Mt. Rainier 2010
Mt. Rainier Summit Attempt
May 26th - 30th (Wednesday - Sunday)
Memorial Weekend, 2010
I have lived in Western Washington State my entire life. I have gazed upon the mountain any day the weather permitted a clear view. You know you're in the Northwest on a nice day when you hear the saying 'The mountain is out today'.
I arrived in Ashford, WA around 1pm on Wednesday afternoon. The drive up was pleasant even though it was raining buckets the whole way. The weather was not giving me a strong feeling of confidence for the coming days adventure. I checked in at the RMI office, learned my way around the campus, grabbed my rental gear, and found my bunkhouse room (#3). The entire area exudes a rustic ambiance.
While picking up rental gear I began to meet some of my climbing companions. There was so much gear it was a bit overwhelming. Boots, Gaiters, Crampons, Climbing Pants, Gortex Pants, Fleece Layer, Soft Shell Jacket, Gortex Jacket, Parka, Ice Axe, Trekking Poles, Helmet, Head Lamp, Sleeping Bag, Climbing Harness, Avalanche Transceiver, Sun Glasses, Goggles and Backpack. Then there was the gear we had to buy or bring: Socks, Long-Underwear, Base Layer Shirt, Balaclava, Nalgene Bottles and Food. All told the backpack weighed in around 40lbs. once loaded up for the climb.
Prior to arriving in Ashford I did not know how many people would were signed up for this expedition. At orientation I learned that eighteen had signed up for the climb. However, the day before two people called ahead and dropped out. Sixteen of us were present Wednesday afternoon. During orientation we went over what to expect over the next four days, what the mountain would be like, general safety and procedure information, we were introduced to all the gear, and we met our guides. (Andy, Gabriel 'Gabi', Jason, Lindsay, Solveig, and Tim)
Thursday was training day. Everyone was up and moving relatively early, getting breakfast, coffee, and gear sorted. We all gathered at the staging tent around 8am. The guides made sure we had everything packed for the day’s activities. We loaded into the shuttle bus, and off to the mountain we went. Ashford is about a 45min ride from Paradise, the highest visitors center on Mt. Rainier. We were a jovial, talkative bunch on the ride up to the mountain. Everyone seemed in good spirits. We arrived at the visitor’s center, gathered our gear, and set out up the snowfield to begin our climb training. The day progressed well. Our guides instructed us on rest step, pressure breathing, ice axe use and safety, how to ascend, how to descend, rope travel, self-arrest, team arrest, glaciating, and general mountaineering techniques.
Friday morning our group mustered to the tent with all gear in hand ready for our ascent. It was the same schedule as the previous day(,). We all gathered around 8am to catch the shuttle bus up to Paradise. At some point in the night, one of our troop left a note and his room key with another participant and left town. We were all a bit puzzled by this, but he must have had a reason. So starting out on our climb we were now a group of fifteen. The morning was cool, low clouds/fog, and light snowfall. We had no hint of what would be in store for us. The climb schedule, as presented by the guides, dictated that we'd climb for roughly an hour, take a ten-minute break to eat, drink, and rest, then continue on. The ascent to Camp Muir had four scheduled breaks. We set out shortly after 9am. The first hour was easy going traversing the lower snowfields around Paradise. At the first break the snowfall had increased slightly and the guides instructed us to don our hard shell Gortex layer (pants and jacket) to keep dry. After our ten-minute break of nutritious power bars and Gatorade we continued on our way. We climbed for roughly twenty minutes when a storm settled in around us. High winds, snow and ice flying through the air from our left, low visibility, and you could hardly hear a thing. I found myself relying on my trekking polls to help keep my body upright because the winds were so strong. Around the thirty-minute mark of our second leg the guides had us stop behind a windward rock outcropping. Our guides seemed concerned about the conditions in which we found ourselves. I had the thought that this might be it for this adventure, and, that perhaps, we would turn back to Paradise until the storm passed. Our guides radioed base-camp and Camp Muir for weather reports. Apparently higher up the mountain the weather was clear and calm. We just needed to continue our ascent and get above the storm. So that's what we did.
I found myself sitting behind a rock outcropping with a puzzling problem. My sunglasses, over my prescription glasses, had completely iced over...inside and out. I was not alone in this regard. Many, if not all of us, were in a similar situation of not being able to see very well. I did my best to scrape my glasses clean before we stood and continued our trek. Unbeknownst to me, two of our group opted to turn around here and head back with a guide. We were now a group of thirteen heading to Camp Muir. Getting up and moving once again was difficult. The slope we were on was rather steep. As we began to scramble up the incline, I was behind Laura who was having just as much difficulty as I was staying upright. With the low visibility and difficult terrain, we quickly found the group ahead of us moving further away. Because of the increased distance, they became harder to see. I admit there was a brief moment of terror at the thought of possibly losing our way. The moment passed, and our group reassembled without incident. So continued our long trek up the mountain in a hellish storm of wind and snow. We climbed for another half an hour before taking our second rest break. Jason, one of our guides, began shouting over the howl of the wind, "We're adding a layer!". Puzzled, most of us simply looked at Jason with questioning eyes. We already had on our outer hard shell layer of Gortex, yet we were being instructed to add a soft-shell jacket. This meant finding the soft shell jacket in our pack, removing our gloves, removing the Gortex, donning the soft shell, then putting the Gortex and gloves back on, all the while the wind was slamming our backsides. We all relented and set about the task at hand. Personally, I nearly lost my Gortex jacket twice due to the high winds. When you are holding your jacket and the jacket is completely horizontal in the wind, you know you're in the thick of it. A minute or two later we had all successfully performed the layer adding maneuver. Warmth began to return to our hands and torsos. Fun times! We all sat on our packs in the snow, our backs to the wind, and ate our scrumptious snacks. A short while later we set out again with high hopes for emerging from the storm.
