Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Mt. Rainier Take 2...and 3!

I had believed that we had reached the summit of Rainier our first try. Unfortunately, it wasn't that easy. Although we had made it to the Crater Rim at the top of Mt. Rainier, we hadn't made it to the true highpoint. I could have said the rim was good enough, but it wouldn't have felt right to tell everyone that I could check Washington off my highpoint list. It would have taken another 40 minutes round trip to cross the crater and get to Columbia Crest a few hundred feet higher, 40 minutes that we couldn't spare. Luckily 2 more spots opened up with RMI for the July 14th 4-day summit climb so we were able to go back 2 weeks later and try again!

Since we had just done the same program, we skipped the first day of introductions and equipment check. We briefly introduced ourselves to our new lead guide, JT. We planned to meet everyone at the RMI base camp in Ashford the following morning for our shuttle ride up to Paradise for our snow-school training day. It was another beautiful day for snow school, and I was feeling very hopeful that we would make it this time.

Putting on Crampons for Snow School

The next day we didn't have great weather. It was misty, drizzling, and generally damp on our climb up to Camp Muir. Instead of taking 4 rest stops up, the guides decided to make it 3 so we would spend less time sitting down and  getting wet and cold. The entire day we hiked up through the clouds, hoping to climb right out of them by the time we reached Muir. Unfortunately, when we reached camp, the top of the clouds were still above us so there wasn't much to look at. We ran through the same routine as last time with a meeting, hot water, and then bed. The difference between this climb and the previous one was there were 2 4-day summit climbs going at the same time. This time we had to share the bunkhouse with 9 other climbers so the space was a bit more crowded. The other 2 guides in my group were Tim and Mike. The other group was led by Walter with assistant guides Gilbert and Thomas. (Same Thomas as my first try!)

We woke up later that night around 1am, a later start than the first time, but the weather wasn't looking great. The day before no one had summitted due to poor weather, so things weren't looking up. We followed the same trail up across the Cowlitz Glacier to Cathedral Gap. However at Cathedral Gap there was a large rock section that we had to cross. The previous time it was completely covered in snow! From Cathedral Gap we crossed onto Ingraham Glacier, up Disappointment Cleaver, traversed to the Eammons Glacier and began the switch backs up to high break. As we climbed higher, we were met with similar conditions as before: low visibility, snow, high winds, and whipping ice. This time the winds were even stronger and gusts were knocking me around. We made it to about 13,200', just 300' below high break before turning around. Our guide JT had made the safe decision to turn our group around.

Although it was a huge bummer to not summit the second time I had been feeling altitude much worse than the first time. I had a headache, stomachache, and felt rather dizzy by the time we turned around. The guides did a fantastic job of checking in with each member on their rope and making sure they were strong and healthy enough to keep going. I didn't want to let altitude sickness get in my way of summitting, but it was a good idea to turn around.

Me in the snowstorm descending Disappointment Cleaver
Once back down to Camp Muir we repacked and headed back to Paradise. This time we weren't able to escape the bad weather, and the whole way down was foggy and damp. We still managed to slide down which was a ton of fun. Unfortunately, since lots of snow had melted, the huge luge run was no longer safe to slide down so we took an alternate route which involved less sliding.

Although this second attempt doesn't sound very fun, I had a blast doing it! JT had guided on Denali (Alaska's Highpoint) and I asked him tons of questions. Originally my highpointing goal had been the contiguous 48 states and possibly Hawaii, but never Alaska. When Brent (my first guide) heard about my goal he said that I should give him a call when I'm ready to do Denali. That planted the seed of going to Alaska...and it stuck!  It was on my second trip with JT that I decided that I wanted to be a guide at RMI when I got a bit older. I had always enjoyed hiking, but mountaineering is a thousand times better! I love climbing glaciers and could see myself guiding in a few years. It wasn't terrible to re-do Rainier, it was fun and interesting. The mountain once again threw some bad weather at me, but that just made it more interesting and challenging.

Back at Ashford we had another closing ceremony, and I vowed to be back. I hoped to return the next summer to give it a go.

