September 21, 1998 – 7 a.m. – My left foot crashes down higher than the right one for the last time. My shoulders and lower back strain under the weight of the pack. I collapse in the snow, my pack more falling off than being taken off. Each breath is laborious – suck in as much of the chilled air as possible, then force out as much of the harmful CO2 as my lungs can muster. I can’t get enough air into my aching lungs to slow my racing heart. My field of vision, already limited by the protective glacier glasses, seems to be dimming further as the dark fuzzy edges try their best to close out the bright sunshine. I want desperately to sleep. My head is throbbing, the pain having never let up since base camp.
“Eat! Drink!” we are told. I force down a bite of chocolate and a swallow of water, but just as it has for the past hour and a half, my stomach says no. I regurgitate the little food left in my stomach, soiling the pristine snowfield. Then the cold breaks through my down parka. I shiver uncontrollably. I can’t get warm. The temperature is around 15 degrees. The wind is howling at 25 miles per hour and there is nothing to slow it down this close to the summit. It chills me to the bone.
I have never been this cold in my life. Lying back on my pack, all I want to do is sleep, never to wake up this cold again. Squinting against the brightness, I can make out the rocks of the cylindrical volcanic summit. It’s only 45 minutes away, I’m told. “You can make it. We’ll carry your pack; we’ll drag you to the top. You can’t stop here, it’s too dangerous!” I try to stand up, but to no avail. I no longer feel I have control over my body. I’m only 45 minutes away, but I don’t care – my body says no more.
In my altitude-induced haze and body-numbing pain, it doesn’t register that I’m so close to the summit. My goal for the past nine months has been to stand on top of Mount Rainier’s summit, to ring the bell and sign the register. At this point I don’t remember the summit pictures taped to my wall for inspiration. I don’t remember all the training. I don’t remember running 192 miles, walking 107 miles, riding my bike 653 miles, climbing steps for countless hours and over 37,000 vertical feet, or the dozens of hikes undertaken with an overstuffed backpack. I don’t remember the countless hours in the gym, or all the time taken away from other things, sacrificed to training for this moment. Right now, all I know is pain, cold and exhaustion.
At 14,411 feet above sea level, Mount Rainier is the fifth highest peak in the continental United States. Mount Rainier is visible from Seattle and Tacoma, and is the symbol of the beauty and rawness of the Cascade Range and the Pacific Northwest. Although classified as a dormant volcano, the eruption of Mount St. Helens less than fifty miles away in 1980 is a visible reminder of the fury just waiting to explode.
Mount Rainier is also considered to be the toughest endurance climb in the lower 48 states. The climb is an 18 to 21-mile round trip with an elevation gain of 9,000 feet. I knew all this before I planned the trek. The obvious question is why would a sane person choose to spend one’s precious vacation time undertaking such a daunting task?
I’ve had ample time to think of a response, but there is still a bit of mystery surrounding the answers. One reason is I want to challenge myself physically and mentally, to push myself to my limits and then expand them. I want to prove I can undertake something completely new and rise to its challenge. I want to test the limits of my desire and perseverance. But there is also something I can’t explain, some force that draws me to the mountain, a force that tugs at my very soul. Its’ pull is irresistible.
September 18, 1998 – The journey starts with a five-hour flight from Pittsburgh to Seattle. Our arrival at Sea-Tac airport is harried. We touch down at 10:30 p.m. PDT, but by the time we collect our gear and luggage and rent a car, it is close to midnight. It’s drizzly and foggy, terrible conditions for driving. We pass under the welcoming arches of Mount Rainier National Park about 1:15 a.m., figuring we only have another fifteen minutes to our lodge at Paradise. But the fog is so thick and the road so narrow and winding, it takes another 45 minutes to get there. When we reach the parking lot at 5,400 feet, the fog is so thick I have to get out and walk towards the dim lights. We eventually make our way to the front desk, and with the assistance of an unbelievably cheery and helpful (remember, it’s 2 a.m.) front desk person (and her heavy-duty flashlight), we find our room and our car. Unpacking is a blur in the tiny room, and we don’t hit the sack until 2:30.
September 19, 1998 – 6:30 a.m. The alarm went off after only four hours of sleep. We still have to rent some equipment for the climb. The rental place is in the town of Ashford, WA, 25 miles from Paradise. I planned on being there at 7:30, right when they opened. Deb would grab breakfast and pack our gear for school. What do they say about the best-laid plans? In this case, the rental place doesn’t open until 8 a.m., and I didn’t leave the shop until 8:15. I drove back to the lodge on two wheels, getting there in a half-hour. Just enough time to shower and get ready for class. Deb was unsuccessful in finding some eats, so we wolf down a cold bagel and a candy bar on the way to class.
Arriving at the Rainier Mountaineering Inc. guide house five minutes late, we sign in and rent even more equipment. Finally we get a chance to catch our breath. For the first time, I’m really nervous. Looking around, everyone looks so much better prepared than I am. The butterflies are flying. Deb and I exchange nervous glances.
Class begins at 10 a.m. Lisa is our drill instructor. She’s a seasoned mountaineer who leads clients up Denali (Mt. McKinley) in Alaska, North America’s highest peak. Rainier is training to her. Our first order of business is a cardiovascular fitness test. We will be hiking up to the Muir snowfield in our gear and with a pack, to a staging area where we will learn snow skills. The pace is brisk as we leave the guide house. Three people drop out in the first five minutes. The hill is very steep and the pace is relentless. My boots come untied three times, and each time I have to run to catch up. I’m really struggling to breathe. Deb drops way back. I can tell she’s struggling, too. Also, it’s so foggy and drizzly that we’re soaked, and my eyeglasses are so wet I can barely see. In these conditions, I really appreciate the miracle of Gore-Tex.
Finally we arrive at the snowfield. Everyone is out of breath and panting except Lisa. Deb comes up a few minutes after I did. She looks whooped, too. Nervous glances again.
The purpose of the class is to learn basic mountaineering skills. For the next four hours we learn how to handle and use our ice axe (the mountaineers best friend), how to walk up and down steep inclines in the snow, how to fall and stop your slide using self-arrest techniques, how to put on and use crampons (crampons are metal spikes that attach to lug sole boots for better traction in the snow and ice), and how to travel in roped teams. The self-arrest portion was really fun, sliding down the slope and stopping with your ice axe. It reminded me of playing in the snow as a kid! After a quick snack break, we head back down the mountain through the rain and fog.
Back at the guide house we have a quick lecture on tomorrows climb. The instructors tell everyone that we passed their tests, much to our relief. I would have hated to get this far only to be turned around because I couldn’t master a few skills or prove C-V fitness. I can tell Deb is really relieved, too. After a short nap and a lot of aspirin, we settle in for a big pasta meal in the Lodge. Our conversation is brief; our thoughts focused on the upcoming journey.
We pack up after dinner. Our packs are unbelievably heavy with all our gear and food in them, probably over 50 pounds. For the first time I realize I might not even make it to Camp Muir. Today was difficult. I had trouble on the way to the snowfield. Maybe it was the pace, maybe it was the lack of sleep and food, or worst of all, maybe it was the altitude. I had a splitting headache all day that didn’t go away until after dinner and with the help of four aspirin. My attitude is depressed. I hydrate as much as possible at night and settle into a concerned sleep at 10 p.m.
September 20, 1998 – 6:30 a.m. The alarm is set for 7, but I’m awake at 6:30, worrying. I decide to keep a positive mental attitude. The pack is heavier than expected, but remember all of our training! I can do it, one step at a time. Make it to Muir, lose the weight – my legs are strong, my back and shoulders will be. One step at a time.
I venture outside to check on the weather before breakfast. It’s chilly, with the fog just starting to lift. The clouds part, and for the first time I get a glimpse of the mountain. Awesome! It stands majestic and foreboding, at the same time capturing my imagination and daring me to assault its flanks. I can almost hear a maniacal laugh, as the all-powerful mountain looks down at us mere mortals. And then the mountain is swallowed up again in its foggy shroud.
We order a big, warm breakfast at the Lodge, a three-egg omelet with ham and cheese. It will be our last warm meal for two days. Service was slow and put us behind schedule. Now we have to rush to get dressed and packed. We check out of our room and store our other clothes, and arrive at the guide house at 9:05. The first crisis occurs at 9:15, during the equipment check. My Camelback water storage system leaked inside my pack, soaking my down jacket. We’re advised not to bring the Camelbacks. We have to rip them from the packs and Deb runs back over to the Lodge to grab our bike water bottles. Now I’m really worried about having enough water. We can’t worry for long, though.
