So You Wanna Be a Mountaineer?
A Newbie's First Summit
Growing up in the Seattle area, it was always there. People talk about
it like it's a friend or family member, someone they've known for ages.
"The Mountain is out today," people will say and no one asks
"what mountain?" It's there, regally standing tall for all to
see. On summer mornings as the sun comes up it's staggeringly beautiful,
even after a lifetime of regularly seeing it.
The interesting part is, I never contemplated actually going there, seeing
it up close, or, heaven forbid, climbing it. I do have vague recollections
of visiting the Paradise visitor's center with Grandma Reid as a kid,
of wildflowers and rocky trails. But you didn't need to visit Mount Rainier
to think of it as your own. It is just part of being a Seattleite.
So it's a bit ironic that when I moved away from my hometown after 31
years and relocated to San Francisco, three years later I'd return to
climb this familiar peak. I must admit that as soon as I decided to embark
upon this particular adventure, looking at Rainier didn't seem quite so
peaceful anymore. I recall that, on an early morning drive to SeaTac a
few weeks back, the mountain looked so much BIGGER than I had remembered.
Less friendly and fluffy. I wasn't sure how I felt about this anymore.
I was conflicted, and a bit scared.
But, we went. We saw. We summitted.
"This was about 1,000' of steep rock face, with tons of talus and
other various rock debris, covered in ice and snow, sitting out over the
craggy and broken ice blocks of the Emmons Glacier. It sucked."
Flying into Seattle is always amazing - Adams, Hood, St. Helens, Rainier,
all standing tall above the clouds. This time was no exception, except
that this time, the realization of what I was about to do was staggering.
There, above a band of clouds, stood the tip of Rainier. My thought process
went something like this, "Wow, how beautiful. How amazing."
Then, "Ohmigod. I'm climbing a mountain whose top can only be seen
by people on airplanes." I was scared, and a bit awestruck.
We checked in to Whittaker's bunkhouse in Ashford, Washington (owned by
Lou Whittaker, who led the first American team up the North Col on Everest
in 1984, and whose twin brother Jim was the first American to summit Everest
in 1963), that night and had our last good sleep for several days.
Friday (Day 1)
Mountaineering school day. This consisted of getting on a bus with 24
other hopeful climbers of all ages, occupations, and origins, and heading
to Paradise. The mountain was indeed out and it was glorious. It somehow
looked different up close, or maybe the lack of snow this year changed
its face. It was stunning. We then hiked with our three guides (one has
been guiding for 17 years and was incredibly patient, kind and wise, and
two other 20-somethings who guide Rainier in the summer and lead trips
all over the globe the rest of the year. My high tech marketing job was
starting to sound a bit tame all of a sudden) up to a snowfield around
6,500 feet to learn the tools of the trade. I sort of smirked a bit when
they talked about teaching us how to walk and to breathe. Geez, how hard
could it be? I also smirked a bit when, as we were getting evaluated for
our fitness levels (sadly, one man was nixed almost immediately from any
further ascent because he was not at all in any shape to climb), Terry,
Lynn and I kept easy pace with the guides as we walked. I quickly realized
how much I had to learn.
"Training" consisted of falling and sliding down the hill from
various angles and slopes and self-arresting with our ice axes. It was
actually pretty damn fun (until the next day when my shoulders hurt so
bad from digging into the hill with my axe that now I could hardly brush
my teeth). We also learned how to walk with crampons, how to walk on a
rope team, and how to yell "Falling" at the top of your lungs.
All very good skills to have.
That night we had dinner at a local place with a fellow climber, and called
it an early night. Our fellow climbers, we were finding, were going to
be among the best parts of this trip. We were amazed at the diversity
of ages, climbing experience levels, and reasons for coming. Everyone
had a story and every one was unique and inspiring. It was pretty damn
Saturday (Day 2)
We rose at 6:30am to commence with more packing. For an adventure that
only requires one backpack and a little food, the packing seemed to be
ridiculously complicated. Getting gear for this trip also ended up being
ridiculously expensive. The families of REI employees should love me for
the profit sharing checks they'll be getting this year. Then we hopped
back on the bus, with a smaller team (again we smirked, we were the "A
team." As we found out later, this meant little except we got to
climb first and be with the lead guide, but it made us feel special anyway)
to Paradise. The climb started for real.
Sadly, the Mountain was not out today and we hiked through a pea soup
fog for about four-and-a-half hours from Paradise to Camp Muir at 10,150
feet. All in all, a pretty easy hike.
