IntroductionThere is still a shining world of ice and snow;
There still are steps to slog and miles go;
There still are fragile bridges,
And windy fearsome ridges,
—Tho the city sounds about me all say "No…"
—Excerpt from "First Morning in Town" by Clark E. Schurman
Rainier from Queen Anne Hill
If you live in Seattle you can't avoid Mount Rainier. From most places in the city if you look south you'll see it. Massive and picturesque it's the most glaciated and fifth highest mountain in the Lower Forty-eight and an icon of the Northwest. It's on the Washington State license plates and the Washington State quarter issued in 2007 features a leaping salmon with Rainier in the background. In the establishing shot of any film set in Seattle, along with the Pike Place Market and the Space Needle you'll see a view of Rainier. Because of its ubiquity, many Seattleites simply refer to Rainier as "The Mountain." A white siren cloaked in a mantle of snow and ice, Rainier beckons climbers to its slopes. Approximately ten thousand people attempt to climb The Mountain every year and roughly half of them reach the summit.
Rainier from Fremont
I am not a serious climber and do not have a lot of ambition as a mountaineer, but in spite of myself I keep returning to the mountains—including Rainier. A life-long Northwesterner I grew up hiking and camping so mountaineering was just the next natural step. It was not something I actively sought out, but living in the mountainous Western half of Washington State and being active in the outdoors I had so many opportunities to climb that I sort of fell into it and discovered that I loved it. A weekend in the mountains is the perfect antidote to the grind of day-to-day urban life. Its like Sierra Club founder John Muir (who climbed Rainier in 1888 and for whom the Muir Snowfield & Camp Muir are named) said:
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.
In late-July 2012 I had the opportunity to climb Rainier again. This would be my third Rainier climb and coincidentally my third via Camp Schurman. It was never planned that way, but the organizers of each of my Rainier climbs picked the Emmons Glacier route, which involves a bivouac at or near Camp Schurman. In the intervening thirteen years since I first climbed Rainier in 1999 I have gained a lot of mountaineering experience. Revisiting The Mountain via the same route of my previous two climbs was intriguing, I wanted see how my perception of the climb had changed. That summer I was fresh off my first year as a climbing instructor with the BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class. As an instructor with the BCC I had a chance to revisit many places I climbed as a BCC student in 2002. I saw the same climbs anew with experienced eyes. All the climbs looked different the second time around—there were so many details I noticed that I missed before, invisible to my inexperienced eyes. All the peaks looked smaller and less intimidating than they did during my first go-rounds. I would find that Rainier too had changed, not literally of course, but because I was a different person. Climbing has changed me in many positive ways, and the challenge of Rainier has been an important factor in my personal growth.
The Challenge of Rainier
In Seattle we are blessed with easy access to the great outdoors. Usually the formula is that you can either have a good career or live close to nature. In Seattle you don't have to choose; the city is wedged between lakes and salt water & is flanked East and West by the Cascade and Olympic Mountains, respectively. There are not many large cities in the world that you can climb a mountain like Rainier in a weekend. The Cascade and Olympic ranges provide perfect stepping-stones peaks of every level of difficulty to form a natural progression to a first Rainier climb. Once the basics are mastered Rainier itself becomes a springboard to even more challenging peaks. Many famous mountaineers got their start climbing Rainier and it was their pathway to even bigger challenges like Alaska's Mount McKinley and then on to the Himalayas.
In The Challenge of Rainier
, Dee Molenaar's classic climbing history of The Mountain he discusses the role Rainier played in the first American ascent of Mount Everest in 1963: "Rainier provided an ideal, easily accessible training ground… It was only logical that in September 1962 the American Mount Everest Expedition should select Rainier for its 'shakedown cruise.' All five Americans [Jim Whittaker, Tom Hornbein, Willi Unsoeld, Lute Jerstad, and Barry Bishop] who reached the top of Everest in May 1963 had previously served as guides or had climbed on Rainier."
On the subject of Rainier, Molenaar quotes Jim Whittaker former Rainier climbing guide who in 1963 was the first American to summit Mount Everest:
Mount Rainier has all the features of Everest except the lack of oxygen that goes with higher elevations. As far as glaciers, icefalls, rock ridges, and a true summit are concerned, Mount Rainier has them all. The weather on Rainier can reach a severity equal to that of the highest mountain in the world; the thing that makes the climb such a reward are the difficulties encountered along the way.
Lute Jerstad, another Rainier guide, who also summited Everest as a member of the 1963 American expedition had this to say about The Mountain:
The value of Mount Rainier to one who goes on expedition climbing and to larger peaks is both psychological and physical. Ascents of Rainier require that a man learn to carry heavy loads, sometimes through deep snow for ten to fifteen hours at a time. Under such loads, often carried during storms that arise suddenly, a man must persevere and calmly accept the biting winds and blasting ice particles hurled at him. He must be in control of himself at all times or he might well perish. Emergencies and illness must be expected, and fatigue and mental irritation be anticipated. Maturity and selflessness become imperative. Without these qualities, a man will not be a strong expedition climber. Rainier provides a training and testing ground where a future expedition climber can come to know himself, his strengths, his weaknesses, his sense of humor, and his concept of responsibility to his comrades.