At 9:45 everyone is checked in and we all sit in excited anticipation. Brent introduces himself as our lead guide. He talks in a calm, soothing voice that seems to give strength to everyone in the room. His voice reeks with experience, confidence and leadership. Brent epitomizes the entire RMI staff. Their patience, professionalism, and experience are unparalleled. I can’t imagine climbing with anyone else.
The rest of our guide staff consists of Jeff, a first year RMI guide who has summitted 17 times this summer; JJ, who with his long blond hair looks more like a surfer than a climber; and Chris, a veteran RMI guide. John and Art are not present now, but we are told they will meet us at Camp Muir later today.
The group of climbers is as diverse as it is large. 23 climbers have chosen to undertake the challenge of the mountain. The youngest climber is Charlie, a senior in high school. The oldest is 66. There is a doctor, an airline mechanic for Boeing and a commercial pilot who flies Boeings. There is an ornithologist, a physical therapist, and retirees. There are marathoners and experienced climbers, including one gentleman with extensive experience in the Swiss Alps and another with Himalayan experience. The majority, however, have never done anything like this before. There is a group of five friends from Sun Valley, Idaho, and others who are climbing solo. There’s even a guy who went to school with Mark Bruener of the Pittsburgh Steelers. We take turns going around the room to give brief bios and reasons for challenging the mountain. Everyone has a different reason for wanting to climb Rainier, but we all share one common goal – to pit our individual strengths against the unforgiving mountain.
The climb starts at 10:00 a.m. when we depart the guide house for Camp Muir. The cool morning air begins to heat up as we march uphill. The first 45 minutes is on pavement. We pass the casual tourists who never venture beyond the easy paths. In my arrogance, I feel superior to them, because I’m going to the top! The mountain must sense this, and unbeknownst to me, plots to restore my humility.
Amidst the clanking of lug sole boots and ski poles on asphalt, there is lively chatter and anticipation. The packs don’t feel their full fifty pounds yet. We will be hiking five or six hours today, gaining 4,500 feet of elevation. Rest breaks come about every hour. We lose the pavement after the first rest break, and we lose the dirt trail after the second. During breaks we put on our shell parkas to ward off the wind, which bites hard through our sweat soaked polypro and fleece.
After the second rest stop we encounter intermittent snowfields, and after the third we are on permanent snow. We put on our gaiters to prevent snow from getting into our boots. In the snow the climbing becomes more difficult and technique becomes mandatory. I cannot master the rest step. For fifteen minutes Chris works with me on the rest step. For fifteen minutes I become increasingly frustrated. I know I need to conserve my energy and climb efficiently, but I’ve now been wasting it for over 2,000 feet. I’m mad at myself. Finally Chris tells me he’s going to leave me alone. Relax; don’t think so hard, it will come. And it does! I finally grasp the concept of putting all of your weight on your back leg before moving the other leg forward. At first I have to concentrate on each step. Eventually a pattern develops, and by the time we get to our last rest break I’ve got it down! I’m secretly proud of myself for my small accomplishment, and it buoys me all the way to Camp Muir.
The climb to Camp Muir was difficult. It took us 5-1/2 hours. We arrived at high camp at 3:30 in the afternoon. I can’t wait to shed my fifty-pound pack! My back and shoulders ache, but my legs feel great. It’s sunny and windy, around 40 degrees on the rocky plateau. Shell parkas are donned and we celebrate getting to 10,000 feet. Again, I’m secretly buoyed by the fact that I made it this far. My back held up, and tomorrow’s pack should only be about 25 pounds. One step at a time.
Camp Muir is a desolate place. It is perched on a rock outcropping right above the Muir snowfield on the southeast side of the mountain. The facilities are Spartan by modern living standards, but are considered the lap of luxury by climbers. The RMI facilities include a bunkhouse, a guide hut and a solar outhouse. The public facilities include a stone shelter and two bathrooms.
The RMI bunkhouse is a rectangular, 30’x15’x15’ stone and wood structure that has a posted maximum occupancy of 35. We have 23 climbers inside, and I can’t imagine putting 12 more people in it. Our rectangular “home” has three tiers of bunks with foam rest pads rolled out to indicate sleeping positions. Deb picks out two spots on the bottom bunk. There are six sleeping spaces across the bottom, and we are in the middle two. We each get about 2-1/2 feet of space. “Cozy” would describe the closeness to you neighbor. I’m glad I can cuddle up to Deb. She’s always nice and warm and she’s so small I can usually hog up some of her space.
Besides, she looks so cute with her little button nose and big brown eyes peering out the top of her mummy bag.
Space is at a premium in the bunkhouse. We keep as much gear outside as possible, bringing only our sleeping bags, some food and the clothes we plan to wear tomorrow inside. One of the luxuries of climbing with RMI is that they provide water at Camp Muir. Gas tanks flown in via helicopter provide the fuel to melt snow for water. The water is treated or boiled for consumption. At 5 p.m. boiling water is brought in for dinner. Everyone rips into his or her dehydrated dinners, which aren’t bad. I added too much water to my chicken and rice, and not enough water to my bean soup. Oh well, I’m starving, and we’re told to eat as much as you can. I even drink the extra water from my bag-o-meal, trying to hydrate as much as possible.
Of course, hydrating has side effects, mainly having to go to the bathroom. That’s not something to take for granted at 10,000 feet. The RMI toilet is closest, but if too many people are in line it’s worth the extra walk to the public facility. The problem is how cold it is! The less time spent outside in the cold, the better! All in all, the facilities are much better than I expected. It’s too cold to smell anything, and as long as you don’t look down into the pit, it’s not that bad. Plus, RMI provides the t.p. in their outhouse. You have to take your own if you use the public restroom.
After dinner, Brent has a talk with us about the next day’s ascent. He tells us what to expect, what to take in our packs, and what to do tonight in preparation. He will make a clothing recommendation in the morning based on the weather. Climb teams are announced. Deb and I are not on the same team. I’m climbing with Steve, Robbie and David, and my guide is Jeff. We all shake hands and make small talk. These are the people who will save your life if we get in trouble.
We also have a few more things to learn and equipment to collect. RMI has stashed helmets and rope harnesses in the bunkhouse. We’re taught how to fit each piece of equipment and how to use it. Headlamps are attached to the helmets. It’s pandemonium in the bunkhouse as 23 people attempt to do this in the cramped quarters. Finally, Brent tells everyone to make one last equipment check, one last bathroom run, and to get some rest. It’s 6:30 p.m. and still daylight outside when we get the official lights out.
I’m stuffed into my mummy bag at 10,000 feet, wondering what the hell I’m doing here. I’m supposed to be resting for the most physically intense day of my life. Some people are resting. The guy on my right started snoring five minutes after he lay down. But I can’t sleep. Every noise from my 22 bunkmates seems amplified. There is a chorus of snoring now, along with the sounds of nylon on foam whenever anybody moves. I roll over and kiss Deb, we exchange nervous I love you’s and I touch her nose. She’s got the same “what the hell are we doing this is our vacation” look in her eyes, too.
Try as I might, sleep doesn’t come. I’m more and more aware of a growing, gnawing headache, and I can’t catch my breath. My heart is racing. Is it the altitude or the worry? At some times I can feel every heartbeat in my skull as my headache gets worse. I have to get up and pee in the middle of the night, too. Talk about cold outside! I’m thankful to get back into the warm bunkhouse.
Back inside, I’m jealous of all the snorers in the group – they’ll be well rested. Deb says I twitched a few times and snored for a few minutes, but I don’t recall getting any sleep at all.
September 21, 1998 – 12:30 a.m. – Summit Day – Brent mercifully ends the sleep charade with a gentle “Good Morning”. I can’t believe I’m getting up at 12:30 a.m. Everyone pops right up and begins their prep. Brent recommends a polypro first layer for both top and bottom, followed by heavy fleece full zip pants and our Gore-Tex shells. We’re advised to keep our down parkas on over our shells until we are ready to leave. Two pairs of socks and our lug sole boots will keep our feet warm, while heavy Gore-Tex ski gloves protect our fingers. A hardhat helmet should keep our head warm, and the rope harness completes the outfit. It is controlled chaos in the bunkhouse as 23 people try to get ready at the same time. It is dark, you can’t find your gear, and you are fumbling with unfamiliar equipment. At the same time we’re supposed to be eating breakfast. Hot water is brought down and I mix two packs of oatmeal, along with granola bars and candy. Yuck! I really have to force the food down. It tastes gross and I don’t feel like eating. My head is pounding. Against our guides advice I swallow two aspirin.
