Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Climbing Rainier

I enjoy mountains, and especially 14ers. So far, I’ve managed to get my sorry tail up on top of a dozen 14ers in Colorado and California… but none of those were on snow and ice. So when my wife and I were planning an extended family trip in July starting in Colorado, going through Yellowstone, and ending in Seattle, she suggested, "You know, the kids and I could fly home on some cheap Southwest tix, and you could take some time to hike and drive the car home." For some that might seem like I was getting the short end of the stick, but for me, my eyes lit up at the idea... and it was her suggestion. :-)

Of course, the first thought on my mind was Rainier. We had been to Seattle before and seen that massive white giant in the distance. I started surfing the internet for plane tix and guide services. Even though I’ve done a good bit of hiking, I knew enough to know I couldn’t go up the snow and ice of Rainier alone. It turned out that RMI guide services in the town of Ashford at the southwest corner of Rainier had one opening left for a guided climb of Rainier at just the right time when our Seattle trip would be ending. So I bit the bullet and committed. At first, the cost seemed a bit pricey, but I knew I had no other way up the mountain and I had no idea when I’d ever be back in the Rainier area by myself to attempt this. And now in hindsight, I know that the guided services of RMI were worth every penny. They are consummate professionals with thorough training and excellent knowledge of the mountain and its challenges.

So on Thursday, July 23, after having a blast with my wife and kids for three full days in Seattle, they flew home and I found myself alone in the great Northwest and driving towards this intimidating white giant in the distance, unsure what the next several days held in store. That night, I found a great campsite at Big Creek campground between Ashford and the southwest entrance to Mount Rainier National Park. This would be home for the next three nights until the climb began.

Friday morning, I drove up into the park and toured the Paradise Visitor Center, got the kids’ National Park passport books stamped, photographed some wildlife (black-tail deer and marmots), and soaked up some of the natural wonders (waterfalls, creeks, and old-growth forests). That afternoon in Ashford, orientation began at the RMI base. I picked up my rental boots… big, heavy, hard-shell, cold-weather waffle-stompers and an avalanche transceiver... yikes!

At 3:00pm, our group started gathering. There would be nine of us climbers and three guides. Joel would be our main guide. He’s a laid-back, mid-20s guy who pretty much spends most of his time year-round climbing and guiding. He’s kinda quiet and didn’t talk much about his credentials, but I did learn he’s been on such peaks as Denali, Aconcagua (high point of South America), and Rainier (63 times!) among many, many others.

We went over our schedule and route, and Joel did a gear and equipment check with all of us. This step was important since one person’s inadequate equipment could jeopardize the success of the trip for all of us. Since this was my first ice and snow climb, I was using mostly borrowed (thanks, Dan!), new, or rented equipment. I also was unfamiliar with the weather extremes we could face on such a northern, massive, stand-alone peak like Rainier. The mountain literally creates its own weather patterns since it stands so close to the on-shore flow of Pacific moisture.

I discovered during the orientation that my outer coat and gloves were not sufficient for the extremes of Rainier, so I had to rent some from RMI. Three days later on the summit, I was very glad for that decision. It’s not uncommon to encounter 70-80 mph winds and air temps below zero on the summit, even in July. And even though the forecast for our summit day looked good with warm air and calm winds, that can change in an instant in the Cascades and you have to be prepared.

Saturday dawned and we all gathered again in Ashford to head up to the Muir snowfield for climbing school. Basically, we spent about six hours learning how to use crampons and ice axes, how to perform a self-arrest in case of a fall, and how to climb roped up. The self-arrest session was pretty intense. The guides taught us how to hold our ice axes and what to do if we fell feet first or head first, on our front or on our backs, and whether the ice axe was in our left or right hands. We practiced these techniques over and over because this could be critical on such a climb. None of us looked very graceful as we threw ourselves all over the slopes to practice stopping our falls. That night when I talked to Mary Ann, she asked how my day went and I remarked, “Well, I only fell 20 or 30 times.” :-)

Sunday dawned and we gathered again in Ashford for the bus ride up to Paradise (5,400’) to begin our climb. Hands down, I won the award for the largest pack because I decided to wear running shoes for the first couple of miles on trails and packed my big heavy boots in my pack for the snow. But my pack was also stuffed with food, water, sleeping bag, climbing gear (harness, helmet, crampons, ice axe, trekking poles, headlamp, etc.), and layers of clothes, coats, and gloves. I carried absolutely nothing extra and still my pack was bulky and quite weighty. Fortunately, on summit day, most of the gear and clothes we’d be wearing and we could leave other items at Camp Muir for our return.