With experience it's possible to grow comfortable with The Mountain and get complacent about Rainier, which can be a fatal mistake. After three climbs I'm starting to feel at ease with The Mountain, but I know better than to ever take it for granted. Even though thousands successfully summit Rainier annually, there are at least a couple deaths every year. Just this year a Rainier Climbing Ranger died while assisting with a rescue on the Emmons Glacier. In his memoir, No Shortcuts to the Top
, professional mountaineer (and Seattleite) Ed Viesturs related a story from his days as a climbing guide on Rainier. During the climbing season in 1991 conditions were particularly icy and most climbers were turning around before the summit. Around 12,000 feet Viesturs crossed paths with a solo climber. He tried to discourage the climber from proceeding, but the guy was dismissive, saying, "It's only Mount Rainier." Minutes later Viesturs would see the man hurtle past him falling a thousand feet to his death. Reflecting on the soloist's death Viesturs' shared a quote from his former Rainier guiding boss at RMI, Lou Whittaker (twin brother of Jim), "Just because you love the mountains doesn't mean they love you." In his memoir Viesturs discussed his philosophy of climbing:
I've learned in climbing that you don't "conquer" anything. Mountains are not conquered and should be treated with respect and humility. If we take what the mountain gives, have patience and desire, and are prepared, then the mountains will permit us to reach their highest peaks.
I saw Ed Viesturs speak at Seattle's Town Hall in August 2005. That May he successfully summited Annapurna in the Himalayas, completing his quest to climb all fourteen of the world's 8000+ meter peaks without using supplemental oxygen. It was a climb that vexed him for years; on attempts in 2000 and 2002 he had been forced to turn back close to Annapurna's summit. Paraphrasing Maurice Herzog, Viesturs said, "We all have Annapurnas in our lives." Its a metaphor for challenges we set for ourselves that drive us forward in life and a phrase that stuck with me. In his memoir he elaborated:
Whatever challenge you have before you can be accomplished in the same fashion—whether it takes a week, two months, or a year. If you look at the challenge as a whole, it may seem insuperable, but if you break it down into tangible steps, it can seem more reasonable and ultimately achievable. The model for that strategy comes from the way I learned to break up the "impossible" 4,000 foot climb to a summit into tiny, manageable pieces: just get to that rock outcrop there, then focus on the ice block up ahead, and so on.
The kind of climbing I do compared to someone like Ed Viesturs is like the difference between someone who plays in a recreational basketball league and a NBA star like LeBron James. Nonetheless, for a weekend warrior like me it's all about the personal challenges and climbing Rainier has pushed me beyond what I thought I was capable of and uncovered reservoirs of both physical and mental endurance that I never knew I possessed.
In 2004 I ran the Seattle Marathon, which was my first marathon. In college I weighed one hundred fifty pounds, but by the mid-Aughts I was tipping the scales at two-oh-five. I have always been active in a variety of outdoor sports and in my twenties could still eat what I wanted with impunity, but by my thirties a beer & cheeseburgers lifestyle wasn't working out so well anymore. I trained for my marathon, but by the day of I was still saddled with a hefty beer gut. The half-marathoners start first, so I was killing time standing on the sidelines at the Seattle Center, waiting for the start of the full marathon. Surveying the crowd I was appalled by how lean and fit all the half-marathoners looked. All the runners were trim and toned, appearing to be in amazing shape and these people were only running the half
-marathon. If these are the people running the half
what the hell was I doing running the full
? In spite of my nagging self-doubt I completed the full marathon. It was hard, but whenever I felt myself flagging I kept telling myself: If I can climb Rainier, I can finish a marathon
. It became my personal mantra and it worked; it kept me going for the whole twenty-six point two miles to the finish line.
Comparing the two I would say that climbing Rainier is harder than running a marathon. A marathon can be more physically intense, but it only lasts for a fraction of the time required to scale Rainier. Typically summiting Rainier from Schurman takes between seven and eight hours. Once at the summit you still need to return to camp, which is another five hours. So, you need to sustain your will power for three to five times as long as running a marathon. On top of that you are dealing with cold, hunger, thin air, and fear.
The experience of mountaineering in general and Rainier in particular has toughened me both physically and mentally. Climbing has been an important part of my "school of life" education, teaching me how to weather the "peaks and valleys" of specific challenges and life in general. When faced with a difficult situation that requires perseverance, I can think to myself "This too shall pass" and know that I am capable of toughing it out.
Trip Report: 1999
Glacier Basin Trail
I first climbed Rainier in the summer of 1999. I was then a young engineer recently laid-off from my job at the Boeing Airplane Company. Those were the heady days in Seattle of the Dot-Com Boom so I would not be unemployed for long, but in the middle of July I had some free time on my hands. When one of my former co-workers from Boeing called me up and asked if I wanted to climb Rainier I jumped at the opportunity. Dan had recently graduated from the Boeing Alpine Society's Basic Climbing Class and was gung-ho to climb The Mountain.
By that time I had some limited climbing experience. As a student at Western Washington University in Bellingham I had taken a short mountaineering class in the mid-1990s—our graduation climb was Mount Shuksan. With friends I had climbed St. Helens, Mount Adams, Mount Hood, Glacier Peak, and Mount Baker. So I was ready for Rainier, it was the natural progression.
