Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Mt. Rainier in Perfect Weather

This past weekend I accomplished a dream I've had for many years... to climb Mt. Rainier in the state of Washington. It is the most glaciated peak in the lower 48 states and some say the deadliest. It has become the training ground for mountaineers around the world before they head off to bigger climbs in Alaska and the Himalaya. It was a mountain that I've wanted to climb for a long time but when I first got to Oregon I knew I didn't have the experience or skills to climb it. After nearly two years of climbing over 10 other Cascade Volcanoes, taking part in mountain rescue and acquiring the gear needed I felt ready for it and three months ago I picked the first weekend of August for the climb hoping for good weather. I gathered up a group of 10 of the strongest and most capable climbing friends I knew and bought permits for everyone. When it came down to a few days before the trip we had a pre-trip meeting with beers at my place with the 6 people that actually found time to go on the trip (Tiffany, Chris, Kalin, Denise, James, and I). We would be bringing two ropes (8mm 30m rando's), crampons, ice axes, biners, helmets, pulleys, and everything else needed for Crevasse self rescue.

After watching the weather carefully all week and seeing that Friday looked like a rainy day Chris, Tiffany and I decided to wait until friday to drive up while the others went up Thursday night hoping to climb up to Camp Muir on Friday. Chris, Tiff and I left Corvallis in the morning and drove through pretty crappy weather up towards Mt. Rainier. Upon arriving at the Ranger Station at Paradise I was surprised to see the three others (Kalin, Denise, and James) waiting on benches inside the building. They told me they had started hiking about a mile but wind and rain forced them to turn around (as well as stories of 70mph gusts at Camp Muir). After some talk we all decided that because we all had taken off until Monday that we should wait and climb on Saturday morning instead.

We drove back down the mountain and camped out in a campground nearby, outside the National Park boundary. The woman in charge of the campground (Alice I think..) was freakin' nuts! She rode around on a bicycle and owned a bunch of weird animals in her trailer including a bunch of cats and a guinea pig I think..?? After checking us in she went off on a long diatribe about some phantom truck guy that has been terrorizing her campers... telling us unbelievable things she would do the poor sap if she ever caught him.. frankly it terrified me (and I made sure to tell her that too). I don't think several of us got much sleep knowing that she was nearby, and the giant spotlight she left on all night outside her camper didn't help us much either!

In the morning we drove back up to Paradise and started hiking under thick cloud cover hoping to God that the clouds would clear for the weekend and that the winds at Camp Muir would be tolerable. Our wish was granted at about 7,500 feet when the cloud cover lifted and we were afforded beautiful views of the massive volcano towering above us. Although we started off in our plastic mountaineering boots on a very annoying paved path for nearly a mile at the start of the trail we quickly found ourselves in very mushy snow on glaciers headed up the well trampled standard (Muir) route up Rainier. We passed a very cool whistling marmot along side the trail who was not shy at all, staring at us about 5 feet off the trail as we continued by. We took it at a leisurely pace knowing we had all afternoon to reach Camp Muir. After working two jobs and not having any free time for months to exercise for months besides the few climbs seen in my blog I was happy to take it slow. In fact, I picked the climbers with me because of their strength and encouraged them to all work out and prepare for the climb... and suddenly I found myself to be the weakest link... whoops! :)

After digging out pits for our tents and setting up our sites we melted water for our climb the following day several of us stayed up to bear witness to one of the most beautiful sunsets I've ever seen nearly 3,000 feet above the cloud layer below. Hood, Adams, and Jefferson appeared as glowing orange islands above the sea of clouds. We could even see the jagged peaks of Goat Rocks. We were at 10,000 feet, the height of the Sisters Volcanoes, and higher than Mt. St. Helens yet we were only at base camp and still had over 4,000 feet to climb. Sitting in my sleeping bag at Camp Muir looking at the other "smaller" volcanoes really put the massive size of Mt. Rainier into perspective.