After spending a lot of time hiking in the Sierra this summer in the Tahoe
and Yosemite regions, we sea level kids were getting pretty good at handling
some minimal altitude. We had a good time meeting other climbers and it
felt so good to be hiking in relatively cool weather after our usual 90-
to 100-degree day California hikes.
"Then we broke trail on a fresh patch of new snow and for every step
up we took, we slid two steps back. It was frustrating and painful, and
We arrived in base camp and were greeted by the sight of a shack the side
of my bedroom -- in which all now 23 of us would be sleeping. It was sort
of like a morgue with rows and rows of benches we'd call beds, with bodies
lined up in neat rows. I suppose it didn't really matter, because, as
we quickly learned, you certainly don't sleep much. We unpacked some of
our gear, repacked, ate some dehydrated food and were told to go to bed.
It was 6pm. Surprisingly, I crashed right away.
Both Terry and I woke up around 7:30pm when nature called. We walked outside
to the most amazing sight we'd ever seen. The mountaintop that wed
seen on the airplane was what we were now standing on, with clouds below
us and completely clears skies around and above us. We could see the summit.
The glaciers were ablaze with the setting sun, and a light fog was starting
to creep up the mountain. It was truly magical. We then tried to sleep
some, and managed a few hours amidst the snoring and the waiting; the
guides were going to wake us up at some time between 12am and 4pm to make
our summit attempt.
Sunday (Day 2.5)
1:05am. The bunk house door opened and Brent, our lead guide, strode in,
"Wake up everybody, it's time to climb." So our 16-hour summit
day began. We all sleepily got out of bed (23 people trying to get ready
in a small room is not conducive to any sort of speed). Upon walking outside
I was immediately awake; it was the clearest evening I'd seen in ages.
The stars seemed within grasping distance and the slight moon reflected
beautifully off the snow. I started to realize why ancient peoples thought
of mountains as gods - they are pretty amazing beings.
We geared up, strapped on crampons, grabbed ice axes, roped up and headed
off, now in four-person, plus one guide, teams. Terry, Lynn and I lucked
out and got to be first out the door and over the glacier, ready to blaze
the trail for the rest. I realized later this also meant we worked a lot
harder than some of the last crews, but it was well worth it.
We started pretty flat out of Camp Muir across the Cowlitz Glacier, and
then quickly found ourselves climbing a steep rock face called Cathedral
Gap. Then it was on to Ingram Glacier, at around 11,000', and at this
point things started to get interesting.
With just our headlamps to light the way, we were skirting massive crevasses
and walking along their edges on tiny, tiny paths. Then we crossed over
these deep cracks in the glacier on tiny, tiny little ladders. I was scared
to look down and was extremely grateful it was still dark so I couldn't
see just how far down it went.
Then, at about 12,000', we hit something called Disappointment Cleaver.
Let me tell you, I don't wonder about this name, I have my own opinion.
I am pretty sure it was early climber disappointment that it wasn't the
summit, because it's so freakin' hard. And on the way down, you're disappointed
that you have to walk through the damn thing again. This was about 1,000
vertical feet of steep rock face, with tons of talus and other various
rock debris, covered in ice and snow, sitting out over the craggy and
broken ice blocks of the Emmons Glacier. It sucked.
For almost 90 minutes we traversed across this thing with crampons slipping
on ice and scraping on rocks; quads screaming in agony, hands gripping
your ice axe in fear. When we got to the top it was bliss, however. It
was our second break of the morning and the sun was just coming up. Looking
out over what we had just climbed was incredible, and sort of frightening.
"Good God, we hiked that? How the hell do we get down?"
We could see the lights of Yakima off in the distance and several neat
rows of climbers with headlamps, like luminaria, weaving their way up
the hill after us. As we rose further, we climbed to "High Break"
at around 13,500' and the sun was out in full force, making for a gorgeous
day. We could see Mounts Adams, Hood and Jefferson off in the distance.
As we started to make our last 1000-foot push for the summit, yesterday's
lessons about breathing and walking came in pretty darn handy. I used
to always wonder about those mountaineering books that talked about taking
one-two steps and resting, one-two steps and resting. Geez, how hard can
it be? Oh man, it is so hard.