Friday morning we drove up to the White River entrance of Mount Rainier National Park. The closer we got to Rainier the bigger and bigger it looked until we were starting to second-guess our plans. Holy crap! Are we really going to climb that? The trailhead elevation is forty-three hundred feet and the summit is at fourteen thousand four hundred feet, so we needed to ascend over ten thousand feet to reach the top—nearly two vertical miles. Rainier is not just tall; it's also massive. Twenty-five glaciers fan out from its summit covering the mountain in a cubic mile of ice, as much as all the other Cascade volcanoes combined. Close to the trailhead the intimidating bulk of Rainier dominated the skyline and we questioned our plans, but we were already there so we decided to continue.
From the White River trailhead the approach hike was beautiful. It was high summer and the alpine meadows were in full bloom. Glacier Basin is a textbook-perfect example of a glacially formed valley, with the valley walls sloping up in a bowl shape on either side. Perched high up on the cliffs flanking the Basin we spotted the white shapes of several mountain goats grazing nonchalantly while standing on ledges likely no more than a hands-width wide.
From Glacier Meadows we trudged up to the top of the Inter Glacier, but Steamboat Prow lay between us and our destination: Camp Schurman. So we descended a short ways for a brief transit across the Emmons Glacier before ascending again to Schurman. When we arrived at camp, to our surprise, the same climbing ranger who had signed us in at the White River trailhead was hanging out at Schurman, lounging in the sun outside the Rangers' cabin. He had passed us on the way up but we never saw him. The ranger scrambled right over the steep cliffs of Steamboat Prow, which at the time looked impassible to me. This would be my first introduction to just how phenomenally fit the Rainier climbing rangers are. On our summit day a team of climbing rangers on patrol passed us on the way up. Before we even reached the summit the same rangers passed by again, this time heading down, having already reached the top and completed their patrol of the summit.
Little Tahoma from Camp Curtis
When we reached Camp Schurman Friday afternoon I was ready to climb to the summit Saturday morning, but Dan wanted to hang out and acclimatize for a day. I was not crazy about that idea, but it turned out for the best. Even though it was sunny all weekend the winds were bad on Saturday. Saturday afternoon I debriefed one weary and wind burned climber after another as they stumbled back into Camp Schurman speaking of a grueling slog to the summit climbing against fierce headwinds the whole way. Saturday night our tent was lashed by high winds and I worried about the kind of summit day we were going to have, but we lucked out. On Sunday when we made our summit bid, Saturday's strong winds had abated and we faced no more than gentle breezes all day long.
These days I'm an obsessive shutterbug, but back then I was pretty indifferent to taking photos. I'm surprised by how few pictures I have from my first Rainier climb, especially considering how big a deal it was at the time. I wish I had taken more photos to better document the details of the climb. My memory of the climb is sketchy; I lacked the experience to put what we were seeing in context, so much of it is a blur. I do remember that there were a lot of open crevasses that year and the route zigzagged extensively to avoid them. There were many places where it would have been too big a detour to go around the crevasses so we had to step across or even jump them. We also had to cross some very fragile-looking snow bridges that luckily held both on the way up and the way down. Since there was only the two of us on the rope team we set a lot of boot axe belays to protect each other during our crevasse and snow bridge crossings.
If you live at sea level and quickly travel to elevations above eight thousand feet you are susceptible to altitude sickness (the clinical term is acute mountain sickness
). It's your body's reaction to the reduced supply of oxygen available in the thin mountain air. It is hard to predict who will be effected and how severe their reaction, but the most common reaction is a general feeling of malaise similar to a bad hangover. Dan was feeling it and vomited twice on the way up, but did not let that slow him down. Altitude sickness did not hit me as hard but I was still struggling with the climb. It was the hardest physical challenge I had faced in my life up to that point. On the way up I had lots of thoughts like "This sucks!" and "Why the hell am I doing this!" but I pushed those feelings aside and kept going. When we reached Columbia Crest, the summit of Rainier, I was incredulous and euphoric. We made it?!?! I thought the summit climb was never going to end. Our reward at the summit was some amazingly balmy weather. At the time I did not realize just how good we had it. In my summit photo my hat, gloves, and jacket are off and I'm just wearing my long sleeve polypro base layer. In fact it was so nice we were able to find a bare patch of dirt sheltered from the wind and take a half hour nap basking like lizards in the sun. My next two Rainier summits the weather would be good, but there was no way I would have worn anything less than all my warm gear.
In 1999 I was slowly cobbling together a full set of modern mountaineering gear, but it would be a few years before I would buy Gore-Tex pants and on Rainier I was still climbing in wool army surplus pants. I love my Rainier summit photo because garbed in my wool pants & suspenders and my button-up base layer shirt I look like a mountaineer at the end of the Nineteenth Century, not the end of the Millennia. The only thing missing from that outfit was a Victorian alpenstock, the four-foot long wood handled early ice axes, and a Tyrolean hat with a feather in the brim.
Of course, getting to the top of Rainier is only half the journey. I never feel a climb is over until I get back to the car. It was a long slog back to Camp Schurman and then down to the trailhead. We stopped at Schurman to melt snow for water and to take a quick nap. After packing up our camp we headed out. Summit day is a very long day because not only do you go all the way to the top of Rainier, you then hike all the way back to your car and drive back to Seattle. You start so early for the summit, typically around Midnight, that by the time you get back to your base camp it is only the early afternoon so you may as well hike the rest of the way out. Descending is easier of course, but one of the iron rules of hiking is that the trail back is always longer than you remembered. You've done what you set out to do so by that point all you want is to get back to the cars and the hike out feels like a never-ending slog.
