exceptions. I had a couple of Primus fuel canisters let that I knew we wouldn’t use overnight so I left them out.
With everything packed up I headed over to the guide shack and RMI bunkhouse. Day hikers were starting to make it up from Paradise. It was interesting to listen to the comments that were made about the view and the climb up to Camp Muir.
There were two men talking and I could tell by their tone that they were unhappy about something. As I listened I found out that one of them had not been allowed to leave on the summit climb based on the RMI guides assessment of his fitness level. The other man had been brought back from the Ingraham Flats with another climber by one of the RMI guides. It seems that all three had insisted that they could have made the summit if the pace had been scaled back just a little.
The missing climber had apparently headed back down to Paradise as soon as he unclipped from the guide at Muir. The guide had requested that the men stay in camp and go back with the other climbers when they returned from the summit climb. One climber had stayed and the other just kept on going in spite of the protest from the RMI guide. I had a good idea of the frustration that these men were dealing with because of my experience on the mountain last year.
I moved closer to the two climbers and got involved with the conversation. It turned out that the man who wasn't even allowed to start had a good bit of mountain climbing experience. He claimed that he was just doing what the guides had advised them to do, “take your time and don’t rush”. He admitted that he was one of the last climbers to get to Muir from the group but he said that no one told him it was a freaking race. My thoughts were that if this guy had all this experience why had he signed up for a two-day summit climb. He could have gotten a few of his friends together and set his own pace. The guides have to make the call based on getting the most climbers safely to the top and back. I knew that I was about to find out how hard a climb going up from Muir and back to Paradise can be. Originally my plans were to have a rest night at Muir before going down to Paradise. There was no longer enough time for that schedule.
As the time passed noon I grew anxious in anticipation of Adam’s arrival. I checked the snowfield regularly for Adam’s presence. The last time I checked there was a lone figure moving rapidly toward Muir. I recognized Adam’s walk, it would not take him long to reach Muir at his pace. He had just been on the summit yesterday and we were going to leave for the summit early in the morning. I knew that this was part of his training regimen to prepare for his Mt. McKinley climb he would start in two weeks. I was already impressed with what Adam had done and looked forward to climbing with him.
When Adam got to camp I asked him if he had seen Susan and Jonathan on his way up. He told me that they had crossed paths just below Pebble Creek. They had taken a break and had a short conversation. Susan had warned Adam to keep me light or I would take too much gear to the Ingraham Flats. Adam asked me to spread my gear out so that he could distribute the weight between us. He also asked me to make a pile of things that I could leave behind. While I was working on his request Adam went to the guide hut to get his duffel bag that he kept at Camp Muir. Trekking poles, the pack hood and other items were piled in the leave behind pile, other items were spread on the empty tent platform for Adam’s inspection. Adam returned and pulled his crampons and hardware rack from the duffel. “Put the stuff that you don’t need in there I’ll store it in the guide hut until we return.” Adam said as he pointed to the duffel bag.
By the time I had done that Adam had another pile of items that he had pulled from my equipment. Some items he just put in his duffel others he asked me if I really needed them. The only things that I protested were my “Z” fold sit pad and my reading glasses. I had only brought my ¾ sleeping pad and needed the sit pad for insulation under my feet. The map I was bringing would be useless without my reading glasses. Adam picked up some of the food packets that I had planned on fixing for that evening and tossed them into the duffel. “That’s what I planned on us eating tonight!” I was getting defensive. “I brought up fried chicken and fresh apples for tonight.” Adam said with a big smile. I smiled back and dropped the protest.
Adam picked up the snow pickets and placed them under the compression straps of his pack. I had an assortment of carabiners, pulleys, and slings clipped onto a long sling that I planned to wear over my shoulder. Adam picked up the assortment and asked me if I was “wired” on how to use this stuff. I told him yes and he replied “You can pull me out of a crevasse if I fall in?” I assured him that I had been practicing. “OK put his over your shoulder when we get ready to travel. It was good to have Adam there in person and to carry on a conversation as we finished getting on all the gear we needed to cross the Cowlitz.
