Let me first start by saying that I love my brother. And while I love adventure, I typically try to avoid things that could quite literally get me killed. So, when my brother suggested to me last year that, as a belated 40th birthday present, I join him to climb Mt. Rainier, I was definitely in conflict. But, luckily for me, my love for Geoff won out. He, my father, George, and I all signed up to join an RMI-lead excursion up Mt. Rainier from June 17-20th. And, aside from assembling the proper gear needed to do such a thing, I honestly didn’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about it until about a week or two before the climb itself. I did have a friend suggest that I watch Everest a few months before. That was a mistake. Great movie, but it definitely added a little gravity to the “try not to die” section of my brain. I did think back to my experience skydiving when in college. My general logic was that it was OK, because if I was strapped to someone who was a professional and also didn’t want to die, the probability of something bad happening was pretty low. I figured the same logic applied here.
On to the trip itself. My brother, Dad and I drove from his place in Seattle out to Ashford, WA, RMI’s headquarters on Friday, the first day of our adventure. I couldn’t have been more impressed with the sheer beauty of the area. It was awesome, and rural enough that there were no cell signals. Actually kind of a relief. I definitely relied upon the wifi, though. The first day involved just getting there, getting our gear and going through an orientation. We had a chance to meet the 5 other guys who were making up our 8 person group. Thankfully all were fit, pleasant, and eager for the adventure. We also met our lead guide, Leon Davis. Leon is basically a rock star. Long history climbing a lot of epic peaks, and one of the nicest, most laid back, guys I have met. You could tell from the first time he spoke to us that he was truly doing what he loved. The orientation was followed by a gear overview and check. Thank god for that. I had brought about twice what I actually needed, and missed a few things, so that evening I was able to pick up the few extras, and put away all the junk that I went overboard packing. My legs and back would thank me later when my pack went down to the appropriate 35-40 lbs.
The next day we all met up to go to “climbing” school. Bad weather had been in the area for the last several days: rain at the lower elevations, and lots of snow up higher, and it was still hanging around Saturday. We were joined by our second guide, Bryan for the training. We took a shuttle up to Paradise, the National Park Service Visitor Center and starting point for anyone wanting to go up onto Rainier. From there, we hiked about 2-2.5 miles up and the guides took us to an open area for training and learning the mountaineering skills we would rely on. Keep in mind that we were likely at about 8000 ft at this point, and on thick packed snow. Definitely at the altitude where nothing melts year round. Climbing school was a blast! They taught us how to walk (the rest step saved me on the summit day), how to breathe in the thin air (gotta hear that exhale!), different techniques to navigate super steep places (crossover step and duck walking), how to wear crampons, how to walk roped together, and most fun of all, self-arrest techniques with the ice axe. Sliding and stopping yourself with a device that could potentially leave a massive puncture wound was actually kind of cool. After about 5 hours, and when the snow and wind were really picking up, we came back down to Paradise, headed back to Ashford and got dinner and any last minute supplies we could think of. Sunday, the third day, would be the start of our summit attempt. We did our best to get to bed a bit early and get some good rest, as there would be little sleeping the next night.
All three of us were up early on Sunday. Lots of nerves, and anticipation. Not the least of which was if we would be able to summit at all, given the weather. But it was supposed to be clearing on Sunday, so we were very optimistic. The third day had us hiking about 4.1 miles, and 4000 ft, up to Camp Muir, the high base camp where we would stay overnight and make our summit attempt from. We got our things ready for the last time: bags packed, layers situated, and bussed up to Paradise. We were also joined by the last member of our awesome guide group, Paul. And the day turned out to be perfect. As we climbed we were even able to get down to just a baselayer. From our hike we could see all the way to Mt. Hood in Oregon. It was amazing, with not a cloud in the sky. We pretty much stayed in line, and went for about an hour at a stretch, then took a break. The whole trip up took us about 5.5 hours, but was about 20,000 steps. A LOT of walking. Thank god we were doing it in such nice weather. We got to Muir around 3pm and got settled into the bunk house.
While not glamorous in the slightest, I was glad to have the roof, and the sleeping mats up there for us. One less thing I had to haul up! The guides came in and let us know what to pack for the summit attempt, but cautioned us that given the weather, and the risk of avalanche, we may not be able to make our final attempt from Camp Muir. No groups had been able to try for the past several days, and we found out that two people even got stuck on the summit for two days, and had to be airlifted off, given the snow and wind. This was definitely not helping my general confidence level. Thankfully between Leon, Bryan and Paul, I knew we were in good hands. Only thing left to do Sunday was eat our re-hydrated spaghetti and meatballs (actually not half bad), use the restroom (primitive outhouse to say the least), and try to get to sleep. We all tried to go to bed around 6pm, because we would be up between 11pm and 1am to make our summit attempt. I can tell you not a lot of sleep happened due to anticipation/nerves coupled with an enclosed room and an almost toxic amount of farting.
