Mount Rainier has stood out in my mind the same way it stands alone on the Seattle skyline. It was a landmark climb before my attempt and remains a landmark climb as I move forward in my adventures.
As we prepared for our climb, gathering last bits of gear and practicing knots, we sat in a restaurant talking about what the future held for us. Nerves were stretched thin as we talked about preparation and consequences of this climb that would start in just a few hours.
The drive through the woods to the parking lot and trail head was long and quiet. When we finally parked, we all felt the journey wrap itself around us and the mood changed. We all knew we were ready. We all knew we had the skills and the endurance to get to the top. The pre-hike jitters turned quickly to anxiousness to begin and meet the task head on.
The mountain was hidden in the clouds and there was a gloomy feeling as we began the hike along the paved trail. Asphault turned to dirt, and dirt to snow as we made our was into the thickness of the clouds. The gloom pressed down on us as we trudged past day hikers and guided tours. A group of rangers were carrying a ladder up.
“The other ladder broke,” one of the Rangers said to another hiker as we made our way past them.
I played out a few scenarios of a ladder breaking over a crevasse and quickly blocked it from my mind. I told myself to focus on this moment. That moment will come soon enough.
I was beginning to think that we would be doing the entire hike in the clouds when suddenly, like a light, Rainer appeared out of the clouds and it was nothing but blue skies and sunshine. A few hundred yards ahead was the John Muir base camp. When we arrived we pulled out our lunches and began to ask around for success stories.
A group of climbers told us of their experiences up the peak and what it took to make their trip successful. The rangers station, make of rocks, provided bad news from the rangers. They told me that bad weather was on the way. He pointed out the lenticular cloud formations in the distance. He told me to prep for a whiteout if we decided to continue up the following morning.
I told the group the news. We discussed our options and decided to continue to our base camp, sleep, and see how things looked when we woke up at 2am.
So, we roped up and began to make our way across the glacier. I led the way as we followed the boot path that weaved through and crossed over deep crevasses until we reached a patch of crumbly cliff that separated us from the next glacier.
Up and over the ridge, put our camp in site. We came back onto the glacier and made our way to a small group of tents belonging to a guided tour. We set up camp, melted water, ate dinner and passed out. As I slept in my single tent, I dreaded the weather conditions that I thought I would be waking up to,
“Scott!… Scott!!” I heard coming from the tent 15 ft away.
“Yeah?” I replied.
“The sky is clear. Let’s go!” I heard.
A jolt of reality set in as I looked at the time… 2:15am.
‘This might actually happen,’ I thought to myself as I began adding layers of clothing to various parts of my body.
When I pulled myself from my tent, I could see headlamps coming toward us up the path we had walked yesterday evening.
The guided tours were making their way along the trail in an attempt to guide their group to the top.
Efficiency mode began to kick in as I realized we were behind our schedule. We gathered our gear, prepped our bags, and roped up before making our way into the line of travelers in line towards the darkness of disappointment ridge that I could barely make out against the snow in the darkness.
We were on our way. Two guided teams ahead of us. It wasn’t 5 minutes before a group of people started heading back towards us. As they passed I heard them saying something about it not being their day. They were heading back.
The first team was way ahead of us and we could barely make out the headlamps on the ridge.
We pushed on and hit the ridge. In the darkness, route finding was very difficult. By the time we were back on the glacier, hours had passed and we realized why so many people turn around after the ridge.
Our spirits were low but we knew this was a standard feeling after this particular section of the hike. We had passed a slow couple that were even less optimistic than we were. The sky was beginning to lighten. We zigged our way up the steep glacier until we arrived at the ladder.
The guide teams had replaced the broken ladder from a few days earlier and I led the way up the first one. Close to 90 degrees up an ice face, I attached my prusik and slowly made my way to the top of the ice cliff to the other ladder that lay flat like a bridge across the 12ft wide, 200ft deep crevasse.
I knelt down and crossed. Looking straight down into the belly of the glacier I put one hand in front of the other until I stood on the other side as if I had awoken from a dream. I moved my harness sling to the new rope and made room for the rest of our group to cross.
Once we all stood on the other side, we began moving by foot on the steep face. We made our way up the sharp switchbacks and reached the less-steep trail that continued around the side of the mountain and out of sight in the distance.
The rest of the hike was putting one foot in front of the other. We worked our way up countless switchbacks. During this portion of the trek the sun finally made its way above the horizon, lighting our path.
Looking down, the valley below was blanketed in a low layer of clouds and fog. Only peaks of surrounding volcanoes stood above the clouds. The sun radiated of them and we all stood and watched.
Not too long after, the wind began to pick up. It made it feel very cold. It was a head wind and our faces were taking most of the force. We pushed on. At times the gusts almost knocked me down.
Ahead we could see the guide team coming down. We had all huddled together to discuss options. Some team members were being affected by the wind more than others and we were beginning to debate whether we should continue onward, especially if the other team was turning back.
However, when the guided group reached us, they only provided us with words of motivation.
“5 more minutes, guys!” once said encouragingly.
“Almost there,” I heard another say.
I think it was the last push we all needed. We all stood into the wind and pushed the last 10 minutes to the crater where we all jumped in and embraced its shelter from the wind. We made it!!
We rested in the crater of the volcano for a few minutes before heading across the crater to the rim with the highest point. The wind was ripping up at us at terrible speeds. We huddled in an area with no snow that was heated by the volcano. The rocks we sat on were warm and some even too hot to touch.
We decided to run for the summit. We faced the wind and took off towards the high point, dancing and jumping around while cheering. It didn’t take much time before we were all back in the shelter of the warm rocks.
Soon, we headed back across the glacier to meet Brent’s dad, who had decided that the crater was just as much the top as the actual high point.
Around this time lenticular cloud formations began to form on the top of the peak we were on. Because we were standing on the summit, it appeared to us as fog.
We decided it would be good to head down. We roped back up and hurried back down the steep switchbacks and eventually reached the steep ice cliffs, crevasses and ladders.
It was a slow process, but soon we all stood at the bottom of the first vertical ladder. It was weird standing there in the late morning with the sun shining. Thinking back, I had stood there earlier that day in the dark heading upward into the unknown. Only hours later I was returning feeling so much more accomplished. The goal was achieved.
We made our way back to the edge of the glacier and down the cleaver. Lose rock and ash-like dirt isn’t the greatest thing to hike on in crampons, even in the day light.
When we were finally back to the glacier where we had set up camp, it was just after noon and we definitely appreciated the glacier under our feet.
We passed back across the open crevasses to reach our tents were this days journey had begun.
A few poles on my tent were broken from the wind which had been ripping at us the entire decent back to our tents. Using some rope and my ice axe I mended the structure of my tent and crawled inside for a short nap before we started back to the parking lot.
After a nice rest, we packed up and rejoined to re-rope the rest of our way across the glacier and back to Muir Camp area. Upon arrival, the rangers informed us that the winds on the top were recorded at near 70 miles an hour and the temperature was nearing -20 degrees.
Feeling pretty good about surviving such intense conditions we headed down the snow field, down into the clouds and fog, onto the paved trail, and eventually reach the parking lot. We were all beat.
It was a successful adventure in many different ways. We were all excited to be back in the car heading toward a hotel and a warm shower and bed.