With full packs, we made slow but steady progress on the lower trails up to Pebble Creek. Our clothes, gear, and packs stood out noticeably from the day-hikers ambling about in that part of the park. The mountain loomed ominously above us and we all marched single-file rather quietly as we wondered what the next two days would hold. Several times on the initial ascent on this cloudless day, we heard thunder in the distance... but it wasn’t thunder. It was the loud rumble of rock and ice falling from the steep glaciated slopes as the ice melted in the afternoon heat. It was a rather somber sight to see the dust and mist in the distance from those unpredictable crashes.

At Pebble Creek, we all changed into our boots. The rest of our day would be making the slow upward ascent across the Muir snowfield. The sun was so intense that I wanted to rename it Muir Beach. :-) I hiked in shorts and still was dripping wet with sweat. Dark sunglasses were mandatory since you could quickly sunburn your retinas from the reflection off the snow. I was lathered in sunscreen and wore a bandana under my baseball hat to cover my neck.

Our three guides were very punctual about everything we did. We would hike for an hour and then break for 15 minutes. Efficiency was the name of the game. At each break, they instructed us to grab food and water, make any clothing adjustments and then sit on our packs (straps up out of the snow) to rest. They would give us a three-minute warning at the end and we would all start up together again. They knew if we were inefficient at these transitions, it would only prolong the climb unnecessarily for everyone.

As we spent four days together, the eight of us got to know each other quite well. We ended up losing one hiker at the first rest stop who was not feeling well. We all felt bad for him because he was more than capable of completing the climb (and had done so previously), except for whatever bug that was ailing him. Of course, a challenge like Rainier brings together a fascinating cadre of people. One guy was an F-15 pilot in the Air Force (every guy’s dream job). Two others were a father and daughter (a senior in HS) from Georgia who had literally traveled the world and done other exciting climbs like Kilimanjaro. Two others were a couple who were computer programmers from Ohio who had hiked with Joel previously. We razzed them all weekend because they had said they really weren’t outdoorsy people... and here they were climbing Rainier of all things. :-) Another lady worked for the Dept of Energy in DC. Another worked in a jewelry store in Florida, and for cross-training she liked to box. I was sure not to mess with her... she could beat me up. And one of our guides was a med student in Boston who was taking a semester off to guide and get married (to another guide).

Around three in the afternoon, we arrived at the primitive settlement known as Camp Muir. It’s a collection of small, odd-shaped buildings perched on the rocks above the Muir snowfield at 10,000’. Half of one building was a bunk house solely used by RMI. We all went inside and grabbed bunks. We felt spoiled because we were the only group using the bunkhouse that night so we got to double-up on mattress pads and had extra space to spread out our gear.

Around four o’clock, the guides came in and provided us all the hot water we wanted for our freeze-dried meals. They also gave us specific instructions for the night and the climb the next day. “Lights out” was six o’clock sharp. Even if you couldn’t sleep at that time, you were expected to be horizontal in your bunk resting. Any conversations were to be done outside or at a whisper. All our packing for the climb was to be completed before going to bed. When they woke us up in the middle of the night, we’d have exactly one hour to eat breakfast and finish getting ready. At 6:00pm, I made one last visit to the solar latrine and I hit my bunk with my ski cap pulled over my eyes since it wouldn’t get dark for another four hours. Even with ear plugs, I could still hear the wind outside howling.

I was surprised that I managed to get a decent amount of sleep. Probably within an hour I was asleep. But suddenly, my sleep was interrupted by the sound of the guides waking us up. It felt like I had only slept a few minutes. I looked at my watch, 11:38pm... Geez, it’s not even midnight yet... I doubt Mary Ann back in Riverside is even in bed! (And she wasn’t when I mentioned this to her later.)