Another hour went by with sporadic breaks in the wind. The weather was more manageable now but hardly sunny and calm. The third break was a welcome event. We donned parkas over our Gortex during the breaks to conserve body heat. By this point we were well into our climbing groove. You stuck to the line, one foot in front of the other, following the footing of the climber ahead of you. Our ten minutes were up and we were back on the trail to Camp Muir. When fourth break rolled around we were above the storm. The sun was poking through the cloud layer periodically and the winds had all but vanished. The final leg to Camp Muir was quite pleasant.
Let me briefly describe Camp Muir. A collection of huts and out houses, perched precariously on a narrow rock face, with a snowfield to the south and a glacier to the north. At this point in the season the snow is still plentiful and copious. The Cowlitz Glacier to the north provides a relatively safe location for tent camping around Muir. At 10,000ft the views when the weather is clear are amazing.
Let me also take a moment to tell you three things our guides did not tell us about our trip.
1. Personal Hygiene
You're aware of the fact that you're not bringing anything more than what you absolutely need due to weight concerns in your pack. What didn't sink in for me was that three days on the mountain in the same clothes would make one exceedingly ripe. The clothing may have been anti-microbial, and pit-stick use was judicious, but we all stank. No one really cared though since everyone was in the same boat. You did feel pretty grimy after climbing, sweating, and sleeping in the same clothes. That, and layer upon layer of sunscreen for three days. Unfortunately, I didn't get enough sunscreen on my nose and it was quite red and raw by Sunday afternoon.
2. The Accommodations
We knew there was a bunkhouse waiting for us at Camp Muir. What wasn't communicated was just how awful the place would smell given the clothing situation described above. Couple that with the fact that our arrival to the bunkhouse was only briefly after the previous group vacated. Nothing ever really dries either. Boots, gloves, jackets and socks can be mostly dried out by stuffing them inside your sleeping bag or your parka. However, this only warms them by body heat. They'll never be completely dry.
3. The Facilities
We knew there would be toilets at Camp Muir. What was not communicated was the state of said toilets. Foul does not really begin to describe these commodes. They were outhouses in the true sense of the word; a plastic seat over a hole in the ground. You smelled the outhouse long before you reach the door. If you stood down wind as a gust came through the pungent aroma wafted through the air and assailed your nostrils. Even the logistics of using the facilities was interesting. Managing all the clothing, zippers, buckles, snaps, and layers, without coming into contact with a contaminated surface was very much an art. You hoped to master this art during daylight hours for night, with only a headlamp to guide you, increased the difficulty level dramatically. While snug in your sleeping bag at night you had to debate with yourself if you really, really, had to use the bathroom or not. The amount of effort and coordination involved to use the rest room at night was quite the barrier to overcome. Just extricating yourself from the warm embrace of your sleeping bag was difficult enough. Putting on pants, boots, coat, hat, gloves, headlamp, finding your toilet paper, and getting out of your bunk took enormous effort.
Saturday was our scheduled rest and acclimatization day during the trip. Most of us woke mid morning in no real hurry to do much of anything. Late morning the guides did take us out for a quick climb to stretch our legs. Since the summit climb would begin Sunday morning in the dark, the guides wanted us to see the first leg of the ascent in daylight to give us an idea of what we'd be facing in the dark. Everyone suited up including crampons, helmets, and harnesses. We clipped into our rope teams and struck out from Camp Muir across the Cowlitz Glacier. The traverse across the glacier was smooth and uneventful. On the north side we reached Cathedral Gap, a semi-steep break in the rock cleaver that allows access to the Ingraham Glacier. We climb up the steep embankment through a series of switchbacks. Once above Cathedral Gap we continued up along the ridge-line to Ingraham Flats just below the glacier proper. The ascent from Camp Muir to Ingraham Flats took about an hour. Personally, this quick jaunt was far more difficult that it really should have been. This was my first indication that I would likely not be summiting on this trip. I was more tired than I should have been when we stopped for a rest break.
