In the afternoon of the day before we were to start climbing Rainier, our group of eight climbers (clients) gathered at the headquarters of International Mountain Guides (IMG) for an introductory session with Tey, the logistics manager. After introductions, Tey went through each item in our packs with us, deciding what to take, what to leave, and in my case, what to buy (a pair of shell pants). The session also included a lesson on the “blue bag” the human equivalent of a dog poopy bag, including Tey’s famous pantomimed demonstration of how to use it.
Our group of clients consisted of Ian, an avid photographer, and Rodica, his girlfriend; Pamela, who had been injured in an avalanche some years ago and confined to a wheel chair, but had worked her way back to mobility, and planned to celebrate her birthday on the summit, and her husband David, a software engineer. They had been hiking part way up Mt. Rainier almost every weekend for several weeks in preparation; another Ian and Casey, childhood friends who still get together to share adventures; Mat, a lumber industry engineer who runs marathons; and me.
On the first day of the climb we met at IMG at 8AM, picked up our share of the group food, completed our final packing (my pack weighed 41 pounds) and were soon in the van on the way to the Mt Rainier Paradise Visitor’s Center. Once there we put on our boots, hoisted our packs, and started up the mountain in beautiful weather with strong sun that made us hot even thou we were hiking almost entirely on snow. Our guides set a slow and steady pace and in a few hours we had completed the 4 miles with about 4,500 feet of elevation gain, to Camp Muir.
Camp Muir is located on a ridge that separates the Muir Snowfield (that we had just climbed) from the Cowlitz Glacier, and consists of several permanent buildings - a public shelter, a stone ranger station, toilets, a shelter shared by three guide services (Rainier Mountaineering, IMG, and Alpine Ascents International (AAI), and a building used by Rainier Mountaineering’s guides - a helicopter pad, and a bunch of tents, most pitched by independent climbers (those not climbing with one of the guide services) but also a Quonset hut style tent used by IMG as a cook tent, storage area, and guide shelter, and a similar but smaller tent used by AAI.
We set up for the night in IMG’s part of the shelter, relaxed for a while, then hiked over to the Quonset hut for supper and to learn the plan for day 2. Our guides served suppers and breakfasts, and melted snow for drinking water. We were responsible for our own lunches and trail snacks.
We sat on bunks (actually sleeping mats set on top of storage boxes) along the sides of the tent for meals. This first supper consisted of pasta with salmon, vegetables, and goat cheese – delicious! Especially so when you realize that the ingredients were carried up the mountain in backpacks, and the preparation was done in a tent. After supper, several of us stood on the helipad and watched the light change on the distant mountains as sunset approached.
Day two started with a breakfast of hash browns and pancakes, and then school on a slope near the cook tent where we were taught how to climb safely on snow. Around noon, we packed up, divided into four rope teams of two clients and one guide per rope, and hiked across the Cowlitz glacier and up to Ingraham Flats for our second night. The person who named Ingraham Flats had a sense of humor; if the Flats were located near your hometown, I’m sure it would have been your favorite sledding spot. It is located on the Ingraham Glacier and it is NOT flat, but I guess it is what passes for flat at 11,000 feet on a mountain. Our guides dug a platform in the snow to level the 4 tents used by our group, and the 2 they used, as well as some maintenance on the cook tent, which was a giant umbrella erected over snow walls, snow benches, and even a snow table for cooking. Our guides prepared a supper of veggies and steak served with noodles, and gave us the plan for summit day after which we crawled into our tents in late afternoon to try to get some sleep before wakeup at 11PM. I slept maybe an hour and was lucky at that; several of us didn’t sleep at all.
The weather was predicted to be good with mild temperatures but with increasing winds. I was dressed in mountain boots and gaiters, shell pants (the type that the legs can be unzipped), a light long underwear top, a heavier long underwear top, my Hawaiian hiking shirt, a harness, an avalanche beacon a warm hat, heavy gloves, and a helmet with a headlamp. Until we started hiking I wore a heavy coat over everything.
We had a breakfast of instant oatmeal, and then finished packing our backpacks with our remaining warm clothing, snacks, and water, as we watched a steady parade of head lamps moving up the mountain. We hitched up into our rope teams, turned on our headlights, took off our heavy jackets, stuffed them into our packs, and moved out around 12:30AM on day three, Sunday 11 July 2010.