Rainier Redux: 2010
Rainier Redux, my second ascent of Mount Rainier went as smoothly as my first ascent over a decade before. I've heard a lot of horror stories from friends who've been caught in storms on Rainier, but I got lucky again in the summer of 2010. The weather was perfect: warm days and clear skies, just like my 1999 climb. My first Rainier experience was so grueling physically and mentally that for years afterward I had no interest in returning to Rainier, and turned down multiple invitations to climb it again. However, eleven years was long enough that when invited to join a summer 2010 climb it sounded like fun again. I was going to climb with Tom who I knew from my BOEALPS Basic Climb Class in 2002, Zach who I met the year before on a Mount Shuksan climb that Tom had organized, and the other two climbers, Adam and Graham, were Zach's friends.
The plan was to drive out Thursday morning and spend the first night camped out in Glacier Basin. Everyone was converging from different directions, it was the kind of climb that could only be easily organized in the Internet age. Tom, Zach, and Adam were flying in from different parts of the country and Graham was working near Rainier for the summer, so we were just going to meet at the trailhead. Unfortunately I was not able to meet them on Thursday because I had a job interview that afternoon from 3pm to 5pm (I work as a freelance software developer, so I change jobs every three to six months). So, Friday morning I woke up at 4:45am and hit the road (I packed the night before so I only had to roll out of bed and jump in the car) for the three-hour drive to the trailhead at the White River campground. It sucked, but ended up being worth it, I got the job.
It was a good thing Zach had reserved the climbing permits the day before, because there was a huge line (like 25 people) waiting to get permits at the White River Wilderness Information Center and the single climbing ranger on duty was overwhelmed with the amount of paperwork required to process everyone. I was able to grab my permit and go which was a relief because the plan was to meet up with the guys at Glacier Basin around 9am. I made it there only about fifteen minutes late after a fast hike (I covered the three miles to Glacier Basin in 1¼ hour. I hauled-ass because I was worried about being late). Part of the trail to Glacier Basin was washed out at the time, a legacy of the severe November 2006 floods that caused widespread damage throughout the Park. Due to budget cuts repair work was proceeding slowly, so in 2010 the park was still rebuilding the trail. There was a detour flagged with orange tape that led me through a huge logjam in the White River. When I got to Glacier Basin, Tom was waiting for me while Zach, Adam, and Graham had gone ahead. We caught up with them at Camp Curtis at the top of the Inter Glacier.
We arrived early enough at Schurman to secure a good campsite on the melted out ridge. The weather was perfect and we had a good time hanging out. It was warm enough in camp to take our boots off and lounge around barefoot, which is kind of amazing when you consider that Camp Schurman is at an elevation of nine thousand four hundred feet—three hundred feet higher than the summit of Mount Shuksan. If you anticipate camping at Schurman on a warm summer day, flip-flops are a good accessory to throw in your pack.
There is an outhouse at Schurman, which I was grateful for otherwise I would have to literally "secure my shit" and pack it out in a "Blue Bag". Blue bags are double layers of plastic bags and twist ties provided for free by the National Park Service that you use to pack out your solid waste. There are collection barrels at Schurman and the trailhead climbers' office for disposing of blue bags. In 2010 the outhouse did not have a door, so there was not a lot of privacy, but there was a great view. The other thing missing was toilet paper, but at least they had a hand sanitizer dispenser, which I considered good enough. I always pack toilet paper (I consider it the 11th essential), but if I forgot there was always the backup option of using snow formed into a wedge. I have done it before, it works well, but boy is it chilly!
I like staying at Schurman, you always meet interesting people and the conversations are good. Some people like solitude in the wilderness and would shun a place like Schurman, but just like hiking I consider climbing a social activity and good conversation is an important part of the experience. Also, the kind of people you meet in the mountains tend to be pretty cool, it's not like car camping in a State park where you can be camping next to literally anyone.
In the site next to us at Schurman was a large group, environmentalists participating in the Climb Against Coal — Moms against Washington State's TransAlta coal plant. They were an interesting group, trying to use their Rainier climb to raise awareness about the coal issue. My only complaint was that one of those Moms must have been a single mom because that night one of the guys in their group was flirting with her and they were both talking loudly in their tent—driving the rest of us who were trying to sleep nuts. I finally had to ask them to keep it down.
The plan was to wake up at 11:30 pm so we tried to get to bed around 6pm. You do not really sleep, but you try your best to rest. Usually, by the time I'm just falling asleep it's time to get up again. Between eating breakfast, getting geared up and roped up we finally got moving at 1:15 am. The reason for the ungodly-early start is to hike on the snow while it is still firm and because the risk of snow avalanche and rock fall is much lower while everything is still frozen solid. In the afternoon sun it's common to see snow sloughing down the mountain and hear tumbling rocks.
This was a high snow year, so there were few open crevasses and the climb was a slog nearly straight up the mountain, this was quite a change from 1999 where the route zigzagged the entire way up. It was just as tough physically as before, but with the benefit of experience this Rainier climb was not the huge mental challenge it was my first time around. I knew what to expect so it was not like this overwhelming experience that I did not know quite how to handle. However, when we got to the summit I was beat. I was suffering a serious sleep deficit. After taking our group summit photo the guys wanted to explore the summit, but all I wanted to do was take a nap. It was a sunny day, but unlike 1999 it was cold and windy and there was no large snow-free patches of ground. I found the best place I could to shelter from the wind and propped up my backpack to block the wind and slept for a half hour directly on the snow bundled up in all my warm clothes.