I step outside to grab more gear. It’s cold, but it’s good to get away from the chaos of the bunkhouse. It’s probably about 10 – 15 degrees, but there is no wind. It’s peaceful out on the mountain in the middle of the night. Finally my eyes adjust to the darkness and I’m left breathless with the sight surrounding me. Stars. Millions of stars, planets and heavenly bodies. I’ve never seen so many stars before. The night sky is crystal clear, not a cloud in the sky. I’m awed by the magnificence of it all. A picture perfect night sky set against the backdrop of the mountain and the Cascades. Between headache throbs I feel a peace and serenity amidst such beauty. My humility also returns when it hits me how insignificant I am amidst the millions of stars and galaxies visible in this huge universe.
I can’t enjoy the sky for long. There is still a lot of work to do. My pack has to be made up, water bottles filled and food for the trip stored away. Under the bright light of my headlamp I securely strap on my crampons and grab my ice axe. My team assembles and Jeff gives everyone a quick equipment check. We then walk over to the rope area and take our positions. We will be the third team. Jeff leads, followed by David, Robbie and myself. Steve takes up the anchor position behind me. The rope is clipped on and we await our start. I almost lose sight of Deb two teams back, but we exchange “good lucks” and “love yous” in the headlamp glow.
The first two teams take off across the Cowlitz glacier. Their lights start to snake up the mountain. We take off our down parkas and pack them away. Finally Jeff moves out, and before I know it the rope in front of me is uncoiling and it’s my turn to go. We’re off!
There is about 10 – 20 feet of rope between each climber. We start rest stepping immediately, and I start pressure breathing every other step. The pace is brisk. Maybe five minutes into the hike we come to our first crevasse. It’s only about four feet across and is easily jumped. I can’t see how deep it is in the dark. It will take about an hour and a half to climb across the Cowlitz glacier and through Cathedral Rocks, just below Cadaver Gap, to the Ingraham flats. This is where we will take our first break. We cross a number of crevasses in the dark, the widest requiring a running jump to bridge. The going is tough. My head pounds with every step, I’m sweating profusely and thirsty. The beauty around me takes a back seat to the rest step, pressure-breathing routine that transports you to a Zen-like state. Step, climb, breath. Up and up and up.
Finally we make Cadaver Gap. Below us is Cathedral Rock, an ominous looking rock formation. Climbing on the volcanic rock is a lot more difficult than climbing on glacier. The footing is less firm, especially wearing crampons, and you can’t drive your ice axe into the rock for stability. I’m glad it’s dark and I can’t see the rock formation I’m climbing. It takes a lot of the fear out of it.
We finally punch through the Gap and get to Ingraham flats and a well-deserved break. I suck down a ton of water, eat chocolate and try to catch my breath. I’m really fatigued. We plop down on our packs and rest. Deb’s team catches up and I ask how she feels. “So-so” is the reply. I concur. Perhaps to take our minds off our task, a guide points out the lights of Yakima, WA out in the distance. It’s hard to believe we can see the lights of a city over 50 miles away, but then I realize we are at 11,000 feet.
Our leaders do a sanity check. They warn us the most difficult stretch is coming up. We will be traveling over the Ingraham glacier and its many hidden crevasses and up to Disappointment Cleaver. The Cleaver will be the most taxing part of the climb, a very steep section of rock that will take over an hour to climb. There will not be a break until we are on top of the Cleaver. Worst of all, the pace will be quick. The danger of rock falls is highest in this area, and no stopping will be tolerated. Three people drop out and head back to Camp Muir in a rope team. I decide to continue. I must focus harder. Rest step and pressure-breathe every breath. Concentrate. Block out the pain from my throbbing head. One foot in front of the other, one step at a time.
The headlights stretch out, and I’m walking again. The rest helped and I feel better. The pressure breathing every step helps, too. I can feel my strength returning with each step. Now if only my head would start hurting less. The Ingraham icefall is the most interesting part of the climb. We weave in and out of gigantic ice formations and around gaping cracks and crevasses. We have to be careful not to step on the rope as we zigzag through the ice field. The millions of stars and our headlamps provide the only light, but the landscape is bathed in an eerie yellow blue glow, adding to the mystique. I feel like I’ve been transported to another planet. This is truly an exciting adventure in a place I’ve only read about. The adrenaline rush is palpable.
It’s also in the icefall that we make our first ladder crossing. After descending about fifteen feet around a huge ice serac, a huge chasm opens up in the glacier. A ladder spans the gulf. It’s about 15 feet across and maybe one foot wide. Nobody slows down – you just cross it. Try not to think about how far the bottom is in the murky blackness. Try not to think about a crampon getting stuck on the ladder. Just walk. One foot in front of the other.
Once on the other side and in hindsight, I reflect that crossing the ladder at night is a blessing. I don’t know if I want to know how deep the crevasse is. Then I remember that we have to return via the same route. I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. We eventually meander out of the ice field with only one more ladder crossing and only a few more crevasse jumps. Now we are into steady uphill on ice. The Zen-like rhythm returns. I try not to look up. Every time I look up I can see the headlamps of the two teams ahead of us snaking ever higher up the mountain. They’re not stopping and the grade looks even steeper. I vow not to look up again – it’s too depressing.
Finally we get to the Cleaver. We coil in the ropes until there is only five feet of rope between us. We’re back to climbing rock. This is the most dangerous part of the climb. The danger of rock fall is real. Jeff tells us the pace will be even faster. No stopping until we are on top of the Cleaver, which should take 45 minutes to an hour. We dig into the Cleaver, scrambling up its face. It’s more of a controlled scramble on all fours than it is a climb. The lose rock accounts for a lot of slips and slides. This is definitely the hardest climbing so far. My head is pounding, but I force myself to concentrate, one step at a time.
Suddenly a sound like thunder rolls off the mountain. The guides yell for us to stop climbing and hug the mountain. It sounds like a nylon tarp flapping in a strong wind. It doesn’t register with me what it is, but our guides recognize the unmistakable sound of a rockslide. The guides point out that the slide wasn’t on the Cleaver, but on another nearby rock formation, Little Tahoma Peak. It does serve as a wake-up call to the precarious situation we are in.
We resume the climb with adrenaline coursing through our veins. After a body numbing two and a halfhours we reach our next rest area at the top of Disappointment Cleaver. I’m beat. My head is pounding and my back and shoulders ache. I’m dehydrated but I can’t drink. I feel nauseous. Take the pack off, put on the down parka and force down some water. I can’t eat right now. I try to catch my breath and slow my racing heart.
After a few minutes I feel a little better. I finally notice that dawn is breaking over the mountain. What a beautiful sight! Mount Adams is visible on the horizon, as is Mount Jefferson, Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood. The dark sky is being replaced
by a purple to pink cloudless sky. Only the brightest stars are visible now.
As I watch the sunrise, the rope teams behind me begin to arrive. The team two back arrives, and I see Deb! She made it up the Cleaver! I want to give her a high five, but I’m still roped in and can’t reach her. In the dawn’s early light I can tell she’s hurting, though. That pained expression needs no explanation.
The guides again congratulate everyone who’s made it this far. We are now at 12,500 feet. They explain what to expect on the next leg. There are only two legs left on the climb, and the remaining climb will be on all snow. It will be switchback and traverses the remainder of the way. Now is the time to decide. Two and a half more hours of straight up hill. I overhear a guide say “You need to think long and hard about whether to go on, but I need an answer in ten seconds.” I chuckle. Am I the only one who hears the irony, or is everyone just too tired to laugh? Shrugging off the levity, I again ask what to expect and how it compares to what we just did. I feel terrible. My head aches and I can’t eat, but I decide to push on. I’ve come too far to turn back now.
Five people decide to turn back, including Deb. I tell her she did well. She offers her cell phone (we were going to call home from the summit) but I decline. I don’t want any additional weight on my back! She waves good luck, and we both lose our parkas and head off in different directions.