While Bill and I were driving back to the Seattle airport we called my mom. She had the crazy idea to give RMI a call and see if there were any open available spots for the next few days. It seemed like a long shot, but it made sense; why not stay a few extra days instead of paying for another plane ticket to fly back out to Washington. When we called RMI they did in fact have an availability for a climb in 2 days. The only problem is that there was only 1 open spot and there was 2 of us. Their policy is that anyone under 18 must be accompanied by an adult, but RMI had kindly waved that policy for me before. (When I wanted to come back the second time there were some openings that had only 1 spot and they said I was mature enough to do this alone.)

RMI said they would hold the spot but they couldn't guarantee I'd be allowed to go by myself. We had reached a wall. Our flight left at 7am the next morning, and RMI didn't open until 8am. Also, the receptionist couldn't reach the "decision makers" at RMI so she couldn't give us a definite answer if I'd be allowed. I suppose this is when my impulsive teenage brain kicked in because I decided to go for it. We drove back to Ashford and found a hotel. Bill would wake up early the next morning and fly home, while I would wait until the office opened and ask if I join the climb the following day. It was a risky gamble, but luckily teenagers can't foresee the consequences for their actions...right? This was especially risky for me because my parents told me that going guided is rather expensive and I would have to pay for this third attempt. This completely changed things. It's easy to gamble with other people's money, but when it's your own it's a different story.

Unfortunately we couldn't find a hotel near the RMI base camp so we checked into a hotel a few miles down the road. This was also a problem because Bill would be leaving with the car the next morning for Seattle and I would have to make my way down to RMI. Luckily Ashford is a tiny town and the people are incredibly nice! The owner of the hotel said she'd take me down there in the morning! Sure enough the next morning I got a ride a couple miles down the road. I suppose I could have walked, but it was much nicer to not have to lug my duffel bag.

When I showed up at the RMI office that morning, they were discussing me and what they could do. When I explained that my flight had left 30 minutes ago and I was really counting on them to let go try a third time and besides I had no way to get back to Seattle and my newly-booked flight didn't leave until after the climb was could they say no?

I had never expected to be back to try Rainier 2 days after the second climb, I though a year a least, but none the less, there I was. I checked into the Whittaker Bunkhouse, the motel adjacent to the RMI buildings. Since I had already done the snow school I didn't have to go and do that again, so I waited for the room to get cleaned. Fortunately or Unfortunately Ashford is a tiny town. Fortunately everyone is very kind, unfortunately there is nothing to do. I would have been completely bored if it hadn't been for my ipod. Thank goodness for music! I alternated between playing solitaire and thinking of reasons to go back to the RMI office to talk to people. In the end I though of about 3 or 4 reallyimportantquestionsthatjustcouldn'twait so I just had to go back and ask them. After a few of those questions, one of the owners Alex asked me if I was getting bored. I took the hint and decided to leave them alone for the rest of the day. Instead I walked to the local "Dan and Whits" with much less variety and bought some more trail food, went to my room, packed, and played more solitaire.

At around 4pm groups were returning from either a summit climb or the snow school. I moseyed over to the shuttle drop off area to introduce myself to my new guide. Coincidentally while I was there Brent had just come down from a weathered-out summit attempt. It was great to see him again, and I'm sure he thought I was crazy for attempting Rainier 3 times in about 3 weeks. I also saw Maile and she introduced me to my new lead guide Leon and one of my other guides Elias. They seemed great and I couldn't wait for the climb.

That night I decided to get some famous pizza from the restaurant next to RMI. They didn't serve individual slices so I just had to buy a whole pizza for myself. I felt rather silly. I was staying in the bunk room at the motel because it was much cheaper than getting a room so I was able to give the rest of my pizza away to another climber. I ate 2 pieces for dinner and packed a third for a snack the next day.

The next morning when we met at 8 for the shuttle to Paradise, I had to leave my suitcase at the RMI office because I had no car to stow it in. Then Leon had me introduce myself to the other climbers. The other guide in our group was Mike, who had cross country skied with my cousin. The other group was led my a different Mike and the 2 other guides were Logan and Maile!