The guides again set a steady slow pace and led us up the trail. We alternated between “short rope” when the main danger was slipping off the trail and sliding down the mountain, to “long rope” when we were moving on glaciers where the main danger was falling into a crevasse. The trail was mostly footprints in snow and marked by wands (thin sticks with little plastic flags on them). There were places where the lead guide, Mike, rerouted the trail as we went to avoid hazards like newly formed crevasses.
For me, most of the experience of this part of the climb was limited to the range of my headlamp, watching the trail immediately in front of me, trying to maintain the correct distance from the next person, and placing my feet as securely as possible. When we stopped for breaks, we would step off the trail onto the slope where we would sometimes be anchored with our rope attached to our ice axe. We would take off our packs, put on our heavy jackets, sit on our packs, eat a snack, and drink some water. We were dressed lightly for the temperature, staying warm by the effort we were exerting to climb. When we stopped, we needed the extra jacket for warmth. Further up the mountain, where the wind increased, I added an additional coat as a top layer over my Hawaiian shirt.
I said that the pace was steady and slow, but slow was soon as fast as I could go. I was working as hard as I could in the thin air, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, and trying to keep going until the next break. My stomach objected to whatever I had eaten at the previous break and I often felt I was about to lose it. Our guide adjusted the pace downward as we approached the top, but try as I might I couldn’t keep going and asked for a halt. We paused long enough for the next team to pass us, and then continued up. When we reached the crater (the top of the mountain) I was as tired as I’ve ever been, and almost sick. But the real high point is on the other side of the crater. We dropped our packs, unhitched our ropes, put on our heavy jackets and hiked toward the other side. I was barely able to move and was less than half way when the sun began to rise as a bright red ball. I stopped for some pictures, and then plodded on to join the group at the summit. We took individual pictures and then lined up for a group photo to be taken by Ian, the photographer. After a few pictures, he handed off his camera and joined the group to be in the picture, but instead of joining the single line of people, he kneeled in front with Rodica at his side, and proposed to her!
We walked around the rim to sign the summit log book, and to see some steam vents, returned to our packs, hitched up, and headed down. By now the sun was well up and there was a magnificent view, but I could only enjoy it during breaks, or when we were stopped by a traffic jam. If I looked up from my feet while we were moving I would get off balance and begin staggering. We were moving on steep, softening snow, and twice I slipped and fell so that David, behind me on the rope, assumed the arrest position with his crampons and ice axe dug into the snow, so that the rope between us would arrest my fall. We saw a climber with another group take a fall and slide maybe 20 feet down the side of the mountain before being stopped by the rope.
In a couple of hours we were back at the flats where we packed up the stuff we had not taken to the summit (sleeping bag, air mattress, extra food and water, etc) took a nice long break, then roped up and headed on down to Camp Muir where we turned in our avalanche beacons, rental helmets and harnesses, picked up our hiking poles, and continued down the mountain.
The day was bright and sunny, the air was warm, and the hot sun had softened the snow to the point where much of it was getting slushy. Footing was not sure as the snow collapsed under our feet. Most of our group chose to glissade (slide on their rear ends sitting on a plastic bag) down parts of the slope. I just hiked the whole way, feeling happy to have finally achieved the summit (I had tried unsuccessfully in September 2006). Soon we began to see people walking up the trail in regular (non-hiking) clothes and shoes without backpacks, and knew we couldn’t be far from civilization. The van met us at the visitor center with our comfortable shoes, and cold sodas, and took us back to IMG headquarters where we were awarded a certificate to “recognize, acknowledge, and congratulate [us] for a successful summit of Mt. Rainier via the disappointment Cleaver Route”. Dinah was there to meet me and take me back to our motor home for a shower and a change of clothes, then out to a restaurant where we celebrated with clients, guides and girl friends.
Climbing Mt. Rainier was physically one of the hardest things that I have ever done, and it shows on my face in the attached picture of me at the summit when I could barely muster a smile. I was fortunate to have done it with a great group of folks, under the care and guidance of four wonderful guides, and in exceptionally good weather conditions. Forty-six down, and only Gannett (Wyoming) and Granite (Montana) left to complete the lower 48.