The by now glaring sunshine forces us to put on our glacier glasses. The glasses offer maximum UV protection for our eyes and have leather blinders that prevent light from bouncing off the snow and harming our eyes from below. We also generously apply sunscreen to our faces, 30 SPF minimum. It seems really weird to be applying sunscreen when it’s this cold out.
The trek is all on snow from here on up. The grade seems to be steeper. As we switchback again and again I realize I’m having trouble negotiating the rope. I step on it a number of times, a major boo-boo with crampons on, but I don’t tell the guides. The pressure breathing doesn’t seem to be getting enough air into my lungs, either. The slope is so steep in places that you have to dig in with your ice axe at chest level just to pull yourself up to the next step. I miss the extra push I could take on less steep inclines when I used my ice axe as a cane.
It seems as if we have been walking forever. I trip on the rope with regularity, and my rope technique in the turns is terrible. I’ve lost the rest step and I have to consciously tell myself to pressure breathe. My head is still pounding. When I notice some slack in the rope I look up to see everyone has stopped. Thank God! I trip and fall again, but this time I vomit while on my hands and knees. Luckily, I vomited in a boot print and I’m able to cover it with snow. It’s not much, anyway, but I want to hide my weakness.
The slack is soon moving again and I’m forced to my feet. One step at a time! Breathe! Rest step! The commands almost have to be vocalized now. When is the next break? I make the mistake of looking up and seeing the two rope teams ahead continuing to snake further uphill. My heart sinks. At yet another switchback we come to another ladder crossing. The crevasse is not deep, maybe only 25 feet, but it is uphill at a steep angle. My right foot misses the last step and I fall through! Instinctively I dig in with my ice axe and catch myself. I yell to the others to stop so they don’t pull me off the ladder. I try to get my foot out but the crampons keep getting caught between the rungs. Jeff must sense my panic and tells me to stop and not move for a minute. Try again, he says, and I concentrate on pulling my boot through. It works and I’m up. I scramble back to my feet, but I’m shaken. It was my own lack of concentration that almost caused disaster for the whole team. I begin to distrust my senses.
The climb continues for another half-hour. I have to ask once how far to the next break. Ten minutes is the standard RMI answer, but right now ten minutes seems like forever. Another bout with nausea and one foot in front of the other. Finally, and hour and a half from the last rest stop and 45 minutes from the summit, we break.
I can’t go on and I tell Jeff. The problem is that I can’t go back down by myself. A team of at least three is necessary to safely make it back down. Remember that the summit is only the halfway point! The RMI guides like to remind us that the ascent is optional, but the descent is mandatory. My only other option is to be put in a solar mummy bag and staked to the mountain, to be picked up by the teams on the way down, or have an entire rope team turn around here. Not a good dilemma, but my brain is so numb it barely registers.
The last rope team pulls in and I see the four remaining guides huddle. The last team has a member who wants to go down, too. Although three people on a rope team is less than ideal, especially when two are weakened, the guides decide that Jeff will lead myself and the other felled climber down. I’m switched out of my rope team and connected to Jeff and another client. To this day I have no idea who the other person was, even though I had just spent the past two days with him. And I didn’t really care, either.
I remember watching the fifteen climbers move on from here. I was told later that I was at 13,500 feet, only 900 vertical feet and forty-five minutes from the summit. It hurts now, being so close, but I truly didn’t care at the time. We rested for an additional fifteen minutes. I was able to keep down water, but food was out of the question. Finally we stood and started down the mountain. Jeff led, and I brought up the rear. The going was tough and Jeff had to constantly yell at me to keep my ice axe at the ready and to pay attention. I negotiated the ladder successfully this time and we made steady, albeit slow, progress. Jeff kept a very slow pace and a watchful eye at all the difficult points.
We break at the same areas we did on the way up. The other crippled climber chattered to Jeff, but I had no strength to talk. Beside, talking echoed in my brain and reminded me of the piercing pain still pounding in my head. Descending the Cleaver was difficult. I fell a number of times, but nothing major. One of the summiteers slipped down the Cleaver and dislodged a few rocks, striking a climber below him in the head. He credits his helmet for saving his life, or at least preventing a nasty accident. I was glad to get off the rocks and back onto snow and glacier.
Although 95% of the descent was downhill, the few uphill spurts were murder. The going was slow. In the ice field I got a good look at the crevasses. Some were hundreds of feet deep, all of them ending in a deep blue color that suggested bottomlessness. The longest ladder crossing was over a 150-foot chasm. My rope got stuck on a rung and I had to yell for everyone to stop, bend down and unhook it, turn and continue on. In a normal situation I would have been terrified. As it was, I didn’t care. I did what I had to do on autopilot, with no fear or emotion. In hindsight, this too, was a blessing.
The rectangular hut of Camp Muir is like seeing the Promised Land. I descend to 10,000 around two in the afternoon. I have been hiking for 12 hours and my head is pounding. The first thing I do is get rid of the crampons and take four aspirin. I’m able to drink again, and Deb prepares me some hot soup and tea. The warm liquid seemed to put a little life back into me. Enough that I am able to prepare for the final 4,500-foot descent. Deb packed up my gear and I was able to nod off for about fifteen minutes.
I awoke to the sound of cheering and clapping. The twelve climbers who made it to the top had returned to Camp Muir. I applaud also. Some people looked in remarkably good shape, while others look half-dead. The guides hurry them to pack up. We still have a three-hour descent to Paradise.
The descent from Camp Muir is pure hell. The pack is at full weight again and my back screams in pain. The snowfield has been melting under the bright autumn sun all day and is very slick. It’s more or less a controlled slide down the slope with ski poles but no skies. We break only once for water, and finally come to the trails at Paradise. I know I’ll make it from here – one foot in front of the other.
Back at the guide hut the summitters are given certificates. I watch with envy. For the first time I realize I didn’t achieve my goal. It hurts to know I didn’t earn a certificate. It’s a sobering thought, but again it takes a back seat to the present discomforts. We’ve been in the same clothes now for two days, and all I want is a shower and to lose this damn pack. Deb and I are quite a sight as we check into the Lodge. Because of the stench nobody gets too near us. I can’t blame them – I don’t even want to be near me!
That evening’s shower is the best ever. The warm water soothes my aching back and shoulders. An inventory of the bodily damage is minimal. No severe blisters. Most of my fingernails had bleed, but I don’t recall when. My shoulders are swollen and remained so for three days, but it was more of an inconvenience than an injury. The worst part was the fluid that filled our lungs. A rough cough persisted for four days, especially when any physical exertion was needed. The fluid and the headache, I learned later, were the by-products of altitude sickness.
My appetite didn’t return for three days. We couldn’t eat that night. After my shower I got the chills so bad I couldn’t get out of bed. Deb got them too, and it persisted on and off for the next two days. When I got home five days later I was shocked to see I had lost over ten pounds! My legs were fine. It wasn’t because of a lack of training that I didn’t make it to the top. In fact, I was up at dawn the next day and hiked up the Paradise trails to watch the sunrise. I asked myself why I didn’t make it. One obvious reason was the altitude sickness. Another was my pack was too heavy. I should have trained with a heavier pack. Because it took me so long to get the rest step, I didn’t climb efficiently, either. These are the things only experience can teach you.
Standing in the shadow of The Mountain, I thought back to why I chose to come here and what I learned. No, I didn’t summit. But I did find my limit for pain and endurance. I planned and persevered through many, but not all, setbacks. I learned the importance of breaking long term goals into smaller, manageable goals, and tackling those one at a time. I learned to listen to the experts and the importance of experience. But the biggest lesson The Mountain taught me was the value of humility and the danger of hubris.
September 22, 1998 – 7:00 a.m. – The sunrise is glorious. The Mountain is illuminated in a golden glow. Deer graze in the meadows and a Prairie falcon soars by on pointed wings. Through my binoculars I can make out Camp Muir and the brightly colored parkas of new climbers pitting themselves against Rainier. The Mountain seems to call my name. I move in the direction of the guide hut to seek out the 1999 climbing schedule…
July 1, 2001 – Paradise – 8:00 a.m. – A deep breath of fresh mountain air fills my lungs. It is tinged with a hint of pine and the subtle smell of snowmelt working through the just awakening meadows. It is chilled to a senses-tingling briskness. I breathe deep, letting the air fill my body. It’s like the first breath taken after stepping outside on a cold, snowy morning. Ravens call from the treetops, while invisible Varied Thrushes ping their one syllable call off the slopes. Fog partially hides the Tatoosh Range and Mount Rainier itself, limiting visibility to just the immediate surroundings. I hear the sound of lug sole boots on asphalt, and watch a pair of climbers pass the Guide Hut through the thinning fog, making their way towards The Mountain.
