“Mountaineering is like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer. Over and over again”- Lou Whittaker.
Over this summer, I took up an opportunity to work at a climbing store and rental shop just outside Mt. Rainier National Park. One of the perks of the job that inspired me to apply, was since the store’s sister company is RMI (Rainier Mountaineering Inc), employees would get the chance to climb the oh so famous Pacific Northwest volcano when ever a spot opened up on a scheduled guided trip (that clients were paying around $1300 for). After living, working and hiking in the park for about two months, including a couple hikes up to Camp Muir at just over 10,000 feet, going to Snow school where I learned the basics of Glacier travel and mountaineering, I was informed of an open spot just three days prior to the trip’s scheduled ascent. I was originally planning on going up the last few days of July, when it was very possible that a few spots on another trip would remain open but since that wasn’t for sure possibility, and since I have been so desperately wanting to take a crack at the summit, I jumped on the opportunity immediately.
After doing all the gear checking and packing the night before, a group of eight other climbers and myself, met at Rainier Basecamp in Ashford in preparation to board a shuttle to take us up to Paradise, where we would begin our trek on the skyline trail on the paradise glacier. Our lead guide Casey, was an extremely experienced, no non-sense, ornery but charismatic character who has over 220 summits of Rainier along with 4 summits of Everest. He was well liked by the whole of the group, including myself.
The other two guides were around my age and I enjoyed getting to know them during the trip. I especially got to like Ross, who would end up leading my rope team. Ross was much more reserved than the other two guides and did a great job of leading by example. He didn’t have that strong, bravado and macho spewing personality that I began to notice many of the other guides had.
During our 4.5 mile trek up to Camp Muir where we would sleep from 5-11pm then wake for a midnight commencing summit attempt, Ross told me about his background and I got to realize how an upbringing out here in the PNW can be so different than growing up in the Midwest. While I was entrenched in the thrall of youth sports growing up, Ross gave me the sense that his childhood was literally centered around the mountains and outdoors. He grew up climbing in the north cascades and before becoming a mountain guide for RMI he was a, ‘Smoke Jumper’ who fought forest fires all through the state of Washington. More specifically, he freaking jumped out of planes into raging forest fires and fought to put them out. Of course he didn’t tell me all the details of that job, I had to look it up and see how intense it really is.
The trek up to camp Muir was easier than expected. I had been up there a few times prior and none of them were a walk in the park and this time I had 50 lbs of gear on my back so I was pleasantly surprised when I lacked fatigue heading into the camp that afternoon. We were to be staying in a small bunk styled stone shelter that night and were to be in bed by 530pm sharp. I already knew it was going to be a rough ‘night’ for me when I saw how our whole group was going to be sleeping together in such a confined and tight space. along with a few other individuals from other trips. It was tight, hot and the Mountain House meals that everyone but me chose to eat, did not quite seem to agree with people’s insides, and I quickly developed some nausea as the air in the shelter become suddenly pungent and thick…
I hadn’t slept a wink when Casey came in at 11pm sharp and in his sharp, direct and assertive tone, said, “Time to get up, Lets go!” It is easy to get the impression of Casey that if he hadn’t devoted his life to the mountains and being a guide, he very well could have ended up a military man, maybe special forces. He is just the kind of person that most people took an extra effort not to disappoint.
We got geared up and went outside to finish putting our crampons on. It was bit chilly but we were told to only wear our base layers to start off. We were going to heat up quick as soon as we got going. The sky was lit with the milky way and void of all light pollution that made for the clearest night sky I had ever seen. The stars were so bright and vivid, it was almost magical to someone who had never seen the night sky so unabated.
We separated into 3 rope teams and I was glad to see that Ross would be leading mine. I was excited and ready to go. I hadn’t slept at all and was still dealing with the nagging anxiety and general unwellness feeling that clouded everything I did and had been dealing with for more than a few months but this was a true adventure and challenge that lay ahead of me. The thrill of a new experience and getting the chance to trek a truly majestic and beautiful mountain volcano. This climb has been done thousands upon thousands of time before and it is pretty well known, but that did not matter. It was new to me and it was another chance for me to experience a beautiful and wild place. A chance for me to find out more about myself. And thats the stuff I live for. We turned on our headlamps and got going. About an hour in, we made in to the Ingraham flats. There we met other climbers who had made camp and were beginning their summit attempts as well. The stars and planets were still beaming above us and I could not take my eyes off the sky. While taking a rest break, our group tried to figure out if which stars were planets and if that red glowing star was indeed Mars. I was pretty sure that it was actually Arcturus, a Red Giant that is around 37 light years from our sun. But it is hard to not to think of the red planet when there is a beaming red object in the sky.
