Living the Dream
…one of these days I’m going to be a lot smarter and spend my vacations sleeping in and spending the afternoons in the warm waters of overpriced tourist traps on the Baja Coast. Instead, once again, I find myself waking up at an ungodly hour of the morning, with hours to go before the sun rises, heading out into the cold to climb yet another rock. I might be getting dumber as I grow older but I can’t help it. I love it.
If you have ever been in the Seattle area, then you have definitely seen “The Mountain”. Such a name is quite fitting for a landmass that absolutely dominates the landscape. With a summit of 14,411 feet and a year-round snow capped base and massively glaciated flanks, Mt. Rainier is an absolutely gorgeous beast of a mountain. Being the most topographically prominent mountain in the lower 48, it seems natural that it would find itself into every aspiring climbers dreams.
I have always loved mountains. Seriously loved mountains. The way they seem to erupt out of the ground and stand guard over the land from which they were born has always fascinated me. It’s as if it were the earth’s way of trying desperately to reach into the heavens, leaving behind monuments to the sky in it’s wake. As a child, they were merely fascinating things to marvel at. However as I got older and was introduced to the outdoors, it became quickly apparent that they were also places to climb, explore and find myself in.
I am primarily a rock climber and backpacker, but the lure of big snowy mountains is something that doesn’t go unchecked for too long. Plus; seriously, who doesn’t like walking around on big snowy volcanoes with all manner of sharp pointy things attached to them?
The idea to climb Rainier was actually part of much larger goal. Next June, a large group of my colleagues and friends will be making an attempt on Denali in Alaska. Denali, being the tallest peak in North America, requires a fair amount of skill, effort and luck (though not in that order). As such, it was decided that our rope team would practice our skills on a slightly smaller hill beforehand. I arrived a week earlier than most of the team to go for my first summit of Rainier with my good buddy Zach (also part of the Denali team) via the usual cattle route…. I mean DC Route.
This first part will be mainly text and descriptions of our trip and conditions with the bulk of the photos at the end. If you are smart, then you will go ahead and skip my ramblings and just go right ahead to the pretty photos. If not, here’s our trip report.
As with most trips to climb Rainier, my trip began as the plain approached Seattle and “the mountain” came into view. Only a handful of people really seemed to care that this beautiful mountain was in plane view, and I was one of them. Desperately peering over the shoulders of the people in the opposite row I was dumbstruck by it’s sheer size and got a little knot in my stomach as I realized I would soon be climbing it. It has been just over 24 hours since I had sumitted on Half Dome after spending 2 days climbing, so my sore muscles were definitely still screaming at me. Yet here I was, staring at a mountain that I would (hopefully) be standing on top of in 3 days.
Finally the plane landed, I gathered my things and made my way to meet up with me climbing partner, Zach. Zach is the one who first taught me the basics of rock climbing many years ago and we try and get together at least once a year and bumble our way up some mountain or rock. I took him on his first big wall in Zion a few years back and we have climbed in Yosemite before as well. Now it was Zach’s turn to teach me once again and Rainier seemed like a great place to learn some glacier travel and rescue skills as well as summit a big effin’ mountain. After spending a couple nights at Zach’s sister’s place (thanks Dana!) doing some gear prep and logistics planning (aka drinking beer) we were off!
We left Seattle around 6:30 AM headed south to the mountain. An obligatory stop by the local “bikini barista” was in order for good luck and after getting to the Paradise Visitor and securing our permits, we were off. We set out from the Paradise Visitor Canter (5,4000′) around 9:45 AM with a daunting 4,800+ feet of slogging to do before reaching Camp Muir, our home for the next few nights. The pleasant paved then semi-paved/gravel trail lasted for about 2 miles then we hit the Muir snowfield. At this point it was time to get rid of my comfy runners and switch into my big yellow plastic boots for the snowy walk to Camp Muir. We still had a little over 3,800′ to go, all of it on a gently sloping yet unending snowfield. The name of the game was hike hike hike, rest; hike hike hike, rest over and over again. All told it took a little over 4 hours to reach Camp Muir.
Our plan had been to “field test” Zach’s brand new MH EVO2 tent, despite the luxurious comfort of the public hut 20 yards away. Our first afternoon at Muir was spent establishing a camp on the snow behind the hut then hanging out in the hut boiling water, eating and socializing with all the other climbers. We even got a surprise visit from 3 other “honyonkers” who were quite possibly the biggest shit show I had ever seen in the backcountry; and trust me I have seen some serious shitshows. Only pictures would truly tell the tale of these poor suckers who decided to spend the night in the hut but incase you’re wondering here’s a short list of their “provisions”; 2 lb. can of baked beans, 7 lb. stove, massive $10 WallyWorld tent, cotton clothing and makeshift duffel bag backpacks. At least out first night was full of entertainment.