It’s been almost three years, and so much has changed in those three years! A new job, a new baby, soon a new house. But one thing hasn’t changed – my desire to get back to this place. In fact, the desire has grown, however slowly, and only at the very edge of consciousness. In the three years since I was last at this place, I’ve climbed Mount Shasta, Mount Elbert and Mount Massive. But those were just substitutes for the real thing. I was just dipping my toes into the water, testing the temperature. Rainier is the true test. It may not be as tall as Elbert or Massive, but it’s oh so much bigger. Shasta may rival it in mass, but Rainier is so much more glaciated – and harder to climb. Even on those other mountains I knew I would have to get back to this hill. I knew I would have to face my fears and failures, and I knew there was only one place to do that. It’s taken almost three years to screw up the courage, but here I am.
Oh, I learned so much in those intervening years! I was so naïve when I undertook Rainier’s challenge three years ago. I summitted Shasta in part on the back of my Rainier mistakes. I pressure-breathed and rest stepped all the way to the 14,162-foot summit after acclimating for two days prior to the climb. I really mastered acclimating on the Colorado peaks, Elbert and Massive, by spending almost an entire week at 10,000 feet. I knew my body would respond to the right conditioning. I also read dozens of mountaineering books and I worked hard to hone my backpacking skills to a fine art.
And oh how I learned the value of hard training. I took the “you cannot over train for this trip” warning lightly in 1998. Not this time. I never trained harder for anything in my life. In the three months leading up to this point I biked over 1,000 miles, I ran 160 miles, and I hiked 165 miles with a pack, many times in excess of 60 pounds. I worked out in the gym four or five times a week, squatting and lunging and crunching. I set personal records for most miles hiked with a pack in one day (24), most miles hiked with a pack in four days (75) and most miles on a bike in one day (100). The hills on my daily mountain bike route to work nearly burst my lungs open but it increased my lung capacity. By the end of the three months I cruised up hills that used to force me off the bike.
I want this bad, and my workouts reflected that desire. To still be able to spend time with my family, though, I worked out in the mornings, which freed up most evenings. Often times I was running well before 5 a.m. I made a laminated note card of my workouts to take with me, to remind me to reach down further while on the climb. June 13th still sticks out. On that day I awoke at 4:30 a.m., ran six miles, jumped rope for fifteen minutes, and downed a PowerBar before hopping on my mountain bike for a 40-minute jaunt through the hills to work. A 40-minute leg busting weight workout followed. At lunchtime, I played two-man volleyball for an hour. After a full day at the office and another 40-minute mountain bike ride home, I downed a quick microwave dinner, and then I donned a 40 pound pack and hiked the last remaining two hours until dark. Although not every day was like that, I took only eight days off in the three months, and I lost 18 lbs in the training. Yeah, I want this!
Yesterday I wasn’t as sure, though. I flew into Seattle, drove to Mount Rainier National Park and made camp alone. I missed my family, and felt alone and vulnerable. I questioned why I was here again. It’s always nice to have someone you love and trust around when you prepare to do something as big as this, but it just didn’t make logistical sense to drag Deb and Jake 2,500 miles from home. I had two giant bags of equipment alone, for climbing and camping. Adding all of Jake’s needs would have been impossible, so we agreed on the current plan. Deb would join me after the climb, and the grandparents would watch
little Jake for four days for us after the climb.
So it’s with a slight melancholy feeling that I take these first few steps through the meadows at Paradise. The gray fog doesn’t help, but there are pockets of sunshine breaking through the waning fog. I continue to trudge uphill, and the scenery brightens with the sunshine. Armed with a video camera, two still cameras, and the time I didn’t have the last time I was here, I let the film roll. My mood continues to brighten the higher I hike. The Tatoosh Range is awash in golden sunshine to the south, with Mount Adams poking its massive white head above the jagged peaks, while Rainier shines and sparkles like an apparition above the low lying fog. Beautiful!
There is no real destination today. My only goal is to spend time at altitude. Obviously, the higher the better, but I don’t want to wear myself out, either. So if I make it to Camp Muir at 10,000 feet, that’d be great, but if not, that’s fine, too. It feels good not to have to be anywhere for a change.
At a lunch break around 9,000 feet, I can’t believe how well I feel! My pack feels light. No fatigue, no nausea, and not the slightest hint of a headache, either! Maybe I won’t get altitude sickness this time? I’ve been taking 120 mg of Ginkgo Baloba twice a day. Recent research has given some hope that Ginkgo Baloba lessens the effects of the thin air. Although it is too early to endorse it at this point, I figure it can’t hurt. Maybe it is helping now.
I decide to make a sprint to Camp Muir. It’s only another 1,000 feet, maybe another hour or so. The sun is shining without a cloud in the sky. If there were, I would hop on it right now, that’s how high I feel! Unfortunately, by the time I make it to Camp Muir at 1:30 p.m., after trudging through the melting snow for an hour, my physical condition is deteriorating. The pack feels heavy, and a headache is growing. Worse, when I try to eat, my stomach starts to quake. I try to ignore the symptoms by taking pictures and video of the mini city that is Camp Muir. The RMI bunkhouse and guide house are bustling with activity as that days’ summit group prepares to head back down to Paradise. About twenty tents fill the flat, wind-protected area behind the RMI facilities at the edge of the Cowlitz glacier. Climbers are busy melting snow for water, coiling ropes, checking crampons and equipment. I wish I could spend more time soaking in the thin air and the climbing atmosphere, but I can feel myself getting sicker. After a half an hour I decide I better go back down.
The symptoms that I hope are not altitude sickness make the descent painful and slow. I stop three times for extended breaks. I feel like throwing up. I don’t even feel like taking pictures, and I’ve lost my appetite for the scenery. Worse, my heart sinks to desperate depths – this descent from Camp Muir feels just as bad as the last one, in 1998. I’m in much better shape this time, but what good is that if you’re sick? Altitude sickness killed me last time – now I have real worries that it will sink me again. Finally I make it back to the parking lot at Paradise. I crawl to the car, throw my pack in the trunk, pop two aspirin and head to camp, utterly discouraged.
Back at camp, the first thing I do is call Deb. I wish she were here. I try to hide the despair at first, but she can tell something is wrong. I can hear little Jake in the background, and I would gladly give up this Rainier dream in a second to be transported back home right now. I miss and need my family. I have to cut the conversation short because of how lousy I feel. Besides, I have a ton of details to take care of. I buy some firewood and begin tending to the camp chores, even though I want desperately to sleep. After building a fire to dry out my soaked boots and clothes, I unpack and make a good, filling dinner of burritos and rice.
The aspirin and lower elevation are working, and I begin to feel better, at least physically. Families enjoying a night in the woods surround me. I really miss my family and wish they were here with me, but I appreciate the kind words of encouragement Deb provided. I know she’s thinking of me. I can’t help but question why I’m here. What am I doing out here by myself, so far from home, killing myself on vacation again? What am I trying to prove? As darkness descends and the woodland thrushes serenade the day’s end, I decide to sleep on it – maybe things will be better in the morning.
July 2, 2001 – Cougar Rock Campground – 5:15 a.m. – Another great nights’ sleep. I don’t know why I sleep so good in the woods, but I appreciate the rest. I did wake up a couple of times during the night, though, when my face felt wet. I chalked it up to the dew, even though the tent fly was zipped up. Now in the morning, clear headed and well rested, I’m worried because my face is still wet. A quick jaunt to the restroom confirms my worst fears. Sure enough, my face is bright red with severe sunburn. Severe enough that it is oozing puss from the worst burned areas. How could I have been so dumb? I curse myself under my breath. I stopped to put SPF 30 sunscreen on early yesterday morning. I remember putting it on my arms, legs, neck and ears, but I forget to put it on my face. I was wearing a large brimmed sun hat, but I guess I forgot about the rays bouncing up off of the snow. Now I’m paying for that stupidity. Even the inside of my nose is bright red, and it stings. I fish some burn gel out of my first aid kit, and the soothing gel feels cool and lessens the sting. But it still looks bad and is leaking like a sieve. Now another worry – will it heal in time for the climb?