The hike down to Schurman and back to the cars was long and exhausting, but uneventful. One of the highlights of the hike out is glissading down the Inter glacier. "Glissading" is a fancy mountaineering term for sliding on your butt. The Inter glacier is one of the best glissade runs in the Cascades (the only better one that I know of is from Piker's Peak to the Lunch Counter on Mount Adams). The nearly fifteen hundred feet of vertical down the Inter is so popular that there is usually a well defined "bobsled" chute carved out by all the previous people who have glissaded down. To glissade you sit upright and descend feet first (after removing your crampons) holding your ice axe across your chest while dragging your axe's spike in the snow as a break. It is scary fast and in a matter of minutes you descend what took an hour-and-a-half or more to ascend. While you rocket down with snow spraying everywhere all the climbers heading up the Inter glacier look at you with undisguised envy.
Back at the White River Wilderness Information Center we asked a climbing ranger for a post-climb pub recommendation and he suggested the Snorting Elk, which I was surprised was even open. It's a bar & restaurant next to the Crystal Mountain ski area. During the winter it is a popular après-ski destination. I don't know who they had working in the kitchen during the summer (I suspected trained monkeys), but the food was the worst pub grub I have ever eaten in my life. It was only because post-climb I was ravenous that I was even able to finish my meal. At least the beer was cold. It was a fun weekend and made me realize that climbing Rainier was not so bad after all and I should have returned sooner
Friday, July 16th
- 4:45 am — Leave Seattle
- 8:30 am — Leave White River trailhead
- 9:45 am — Arrive Glacier Basin
- 3:15 pm — Arrive Camp Schurman
- 6:30 pm — Go to sleep
- 11:30 pm — Wake Up
Saturday, July 17th
- 1:15 am — Start Climbing
- 8 am — Summit Rainier
- 2 pm — Return to Camp Schurman
- 5 pm — Leave Camp Schurman
- 7 pm — Arrive Cars
Trip Report: 2012
BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class student Ken invited Team 3 "The Morteneers" to climb Rainier with him and his wife Evelyne. I was the only member of our team able to go that weekend, I was disappointed that more members of our class team were not able to join up, but I was glad to have the opportunity to climb Rainier again. The upside was that we would be a single rope team, which meant we would move faster. Our group also included Ken & Evelyne's friend Ian. Our Rainier climb was an unofficial BOEALPS trip—everyone had a BOEALPS connection. Evelyne instructs the BOEALPS Basic Rock Climbing and Intermediate Climbing Classes while Ian is a former professional climbing guide and now volunteers as an ICC instructor.
A gentle pitter-patter of rain fell on the car as we drove out of Seattle Friday morning, so we were all anxious about the weather. Even a light drizzle in Seattle can mean horrendous weather and pure misery on Rainier, but by the time we reached the park entrance the skies were clearing and for the rest of the weekend the weather would be perfect. The plan was to leave Seattle early, camp on the Inter glacier below Camp Curtis the first day and camp on the Emmons Flats above Camp Schurman the second day. I was not crazy about this plan, but the National Park limits the number of people camping at certain sites and Schurman was booked for the weekend. I like bivouacking at Schurman so I was disappointed to not be staying there. Also, not camping at Schurman meant we had to use blue bags to go to the bathroom, which as I have stated before, I don't love. Based on past experience, I would say that if you are climbing Rainier via the Emmons Glacier route the best plan is to camp at Glacier Meadows the first night and Camp Schurman the second night. If you are concerned about acclimatization then spend both nights at Schurman.
On the plus side, our campsites allowed me to test my new tent on snow (by July the Schurman ridge is melted out so you camp on dirt). Ken, Evelyne, and Ian were all sleeping in bivouac sacks ("bivy sack" for short), but I had just purchased a four-season one-person tent as a birthday present to myself and was eager to try it out. It was a couple pounds heavier than a bivy sack, but since we were going to be spending a lot of time in camp it was worth carrying the weight to have a tent I could lounge in. When I was shopping for my tent one of the decisions I had to make was what color. The tent I bought was sold in one of two colors: fire engine red or forest green. I liked the green, but ended up buying the red because from experience I know how helpful it is to be able to see your tents in camp from a long distance away. It can be very useful when route finding your way back to camp after summiting. It is also psychologically valuable to be able to see your camp to help keep your motivation up.
When we reached Schurman Saturday morning we were greeted by loud reggae music. It was a bright sunny day so the reggae was kinda perfect. The climbing ranger was listening to the Seattle radio station KEXP's Positive Vibrations show. Two months later I would run into the same climbing ranger on the Muir Snowfield. Near the end of September I was hiking up towards Camp Muir for a day of backcountry skiing with my friend Kristina. I had just told her about the reggae music at Schurman when speak-of-the-devil I heard the Guns N' Roses song "Welcome to the Jungle." It was the same climbing ranger. He was hiking fast like the rangers do. When he passed us I saw that he had a speaker clipped via a carabiner to his pack blasting out tunes from his iPod as loud as those little speakers could manage.