We crossed the glacier and coiled the rope in as we prepared to start up Cathedral Gap. I noticed as we crossed that the trail had changed to avoid the crevasse that Max and I had jumped the other day. Adam reminded me that it was late in the day and that rocks could be turning loose because of the heat. We went over the gap and onto the Ingraham Glacier. This trip over felt like a stroll compared to last year’s journey in the dark. I liked this year’s crossing much better, I knew that I was in better shape this year and climbing over to the Ingraham just confirmed it.
The landscape looked different this year. Last year the snow went all the way up to the Cathedral Rocks, this year there was a long gully separating the rock from the ice of the glacier. I was glad that we would be starting our climb from this high up. We walked past an RMI expedition seminar group of climbers and guides and their campsite. Adam and the other guides exchanged greetings. As we walked on Adam told me that the group had summited that morning and were spending their last night on the Ingraham Flats. They would pack up in the morning and head to Paradise.
Adam picked a spot for our camp about 200 yards West of the RMI expedition camp. I started setting up the tent and Adam started digging a kitchen area. Adam showed me how to make a dead man anchor out of the tent stuff sack for staking down the back of the tent. I used two snow pickets to temporally stake down the front. We would later use the snow shovel blade and handle in place of the pickets. As Adam sculpted the kitchen out of the snow he made the comment “I love snow, you can do anything with it”. That started a conversation in which I discovered that he spent twelve months of the year on snow. He lived and went to college in Montana from Fall to Spring and then spent his Summers on big mountain glaciers in Washington and Alaska.
Once the kitchen was dug we started melting snow to replace the water that we had drank from our water bottles and would use for dinner that night. Adam pulled out the fried chicken and started slicing up the apples. We made short work out of making the food disappear, I had been eating noodles or rice and sauce for over a week. After we ate we turned in for the night.
Inside the tent we quickly settled into our sleeping bags. Adam set his watch for one A.M. I normally say prayers aloud at night before Susan and I go to sleep. I asked Adam if he would object to me praying aloud. He said he didn’t mind so I prayed. After I finished Adam and I talked for a while about our beliefs. I enjoyed being able to witness to Adam about how I personally know that there is a God. We decided that we really needed to try and get some sleep. Twice during the night I was awakened when strong wind gust shook the tent.
June 22, 2001 Summit Day
“Are you awake?” I heard Adam question. “We need to get up, I didn’t hear my alarm so we are running behind schedule. Adam had wanted to be climbing before the two-day RMI climbers made it to the flats. That would keep us from getting tangled up in a crowd of climbers. We dressed and put on our gear quickly. Adam boiled water for oatmeal and my Thermos bottle. Normally I would have made a trip to the blue bag area before we left but Adam really wanted to get moving. We could already see lines of bobbing headlamps rounding Cathedral Gap as we placed the cooking gear into the tent vestibule.
Two teams of climbers were ahead of us by the time we reached the trail and others were not far behind. There were a few wind gusts but I could see the brilliant stars shining in a clear sky. Adam set a great pace, I knew that unless something really changed as we got higher we would summit. The steady breathing and crunching of the crampons biting into the snow was almost hypnotic. We had already gone under the Ingraham Headwall on the trail, which was one of the more dangerous parts of the route that we were on. Eleven climbers had been swept to their death in June of 1981 when a large portion of the headwall separated from the mountain and came crashing over the trail. Adam had warned me to be especially quite through that section. In the darkness my sight was limited to the area that my headlamp illuminated. We continued on through the darkness across the ice until the snow gave way to barren loose rock. The rocks signaled that we had reached Disappointment Cleaver.
The climbing was much steeper now. From our tent to this point we had been mostly traversing with a slight steady altitude gain, now we were gaining several inches of height with each step. This climbing was as strenuous as stair climbing with the added difficulty of walking over rocks with crampons. I could see the area in front of Adam where his headlight was sweeping over the rocks, it was hard to determine where the trail was taking us. At one time we got off the trail but we hadn’t gone more than ten feet before Adam told me to stop while he backtracked and picked the right route. I was beginning to wonder if we really needed our crampons on through this stretch of trail when we came upon several patches of ice on the rock.