I was planning on another acclimating hike at Paradise, but now I want to avoid the sun and snow combination at all costs. I need to get as high as I can while avoiding the any more skin damage. I can drive to 6,400 feet at the Sunrise area of the Park, so that becomes my destination. It’s a long drive to Sunrise, 50 miles and two hours away. I don’t get immersed in altitude until 10 a.m., much later than I wanted. Luckily the trails at Sunrise are mostly snow-free. A ranger informs me that this is unusual. Usually at this time of the year, Sunrise is still under eight feet of snow, but the lingering drought has melted it out weeks earlier. Good
fortune for me.
I decide to hike the Burroughs Mountain trail, after putting on two coats of sun block. Sunrise is stunning. From the top of Burroughs Mountain, Rainier dominates, rising in spectacular fashion above the tundra and filling the entire southwest view with snow, rock and glaciers. The view could be mistaken for the Alps or the Himalayas. Below me I look down on alpine meadows crisscrossed with hiking trails. The Olympic Mountains are in view 100 miles northwest across Puget Sound. Mt. Baker, the snowiest place on the planet, makes an appearance to the north, a sight available only on the clearest of days. Today there is not a cloud in the sky. The only clouds are in my mind. I sit below the Emmons glacier, the largest glacier in the lower 48, and peer up at Camp Sherman and the climbers going up the Emmons glacier route. God it looks steep! My doubts are serious now. How will I ever climb this thing? What the hell am I doing here? My anxiety overshadows even the scenery.
My face is burned badly. I have to constantly dab the ooze with Kleenex. It hurts like hell, too, so I try my best to keep out of the sun, but there is no shade above tree line on the tundra. Stupid, stupid, stupid! All I can do is apply the burn gel and hope it heals in time.
Back at camp that night I make another filling dinner of chili and rice. My mind is racing with worries. At least the camp chores occupy my time and offer distraction. I just keep asking myself why I’m here. While eating my solitary meal a little boy and his father walk by my campsite. The little boy scrambles up to the top of big rock and shouts “Look, Daddy, I’m bigger than you!” Is that what I’m doing? Am I trying to get to the top of this rock just to say, “Look, I’m bigger than you?!?!” It makes this all seem so childish, this business of climbing. But maybe I am childish. I do plan on crowing “Look how big I am” if I make it to the top. But so what if I make it? And who really cares, anyway? Maybe I’m still just a kid, looking for approval that I’m big enough now. But whose approval am I after, and what do I have to be big enough for?
My mind drifts to fading memories of my own father. He’s now been dead longer than the time I had with him. What would Dad say about this? Would he approve, or would he admonish me? After all, I’m a father myself now. I have to be responsible in my actions now. My guess is that he would be right here beside me, climbing and taking in the life experience. I long for his strong and guiding hand as he helps his proud little boy down from the rock…
Warm and comfortable, wrapped in my sleeping bag inside the tent, I have time to reflect. These past two days I’ve felt an emotion not common to me – I’m afraid. I’m afraid of failing again. I’m afraid of this Mountain and what its thin air can do to me. I’m afraid I’m not good enough. But being afraid is not a bad thing. It keeps you grounded in reality and opens your senses to the fullest. Everything is magnified, every detail counts. You cannot get by on routine and ordinary when you are afraid.
You also become fully aware and conscious of what is really important. Debbie. Jake. They’re whom I really, truly, love, and they make life worth living. Not some stupid, unfeeling mountain. I’d give anything right now for a big hug and kiss from my family. But I will go to sleep tonight under a starry sky, the same starry sky that tucks in Jake and Debbie. I will send them my love across the miles, and I will sleep sound in the knowledge of their love in return.
P.S. – I look like a picture of a raccoon on a negative – bright red everywhere except white around my eyes, where the glacier glasses protected my skin from the harmful rays! I snap a self-portrait in the hope that I might look back later and laugh.
July 3, 2001 – Cougar Rock Campground – 5:30 a.m. – Today is better. I still look awful and people still wince when I pass them, thankful they are not me. But my face stopped oozing. It doesn’t hurt as much anymore, either – I can almost touch it now. I’ve been washing it with anti-bacterial wipes (Deb would be so proud!) and keeping the burn gel on thick. It seems to be working.
Another good night’s sleep, up with the Varied Thrushes at dawn. I pack up camp quickly, since tonight I will be in a motel. It will be nice to shower and sleep on a bed after three nights on the ground. I eat in the car, finishing my Grape-Nut bars in the Paradise parking lot. I make up a very light daypack.
Today I decide to let go. I let go of my fears and apprehensions. I let go of my acclimating schedule. I let go of my worries. Today it’s just me and the Mountain. No cameras, camcorders or hiking poles, either. My rewards are almost immediate. Armed with only binoculars, I set off for the Paradise meadows. Low-pitched, ventriliquol booming sounds surround me, and soon I find myself in the midst of a Blue Grouse lek. A lek is a staging area for courtship displays. It is springtime on the Mountain, and the male grouse are looking for love. One male in particular is hell bent on fulfilling his manifest destiny. Ignoring my presence, he struts around with his tail feathers erect, air sacks on his neck fully exposed and bright yellow, and engorged orange eyebrows ablaze. He struts within ten feet of me in pursuit of two drab and cryptic females, who completely ignore his advances. Fantastic! From my select perch along the meadow trail I have my very own front row seat into a Wild Kingdom episode! Finally the Mountain is accepting my presence. Or maybe I’m accepting it, without trying to conquer it or capture it on film.
After watching the grouse display for over an hour, I leisurely stroll through the meadows. Most are still under snow, but where it has melted, Avalanche Lilies have sprouted and are in full bloom. I take the time enjoy the yellow centers framed by six white outer petals. I’ve done all of my homework; there is nothing else to do. I reread the RMI instructions. I have everything on the list. I relax and soak in the stunning surroundings.
I find a comfy rock around 6,500 feet and lie down and close my eyes. The sound of a distant waterfall is interspersed with occasional rock fall as the warming sun looses precariously perched rocks. I drift at the edge of consciousness, aware of nothing but a subtle peace and my own joy at being alive. Marmots and chipmunks scurry around me, and after my nap I watch a party of four climbers descend the Nisqually glacier. Two more are heading up the same route. It hits me that this is part of why I’m here, this is part of what I’m after – the Mountains’ gifts.
John Muir, naturalist and philosopher and namesake of a camp and snowfield on this magnificent mountain, said that a mountains’ gifts are not bestowed from upon her summit, but on the slopes and hills in the summits’ shadow. Now I understand. But I wonder if I will be content with these gifts after my summit attempt. I wonder why John Muir recognized that “going to the mountains to receive their good tidings” didn’t necessarily mean going to the summit, but he still went to the summit anyway. What is it that pulls us like a magnet to the hallowed summit?
Now more than ever, I think that being afraid is a necessary emotion. I think it is a big part of why I am doing this. Modern life, however, does everything in its power to eliminate this emotion. Modern life is almost completely devoid of truly frightening situations. Everything in modern society is designed to make things easier, less scary. But you find out so much about yourself when you are scared! I need this reminder every now and then. I need to be grabbed by the collar and shaken. I need to feel the adrenaline pumping through my veins and my heart racing. I need to be scared every now and then to know I’m still alive. I need to be reminded of what’s really important. I need to be jolted out of the complacent, pampered modern world that destroys self-knowledge and blurs the lines of real worth. I need to cut through all the complications of modern life, to get down to the bone and marrow, to the dirt and grit, to get to the basic essence of life itself. This Mountain scares me, and before I do my best to ignore that fear when I climb, I want to revel in it! This Mountain makes me feel alive!
July 4, 2001 – Whittaker’s’ Bunkhouse, Ashford, WA – 7 a.m. – Well, this is it, the adventure begins today. I feel subtly confident. Sure, I’m nervous, but it’s only school today. It should be fun. It was nice to sleep in a bed last night, and I feel well rested, but I slept better in my tent. In addition to the bed and shower, it was nice staying at Whittaker’s because I got to hang out with other climbers. I met Tony from Virginia last night while renting my boots and crampons. He’s here for the five day Mountaineering seminar. We exchanged stories and concerns, and I emptied half of my bottle of Gingko Baloba for him. I certainly won’t need as much as I have, and we both figured it couldn’t hurt.