As we headed up to Paradise the weather wasn't looking great, but I was being cautiously optimistic. I kept telling myself that the weather going up to Muir doesn't matter, its the weather the next day that's important. Lots of other climbers kept saying that we had to summit because the third time's the charm and I was good luck. That was a bit hard to believe because we had to put on all of our rain gear for the hike up to Camp Muir. Due to the weather, we once again made only 3 stops on the way up to camp. This routine was becoming second nature...well, almost. It turns out that Leon had been up Denali with Brent the past few years, Elias (from Spain) said he'd practice Spanish with me, and Mike had been with the other 4-day climb group on the second attempt joked and said that I should guide.

When we reached Muir, another climber asked me what the hardest part of the climb was. My answer was getting the plastic bag out of the backpack. I was sort of joking, but it is an infuriating process and near-impossible. He didn't really believe me until it was time to extract the plastic bag. Even after heaving and tugging, both his and my plastic bags remained firmly in our packs. We had to resort to taking everything out individually and then tossing it back in the bag. Ah well, my mom says we have to pick our battles...

We had a normal evening except when it came time to sleep. Generally sleeping at altitude it hard because a normal resting shallow sleeping breath isn't enough at 10,000'. Luckily for me I had been fairly acclimatized from the previous climb and I was exhausted. I slept through the entire night without waking up once, a first for me! I was definitely tired, and I give those guides a lot of credit for being able to do 2 climbs right in a row. I even had a day off in between and I was pooped!

We got up around 12:30am for a 1:30am departure. Once again as we began to climb, there was a layer of clouds above us. We took the same route as before, and even more rock was exposed only 2 days later! The only variation in the route was that instead of heading straight up the rib of the Cleaver, we zig-zaged up to the left of the rib. As we were making our way to high break, we saw an incredible sunrise!

From then, the day only got better and better! Eventually it turned into a blue bird day and we were making steady progress up Eammons Glacier.
RMI Rope Teams heading to High Break
It was extremely hard, harder than the first time. This probably because I could see how much farther we had to go and because I was exhausted from the previous climb. There was no way I was going to turn around on such a perfect day because my legs were a little tired. I was on Leon's rope team and we were pressure breathing like it was our job. That definitely made climbing much easier. We reached the crater around 7am and had only a few moments to rest before making the journey across the crater to the true summit! It was so close and the weather couldn't have been more perfect! We made our way across the crater in a nice boot path and up the edge on the other side. We first came to the summit register and everyone had to sign in.

Signing the Register
From the register we were only a few hundred feet from the top. I got very excited and decided to sprint the last little bit! Well, it turns out that when I'm at 14,000' it isn't possible to sprint for very long. As I was running I passed everyone, hoping to be the first to the top. However, it took me a few minutes to catch my breath and everyone passed me so I ended up one of the last ones on the true summit.

Columbia Crest, Mt. Rainier, Washington's Highpoint: 14,410'
Finally I had done it!!!!! I guess the third time really is the charm and boy was it worth it! I spent several minutes at the top and then decided to head back to the backpacks to get a few moments rest before we started heading back down.

Walking back to the backpacks at the entrance of the Crater Rim

Trail across the crater to Columbia Crest
I figured that since we had expended all this energy going up that going down would be a breeze. Boy was I wrong! There is a saying: "going up is optional, but going down is mandatory" so I really had no choice but to go down. Since we were using crampons, it's important to engage all of the tines at once to get a solid grasp into the snow/ice so I had to engage my quads going down the whole way. It was really hard! By the time we were half way down the switch backs on Eammons Glacier my legs were shaking. Luckily a group behind us was going slower so we kept stopping and waiting for them and I could give my legs a break!

It was a pristine day that was perfect for summitting and I'm so glad I got to the top! As strange as it sounds, I'll miss not going back to Camp Muir and the RMI guides. They completely made the experience and I can't wait to climb Denali with them! The rest of the walk down was relatively uneventful, Elias tried to teach me how to boot ski gracefully, but I think I need a bit more practice...We returned to Ashford for certificates and I was thrilled. It was an amazing experience and the best gamble I've ever made!

Kristen Kelliher


  1. An amazing story; I felt like I was there! Wow - thanks for sharing and congratulations!

  2. Awesome! You are inspiring to us all, Kristen. I can't wait to read this to our girls. And your blog is very well written. I see a book deal in your future...