I hopped out of bed. I threw on some warmer clothes and headed for the solar latrine. (I didn’t want to have to wait in a line at this time of the night.) The last thing I wanted to have to do was to use the infamous “blue bag” on the mountain later in the climb. :-) (You have to pack out everything that you bring to the mountain... and I mean everything.) When I stepped outside the bunkhouse, I was amazed by the sight. There was no wind and the sky was pitch dark. There was no moon and few lights in camp and so we were engulfed in utter blackness. I also was amazed that the temperatures did not feel unreasonably cold. Our guides warned us not to overdress. If we were cold standing outside, we were dressed just right because we’d heat up as we made the strenuous climb.

After eating a PB & honey sandwich for breakfast and donning my harness, helmet, boots, and crampons, I was outside and eager to go. We were roped up into three teams of 4, 4, and 3 each. On my rope, Joel was the leader and I was the anchor. In between us were the husband and wife from Ohio. Our rope team headed out first across the snowscape.

Since we were trekking by the light of our headlamps and had to be careful with our steps in these clumsy boots and crampons, we didn’t get to see much of our surroundings. Every now and then we stepped across a crack in the ice and snow which was a subtle reminder that sometimes underneath were deep unseen crevasses. Up ahead in the distance, we saw a few strings of lights created by the headlamps of other climbers ascending the trail ahead of us.

After about an hour, we all stopped for our first break at the Ingraham Flats. What’s kind of funny is that due to the darkness at this time we didn’t even know that there were dozens of tents within a few yards of us. At the break, we were instructed to immediately put on our heavy down jacket to keep our body heat from escaping. And also we needed to make sure we ate well and drank water, even though at higher elevations our bodies craved less and less food.

Our climb to the top would involve four stages, the fourth stop being on the mountain summit itself. In the second stage, we progressed up the tedious Disappointment Cleaver. Since it was now the middle of the summer, the rock was completely exposed with no snow or ice covering it. At this point, we “short-roped” so that the gap between climbers was now only ~5 feet. “The Cleaver,” as it’s called, was a steep and difficult climb. Walking in heavy boots with crampons on uneven and unstable rock is not exactly easy. At times, we were climbing with all fours as our ice-axes clanked against the rock. But eventually, we had ascended the Cleaver and took a break.

After the Cleaver, our guides extended our ropes back out to normal gaps of ~25’. At such lengths, if someone was to fall or break through, we’d have sufficient rope and space to do a team self-arrest. We were about to be traversing through some treacherous areas. Above us hung unstable rock that could break loose without warning and below us were unseen crevasses... although some of these dangers were reduced by climbing in the coldness of the night when the ice was at its strongest. Climbing at night is foremost an effort in safety, not merely serenity.

Our guides reminded us that we would make swift and steady progress across this stretch. We wouldn’t be slowing down for much of anything. None of us were allowed to whip out a camera. We were climbers first and photographers second. The last thing any of us would want is to need to self arrest while a teammate was holding a camera instead of an ice axe. Your ice axe really is your best friend on a climb like this. You always have to have a solid and uphill grasp of this instrument, just in case.

As we crossed this stretch, we could now begin to see some of the gaping crevasses that were in our vicinity. At times, the trail became quite narrow and we had to carefully step over our own boots and grasp fixed ropes to prevent falling. As we progressed through the darkness, we all wondered just how much exposure was below us that we couldn’t see in the darkness. We’d certainly find out later on the descent.

After our second break, a few of us overheard the guides talking quietly among themselves about some big crack in the ice ahead. Sure ‘nough, we had hardly started and Joel had us reverse rope and we were backing out. We didn’t get to see what we were avoiding, but later on the descent we saw the aluminum ladder roped across a massive crack that we would have had to cross in cumbersome boots and crampons. Instead, Joel had us retreat and led us higher up the ice and away from the upper edge of the crack.

About the time of our third break, we began to see the orange glow of the sunrise on the eastern horizon. We were all grateful that we weren’t facing strong winds or bitter cold, or “nuking” weather as the guides called it. One by one we turned off our headlamps as we ascended in the growing light.

