I was awoken by the guides somewhere around 11:30pm. It was time to get dressed, get some food down, muster our gear, and prepare for the task ahead. Outside, at midnight, the moon had already passed behind the mountain. The glow of headlamps was all the light available to work with as the stars shone high above. From this point on it was all new territory for me. The guides corralled us into rope teams as we assembled to depart Camp Muir. Rope teams consisted of a guide at the front followed by three climbers. Eric was the guide for my team, with Bruce and John ahead of me while I was positioned at the rear which was just fine by me. As we set out from camp, each member of a rope team has to wait until the rope pays out such that only enough slack exists for the rope to comfortably glide across the ground in front of each climber. The result is roughly twenty feet of rope between each person. Twenty feet may not sound like much, but in the dead of night with only headlamps for illumination, I can assure you twenty feet is quite a lot. John was just a silhouette in front of me. I felt truly alone hiking across the glacier toward our first ascent of the night.
The lateness of the season meant the snow pack had diminished significantly. The downside of this being, the glaciers had become quite fractured and crevasses were common. Traveling at night, and on a rope team, I did not think much of stepping over small to moderate cracks in the ice. My goal was to maintain the same pace as the rest of the group, watch my footing, and press on. It helped that the limited reach of my headlamp kept my world view to a radius of ten feet. Ascending at night hindered me from knowing where I actually was on the mountain. There were certainly areas that would have given me pause had I been able to see them during the ascent.
The pace of ascending was similar to the first day, we could climb for roughly an hour, then drop our packs for a ten minute rest break. At each break the guides evaluated us to find out who was able to proceed and who should consider turning around. After the first rest break at Ingraham Flats we moved on to Disappointment Cleaver. This was the rocky section of the ascent. Because it was so late in the season there was no snow on the cleaver, just boulders and loose rocks. During this section all teams switched to short roping which left only a few feet of rope between climbers. The purpose of this was to ensure if a person slipped the farthest they could go was onto their butt. Walking on rock was especially difficult because I was wearing crampons with my boots. Spikes are required anywhere on the mountain above Camp Muir. I was so intently focused on John's foot placement, that at one point as I stepped up onto a large rock my head impacted a boulder that was jutting out above me. Thankfully, the helmet I was required to wear took the impact well. Still, it hurt something fierce. The really unfortunate part was a few minutes later I slammed my head into a second overhanging boulder. After that I paid a bit more attention to what was above me rather than being singularly focused on where to put my feet.
I intentionally did not wear a watch for this climb. I knew it would mentally break me if I thought the next break was near, only to have the watch tell me the otherwise. After completing the rocky portion of the cleaver ascent we were back on snow for a series of steep switchbacks. I kept thinking the next break must be near as we had been moving for a while. A second group of RMI climbing teams had departed Camp Muir about ten minutes before my own group. As I walked, I took a moment to glance into the darkness above me. What I saw was heart breaking. Far above me I could see three groups of headlamps trudging along the very same path. Seeing those headlamps so far off in the distance, and knowing I would need to reach the same point, was as mentally disruptive as if I had worn a watch. I never again looked up the mountain. I put my head down, focused on matching the pace of the guy in front of me, and tried to not think about much of anything. What I did not know at the time was the other group of teams was literally approaching the third rest break.
Camp Muir is situated at roughly 10,000'. At that altitude you can still exert yourself and breathe relatively normal; above 10,000' breathing starts to become difficult. Part of the pre-climb day training included learning the pressure breathing technique. With this technique, you take a deep breathe then force it out which creates back pressure in the lungs so the alveoli in your lungs can function. The reason for this is as altitude increases air pressure decreases. As I moved up the mountain the frequency of pressure breathes increased as well. On the Cleaver ascent I was pressure breathing frequently. As I reached the top of the Cleaver the wind was moderate and the group stopped for the second rest break. The guides again asked each member how they were doing on a scale of ten. At that point in the ascent I told Eric I was sketchy at a six. The Cleaver climb took quite a bit out of me, but I wanted to push on. Bruce and John on my team, and Alaine from another team all opted to return to Camp Muir. Paul and Craig from the Alaine's team joined my rope, and I continued to be last man. After the break, we pressed on. It was not ten minutes after we started moving again that I knew I had probably made one of the worse decisions of my life. I was exhausted and there was a solid hour of continuous climbing ahead before the next break.