We very slowly worked our way up the mountain. I was feeling tired and
starting to get pretty lightheaded. Our rope team members had varying
moments of "bonking" and we all struggled to stay moving. Our
guide was incredibly patient (even when I knew we were driving him nuts)
and kept motivating us onward. Then we broke trail on a fresh patch of
new snow and for every step up we took, we slid two steps back. It was
frustrating and painful, and really steep. Then we came upon a snowfield
that looked very "Dr. Suessian," with a glistening and magical
array of penitentes rising up from the snow floor. It was probably incredibly
beautiful, but by that point I was too tired to care.
I started to feel really queasy, but kept breathing and telling myself
that if a little 77-year-old woman could do this in 19 hours round-trip
(she had been recently written up in the Seattle papers, and wed
passed her on our way up to Camp Muir), I could darn well get my butt
up there too.
"...we hit Disappointment Cleaver and had to walk down through snow,
ice, rock and mud. I contemplated how much it would hurt to fall into
a crevasse and if I wanted to jump and take the 'easy route'..."
Sunday (Day 3+)
9:39am. We summitted 14,411-foot Mount Rainier. And I lay down in the
snow and wanted to sleep. By this time I was definitely slightly altitude
sick, couldn't eat, threatened to barf on my team members, and too tired
to walk across the crater to register/sign us in. Terry did the honors
and instead of being rewarded with a view of all of Washington, he (and
the rest of us at the summit) received a whiteout storm instead. Sigh.
Sitting in the crater of Rainier's dormant volcano was a pretty amazing
experience though. We high-fived with our ice axes (quickly we novices
became climbing nerds), took a bunch of photos, choked down some Gu the
wonder food, waited for a couple of the other teams, and then started
the long journey back. We reveled in the fact that we'd done it. We'd
climbed a 14,000+-foot peak. And I'd finally met my "friend,"
the Mountain, up close.
The trip down was much harder than I thought. I pressure breathed my way
into feeling better by about 12,000 feet, but then we hit Disappointment
Cleaver and had to walk down through snow, ice, rock and mud. I contemplated
how much it would hurt to fall into a crevasse and if I wanted to jump
and take the 'easy route down.
By this time, the sun had melted the snow a great deal and we started
seeing where we'd walked in the morning, which was truly scary all of
a sudden in the daylight. The tiny, tiny snow bridge we'd crossed at 3am
was now impassable. Our guide ice axed us a new route over a deep crevasse.
Oh man, what am I doing here? The sun now blazed down upon us, I was exhausted
and out of water, and we still had at least two hours to go before reaching
Finally we made it out of the Cleaver, back across the scary ladders and,
in the lower altitude, we were all beginning to feel much better. Then
the gale force winds, hail and snow started to fly. Good God, will this
day never end?
We made it back to base camp at 2pm and were told we had 30 minutes to
pack and then we had to head down to Paradise. My muscles were screaming.
We'd been up for 12 hours already, we'd gained and lost 9,000' and it
was a blizzard, and they want me to walk more? Sigh.
So, after a brief hot chocolate break and more high-fiving amongst the
other returning summitters, we headed down the last 5500' to Paradise.
Then it started to rain. I think this was one of those oh-how-I-don't-miss-Seattle
moments, but it beat being pelted with hail and ice, so I didn't complain.
We reached Paradise after about two-and-a-half hours and headed back to
Ashford, tired, hurting, exhilarated.
We returned home, with soreness in muscles we never knew we had, a hunger
that won't seem to go away, a feeling of exhaustion that I'm pretty sure
only about 24 hours of straight sleep will cure, and a sense of tremendous
accomplishment and utter wonder. Despite the scary stuff, the cold, the
nausea, the 1am wake up call, the smell of 23 sweaty bodies in a tiny
shack, and the fact that I don't think I'll want to eat Gu again for a
very long time, this was the most amazing thing I've done. I can easily
see why people do this for a living, and I envy them that. I don't think
I'll be looking at climbing Everest any time soon (or perhaps ever, for
that matter), but I'm pretty excited to climb Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina
I found a quote today that sort of sums up how I feel about climbing Rainier...and
about marathons, 450-mile treks across Spain, Ironman triathlons, 100-mile
races, cross-country bike rides, bivvying out on ledges, and anything
else that people do that others sometimes call nuts.
"If you aren't living on the edge, you're taking up too much space.
It has nothing to do with thrill-seeking. It's about making the most of
every moment, about stretching your own boundaries, about being willing
to learn constantly and putting yourself in situations where learning
is possible - sometimes even critical to your survival. Being out on the
edge, with everything at risk, is where you learn - and grow - the most."
- Jim Whittaker, first American to summit Mt. Everest.
Go be crazy.
© Diana Reid, San Francisco, CA
"To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive."
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