(Please forgive the parenthetical explanations. I wrote this with a non-climbing audience in mind. Plan to eventually update with a more detailed climbing report.)
My buddy and I flew into Seattle on Wednesday afternoon and drove to the White River Campground at an elevation of 4,400 feet near the base of Mount Rainier on the eastern flanks of the 14,411 ft mountain. We met up with two fellow climbers whom we met via a climbing forum on the internet. There is always some inherent risk in climbing with someone you've never met before, but they had great personalities and we hit it off immediately.
We registered with the ranger station for the climb and loaded our packs. Then we began walking, loaded with 40-50 lb packs, up and up and up! The hike began in a thick, lush forest, but after three miles and 2,000 feet of elevation gain, the trail opened up to reveal the rocky, snowy, & icy mountain in all its glory. We continued the hike up, with glacial streams rushing through the rocky valleys below us. It was a beautiful, bright sunny day!
Before long, we had reached the foot of the Inter Glacier, where it was necessary to don our climbing harnesses and connect ourselves to the climbing rope. (Climbing with each climber tied into the rope about 30 ft apart is recommended when crossing snow-covered glaciers, because the ice 'flows' down the alpine valleys and huge cracks – called crevasses – open in the ice. These crevasses often can be avoided, but sometimes remain unseen under layers of snow that may or may not be strong enough to support the weight of a climber. By roping up, a climber who falls through the snow into a crevasse can be held safely by other climbers on the rope, and rescued by them in the unlikely event of a fall all the way into a crevasse.) Our climb became quite a bit steeper and changed from dirt and rock to snow and ice, but we kept going up and up.
At one point, the snow began to disappear and we found ourselves walking on slick ice with our climbing boots. Before anyone slipped and fell (note that its nearly impossible to stop someone's fall on slick ice on 40 degree slopes), we decided to stop and put our crampons on. (Crampons are devices with sharp metal 'spikes' that attach to climbing boots to give you better traction on hard snow and ice.) This, as you may imagine, was no easy task. We had to stop on steep, slick ice… remove our packs… take our crampons out… and secure them to the boots on our feet… all without slipping and falling. With this adventure behind us, we continued to climb up.
At another point, large crevasses had opened up on our route that were covered with layers of snow. Just because other people had already crossed over the snow bridges did not mean they would support us. So, one by one, we carefully crossed the network of snow bridges over the crevasses.
By this time, we were getting closer to our destination of Camp Schurman at 9,400 ft, but the sun was getting lower on the horizon, and big wind gusts were cooling us off quickly and making walking in a straight line difficult. As we continued climbing, descending parties warned us of the dangerous rock scramble that lay ahead.
We finally reached the top of the Inter Glacier, and faced the rock scramble down onto the Emmons Glacier, where Camp Schurman was just a short climb away. The hillside that we had to descend was very loose dirt with all shapes and sizes of rocks ready to slide down the hill at any time. A slip would likely mean sliding down this loose, rocky slope without stopping, then tumbling over the edge, falling to the severely crevassed glacier 100 ft below. By descending carefully, we were all able to make our way down safely.
We had one other mini-adventure before arriving at our final destination for the day. Immediately outside of Camp Schurman, there was a large bergschrund (a large crevasse where the ice pulls away from the mountainside to begin flowing down). A very precarious-looking snow bridge covered the bergschrund, but we all made it safely across without incident.
Exhausted, we finally made it to Camp Schurman as the sun was setting and casting shadows of Mount Rainier in the purple sky behind us. We hustled to unload and secure our gear, set up our tent, and cook dinner to feed our starving bellies. We finished eating just as the sky clouded over and a light drizzle began to fall. We all climbed into our sleeping bags in the tent to fall hard and fast asleep.
The rain strengthened and continued through the night, at times pounding the tent heavily. In the morning, flashes of lightning were followed too closely by deafening claps of thunder. And then the wind picked up speed. Suddenly, our nice dome-shaped tent turned into an inverted dome on one side as the wind bent the tent poles inward, plastering the tent walls to our faces as we were lying on the tent floor. Gusts of 50+ mph left us inside the tent holding up the walls and hoping that our anchors would hold and keep us and the tent from blowing down the glacier and into a crevasse.
After the rain let up and the clouds blew away, the sun quickly warmed things up. It was bright and warm, but the wind was still blowing intermittently. Some gusts were strong enough to practically knock you off your feet.
The weather report from the rangers indicated that cold, moist marine air was still expected over the next day or two. On the other hand, it could all clear up at anytime. Nearly everyone else at Camp Schurman had reached the summit a day earlier, so they were packing up and heading down. After some deliberation and after seeing the clouds rolling over the peak at 70-80 mph, we decided to take advantage of the window of relatively clear weather and head down with the others. So we packed up (taking down a tent with 50+ mph wind gusts is not an easy task) and started the journey down.
Several hours later after punishing downhill steps through snow, ice and rock, and punching through a snow bridge or two, we reached our cars at the trailhead. Our packs had picked up some water weight during the storms of the previous night. It felt good to be back and take the monsters off our backs! Now ravenous with hunger, we hopped into the cars and drove to a nearby pizza joint for some food and beer.
We didn't reach the top, but the mountain is still there to climb again. And we came back safely to tell about our adventures. That's a successful trip in our opinion!
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