Finally around midnight Leon came in and told us the good news, we would be making a summit attempt that day, Monday. He did caution, however, that while it was safe for the first few sections we would traverse, Ingraham Flats and the Disappointment Cleaver, the guides would be checking conditions further up to ensure safety was put first. By 1am we had all gotten breakfast, assembled, had our crampons on, and ice axes in hand. We got roped into teams of 4 (guide and 3 climbers) and headed out. There were probably about 5-6 other groups leaving for attempts at the same time, one more with RMI (a 5 day program), and a few groups of independent climbers. It was slow, tough going as the guides literally cut a brand new trail for us. Luckily between Leon, Bryan and Paul, they had enough experience that they knew the route intimately. As an aside, it was also reassuring that literally every other person making a summit attempt followed the RMI guides’ lead. They were the alphas in the pack, and everyone knew it. Really glad we were under their direct care. Normally, we should have been able to make the summit in about 5-6 hours. You leave at 1am to help mitigate bad weather and to summit at sunrise. It was eerie walking along with moonlight and your headlamp only. Not a whole lot to see as we crossed the Ingraham flats. It was hard walking, but not technical, and not too steep. We were fully on the glacier, though, and had to stay on the path to stay away from the crevasses we knew were out there.
It was when we had crossed the Flats, and were facing the Cleaver that things started to get real. First, the wind and snow really started picking up. And Second, this is where we had to, more or less, single-track and scramble up the face of a ridge. It was insane. On one side you had the ridge, almost at shoulder height many times, and on the other a sheer drop off down to crevasses. The kind of fall that there was pretty much no way you were surviving. And underfoot was glacial snow, lots of power, rocks, and grit. I can say in complete honesty that I was absolutely terrified as I was climbing the Cleaver. I have never been scared like that in my life. On a deep, instinctual level, my body was telling me I didn’t belong there. I have tremendous respect for mountaineers, and the way they can overcome that fear. As we approached halfway up the Cleaver, it was getting increasingly treacherous. When you stood tall, like you should, the wind pushed you, your footing slipped frequently and you had to catch yourself. Finally we had to pause, and my dad had to make a tough decision. It had just become too tough. So unfortunately he and Geoff, and Bryan, our guide, turned and headed back for Muir. Being the bullheaded one, I stayed, joined a different rope team, and continued on, despite my fear. Going up the Cleaver and along its ridge was as challenging as any triathlon I have done, mentally and physically. But thanks to our great guide team, we made it up to the top of the Cleaver.
The conditions past the Cleaver were largely unknown, so we all settled in to wait as two guides headed out into the almost whiteout snow to see. Even though we had all of our heaviest clothing on, it was impossible not to quickly get to freezing given the gusts of wind and snow that were up to 40mph. It was nuts. Terrible conditions. I was so cold and tired that I actually fell asleep sitting on my pack, in a snowstorm, for a few minutes at a time. After about an hour, the guides came back and gave us the bad news. Appropriately on Disappointment Cleaver. There was a higher than acceptable risk ahead of avalanches, and coupled with the high winds and snow, it just wasn’t safe to continue on. We were all disappointed, but understood it was not something to take risks on. We prepared again and started the journey down the Cleaver, across the Flats, and back to Muir. It was as tough going down as up, but thankfully quite a bit faster. Once we were off the Cleaver, and on the Flats, we finally were able to really fully appreciate the glacier. It was daylight, and we could really see the crevasses and landscape. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. It was amazing. We ended up back at Camp Muir around 8, packed up all the things we left, and headed back down to Paradise around 9am. Once out of Muir, the sky cleared (because of course it did), and the sun shone, and it was another perfect day. The descent was more like running downhill, and while hard, was fast and fun. We even got to sled down some portions on our butts. It was a blast! We made it down from Muir in about 2 hours, as compared to the 5 it took us to get there. Once we got in the van back to Ashford the exhaustion really set in. Boots were off, people rested, and god did that van stink!
Once back at Ashford we were able to quickly return our rental gear, and we all assembled with our three superlative guides to debrief. While everyone was sad not to have summited, all agreed it was the right decision, and every one of us was proud of the challenges we had overcome. Geoff, Dad and I celebrated with our Rainer Beers (which we hoped to drink on the summit). I’m not sure if I will ever try something like this again, but I will treasure this memory and experience. I’m so glad Geoff got me to do it.