Just above the ice patches we came to an area that was like a shelf. One of the other climbing teams that were ahead of us had just finished their rest stop and they were getting back on the trail. Adam told me that we would take a short rest period. I dropped my pack and pulled out my down parka, a water bottle and my camera. The parka went on first and then I drank from the water bottle.
I noticed that a faint orange glow had appeared in the east and wondered if the camera could capture the light that barely made the sea of clouds visible. I stood up and clicked off two shots, nothing ventured, and nothing gained.
Adam asked me how I was feeling and I told him great. He complemented me saying that he could tell that I was in much better shape than last year. Other climbing teams were coming up, and one or two had gone past us while we rested. I stuffed the parka back into the pack and put it on my back. We started climbing again as the Sun continued to strip the darkness from the mountain. I noticed that we were in sunlight but our tent below was still in darkness.
The wind was increasing as we gained altitude and was penetrating through my climbing pants. The cold wind was also blowing through my helmet and I was starting to get cold. As long as I was climbing I knew that I could maintain body heat, but only because I was really working hard.
We reached another rest area and Adam called for a break. I dropped the pack and pulled out my glacier glasses, parka, and windstopper fleece pants. I had no problem putting the parka and glacier glasses on, but the pants were another story. Because of the crampons and mountaineering boots you can not put on pants by stepping into them one leg at a time. The pants had zippers down the outside of each leg that allowed me to open the leg completely. I unzipped both legs at once, a big mistake. With the strong wind blowing I couldn’t tell front from back or left from right. I may as well have been trying to wear a tarp. I spent most of my rest time trying to get the pants on and zipped up. Before it was over Adam got involved in pulling up a zipper. I had removed my gloves to work the zippers and the cold wind had stripped away all the heat from my hands.
I drank down about a half liter of water and chewed on an energy bar as I stuffed my parka back into the pack.
I wasn’t the only person having a problem at the rest stop. A woman climber had problems with her crampons falling off of her boots and an inexperienced guide had pulled his crampons off and given them to the woman.
The rope team was about to continue climbing when the senior guide and his team arrived. The senior guide asked the other guide why he didn’t have on his crampons. As the junior guide was explaining the problem with the woman’s crampons the senior guide moved him close to us and by the time the story was told the guides were away from their rope teams. Down wind from the other climbers the senior guide raked the other guide over the coals. “You would have jeopardized your whole team’s life by trying to climb without crampons! If you fell who do you think would catch you?” The senior guide told him to get his crampons back on and try to duct tape the woman’s crampons on. “If everyone doesn’t have on crampons then you start going down.” When Adam and I started climbing again that team was still working with the duct tape.
As the Sun rose the wind increased in proportion to the daylight. I noticed that while I had my gloves off small particles of ice, driven by the wind, were stinging my hands. We were climbing faster than some of the other teams above us. Occasionally we would have to stop long enough to give the higher team a respectful distance. I took advantage of these short breaks to take pictures. The climbing was becoming more difficult due to three things, the wind was blowing harder, the angle was getting steeper, and the air was getting thinner.
Every so often Adam would look back and check on me and ask how I was feeling or give me encouragement. Once he looked back and saw me hunched over my ice ax. Adam told me to straighten up so I could breathe better. I stood up straight and nearly got blown over backwards. I unintentionally gave the rope in my hand a hard pull as I flailed for balance. I was afraid the pull would topple Adam because it was not an easy tug. I don’t think it even fazed him, he really is a strong climber. I was glad to be on a rope with him.
One of the reasons that I may have been a little more hunched in my stride had nothing to do with the wind, the cold, or the difficult angle we were climbing. Ever since I had drank my water at the last rest stop I was beginning to regret not taking a “blue bag” break before we had started that morning. I was having some intestinal distress that resulted in cramping. I knew that the problem would have to be dealt with before I made it back to camp.