The last stage seemed to be the unending climb up the steep snow bank. There were switchbacks on the trail, but they didn’t reduce the steepness much. Instead the trail looked like a large “Z” stretched and distorted as if by a circus mirror. At times, our guides reminded us to “rest step” (where you pause after each step in the thin air of higher elevation) and to make solid footplants. We were supposed to either splay our feet in a V or to use the French cross-over step to maximize crampon contact with the ice. I found the cross-over step to be the most comfortable in the heavy hiking boots.

Sooner than I expected, Joel mentioned that the rocks up ahead were the lower edge of the crater rim. Joel is no jokester so I knew we would be topping out within 15-20 minutes. It was an amazing moment at 6:31am as we climbed over the rim and had the relief of walking downhill into the crater. About 100 yards further, we all circled the wagons in the shelter of the crater and sat on our packs. It was an odd feeling to know we were sitting in the caldera of a dormant volcano. Sure ‘nough, on the north edge of the crater we could see steam rising from a few of the active fumaroles.

Since we had summitted, but technically weren’t at the mountain’s tippy top, Joel asked if anyone wanted to take about 45 minutes to go across the crater and up to Columbia Crest, the official highpoint at 14,411’ (the fifth highest peak in the lower 48). Not doing that never crossed my mind. I wasn’t about to stop anywhere short of the actual peak. So Joel, Patrick (another of our guides), myself and one other headed off across the crater. It sure seemed a whole lot easier without a pack. :-)

At the crest, we could now see in every direction. Joel pointed out Mts. Saint Helens and Adams to the south, Mount Baker to the north, and the Puget Sound to the northwest. We took summit pictures and enjoyed the views. On the way up, Patrick had mentioned the summit challenge among the guides... doing your age in push-ups on the peak. Sure ‘nough, Patrick hit the dirt and started doing push-ups. It sure didn’t seem like he did that many… and he didn’t have to since he’s in his 20s. :-) I thought, Geez, I hate to not at least try, but I doubt I could do my age at sea-level yet alone at 14,000’ where the air pressure is only 56%. So I hit the ground and started doing them… but I could only do 36... five short... oh well, at least I tried. Even though I did more than Patrick, I have no doubt he could have done far more than 36. Dude is a serious rock climber with some solid upper-body strength. And because of my unsuccessful attempt, I can honestly say that on the day after the climb my only muscles that were sore were my pecs, not my legs.

We then headed over to the summit register and logged our names and headed back across the crater. The four of us didn’t end up with much of a rest break on top, but that was okay. It’s not every day you’re on top of Rainier, and in such perfect weather (calm winds, high 20s, and clear skies)... might as well enjoy it.

So after spending an hour on top, we roped up and began the second half of our trek. Summitting is only halfway. :-) The guides surprised me by telling us that we would now reverse rope. The anchors would now be the leaders and the guides would be in the back. I didn’t know we’d do that... and that now meant that I would be the lead on the front rope team.

Joel liked to run a punctual expedition and didn’t like to waste time, so he instructed me, “Go as fast as you want.” I hadn’t mentioned much about my long-distance running to my fellow climbers (it really didn’t matter since we worked as a team, not as individuals), and so I thought, Wow, most people who know me wouldn’t tell me that if they were roped up to me on an icy slope. :-)

And so off we went, me in the front, Joel in the back, and the couple from Ohio in between. I picked up the pace a good bit as we tromped downhill on the snowy trail. I knew Joel would enjoy the quick descent, and I figured my friends from Ohio would tug on the rope if they needed to slow down. So we came flying down the mountain and into our first rest stop. I didn’t realize how far ahead of the other teams we had gotten, but we ended up having to wait ~20 minutes for their arrival at the top of the Cleaver. That gave us an extra long break which no one minded. My friends from Ohio enjoyed razzing me about how fast we were descending, but they also didn’t complain.

