|Getting started, photo by Melissa Kelley|
The crunch of snow under my crampons, the sound of rock and ice falling, climbing as a rope team and feeling like crap from the altitude are just a few reasons why my recent attempt to climb Mount Rainier was one of the best experiences of my life. Team injuries kept us off the summit. However the climbing team camaraderie and just being on the mountain left me with no regrets.
|Mount Rainier, photo by David Newman|
Mount Rainier is a 14,417 foot peak located 54 miles south of Seattle, Washington. It is one of the most prominent mountains on earth and is the most glaciated peak in the lower 48 states. 9,000 feet of climbing, snowfields, crevasses, glaciers and unpredictable weather stand between the parking lot and the summit. 13,000 climbers attempt to climb Rainier each year, via many routes, with a 50% success rate. Rainier has a little bit of everything that the sport of Mountaineering has to offer.
My climbing team and I chose to attempt Rainier to test our skills that have been built over many winters in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. To prepare for our unguided climb we trained in Huntington Ravine with Kel Rossiter from Adventure Spirit Rock + Ice + Alpine Experiences, practiced rope management on old ski slopes, worked on crevasse rescue in rock quarries and spent countless hours building cardiovascular endurance. Mount Rainier had been one of the driving forces in my life during the months leading up to the climb.
Our plan was to sleep at Camp Muir and climb the Disappointment Cleaver route aka the DC. This is the least technical route on the mountain which also makes it the most popular. As an unguided team making their first attempt on the mountain we felt perfectly content going with the most popular route. We planned to be ready to spend 4 days on the mountain to allow a 3 day summit window.
Day 1: Climb to Camp Muir
|Starting the climb, photo by Melissa Kelley|
The first day’s objective was to do the 4.5 mile climb to Camp Muir (10,188 ft) from the Paradise Visitor Center (5,400 ft). We knew this would be hard with 4,700 feet of elevation gain, 60 pound packs and bodies that were acclimatized to sea level. We picked up our climbing permits, blue bags, checked the route conditions and hit the trail. We encountered snow about 50 ft after leaving the parking lot and the trail became marked by route markers and footprints.
|Just outside of Paradise|
The route began with a gradual but increasingly steep climb on an expansive snowfield. Mount Rainier looked deceptively close from the start.
|The endless climb|
Once we crossed pebble creek the incline sharply increased, the air got a little thinner and the views were breathtaking. The sustained and steep pitch made me wish I brought my trekking poles.
|Break time, photo by Dave Newman|
The climbing was relentless but we kept climbing with breaks every hour or so. At each break we made sure to apply sunscreen, drink water and eat 250 calories. As soon as we did all those things it was time to start moving again.
|Breathing deep, photo by Dave Newman|
My feet moved a little slower and my breathing got a lot deeper once we reached 8,000 feet; my body simply was not used to altitude. I utilized rest steps and pressure breathing to keep moving but it got harder with each step.
|A climb with a view|
The climb was a seemingly endless field of snow with Rainier looming in front of us and views of Mount Adams behind us. Camp Muir came into sight with 1 mile of climbing to go but we still had 1,000 more feet of climbing to get there. We took one last break before making the final push to Muir. At this point one of my team members, who was also our route finder, felt a pain down the side of his leg whenever he walked uphill. This was extremely concerning but we decided to get to camp and then evaluate our situation.
|View from Camp Muir|
I tried not to look at Camp Muir because it didn’t seem to be getting any closer. Camp Muir is one of the most popular overnight spots on the mountain. It sits on a ledge between the Muir Snowfield and the Cowlitz Glacier. The camp consists of a public shelter, a few latrines, a few guide service huts, and space for many tents. Climbers must melt snow for all of their water.
|Our camp at Camp Muir|
Upon reaching Camp Muir I felt nauseous and more exhausted then I had ever felt in my life. I had literally had to stop every few steps and take 4 or 5 breaths before moving again. The altitude and the exertion of the climb had temporarily devastated me. I sat on my pack with my head in my hands for about 20 minutes. Thankfully my tent mate was gracious enough to set up the tent without my assistance but I felt terrible for not contributing. I started feeling ok a few hours later after I downed 4 cups of green tea and plenty of calories.
Day 2: Climbing to Ingraham Flats
|My team with Kel Rossiter|
Kel Rossiter from Adventure Spirit Rock + Ice + Alpine Experiences happened to be in camp that day. It was nice to thank the man who had given us the skills and the inspiration to get to that point.
We decided not to go for the summit that night due to my altitude issues and my teammate’s leg injury. Instead we chose to get a full night’s sleep and reevaluate things in the morning. It was a cool and clear night with temps in the 30s and I fell asleep as soon as I got into my sleeping bag.
We awoke to a perfect day with clear skies, bright sun and temps somewhere in the 40s. The sun was so bright that I had to wear my sunglasses in the tent. I also felt almost 100% better than I did just a few hours ago; it is amazing how fast the body can adapt to altitude.
Our plan for the day was to rope up, cross the Cowlitz Glacier, move through Cathedral Gap and stop on the Ingraham Glacier at Ingraham Flats. This short hike would test our fitness with another 1,000 feet of climbing.