The outhouse at Schurman now had a door, which was an improvement from two years previous, but inside it was the filthiest I've ever seen it. Every manner of human bodily waste was represented on the toilet seat. The crap pan was full to overflowing and the top of the pile was less than a foot below the toilet seat. The waste is supposed to be routinely emptied into sixty-gallon steel barrels that eventually get flown out by helicopter. I'm guessing that the ranger on duty was procrastinating dealing with the outhouse. It was a disgusting and not a job I would want to do. In her memoir Pickets and Dead Men: Seasons on Rainier
, former Rainier climbing ranger Bree Loewen described (in multiple passages) this less-than-glamorous aspect of the ranger's job:
I needed to rotate the baskets in the outhouses, but the wind was going to make it difficult. As soon as I would open the back of the box, used toilet paper would fly around in the wind. [...] We had white Tyvex moon suits to use when we dumped the filled baskets into sixty-gallon barrels that were flown off the mountain every week or so, but the suits were too expensive to use every time the baskets got rotated. [...] Under the toilet seat are six baskets down below in a box. The baskets hold the shit, and this basket was full to within a foot of the seat. I really didn't want to rotate it out today. I had another two days up here, without any way to clean myself up, and the job was impossible to do without getting shit on the sleeves of my jacket. I didn't want to be dirty that long; it was disgusting. I decided the project could wait another day. [...] So I just had to be careful when I leaned way in, with my head between the underside of the toilet seat hole and the top of the full basket, in order to heave the heavy basket over. I was tempted to put my elbows on the edge of the waist-high pan or to press up against it to get more leverage against the basket, but the whole edge was covered with dried human shit... I pulled on my latex exam gloves, held my breath, and headed in.
Although the ranger may have been dragging his heels on his janitorial duties, he was fulfilling his primary of job keeping climbers safe. He was friendly and helpful, sharing with us a lot of information about the climbing route and current conditions, patiently answering every question we had. Among other things we learned that the route to the summit had changed. The standard Emmons-Winthrop route was too dangerous and had been re-routed. Typically, you start your climb heading up the Emmons glacier from Schurman, a route known as the "Corridor". Around eleven-and-a-half thousand feet you turn "climber's right" and traverse over to the Winthrop glacier. After the traverse you then stay on the Winthrop glacier until reaching the summit. The Corridor's high traverse between the Emmons and Wintrhop glaciers is very dramatic, leading you under ice walls and the huge blue-white boulders of ice known as seracs. Even under ideal conditions the traverse is an area you do not want to linger in, as there is always the risk of "objective hazards" (i.e. stuff falling on you), especially in the warm afternoon sun. By the end of July the rangers decided the risk of ice-falls and listing seracs ready to tumble on the traverse was too great so the climb was re-routed entirely up the Winthrop glacier.
All afternoon from the safety of our camp on the Emmons Flats we would witness small avalanches and rock-fall triggered by the warmth of the summer sun. None of these events threatened the new all-Winthrop route, but it served to emphasize why you start climbing in the chill of midnight and try to be off the mountain before the late afternoon. In fact it would be so warm on our summit day that by the time we would return to camp in the afternoon the snow stakes we had used to secure our shelters had all melted out. We turned in around 5pm and I was only really starting to sleep when my alarm went off at 11pm. We had set-up our rope the night before, so after wolfing down an oatmeal breakfast and gearing up we were off. We started moving after midnight, dropping down from our camp on the Emmons Flats to the Winthrop Glacier. As is my habit I scribbled our departure time and elevation into a notebook I kept in a shoulder pouch on my backpack. I try to take notes during my climbs, which I later use as the nucleolus of trip reports.
Over the spring I wrote a series of trip reports about the 2012 BOEALPS BCC for SummitPost. I was doing it for fun, but after the fact I got the idea that I could distill the experience into a single article for the Seattle Times' Pacific NW magazine. I figured for the many people who have thought about climbing Mount Rainier, but do not know where to start, my article would explain how a mountaineer class will get them there. For everyone else it would be an entertaining story of adventure and humor with some amazing photos. The editor of Pacific NW magazine, Kathy Triesch, was nice enough to respond to my query letter. She let me down gently and offered some good writing advice:
What a series of challenges! I admire your efforts. With regard to the series and the idea of rerunning them in Pacific, I don't think that is going to work. The pieces give a good rundown of what you did and some of the detail about what the classes cover, but generally in these sorts of stories, we look for a more complex narrative that, in this case, would have focused more on the students -- hearing their voices (quoting them directly), feeling their emotions, seeing them go thru their paces directly with descriptions about them and from them.
I worked for almost ten years as an engineer in the aerospace industry and now work as a software developer. In my professional life I spent years writing project requirements documents & change order memos and have read a lot of technical specification documents. This has left me with a Joe Friday from Dragnet "Just the facts, ma'am" style of writing that I find hard to shake off. Hmm...I thought about how to respond to Triesch's suggestions that the reader should be "feeling their emotions" when inspiration struck. For my Rainier 2012 trip I came up with the idea that I could quantify the team's emotional status. Every hour I could ask my team their emotional status on a scale from 1 to 10. At the end of the trip I could plot out each person's emotional status versus time and elevation on an Excel chart and include it with my trip report. That ought to add some "emotions" content, right? Or maybe I was missing the point of what Triesch was trying to tell me. Dang, writing is hard.