The guides talked about the surrounding area, and pointed out various features. The Ingraham Glacier directly above us was quite a sight. The idea of climbing up the glacier was thought provoking. So we rested for about fifteen minutes then began our descent back to Camp Muir. This was my first real taste of descending with a loaded pack. There were a number of times I became a little uncomfortable with the steep angles and the feeling of walking down. The best way I can describe descending would be walking down a long flight of stairs with a heavy back pack, and skipping every other step on the way down. You need to lean forward, "Nose over toes" and squat down slightly to lower your center of gravity and keep the weight of your pack over your feet. Couple this with whacking your crampons with your ice axe to keep the snow from piling up, and keeping your rope interval distance steady was quite a challenge for a climbing newbie such as myself. Two people slipped on the descent and their teams had to perform team arrest positions. Once back to Camp Muir the afternoon was spent in leisure though I did sack out early and tried to nap in my bunk. Sleep was still hard to come by.
Bedtime Saturday came early due to the impending early morning summit attempt. The guides came in around 6pm to give us a run down of what to expect Sunday morning and the schedule of events. This was anything but a team pep-talk. Though the guides did not come out and say it explicitly, we all agreed that the talk they gave was really meant to make you seriously consider whether you were physically and mentally up to the task of summiting. I had mostly decided by that point that I would not be summiting, but I wasn't completely sure. I talked with my group guide and shared my thoughts and impressions with her. After taking into account my physical condition from the Ingraham Flats ascent earlier in the day, my lack of sleep, and my over all feeling, I would not be summiting. I decided that if I slept well that night and woke up refreshed, then I might attempt the climb. Three other climbers had similar concerns about summiting. One climber had been fighting a bronchial infection the entire trip.
Summit Day - Sunday
12:35am. That is the time the guides entered our bunkhouse bearing hot water and a wake up call. "One hour, get ready." they said. "Multitask" they said. In other words, eat breakfast while you're putting your clothes and boots on. Sleep never really came for me that night either. I woke, ate, and dressed with everyone else but I knew in my heart I would not be attempting the summit climb. Though I might have made it part of the way, I did not want to be responsible for endangering another climbers chances at summiting. The park service has guidelines for the ratios of guides to climbers allowed in groups. When people decide to turn back at a break, guides must accompany them back down. If too many people turn back at multiple breaks then it's a real possibility a situation could develop where there are insufficient guides for the number of people who wish to continue. I did not want to be 'that guy' and ruin someone else's chance at summiting. So that made Ingraham Flats my high point for this climb at 11,105'. This was according to my GPS data logger.
Around 1:30am everyone was gathering outside, putting on crampons, getting packs situated, and figuring out things in the dark. The camp was a sea of white LED headlamps. The guides got everyone attached to their rope groups, safety checks, avalanche transceiver checks, and gave last minute instructions. At 2:00am the groups departed Camp Muir and began their traverse of the Cowlitz Glacier. Standing in camp watching a long line of ants with headlamps cross the distant snow was fun to watch. The sky was clear, the moon was bright, and the mountain was easily visible in the dim light. Nine of our troop set out on their summit attempt, four of us stayed behind.
Staying behind did have some advantages. The main advantage was being able to crawl back into our bunks. The other three promptly went back to sleep. I stayed up and, at 3am, enjoyed some hot tea. While doing so I sort of just spaced out and looked at the floor. While doing this I happened to catch a glimpse of a small, fast moving grey object. Ha! The mouse in the bunkhouse does exist! When we arrived on Friday, the guides joked with us that the mouse would eat anything we might leave out at night. I managed to record some crappy low light video of the little bugger, but he was crazy quick. The other advantage of staying behind was the four of us were able to sit back, experience the sunrise, and just soak in the majestic imagery. The sun rose at around 5am.
Approximately two hours after the group of nine climbers left Camp Muir, two of our comrades returned. They made it to Ingraham Flats and decided to turn back. About two hours after they returned, three more members returned. This group made it to the top of Ingraham Glacier. Four members of the nine that set out for the summit actually made it. The tale they told was quite hellish. The night before, the guides told us that the usual itinerary included a full hour rest break at the summit before returning to Camp Muir. The four that made it on Sunday said they spent a total of ten minutes at the summit due to high winds and stormy conditions. They were back in Camp Muir by 9:30am. A phenomenal pace up and back. Once they returned, we let them rest for an hour. Then all of us began the descent back down to Paradise. A few short hours later we were off the mountain, back at base camp, and enjoying real food and libations.
I am really happy with the whole trip. Even though I did not summit I enjoyed the experience. Just being on the mountain, climbing as high as I did (11,105'), learning basic mountaineering techniques, meeting fabulous people, and witnessing gorgeous nights and a spectacular sunrise made the whole trip worth every penny. Going into this adventure as a complete mountain noob I really didn't know what to expect. I tried to train. Looking back, there is so much more I could have, and should have done to prepare. Now that I've climbed once I know what to expect. I know what I need to work on and that I need to triple my training regiment for the next climb. There will be a next climb. I have every intention to go back and conquer that mountain.
18 <- Original Scheduled Members
16 <- Members that showed up
15 <- Members that ascended
13 <- Members that arrived at Camp Muir
9 <- Members that attempted summit
4 <- Members that actually summited
My high point was: 3385 Meters = 11,105 Feet