Moving onto the Cowlitz Glacier was thrilling since it was my first experience on a glacier. Although avalanches and crevasse falls were unlikely, I kept my ice axe at the ready, practiced good rope management and maintained communication with my teammates.
|Splitting up on the glacier, photo by Jeremy Hitchcock|
Our rope leader’s leg started shaking after ten minutes of climbing and it was clear he was in great pain; he could not climb anymore. One of our team members volunteered to take him back to camp. My remaining teammate and I chose to continue climbing to Ingraham Flats.
|Moving towards Cathedral Gap, photo by Jeremy Hitchcock|
We shortened our rope as we moved through Cathedral Gap which is a notorious rock fall area. Small rocks fell in front of and behind our position as we were moving. This reminded us of why we wanted to move quickly through this spot.
|Atop Cathedral Gap, by Dave Newma|
It felt a little awkward to move on rock with my crampons but I quickly got used to it. After one or two sketchy switchbacks we found ourselves on the Ingraham Glacier.
|Approaching Ingraham Flats Camp|
We had full view of Little Tahoma, the Disappointment Cleaver and many expansive crevasses. We could also see Ingraham Flats which is used as a campsite for those who want to have a shorter summit day. There was potential rock fall to our left and a huge crevasse to our right so we made careful foot placements and quickly found ourselves at Ingraham Flats Camp.
|Ingraham Flats Camp|
At camp a few climbers were practicing crevasse rescue or preparing for their summit attempts that night.
|Taking a break at Ingraham Flats|
My teammate and I took a long break and took in the unbelievable view of Little Tahoma. We also investigated the Disappointment Cleaver which we were planning to climb that night. There was even enough cell reception for me to call home. Suddenly we felt an abrupt but short shake beneath us; like a small earth quake. Apparently glaciers can make noticeable movements from time to time.
After about 30 minutes we decided to head down to camp along the same route we ascended. We wanted to get back to prepare and rest up for our summit attempt that night.
|The route back to Camp Muir from Cathedral Gap, by Dave Newman|
Back at camp we had a team meeting to decide if we wanted to make a summit attempt. We decided to go for it as a team of 3; our injured teammate would stay behind. Our plan was to do an alpine start and get up at 12:30 am to be on the trail by 1:00 am. The cool night temperatures strengthen snow bridges, reduce the ice fall risk and provide better snow conditions for crampon purchase. All of these safety benefits merited getting up early.
|Trying to sleep when its light out, by Dave Newman|
We ate a hearty dinner, melted snow to fill our bottles and tried to go to bed around 7 pm. I packed my summit pack and left it in the tent vestibule so I could just grab it and go the next morning. The excitement of the summit attempt, persistent daylight and a slight headache made it almost impossible for me to fall sleep. I slept in my climbing gear to maximize efficiency the next morning.
Day 3: Summit Attempt
Eventually the clock struck 12:30 and we began preparing for the summit. The air was crisp but wind free which is perfect climbing weather. I stepped out of my tent to see headlamps from several climbing teams making their way up the route. I crammed down some Poptarts, hoisted my pack and clipped into the rope. The summit attempt was on.
|Moving at night|
We began traversing the Cowlitz Glacier guided by the light of our headlamps. Without being able to see much of the landscape I kept my focus on proper foot placement and my teammates. After just a few steps we were passed by an elite climbing team led by Melissa Arnot; a First Ascent sponsored athlete who has climbed Everest and many of the world’s toughest climbs. For me this was the equivalent of a basketball fan playing on the same court as Michael Jordan.
We short roped through Cathedral Gap. Climbing this spot in the dark was actually better than the day since we couldn’t see the loose boulders looming just above our route. We stepped onto the Ingraham Glacier where we had a clear view of many teams on the Disappointment Cleaver high above us.
|Our turnaround point, by Jeremy Hitchcock|
One of our teammates began to slow until he eventually came to a stop. The altitude had gotten to him; it sapped his energy and he had a splitting headache. On a mountain like this altitude sickness can strike anyone at anytime; it had impacted almost all us at some point during the climb. We collectively decided that it would be unsafe to continue ascending and that we should turn around. As a climbing team we climb and descend together so all 3 of us made our way back to Camp Muir.
We got back to Camp at around 2:30 am. We dropped our packs and crawled back into our sleeping bag for a few hours of rest. We packed up camp and began to head down later that morning. The descent to Paradise typically takes half as long as the ascent since it is easier to go down and the air got thicker with each breath.
The early morning views of Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens and numerous other peaks provided a great view for our descent.
|Faster than walking, by Dave Newman|
The steep pitch and snow allowed us to glissade down the route which is certainly a lot faster than walking. Many climbers had slid down before us which created a slide in the snow.
|Almost back to Paradise|
Eventually trees and the roof of Paradise came into view which welcomed us back into civilization.
|Waiting for our ride, by Dave Newman|
We dried our socks and waited in front of the visitor center until our ride arrived.
Even though we did not summit, being on Mount Rainier was literally living the dream. The experience taught me a lot about mountaineering, myself and my teammates. I believe we came off this climb as an even stronger team that is already planning to make another attempt. This experience was definitely all about the journey.