The all-Winthrop route was safer in terms of objective hazards, but it was steeper early on and required a lot of zigzagging through a labyrinth of crevasses. There was a lot of exposure to falls with short run outs that would give you little time to self-arrest before slipping over the edge into the icy abyss of a crevasse. To protect against a few of the most exposed stretches we used ice screws and pickets to set running belays. In the pre-dawn dark it was hard to tell the route. We got a little off route and were forced to backtrack a bit via a steep traverse, but it was not a major detour and we still made good time. At around 11,800 feet the new all-Winthrop route links up with the Corridor route at the intersection where you would normally traverse over from the Emmons glacier.
Even though you are on a rope team with other people you are spaced thirty to forty feet apart so you are effectively alone with your thoughts most of the time. I was having a good summit day, but above twelve thousand feet I really started to feel the altitude and the usual "This sucks," "Why the hell am I doing this," "I'm ready to turn around," and "I'm never going to do this again" thoughts crossed my mind. I know from experience that I think this every-single-time
I go on a challenging climb, so I brushed it off knowing that when I reached the summit I'd be stoked and Monday morning back in town I would be proudly looking back on a successful climb. Psychologically I was prepared, but physically Rainier remained as challenging as ever. About seven hundred feet below the summit I got badly winded and it was a real struggle to keep going. I stopped frequently to gasp for air and I had to keep reminding myself: One foot in front of the other. Slow and steady climbs the mountain
A little after 8 am we found ourselves at the top of Columbia Crest, the summit of Rainier. It was a glorious summer morning and we were only one group among many hooping and hollering, shouting in celebration of successfully summiting Rainier. Both Ian and I have summited Rainier previously, but it was the first time for Ken & Evelyne. Ken graduated in May from the BOEALPS BCC. In the class there is a graduation climb and a final exam, but I feel that you do not really graduate from the class until you pass one final test...your first Rainier climb, so I was pleased to see one of my students standing at the summit of The Mountain.
We still had the long hike back to camp and then back to the car ahead of us, but for half an hour we rested, chatted with other climbers, and savored the views. I know now that this will not be my last Rainier climb, I will return. My first Rainier climb was a shock, but I have learned that I should not have waited eleven years to climb it again. These days I know what to expect and while it is still as demanding physically, mentally the scale of the challenge has shrunk and reaching the summit is remains a rush. I doubt I will ever rack up 200+ Rainier summits like Ed Viesturs, but I know that I will keep returning to The Mountain. Viesturs still climbs Rainier and in his introduction to the 4th edition of The Challenge of Rainier
, he wrote about what Rainier means to him:
Mountains have taught me many things that I may not have learned anywhere else—self-reliance, patience, respect for the forces of nature, and my strengths as well as my fragility. Mount Rainier was my school and she will always have my respect.
Friday, July 27th
- 10:24am — Trailhead
- Noon — Glacier meadows
- 1:20pm — Start Inter Glacier
- 3:30pm — Inter Glacier camp
Saturday, July 28th
- 5pm — go to bed
- 11pm — wake up
Sunday, July 29th
- 12:30am — leave camp for summit
- 8:15am — summit
- 9am — leave summit
- 2:20pm — back to camp
- 5:15pm — leave Emmons Flats camp
- 8pm — Return to car
Clark E. Schurman
While reviewing photos of the Camp Schurman ranger's cabin from my 2012 Rainier climb I noticed that there was a bronze placard hanging to the right of the door. I zoomed in on it and was just able to read the bas-relief text. To my surprise it was a poem:
Into a cloud sea far below,
I lonely watched the red sun go.
Then turning, miracle of glad surprise,
Enchanted saw the full moon rise.
The poem was credited to one C. E. Schurman. I was intrigued, I had never thought about the man behind the name Schurman. Most of the places and features on Mount Rainier are named after real people, but I usually never give the stories behind the names a second thought. A little quick Internetting turned up some more facts about Schurman. He was the head climbing ranger at Mount Rainier in the late '30s and early '40s. He was also an amateur poet and painter.
Dee Molenaar, author of The Challenge of Rainier
, worked under Schurman when he was a young Rainier climbing ranger. From descriptions in Molenaar's book and an article he wrote in the Northwest Mountaineering Journal it sounds like Schurman was an old-school hard-ass. "The Chief" as he was known had a military style of leadership and ran a "...disciplined regime, characterized by a 'buy-the-numbers' operation of the Guide House..." In spite of his stern reputation he was well liked and it seems that many have fond memories of him. Molenaar credits Schurman for encouraging him to "give up milking cows, enroll in college, and guide during the summers." Monitor Rock in Seattle's Camp Long Park was renamed in Schurman's honor after he passed away. The construction of a climbing rangers' cabin at Steamboat Prow was a long-held dream of Schurman's and when it was finally built several years after his passing it was named in his honor. It was constructed with volunteer labor and funded by donations from Schurman's many friends and from sales of his oil paintings.
What I also found interesting about Clark Schurman is that despite his reputation as a martinet he also had a bohemian artistic side that expressed itself in poetry, painting, and illustrations. I discovered in a Seattle P-I article that some of his paintings were on display at Camp Long. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon so I decided to drive down to Camp Long in West Seattle to investigate for myself. Camp Long is one of Seattle's well-kept secrets. The park comprises sixty-eight acres of woods and fields that overlooks the industrial heart of South Seattle. Although you are close to aircraft factories and a steel mill you would never know it while wandering the park's leafy trails. Camp Long was built near the end of the 1930s by the city with help from the Depression-era Works Progress Administration.