Our descent now slowed as we encountered the tedious task of descending the Cleaver. I honestly think climbing up those rocks in crampons is much easier then climbing down them. We short-roped and I was leading the descent. It was quite tricky and at times difficult to determine the true trail. The guide services had placed wands with red flags to help outline the route... something that becomes even more important in a white-out. But we had the benefit of sunlight and clear skies to help us find our route. As my rope team waited at the bottom of the Cleaver for the others, unfortunately we saw one of our friends trip and tumble. He didn’t stumble far but he did end up twisting his ankle pretty good. Not a good thing. A minor injury on a climb is almost worse than a major injury. If you break your leg, you’ll get rescued from the mountain, but if you twist an ankle... well, you just gotta suck it up and suffer with it the rest of the way.

Below the cleaver, we now traversed the upper glaciers and snowfields that we had crossed earlier in the dark. Now we could see the gaping crevasses through which the trail zigged and zagged. At one crack in the trail, Joel had instructed us to make a long stride across but not to jump. We knew what he was thinking, simply the extra pressure from landing a jump could easily break the tenuous ice bridge upon which we were walking.

Even on the gentle snowfields without crevasses, the sight was a little unnerving. We often came across large boulders strewn across the snow. You could look at those and realize those had come down rather recently, and only from one place... the rocky ledges above… like bowling for climbers. Our guide Kate later mentioned that on one of her first ascents, she was climbing through some thick clouds and heard the sound of fast-moving rocks but she couldn’t see anything. Then suddenly, a huge boulder whizzed right in front of her on the trail. There’s good reason why we didn’t delay when crossing these areas and we only stopped to take photos in the “safe zones.”

We made it back to Camp Muir safely and now had an hour to take off our climbing gear, pack up all our stuff and get some rest. An hour hardly seemed long enough to eat, pack, and rest but none of us complained. The sun was intense and the temperatures were rising quickly on the lower slopes. None of us wanted to delay our return to Paradise.

About 1:00pm we met to begin our slipping and sliding down the slushy snow of “Muir Beach.” Our guides had taught us to slide step to save energy and speed our descent. This became quite a balancing act with heavy packs on our backs. And yes, I did make at least one good slide that any baseball manager would have admired… but I wasn’t the only one. :-) Unfortunately, the slope wasn’t steep enough for glissading until the very end of the snowfield. Still, we made quick time down the slope.

We took a break at Pebble Creek, and I had a chance to change out of my boots into my trail shoes. And this is where a major mistake on my part became more than apparent. On the warm descent, I hadn’t worn any gaiters as we slid through the snow. So when I took off my boots, I literally poured water out of my boots from all the snow that had gotten in there. My socks were absolutely drenched and I had no other dry ones into which to change. So the last two miles on the trails in my running shoes, I hiked with soaking wet socks and developed some lovely blisters. But at least this was at the end of the climb, not the beginning.

So at 3:00pm, we were arriving at Paradise and dropping our packs, and the name Paradise never seemed more appropriate. Soon the RMI shuttle bus was picking us up and we rode quietly for an hour through the park, most with eyes shut. :-)

And so we had done it. We had climbed Rainier. I can’t say we conquered it, because Rainier is the kind of mountain that you can climb, but you never truly conquer. You gotta respect the mountain. It is such a massive mountain, one of the largest single land masses in the world. It’s so large that when our family drove west to Seattle a week ago, we first spotted it on the horizon 140 miles away on I-90.

I apologize that this recap is so long. But with RMI and this being my first true ice climb, summiting Rainier was more than an experience, it was an education. I really appreciate the good people at RMI for their detailed and professional approach to every aspect of this climb. I also appreciate all my teammates who were such strong climbers and made things go so smoothly. The guides were outstanding and had their A-game on at every moment. They weren’t hesitant to correct us when necessary because the success and well-being of the entire team depended on our compliance to good mountaineering technique. And in hindsight, it’s amazing how well they knew the route, efficient procedures, and precisely the proper clothing advice at every transition for us to avoid getting chilled or over-heated.

Climbing Rainier was a daunting challenge and an amazing experience. I thoroughly enjoyed each member of our group and every moment of our trip. The only downside is that now I find myself daydreaming about my next mountaineering venture. Alpine climbing can become very addicting. :-) Thanks for reading.