So far, I was still relatively confident that I would summit with relative ease and that what ever lay ahead, would not stifle me to much. Boy was I in for a rude awakening. I was about to meet, the good ole, Disappointment Cleaver. Miles of jagged rock on a steep incline. I could not exactly make out the entire route in front of me due to the darkness but as we got going I could see teams that were far above us with their headlights gleaming. After about an hour into the jagged rock nightmare, I was a bit alarmed when I looked up and judging by how far away the moving headlamps were, realized there was still quite a bit to go. “Damn” I thought to myself more than a few times, “This section was twice as hard as the whole trek to Muir.” What made this part of the climb such a bitch, was the steepness combined with the scattered, loose rocks made each step a less than comfortable ordeal. You never get a clean, easy footing and its easy to slip or get off balance and your body constantly gets jolted from the uneven hard impacts. This was scrambling at its finest on the good ole Cleaver and Renowned American Mountaineer Lou Whittaker’s not so famous quote quickly came to mind while I was traversing it, “Mountaineering is like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer. Over and over”
As we continued our climb and approached a section called High Break, the terrain turned to snow and we became surrounded by deep crevasses that often required passage by 10 foot ladders. ‘Dont Look down’ quickly became the prevalent theme for everyone. Also coming to mind was the humbling reality that a week ago, an ice fall the size of a 5 story apartment building, came spiraling down on this section of the route and if any teams were present during this fall, no doubt it would have been a catastrophe. Many people climb Rainier nowadays but that doesn’t mean its easy or that it implies that its without risk.
After a short rest at high break, we continued on through another steep section. The calves were on fire by this point and I really had to apply the practice of rest stepping. I also continued to make sure I was pressure breathing, which was basically inhaling deeply and exhaling quickly with your lips pursed. It was supposed to feel similar to blowing really hard through a straw. I didnt know the exact science behind the technique but I do think that it works and many highly esteemed mountaineers swear by it.
After a long, mentally and physically grueling 5 hours, we made it to the summit at approximately 6:00am. It was defiantly a feeling of elation and awe, as we set our packs down in the mouth of the crater. What a treat and blessing to have. to be sitting in the mouth of a strato-volcano and at the top of the Pacific Northwest. The fabled Mt Rainier deserves all the romanticization and allure it is prescribed. The moment was also a sobering reminder of Rainier’s volcanic nature, as I sat atop Colombia Crest and witnessed steam coming up through the cracks of rocks.
With all of us cloaked in parkas, taking pictures and celebrating our feat, I took a moment to take in the top of the Pacific Northwest. I reflected on the enormous feeling of uncertainty that I felt about my life and the lack of insights that I hoped climbing this mountain would reveal. There was only one thing I could do; Continue to put one foot in front of the other…
The descent of Rainier proved to be even more difficult than the ascent. Due to rockfall and crevasse conditions, we had to take a slightly different way down that had us traverse through more absolutely stunning glacier terrain. Despite our efforts to avoid crevasse hazards, we ended up crossing a few of them, which involved walking over more ladders on this new route that eventually met up with the Cleaver. The enormity of the mountain continued to astound me and just sheer scope of the terrain that we crossed over, led to awe and more than a few quietly uttered ‘holy shits‘ during our climb down to Camp Muir. I felt proud that halfway during our ascent, Ross asked me to lead our team. It felt good that despite feeling so dreadful, I still made an impression on the guides that said hey, this guy’s tough and we can trust him.
By the time we made it down to Rainier Basecamp in Ashford, it was 4pm and there was no doubt about it, I was SPENT. By this time, I defiantly had thoughts about never doing something like that again. But I knew that knowing myself, tomorrow and the days to come soon, id be making plans to go up again. And it turns out, I was right. Rainier was a hell of a climb and adventure.
Mountaineering may be something that I decide to dive into head first. If my body and mind can hold up….