The next day was a planned rest day/skills review day which could not have worked out better. The weather was downright horrible with 40 MPH gusts and on and off precipitation, not all the day to be hanging around outside. Instead Zach and I decided to move into th hut with our new friends for the night and spent the entire day socializing with other Texans and getting a few skills in order. the climbing rangers brought us occasional weather reports and with each one our planned ascent starting early the next morning was looking grimmer and grimmer. 50-60 MPH gusts, precipitation and fog all loomed ahead. We finally got to sleep planning on getting up at 1:30 AM the next morning with little hope of a succesful summit attempt.
All through the night wind whipped the hut and the combination of wind and people making noise in the hut left Zach and I with a little less than optimal sleep. We awoke at an ungodly hour and ate a little food while nervously listening to the wind whipping outside quite afraid to step outside and commit to a cold dark morning of suffering. Eventually we left the hut, roped up, did a quick gear check and set off across the Cowlitz Glacier into the gusty and cold darkness. Amazingly, after about 45 minutes as we were ascending the Cathedral rocks and crossing over ont the Ingraham Glacier, the wind died down and we were treated to that surreal pre-dawn scene that you read about in all mountaineering recollections. A star-filled sky blanketing you as you cross a glacier staring off into the circle of light projected by your headamp with the sounds of crampons on snow and occasional gust of wind. It was downright beautiful and the sunrise as we climbed the Disappointment Cleaver was one of the best ever. Bit by bit the mountain came alive in various shades of purples, blues and whites. Watching the sun hit the upper mountain showed us how much more was ahead and a daylight glimpse of all the massive crevasses we had walked around in the darkness was truly impressive. At this point it was warming up, getting less and less windy and we were getting stoked! After setting out with very, very, very low hopes of being able to summit, we were treated to the equivalent of a “Open for business” sign in the mountains. It was on! The last third of the route was by far the most technical as we started ascending a more steep angle on the mountain and crossing around large gaping crevasses. It turns your stomach a bit to peer into one of these seemingly bottomless cracks in the glacier with their erie blue hue. Thank god for ropes and ice axes! The crux for me on the route had to have been the three ladder crossings above Disappointment Cleaver. We had already crossed one ladder over a crevasse lower down but these were different. the first was a straightforward ladder at a 50 degree angle that allowed to you to climb up and over a crevasse. the next ladder crossing spanned a 15 foot crevasse that had you string down 50 feet to the bottom. there was a handline to I did what I could to calm myself, grabbed the handline and walked over the ladder hoping a gust of wind didn’t knock me into the gaping hole below me. After one more ladder crossing we were done with the “technical” sections and were off onto the final section of endless walking to the summit.
Finally at about 10:15 AM we were on top after over 7 hours on the move. At an elevation of 14,411 feet looking out over the snowcapped Northwest peaks and low clouds We ended up spending around 45 minutes goofing off on the summit crater, walking over to the true summit and snacking up. For a little added fun I decided to salute the mountain in all my glory and stripped down to my birthday suit for a few moments of freezing cold glory. After our fun on the summit we decided it was time to start heading down and began the endless descent. By then it had warmed up quite a bit which required us to be careful in the melted out slushy snow as we descended in the beating sun. It took a little over 3 hours to get back to Camp Muir where we rested for a bit, packed up and headed down the Muir snowfield to our car in Paradise. The final push downhill was a mix of sinking bootsteps in melted out snow, boot sliding down slopes and full on high speed glissades complete with wipeouts at the bottom of the inclines! We even managed to assist a teen who had wandered onto the snowfield with his buddies and got a nasty cut on his head when he slipped trying to get water.
Finally, 15 hours after leaving Camp Muir for the summit, we were back at the car ready to start our return drive to Seattle. Looking back at the mountain on the windy road back it was hard to imagine that we had just stood on top that same day. Even now, sitting here, typing these words, I find it amazing that I was able to stand up there. This climb has been yet another reminder of how truly special this life is and how much I strive each and every day to not waste it.
A big thanks goes out to Zach for teaching me a new skillset and sumitting this amazing mountain with me. As well, I would like to send a shout out to the weather gods for the glorious weather, I couldn’t have asked for better weather. Finally, thanks mom and dad for raising me right.
And finally, a lil’ something from the man himself, John Muir, ” Of all the fire mountains which like beacons, once blazed along the Pacific Coast, Mt. Rainier is the noblest.” Well said, sir!
For now it’s time to relax, drink copious amounts of beer and recover until my Rainier climb next week with Zach, Sarah and Derek on the Emmons-Winthrop route.
Enjoi the pics!