I also met three guys from Florida who had just summitted that morning. All three looked whooped, but they all had trouble containing the pride in their accomplishment. To a man everyone agreed it was the hardest physical activity they had ever undertaken. They had trained hard, but mostly it was attitude that got them to the top. In this case neither of them wanted to be the only one not to make it, and thus be subjected to never-ending ridicule from the others. Hey, it worked for them! Now safely down in the foothills, enjoying a cold beer and pizza, they all admit they wanted to quit but dared not mention it on the climb. Well, good for them. Maybe I can do this through sheer force of will, too. Right now, though, I’m packed and ready to go. No more time to worry; it’s time to just do it.
July 4, 2001 – Whittaker’s Bunkhouse, Ashford, WA – 8 p.m. – I forgot that today is the nation’s birthday until the fireworks start going off outside my window. I probably won’t get as much sleep as I’d like to tonight. But that’s okay. I feel ready. My pack is already made up for tomorrow, I’m prepared mentally and physically, and I’ve just downed half of a double cheese pizza. I just want to do this.
School was easy today. Too easy. All the skills we practiced, from self-arresting, to climbing and descending steep slopes, to rope techniques, came to me with ease, almost second nature. Perhaps I’ve been going through these drills in my mind. Perhaps it was the practice on Mount Shasta. I really enjoyed the drills, without the slightest bit of apprehension. Of course I know tomorrow will be much tougher, but I know I’m ready.
We had a nice surprise at school, also. In addition to seeing Brent again (he was in charge of our class) we were joined by Nepalese climbing legend Nawang Gombu! Gombu was a Sherpa on the Sir Edmund Hillary expedition that became the first to summit Everest, when he was only seventeen. He later became the first person to summit Everest twice. Wow, and here he was teaching me rope techniques!
It’s a diverse group of clients again, although very cliquish. Maybe it’s tough for people to warm up to a stranger traveling by himself who hasn’t shaved in a week and looks like a negative raccoon. Whatever the reason, people weren’t falling over themselves to get to know me, and that’s fine. I’m here to achieve a goal, not make friends. There’s an experienced group of five world travelers who did Kilimanjaro last year, consisting of brother and sister Ron and Liz, brothers Steve and Tom, and mutual friend Greg. They stick together and joke around, half paying attention to our instructors and more interested in making a joke than perfecting their mountaineering skills. I’ll be keeping a close eye on them. There’s Karen and Joe, married two days earlier in the Park and here on their honeymoon. Their friend Rick is here with them, also. There are two sets of father-daughter, Julie and Tom and Lindsey and George. I can’t help but think how great it would be to do things like this with my own son. There is a solo, timid girl all the way from Tokyo, her only reason for being here to climb the Mountain. Also here is Ahby, from India but living in Seattle and working as a contract programmer, who climbed last year but turned around at the top of the Cleaver. Of course I was immediately drawn to him and we had some great conversations on why we are back here. There is Angela, a mother of two small children (they accompanied her to the Guide hut) from Minnesota, climbing with her friend Gordie while her husband watches the kids in her absence. There are a couple of other folks whose names I didn’t catch, too, a total of 24 clients and eight guides. All in all, it looks like another good group. I wonder who will be on my rope team.
Well, the weather is supposed to rain tomorrow, but that’s okay. I’m ready, rain or shine. I wish Deb was here with me, and you can’t imagine how much I miss my little one! I look at his pictures every night, and this night is no exce ption. With the fireworks going off outside I put my earplugs in, pull the covers over my head and try to sleep.
July 5, 2001 – Rainier BaseCamp – Ashford, WA – 7:45 a.m. – I woke up at 5 a.m. today, an hour before the alarm but well rested and ready to go. I got up and dressed and finished my pack, and then took my gear over to Rainier BaseCamp, staging area for our trip. Nobody was there, so I went back to Whittaker’s for a bagel and coffee. Fifteen minutes later I returned to BaseCamp. Still nobody there, so I pick up my trail lunch and pack it away and now I sit on a picnic bench and wait.
Finally some clients from another program arrive, and five minutes after them, the first Summit Climb guide arrives. Suzanne, a third year summer RMI guide and medical student, goes through my equipment check. I pass with flying colors. Eventually, the rest of our group arrives after being herded out of the coffeehouse. We board the shuttle busses and at long last are off!
It’s a nervous trip to Paradise. We stop at the National Park Inn to pick up the climber from Tokyo (I can never pronounce her name.) After a 45-minute drive we arrive at the Paradise parking lot and reassemble in the Guide Hut. From this point on it is all business for me. I put on my meanest and most serious game face. I’m here to do a job, and it’s time to start working.
In the Guide Hut we make brief introductions. Name, hometown and occupation, nothing too personal. We also lose a participant. Gordie has to drop out when his wife telephones him at the Guide Hut, informing him that she has just miscarried. I feel bad for him and his wife, but I can’t dwell on it. I quickly switch back to my poker face.
We get to meet out guides for the first time. Wow! In addition to Suzanne, we will be climbing with Mario, Mark, Victor, two others whose name I didn’t catch, and George Dunn and Phil Ershler! Wow! Phil was the first American to scale the 8,000 foot vertical North Face of Mt. Everest. He has also conquered the highest peak on all seven continents, along with K2 and Kangchenjunga, the second and third highest peaks in the world. He will be celebrating his 400th ascent of Mt. Rainier with us. That will rank him second in the world, right behind George Dunn. This will be George’s 428th ascent of the Mountain. George’s resume is no less impressive; he’s climbed and led clients up Everest, Denali, Mount Blanc and the Matterhorn. Holy shit is all I can mutter under my breath. I didn’t realize I would be climbing with royalty!
Phil leads the pre-climb chat. I like his style. He’s straight up and to the point, telling us that this is a big mountain and that it will tax us in ways we can’t imagine. But he also talks about what a beautiful mountain it is, and how rewarding and satisfying of an experience it will be. His speech is brief – maybe all of five minutes. Then he breaks us into two groups and gives us ten minutes for final preparations.
I’m part of the second group. Fifteen minutes after Phil’s speech we are off. I launch methodically into the hike to Camp Muir carrying my 50-pound pack. We really luck out with the weather; the predicted showers never materialized. We have a bright sunny day, and the forecast for tomorrow is just as good. The Mountain and the scenery are gorgeous, but all I notice is one foot in front of the other. I’m almost mechanical in my approach to the hike. I’m always the first one up and ready to go after the breaks, and I’m always right behind a guide. I want this bad.
We make it to Camp Muir in five hours. I’m dehydrated and suffering from a slight headache, but I feel great physically. The pack never felt heavy, a dividend of the countless hours spent training with a pack. One member of our group didn’t make it to Camp Muir, however. Lindsey’s dad turned around halfway, looking exhausted and sick. Our group has now dwindled to 22.
I go through the camp chores in the same all-business manner as I approached the hike. I fit my climbing harness and helmet, prepare my clothes to be worn the next day, and eat a hearty chicken and rice meal. We go through our pre-climb talk with Phil, and George calls lights out at 7 p.m. in preparation for a midnight wake-up. Every detail of my prep is perfect, so I drink a cup of Sleepytime tea, take a Tylenol PM, crawl into my bag, put in my earplugs, and pull my wool hat down over my eyes. I’m content and prepared, knowing that I might not sleep but I will at least rest my tired muscles. After a quick 9:00 p.m. bathroom run, though, I fall into a restful slumber until 11 o’clock! Wow, sleep at Camp Muir, what an advantage!
Phil wakes us at 11:40 p.m. Someone complains about twenty more minutes of promised sleep, but most people complain about getting no sleep at all. Well, at least the honeymoon couple can brag that they didn’t sleep much on their honeymoon! Me, I launch right into my prep. I put in my contacts and get dressed while eating cold pizza and granola bars. I stuff my bag and gather everything that I won’t be taking to the summit into a pile for easy packing upon my return. And after getting down from the third shelf of the bunk I down a warm cup of tea while putting on my boots and harness. I pack my bag, secure my crampons, pee one last time and get ready to go.
