Climbing fast is a key ingredient of success in the mountains, especially with respect to alpine-style climbing. Whether “success” includes the summit or not, moving quickly and efficiently minimizes time spent in potentially dangerous situations allowing for more flexibility and choices. I have always adhered to this philosophy and considered sluggishness and weakness in the mountain recipe failure and peril. Moreover, psychological weakness, usually exemplified by unwillingness, has always disgusted me and if forced to face it in daily life in the mountains I want nothing to do with it. With this said, I feel myself having a lot to learn and progress in the above before even thinking of calling myself a climber, mountaineer, etc as opposed to a layman with a closet full of gear.
For a number of years now I have been trying to put together a trip to Denali, but have been unable to do so mainly due to the lack of availability of good climbing partners or my unwillingness to take the amusement-park-ride of the West Buttress (for less money, or almost none in comparison, I can find myself in total isolation – something one might call wilderness - in the many beautiful and less visited areas of the Sierras, say… ). This summer was no exception and having exhausted the “list” I was recommended a potential partner, who shall remain nameless here. On top of the recommendation, the experience seemed to fit (he had been up the West Rib of Denali the previous summer, etc), and we started making plans. He and his girlfriend were planning to spend 3 months climbing in the Sierras and the Cascades and then head up to AK, where we would all climb the West Rib and time-permitting he and I would attempt the Cassin. As an introductory climb we decided on Rainier. I arrived in Seattle and May 3rd and spent the next day waiting for the park to open (it had been closed for 6 months due to heavy flooding, with only a few roads opening on the 5th). It has always been the case that spending just a few hours with someone I would get a good feeling as to whether or not they could be a partner…. We started from Paradise on the 5th – the idea was to head up to Camp Muir, or thereabouts, with enough food and fuel for 5 days and climb as many as the weather permitted. From the beginning they were slow; we agreed that I would go up ahead and wait for them to catch up at regular intervals. I took what I though was unnecessarily long breaks and about 2000ft above the car decided to stop and wait, and waiting I did… about 2 hours later, having melted snow, walked around, and seen people whom I last saw still packing in the parking lot pass by, I decided to go down and look. About 500ft below I found them inching along; as he needed more help I grabbed his pack and ran it up to where I left mine. Soon after they came up and declared that they were going to camp here and come up to Muir the next day - I said little, although confirmations of my summer plans deteriorating, money lost, etc brought rather vivid images to my mind. As we had separate stoves and fuel, I decided to keep going; Camp Muir was 3000ft above and I figured I would make it there before sunset, dig out a snow-cave and consider my options. Three hours later I was taking to the climbing ranger at camp who informed me that the public shelter was open.
A number of years ago I had climbed solo for a month in the Alps and after one particular descent over a crevassed snowfield I had told myself that I would never cross glaciers unroped again…. The forecast was good for Monday the 7th and only for the 7th, and at 2:55am I was out the door. As you need special permission to climb solo on Rainier and there is a waiting period, I decided not to inform the climbing ranger of my change of plans and itinerary, … Not knowing the area, and in view of recent snowfall, I had chosen the Ingraham Direct route for its straightforward route-finding and no avalanche danger. The last few days had been cold, as was the night, making the snow hard, crevasse bridges solid, and with only a few sections of extended post-holing travel was relatively smooth. Climbing in almost total darkness, alone, away in the mountains with a headlamp as your only seeming support is always a strange experience. Many thoughts pass thought your mind and the feeling of being utterly alone is ever-present. When alone the fear of a mistake in your own actions and decisions seems to multiply, spin out of control, filling your head with short bursts of intense and vivid scenarios. Sometimes you think of people you are close to, sometimes you question why you are there, but for the most part you just climb and what you think about is in front of you - after sometime a sort of comfort covers your whole being and the tranquility and isolation become warm and supporting in contrast to the icy depths below. You force packets of gu and water, and abstain from rest knowing that from the moment the sun hits the glacier the danger scale starts tilting.
The climb to the crater was fairly uneventful – crevasses were easy to navigate – and only at the rim did the wind really pick up, with bursts of at least 65mph. For a moment I thought I would have to crawl to the summit, and with the wind and altitude it took me 30 minutes to make it around the rim. I was on the summit at 8:45 – one minute later I was on my way down thinking of descent. My vague prints had been swept away forcing me to search for the way – soon after I swayed from the original path and found myself forced into a crevasse field. Still making steady progress, with an occasional mildly invigorating leap, it was about 2000ft later that I realized where exactly it was that I had to be and what terrain I had to travel through to get there. After a few more snow-bridges, I came to the edge of a rather menacing crevasse and while surveying a way to get around it, I heard that sound – something like a dull tearing of heavy material – looking behind me I saw a fissure starting to open, seam by seam, and the entire block I was on starting to detach. I leaped back and retreated to safe grounds – “well, that was interesting” was about the only thought that ran through my mind. Climbing teaches you to be calm and in control regardless of the situation – that is probably one reason that I have always been so attracted to it – but that doesn’t mean you like it, or it feels good. I spent about 10 minutes running around looking for a way to circumnavigate the area, but found that my best option was a jump of about four to five feet onto a snow horn – now this might not be a big deal in general, but… anyway, with ice tools in hand and a running start I jumped across and slammed the picks into the other side.
From here on the coast was clear. I saw a pair of climbers descending on higher ground (they had turned around about 2000ft below the summit), so I headed towards their path, the path I had left behind during the night, and waited to follow in their footsteps – it was enough crevasse navigation for the day … Forty-five minutes later I was at camp. Talking to the ranger I found out that the weather was going to deteriorate and chances of another summit day that week were slim. I collected my things, headed down to the parking, from where I hitched a ride to Seattle, changed my flight and 24 hours after leaving the summit was 3000 miles away back home.