Kalin, Denise and James were pretty amped to get some sleep and then start a summit attempt at about 1 or 2am from Camp Muir but I knew that after only 5 or 6 hours at 10,000 feet of elevation another quick 4,000 would leave them with pretty painful altitude sickness. Chris and I were the only ones in the group that had been at 4,000 feet (Chris on Shasta with me earlier this spring) but I was the only one who knew what it felt like to climb a 14er in a day (Whitney in Cali 4 years ago). I knew the pain and confusing at the summit due to the altitude but it was hard to convey it to my fellow climbers who are very tough and can take a lot of pain, but Rainier is a whole different ball game then Whitney with 300' crevasses to fall into and a rope team that you can also put in danger if you aren't thinking straight. I tried to put it all on me saying that I wasn't in shape enough to go for it on Sunday and would rather take a rest day to go on Monday. Eventually a few climbers walked by us after going for the summit in two days like they wanted to do. I asked how the climb went and they said that they made it to the top but because they were in so much pain and throwing up from nausea and headaches at the summit it almost wasn't worth it for them and certainly wasn't much fun. Thankfully that, along with a great weather report for Monday, convinced everyone that it would be wiser to move up to the Ingraham Glacier on Sunday another 1,200 feet and spend one more night at altitude before going for the summit. It turned out to be the best choice we made on the entire trip.

The following day we got up leisurely around 9am or so and milled around Camp Muir for a little while before heading up the easy 1,000 feet to Ingraham Flats. On the way across the first snowfield Tiff fell up to her crotch into a small crack but it wasn't much to worry about because we were still below the area that we were concerned about being roped up for. When we got to the top of Cathedral Gap Tiffany decided to turn around because she wasn't feeling good at all. We wished her luck and continued on towards Ingraham where we spent the rest of the afternoon on Sunday basking in the sun by our tents. We met two really nice guys (Josh & Brian) from the East Coast at Muir the night before so we pretty much climbed and camped near them for the remainder of the climb (one looked exactly like my buddy Mike Lomanto!). We spent a long time melting snow with our combined stoves and fuel (their stove broke but we were low on fuel so sharing worked out great between the two climbing parties). It was Sunday night so there were far less tents at Ingraham than the night before. The weather was perfect and we spent the afternoon in t-shirts with just a tiny breeze to keep us from overheating under the bright sun and blue skies. Winds there usually AVERAGE 50+mph but we were able to leave maps out on our tents without them even blowing over... a shear stroke of luck that we nailed it with the weather. The guides on the mountain as well as the rangers said it was the best weather they've seen all summer if not in several years! As the sun set the shadow of Rainier above us was cast out over the glowing land. Check out the picture on the left to see the dark triangle of shadow stretching into the horizon.

Our climb started at 2am in under the light of the moon and our headlamps. It was really amazing looking up at the massive glaciers pouring down the face of the mountain covered in flickering lights of everyone's lights. We quickly crossed over the Ingraham Glacier and onto the rock of Dissapointment cleaver where we quickly lost our way in the dark. After about half an hour of searching around taking the wrong trails once or twice we found our way back onto the main trail by following some guides hauling a ladder up the mountain to put over crevasses when the snow bridges collapse. We caught up with the guys from camp on the cleaver and helped them find their way in the dark back to the trail.

From the top of the cleaver it was a clear beaten path all the way to the summit but it wound its way through enormous crevasse fields and ice falls. At about 5:30am the sun finally rose to the east warming our cold hands and faces. Although we all baked in the sun for the previous two days we were all very cold climbing in the dark and welcomed the warmth of the sun. Because of the altitude all of us slowed down to a crawl up the mountain. Because we had stayed a 2nd night at 11,000 feet all of our heads were in great shape and we didn't feel much pain near the top.

When we got to the crater rim and could look across the flat crater at the summit on the other side it was a great feeling. We took our time crossing the crater. Chris and I were on one rope team while the others had my other rope. The sides of the craters were all steaming with vents from the dormant volcano. There was also a field of rime ice that looked like cauliflower stalks coming out of the snow. Chris and I took some time to take photos and explore this area before catching up with the group at the summit. It was very slow going above 14,000 feet. Each step seemed like it took way more effort than it should but our heads all felt fine and we were in good shape.

At the summit we were joined by a few other groups in celebration. One guy actually brought Roman Candles to light off at the top. James brought a can of IPA beer to the top for all of us to have a chug from. I of course finished off my summer sausage at the top and the rest of my pack of cheese sticks... yum! We had spectacular views all the way North to Canada and all the way South to central Oregon. That is the equivalent of looking from upstate NY to Washington DC. We had blue skies and there was hardly even a breeze at the top which is unheard of for one of the deadliest mountains in the lower 48. It was almost t-shirt weather at 14,000'! We all took photos of each other and got a great group photo at the top before looping down around the rim of the crater to start our descent.

While traversing the glacier we watched as other groups labored across the snowtoward the summit. Chris and I had constantly mind the rope so it would not get snagged on the jagged wind-blown icicles at the top. We walked by steaming vents on the rim, one which a ski mountaineer we know had to spend a night in for warmth to survive earlier this spring. To us they looked very unhospitable for sure!