Nobody else is ready, though, not even the guides, so I have a few minutes to take in the night scenery. We have a full moon to the south, and it illuminates the triangular silhouettes of distant peaks and the rolling hills of the Cascades in a yellow glow. Not a cloud in the sky, either. I notice that I am completely headache free, now, too! Maybe my regimen of acclimating, Gingko Baloba and pressure-breathing is paying off. I know that I can’t let this golden opportunity pass.
Two clients decide not to venture beyond Camp Muir. Lindsey is suffering from a headache, and Rick’s knees are killing him from yesterday’s hike to Muir. We are down to 20 climbers now.
Finally we rope in and are off at 1:15 a.m. I focus solely on the next step. No mental songs, no discouragement at the never-ending trail of headlamps up the Mountain, no time for scenery, no pain and no distractions. It’s only one foot in front of the other and deep pressure-breathes.
I pull in strong to the first rest break, feeling great. My rope team, consisting of guide Mario and clients Liz, myself and Ahby, in that order, loses Liz at this break. Boot problems, she says. Another rope team loses Karen, so the two ailing clients form a rope team to head back to Camp Muir with Mario while the rest of us are put on new teams. I get roped in fifteen feet behind George Dunn! Wow, I get to climb right behind a legend! Behind me is Steve, his brother, and Ron, in that order.
We climb across the Ingraham Glacier and through the rock fall area. “Rock!” echoes out in the night, and I can feel the presence of a rock hitting maybe two feet behind me. George picks up the pace until we are out of the rock fall danger at the base of Disappointment Cleaver.
I am climbing strong and feel good, and any remaining fear I have of the Cleaver, site of such torture the last time, vaporizes with the same confidence that the day will replace the night. There is still a lot of snow on the Cleaver, which makes the climbing easier than I remembered. Before I know it, we are atop the Cleaver at 12,500 feet. I’m still feeling great, strong and disciplined. I eat cold pizza, drink water and enjoy the spectacular sunrise from above the clouds. It’s about 5 a.m.
The next section, up to the site of my previous turnaround, is just as methodical and focused. We are climbing on steep ice now, switching back endlessly. I climb with ease and no ill effects of altitude. I watch George intently, though, learning little tricks and matching him stride for stride. It’s a pleasure to watch a true athlete as he cut steps into the hard ice with a graceful swing of his ice axe, seeming to exert no effort whatsoever. I feel that George is gaining confidence in his rope team, too. I never once let the rope between us go taunt, and in bottleneck areas George didn’t hesitate to break new trail with his team in tow.
We break at a relatively flat depression in the ice, 13,500 above sea level. I know I will make the summit from here. I still feel strong, with only minor hints of AMS and fatigue. Our team votes unanimously to take off before our queue, at George’s request. I take it as a reflection of his confidence in his neophyte team, and it is one of the greatest compliments I could ever ask for out of an adventure such as this.
The last stretch, however, is taxing. We are cruising off trail on steep ice, maybe a 30 or 40-degree slope, and I’m struggling with the pace and the altitude. I want desperately to request a five-minute breather, but instead I set my sights on ten more steps or making it to the next switchback. I’m regretting our vote to make a dash for the summit. I never dare to let the rope pull taunt, though. I don’t want to relay my growing weakness and waning strength to George.
Finally, around 8 a.m. on a cloudless morning, I step over the rocky rim of the volcano crater and onto the summit of Mount Rainier! I’m met with a strong, congratulatory handshake from a legendary climber. “Congratulations” George deadpans. It’s his 428th time. I shake his hand hard and let out a whoop. It’s my first.
We gather twenty feet down in the caldera and drop our packs, thankful to be out of the wind. Although the wind picked up on the last two stretches, it’s relatively calm in the caldera. Many of our party are huddled under down sleeping bags anyway, trying to stay warm and recuperate from the climb. All of the remaining 18 clients are here. Our climber from Tokyo is taking pictures of Angela, Julie and her dad, and the rest of the group is either eating or resting. Ahby and I exchange high fives and beam with pride for avenging our previous failure.
Steve, Ron and myself decide to make the 45-minute trek to the summit registry and the true summit. Here, I finally let down my guard. I’m tired and fatigued, and feeling the effects of the thinner atmosphere. I stop three times walking across the crater. We make it to the registry and sign in, but the delays and the long line to sign in cost me the true summit only 50 feet away. George gathers us up on his return and tells us we have to get moving. It doesn’t bother me that I don’t get to the absolute top.
Ten minutes later we are descending. It’s easy compared to the ascent, except for the bottlenecks. George, being the veteran leader, has to go last, which means we have to sit back and wait for all of the other, slower teams to descend through the difficult areas first. George shares stories of climbs on some of the world’s highest, most dangerous and exotic peaks. Although we probably could have shaved an hour off our time back to Camp Muir, I didn’t mind the delays. I take the opportunity to soak in the views and the experience.
We arrive back at Camp Muir around 1 p.m. I pack quickly and we begin our descent of the snowfield around 2:15 p.m. As always, the walk from Muir is long and never seems to end. My feet begin to hurt, and it is very hot, especially under the weight of a full pack again. It is the most miserable and unglamorous part of the climb, but I am buoyed by my accomplishment and achieving my objective.
For the first time I allow myself to reflect on what has transpired over the last two days. I did it – I climbed Mount Rainier! Not only did I climb it, but I climbed it well. It was not easy, but what a difference from the last attempt. After forcing myself not to think about anything but the very next task in front of me for two days, it feels great to now, finally, let go and realize I accomplished my goal. What an incredible two days!
Now on our last break, with only fifteen more minutes to Paradise, I hope and pray Deb will be waiting for me. I know it will be close with the flight from Pittsburgh and the shuttle from SeaTac airport, and so many things can go wrong when traveling, so I slow my pace, just to give her more time.
Finally, at 4:15 p.m., I round the last curve and look down at Deb peering through the camcorder. My smile is ear to ear, and it finally sinks in that I truly made it! Deb is the most beautiful sight I have ever seen; Paradise is now complete. We hug and kiss and I revel in the moment. Deb doesn’t seem to mind my stench or my grotesque face. The burn has started to peel off in dark brown splotches of dead skin. Now I look like a negative raccoon with leprosy, but I’m ever thankful that it didn’t bother me on the climb. Everything went absolutely perfect. What a climb! Tears of joy well up and a few roll down my cheeks, hidden under my dark
glacier glasses. But pure euphoria erases all of the pain and suffering and lifts me as high as the summit.
At the Guide Hut fifteen minutes later comes the sweetest moment, a life event that I will savor and cherish forever. In front of my peers and my biggest supporter, I receive my official ascent certificate from George Dunn and Phil Ershler! A prouder moment could not be scripted.
Post Script – I felt great after the climb. A little sore, but not sick. A shower and a hot tub soothed overworked muscles, while fried chicken and Rainier beer provided reward. We went to bed early and I slept sound, the weight of my fears lifted for the first time in months.
Thinking back on the climb the next day, I realized how much good fortune I enjoyed on this climb versus the previous one. The route was in fantastic shape, mostly a function of climbing early in the season. There were no ladder crossings and very little zig-zagging around crevasses. Our guides said that by September the meandering probably adds another three miles to the climb. I can’t forget, however, that I was supposed to climb in late June in 1998; a severe ankle sprain and Deb’s broken wrist forced us to push the climb back to September. Also, the weather more than cooperated. I’m very thankful that the things beyond my control went my way.
But I also can’t ignore how much better prepared I was this time. My training regimen was the biggest advantage I took to the Mountain. Second was experience; it took a lot of the fear out of it. And finally, my acclimating plan played no small part in the enjoyment of the experience. I did all of the right things this time.
Sunday night we returned to the Paradise Restaurant, celebrating with a big cut of the best prime rib I’ve ever had, and of course more Rainier beer. I savored everything about this meal, this place, and what it represented to me personally. After dinner we retired to the Glacier Lounge. More Rainier beers, but no bravado.
Three alcohol tainted bar rats talked to the bartender about climbing to the summit tomorrow. It was obvious from their questions and slurred speech that they would be in no shape tomorrow to take on such a challenge. I laughed to myself. So much
to learn, so little respect for the Mountain! I knew she would not bestow her gifts upon them; besides, they would not appreciate them. I tipped my bottle one last time in the direction of the Mountain, emptied it, and left without a word, taking with me the lessons of the Mountain and the confidence of a job well done…