Hung at one end of the meeting hall of Camp Long's beautiful old main lodge I found a painting of Rainier by Schurman. It was a nice painting, the work of a competent amateur. It reminded me of Bob Ross' "happy little trees." According to Camp Long staff, the rest of their collection of Schurman paintings were undergoing restoration and will go on permanent display soon. Reading fact sheets about the history of Camp Long one of the things I discovered was that Schurman was the principal designer of the park and one of his most visible contributions is the climbing rock named in his honor. Schurman wanted a place in town where aspiring mountaineers could practice the basics of climbing. Monitor Rock (now Schurman Rock) was built to his exacting specifications and apparently the workers who built it thought they were dealing with a "mad-man."
Schurman Rock was an innovative idea that helped advance the sport of climbing. When it was completed it was the first man-made climbing wall in North America and possibly the world. Schurman Rock helped launch the careers of famous Northwest climbers like the Whittaker brothers and Fred Beckey. In Lou Whittaker's Memoirs of a Mountain Guide
he acknowledged that he and his brother Jim frequently practiced rock technique on Schurman Rock. In Beckey's memoir Challenge of the North Cascades
he mentions Schurman rock and even includes a photo of himself as a teenager practicing there circa 1939.
I know that I have directly benefited from Schurman's passion for The Mountain and appreciate his work. His dream of a rangers' cabin at Steamboat Prow makes climbing Rainier safer and more accessible for novice climbers—like me in 1999. Dee Molenaar recounted in an article on the Seattle Parks department's web site that he always concludes slide shows about climbing Rainier with one of his favorite Schurman poems. I don't know how I can improve on that, so I'll take my cue from Molenaar and end with the same poem:
Last campfires never die. And you and I,
On separate ways to Life's December,
Will always dream by this last fire
And have this mountain to remember.
Appendix: Gear List
Here's a list of all the gear I took with me on my Rainier 2012 climb. The only items missing from this list are the rope (which someone else brought) and my food. I'm not as weight conscious as I should be, so there is room for improvement and careful ounce-shaving could have reduced my load from the nearly fifty pounds I carried up once fully laden with food and water.
First Aid Kit
Sunscreen, SPF 50
Lip Balm, SPF 30
Food & Water
2 1-liter Nalgene bottles
1 3-liter water bladder
Fuel, 22 oz. white gas
1 pair liner socks
2 pair wool socks
Wicking T-Shirt, BCC Team Tee
"Puffy" Insulating Jacket
Wicking beanie hat
Insulating Beanie hat
1-person, 4-season Tent
Sleeping Bag, 20° F
Sleeping Pad, ¾ "egg carton" style
Sleeping Pad, full length air
Sit pad, "egg carton" style
Notepad & Pen
Toilet paper & hand sanitizer (travel sized)
Toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss (all travel sized)
Playing cards, travel sized
Snow shovel, with avalanche probe in handle
Harness, carabiners, slings, pulleys, etc.
1 Picket with sling & 2 carabiners
Rainier Climbing Gear Rainier Climbing Food
*Ian carried the rope which weighed ~8½ lbs
Viesturs, Ed; Roberts, David. No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World's 14 Highest Peaks
. 1st ed. New York: Broadway Books, 2006.
Molenaar, Dee. The Challenge of Rainier: A Record of the Explorations and Ascents, Triumphs and Tragedies on One of North America’s Greatest Mountains
. 4th ed. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2011.
Molenaar, Dee. A Neophyte Guide on Mount Rainier
. NorthWest Mountaineering Journal. Issue 3, 2006. http://www.mountaineers.org/nwmj/06/061_Molenaar.html
Muir, John; Browning, Peter. John Muir, in His Own Words: A Book of Quotations
. Lafayette, CA : Great West Books, 1988.
Loewen, Bree. Pickets and Dead Men: Seasons on Rainier
. Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 2009.
Whittaker, Lou; Gabbard, Andrea. Lou Whittaker: Memoirs of a Mountain Guide
. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 1995.
Beckey, Fred; Molenaar, Dee (maps). Challenge of the North Cascades
. Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1969. 2nd Printing 1977.
Green Trails Maps. Mount Rainier Wonderland, Map 269S
. 1:24,000. Seattle, WA: www.greentrailsmaps.com, Original Ed. 2011, Latest Revision 2012.
Nelson, Jim; Peter Potterfield. Selected Climbs in the Cascades. Vol 1
. 2nd ed. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2003. Pgs. 48-51.
Smoot, Jeff. Climbing Washington's Mountains : summit hikes, scrambles, and climbs in Washington's Cascade and Olympic Mountain Range
. Guilford Conn.: Falcon, 2002. Pgs. 306-310.
Beckey, Fred. Cascade Alpine Guide : Climbing and High Routes. Vol. 1, Columbia River to Stevens Pass
. 3rd ed. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2000. 4th printing, 2011. Pgs. 84-124.
Graydon, Don; Hanson, Kurt (Editors). Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills
. 6th Ed. Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 1997. Page 453 (altitude sickness).
LinksMount Rainier Climbing (climbing rangers blog)
Mount Rainier Recreational Forecast
Ranger killed during rescue of climbers on Mount Rainier
Climb Against Coal
Mountains in life and art (Seattle P-I article about Schurman’s paintings)
Historic Clark Schurman painting on display at Arts in Nature Festival at Camp Long