The third section was essentially a series of long switchbacks across the snow slope. The going was not so much difficult as monotonous. It was easy to become complacent about what I was doing. Walking with heavy mountaineering boots, crampons, and gaiters does take a bit of concentration. If I forgot to keep my feet separated slightly, the spikes of my crampons would get caught on my gaiters and I would stumble a bit. Stumbling threw off my pacing causing me to slow down. Stumbling meant I had to quick step to regain proper pacing. Quick stepping often lead to further stumbling. Concentration, not complacency, was key. With proper spacing, there is not a great deal of slack in the rope between team members.
On the way to the third break, called 'High Break', dawn was approaching. I had been climbing throughout the darkness of night with only a headlamp to light my way. Now, as the sky began to lighten, I began to see exactly where I was. The continuous series of switchbacks were carved across the seemingly forty degree sloping face of a glacier. The path, which was quite literally two boots wide, meant I had to keep my ice axe in my uphill hand so I could pick along in the ice. The mountain trailed off into oblivion on my downhill side. As I walked along at 13,000' in the pre-dawn light, I glanced from the path in front of me over to my right, and saw all of southern Washington state covered in a blanket of clouds. That vista was a truly humbling experience. To see that enormous mountain resting below, made me feel incredibly small. Craig commented how he did not like heights much. What a perfect way to face that fear, on the side of a mountain.
High break was reached not long after sunup, and I was bathed in a brilliant golden glow as I rested. High break was different from all the previous rest breaks. There was not a nice flat area to drop your pack, sit down, and stretch out. Instead we simply stopped along the path, turned to face the downhill side, and sat our butts on the uphill side while planting our feet to keep from sliding. It may have not been as restful as prior breaks, but we had one hell of a view. At this particular point Eric told us that the summit was less than an hour away, and that turning around was no longer a option. I was tired, I was winded, but I felt it in me to complete this climb. I had dug deep to find strength and motivation on the previous section. I knew I would have to dig even deeper within myself to complete the final leg of the ascent.
The last section presented something new, a ladder. On the route to the summit we encountered a vertical wall of ice where the glacier had split and shifted downward. The aluminum ladder, perhaps ten feet in length, had been fixed in place with ropes and anchors by the guide service. Each team member took their turn ascending the ladder. I found it somewhat challenging to plant my boots on the rungs due to the crampon strapped to the bottom of each boot. A short climb later and we were once again pushing on for the summit in the early morning sunlight.
With each step I was losing steam. After the 14,000' mark I was really struggling to keep myself oxygenated. Practically ever breath was a pressure breath as the summit neared. The last short section was up a path that reminded me of a toboggan track. It was a narrow path through the ice with waist high walls on either side which was rounded near the bottom. By now I was practically crawling my way along. I held my ice axe horizontally using the pick to pull myself forward. I was out of gas just trying to hang on until the end.
All throughout the climb the rest breaks had been ten minutes long. Eric had promised us that when we reached the summit the rest break would be forty-five minutes. I clung to that promise as a means of motivation. The thought of sitting, motionless, for forty-five minutes sounded sublime. Craig hollered back that we were nearly there. The last few yards I pushed with everything I had. Cresting the crater wall around 7am was exhilarating. The summit crater is a shallow bowl that protected us from the howling wind. Seeing the other groups sitting comfortably was a wonderful sight.
While the crater as a whole is considered the summit, technically the summit is Columbia Crest at 14,410'. To reach Columbia Crest involved walking across the summit crater and up a small rise on the far side. Eric said the round trip would take about forty-five minutes. 'No thank you.' I said as I dropped my pack and sat down for a blissful rest. Most of the climbers made the walk while a small number of us stayed behind. At one point during the break I walked over to the crater wall to take some photos and was nearly knocked on my butt by the wind streaming over the top of the mountain.