We took our last rest break in an area that looked like it had been shoveled out of the snow. I asked Adam about how this was formed and he told me that RMI guides had cleared it out with snow shovels. We must have been over 13,000 feet up, I can't imagine shoveling hard snow and ice at that altitude. I remember shoveling snow in the Chicago area as a teenager and it was hard work at low altitude.
While we were resting a rope team came past us headed down. They had already summited. The first three members of the team had stepped over a small crevasse but the last member seemed to jump into instead of over crack. The last member broke through the thin layer of snow covering the crevasse and dropped through until his pack wedged into to snow. He never said a word, he just had a shocked look on his face. When the rope tightened up the middle two climbers just stopped and looked back. When the guide turned and saw the problem he screamed “PULL”. The other team members just looked at each other at first and then the guide screamed again “PULL”! The instructions sunk in and the middle two climbers turned and pulled with the guide. When the rope tightened the end climber popped out of the crevasse and was drug about five feet across the snow. He had banged a knee when he fell through the crack. He rubbed it for a minute or two and then stood up. Satisfied that he could still walk the team continued their descent. I saw the potential for some serious back injury in the manner that crevasse rescue had been performed. I didn’t think that Adam would try and pop me out that way but I hoped that I wouldn’t need to find out.
The wind had increased to the point that I had to lean into it to stay upright. I became aware that there was some congestion ahead of Adam and I wondered what the hold up might be. There seemed to be a jumble of large rocks that was slowing the other climbers down. Adam shouted down to me that we were near the rim of the crater. The slow down was due to climbers stopping at the rim of the crater and looking around before they climbed down into the crater. The trail ahead finally cleared and Adam and I made our way to the rim. It was a beautiful view but the wind really hammered us with ice particles in that exposed location. Adam checked his watch, it was about seven forty-five.
We climbed down into the crater hoping that we could get some shelter from the wind. It wasn’t much better inside the crater. We asked another climber to snap a summit shot of us to preserve the moment. After we posed for the photo I explained to Adam that I really needed to find an area and make use of a blue bag. “Now, here?” was his reply. “There is not any sheltered area in the crater we will have to find someplace on the way down. We really need to start descending before this wind gets any stronger. We are getting gust of sixty miles an hour or better now”. Adam estimated that the wind chill was around 0 degrees and it felt like it was at least that cold to me. I pulled out my insulated bottle and we shared a hot drink.
We climbed out of the crater and started our descent. I noticed that when we started going down my toes were sliding forward and ramming into the inside toe of my boot. I asked Adam to stop long enough for me to adjust the lacing. When I peeled open my gaiters I found that both bootlaces had come untied, no wonder my toes were taking a beating. I retied them and we continued on.
On the climb up I had been really concentrating on following Adam’s footsteps and keeping the rope from getting too taught. This meant that most of my view had been concentrated in our immediate area. Now that we were going down I could take in the panoramic views that were all around us, it was spectacular. I knew that my camera couldn’t capture what I was seeing but I continued to take pictures when the opportunity presented itself. Our descent was going pretty quickly and we were soon back on the exposed rock of Disappointment Cleaver. Adam called a rest stop. From this location I could see the massive crevasses that opened up on the Emmons Glacier. I could see down over 200 feet in some of them.
We dropped our packs onto the rocks and I grabbed my parka, toilet paper and a blue bag. I walked over to the edge of the cleaver looking for a spot that might give me some privacy. I couldn’t find one.
The guide from another rope team expressed concern for my safety as I searched close to the cliff. “Are you looking for a place to take a dump?” I nodded my head in affirmation. “Just go back up a little, we’re all checking the view below, that will give you a little privacy”. I thanked him for the suggestion and grabbed a few small rocks. I climbed up above the resting team and chopped a small hollow into the snow. I used the rocks that I had gathered to hold down the blue plastic sheet, dropped my pants and found relief. Talk about exposure on a mountain! Isn’t it amazing how sometimes simple things can make you so much more comfortable? I carefully gathered up the blue sheet and placed it in the heavy-duty outer bag. Having handled that important part of the rest stop I walked back down and attached the package to the outside of my pack with a strap. I could only imagine how nasty the trail would become if the Park Service had not started the blue bag program decades ago.