Our descent down the Emmons and Ingraham Glaciers back to Ingraham Flats was amazing. It was now light out so we could clearly see all the massive icefalls and crevasses we walked through on the way up. We had crossed very narrow snow bridges on the way to the top that we didn't even notice in the dark. Some of the ice blocks were the size of schoolbuses stood upright balancing on almost nothing. The night before our summit push we could hear these behemoths crashing into the crevasses throughout the night. Some of the crevasses we passed were so deep they ended in darkness when we looked into them. Clearly, it would be terrible if somebody fell into one without being on a rope team! As we descended back down to the field of penitentes the sun became extremely hot without any wind to cool us so we had to strip off numerous layers back to shorts and t-shirts at the top of Dissapointment Cleaver. Kalin and James took off their crampons so Chris and I tried it but after 20 feet of slipping on the mushy snow we put ours back on and watched the others slip-slide down the slope far ahead of us toward camp. Chris and I on the other hand took our time to enjoy the day and take lots of photos of the terrain and snow formations around us that we had never seen before.

Check out these videos of us hiking on the upper slopes of Rainier.

Once down at Ingraham Flats we began packing up and Josh & Brian caught up with us and let us know they were out of water. We told them we would melt some more for them 1,000 feet below at Camp Muir when we got there. Let me explain why we were in a rush... on major peaks in the Northwest human feces has become a serious problem and health concern so bags called "blue bags" are given to climbers to, well, shit in and then carry down. Of course none of us wanted to do such a thing if we could avoid it so we decided to just hold it for a day in a half for our summit attempt until we could get back to Camp Muir and devastate the outhouses there. Thus, we were in a hurry to get down to Muir so Josh and Brian would have to last another 1,000 feet without water unfortunately...

As we crossed the top of the Cowlitz Glacier back to Camp Muir we passed the site where Tiffany hand sank into her thigh into a hole... Well, in the day and half that we were climbing for the summit above the "hole" had widened into a foot and half wide and 20 foot long crack in the glacier meaning that Tiffany technically had fallen into a crevasse on the way up... unroped.. whoops. Thankfully the cracks around the trail there weren't big enough to really fall into further than a person's waist so it wasn't super dangerous but it definitely means it would have been a good idea to have been roped up there.

Back at Muir we took 30 minutes to eat some food and melt some water for everyone for the descent. As usual I had plenty of water left because I never seem to hydrate myself enough but the others all needed some. The following descent down the mushy Muir snowfield was fun and fast, slipping down on our boots down glissade tracks left by others in the snow (butt tracks).

I'd say the worst part of the 9,000ft descent had to be the cement pavement for nearly a mile when we got down to the National Park Trail System. Going downhill on hard pavement in plastic mountaineering boots after a soft cushiony descent on mushy snow was amazingly painful and tiring. It felt so good to get back to the parking lot and our cars to put on sandals. Several of us had some pretty serious blisters from the trip but other than that all of us came down uninjured and very happy to have succeeded in what I'm sure I can say was one of the best climbs of all of our lives. Tiffany was at the bottom to greet us and had stuck our beers in some snow so they were cool to drink when we got down. Nothing like a cold beer after an epic journey like that.

Looking back up at the monstrous volcano I yelled out "who the hell had the idea to climb that thing?" and I think the others shared in my amazement that we had just come down 9,000ft in just a few hours... the same distance that it took us two days to climb. The summit was so far away that there was no way to even see climbers near the top. To our tired legs the mountain looked as attainable now as the surface of the moon yet when we had first arrived we were all ready to go.

There is always a lot of personification in my climbing life. I often think of big mountains as living/breathing objects. Sometimes they cave and let me climb in peace and tranquility, other times they put up fights with raging snow storms, pouring rain or blinding fog. To this day I've never had a mountain welcome me onto it's slopes as Mt. Rainier did for us. We had absolutely perfect weather and the mountain allowed us to climb it without any complications or injuries. I'm almost tempted to never push my luck and climb Rainier again because I don't know if any other climb could live up to the one we just had. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life and I'm super glad to have had great friends to enjoy it with!

To see an amazing slideshow of the trip click the title of this blog... 471 photos to enjoy. There are also videos... And make sure to click the button "info on" for descriptions of the photos when you scroll your mouse over the photos. To skip the photos and just check out the amazing videos click this link.

1 comment:

Nate Meehan said...

Great writeup Jon... Looks like you guys had nice weather indeed! Congrats on your big summit!