When we got our packs on and were about to start back down Adam asked me if I wanted to retrace our route back over the cleaver or drop down the south side through the snow. He said that the south route would be steeper but with the stable snow it would be faster. I preferred walking in snow with crampons to the rock. We started down the south side. We were not the only team to choose this decent and found at least three other teams on the route below us.
This meant that we sometimes had to wait while another team passed directly below us. We did not want to chance knocking loose any rock or ice that might fall on them. During these waiting periods I was able to soak up the view. I was even able to see our tent on the flats. It was just a yellow and maroon speck on the glacier.
We rejoined the trail that we had climbed earlier in the dark and Adam clipped onto a rope that had been placed by RMI guides. It was a comfort knowing that we were indirectly tied to the mountain. It was just below after we were off the rope that I saw something that I had not seen before. I saw Adam become irritated. The rope between us slid up under a small rock overhang and before I could flip it out it hung up on the rock and stopped Adam in his tracks. “What are you doing?” he screamed as he started to turn around. Before I could answer Adam saw the problem and flipped the rope away from the rock to clear it. I apologized but Adam had turned back around and I don’t think he heard me over the wind.
The last time we had to wait for another team was when we came to the north side of the bowling alley at the north edge of the Ingraham Headwall. I looked at the huge crevasses just below us and prayed that we would get through the alley safely. My prayers were answered as we crossed through without incident. We quickly crossed the flat to our tent. At the tent we took a short lunch break. Afterwards we folded up camp and headed through the Cathedral Gap towards Camp Muir. The gap was beginning to feel familiar; this was the sixth time I had been on the south side of this route.
At Camp Muir Adam retrieved his duffel bag and filled up our water bottles. I readjusted my bootlaces, which had again untied. I had enjoyed my visit to Camp Muir but I was ready to get down and see Susan and share my joy. Adam wasted no time going down. We made huge plunge steps that allowed us to drop three or four feet with each stride. Adam’s long legs allowed him to outpace me so he would stop once he had me by a hundred yards or so and wait for me to catch up. Our feet were constantly sliding under the snow and for the first time I became aware of just how cold they were. The beating that my toes had taken had caused them to swell and they were painfully pressing against the cold leather inside the boots with each step.
We made our last rest stop just above Pebble Creek. Adam told me that he was impressed with how much I had improved my fitness since last year. Thinking back I could remember how Bob and I had been struggling to get back to Paradise a year ago. Adam had stuck with us and had even offered to help carry some of our gear. Our bruised egos would have none of that and we had declined the offer. This year Adam and I had gone from the Ingraham Flat to the summit and down to Pebble Creek in about twelve and a half-hours. There was no way that I could have done this last year.
As we drew close to the Paradise Lodge I started scanning the sidewalk and benches for Susan. I didn’t spot her so we went inside the lodge and checked, I still didn’t see her. I suggested to Adam that we drop our packs before we continued the search. Without the weight of the pack and noticing we were the attention of the lowlanders I either developed the Summit Swagger or I noticed how much my toes hurt. Susan spotted Adam before we saw her. I gave her a hug and a kiss and told her that I had made it to the top. She was happy for me and I was glad to see that she no longer had any visible swelling from the altitude.
We sorted out our gear in the parking lot and left Paradise in search of a good restaurant. Adam directed us to an establishment that met our needs. I forget what I ordered but Adam got two huge burgers complete with fried eggs on top. We talked about his upcoming trip to Alaska. I knew that he was in great condition for the trip. He had just gotten me up and down Mt Rainier and I don’t think he ever broke a sweat. He is a great guide. After our meal we dropped Adam off at his house and headed toward the Sea-Tac Airport. We had a room waiting for us at a nearby motel and I was looking forward to the evening.
Susan and I flew back to Georgia the next day. As our plane gained altitude I looked out the window and saw Mt Rainier. The pilot came over the intercom to point out the mountain to the passengers. Looking over into the crater I couldn’t help but think, been there, done that!