Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Washington's Highpoint: Mt. Rainier

After as successful summit of Mt. Hood the previous day, we drove about 2.5 hours to Ashford, Washington on June 24th, 2011, at the base of Mt. Rainier. Rainier is the second highest highpoint in the contiguous US at 14, 410'. Like Mt. Hood, it is a volcano, part of the Cascade Mountains, and a technical glaciated mountain. We had signed up for a 4-Day Summit Climb with the guide service: Rainier Mountaineering Inc (RMI).
The first official day of our 4-day climb began at 3pm for our pre-trip orientation. There we broke into two groups, the 5-day climb and our 4-day climb. My group began inside for introductions, why we were here, and a brief background about ourselves. Our lead guide was Brent Okita, who is incredibly experienced! He had over 418 summits of Rainier, climbed in the Alps, and 21 expeditions to Denali (with the last 20 consecutive expeditions successful), the highpoint of Alaska. After introductions he presented a slide show of our itinerary for the next 3 days and a discussion of our environmental impact on the mountain. Then we went outside where everyone had left their gear on picnic tables where we went over a pre-trip equipment checklist and Brent checked our gear to make sure we had everything we needed. It turns out that we still needed to rent a few things. I needed glacier glasses, soft shell pants and tops, an ice axe, mountaineering boots, and a backpack. Bill only needed glacier glasses and shoftshell top/pants. During the extensive equipment check we review putting on harnesses and helmets. Our first day was over by 6pm.

Brent had suggested a few restaurants in Ashford (there were only 5 total) and Bill and I tried Wild Berry a Nepalese restaurant owned and operated by two former Sherpas from Nepal. Then we headed into Rainier National Park and stayed at Paradise Lodge at the true base of Rainier. On the drive up we began to see signs of snow, as we drove to 5400' the snowbanks at the edge of the parking lots were 20-25 feet high!

Giant Snow Banks, Rainier Behind
That night we packed our bags for our 1-day pre-climb snow school. We were going to meet at 9am near the Visitor Center. Everyone else in our group had stayed in Ashford and so they were going to meet at RMI base camp at 8am for a shuttle ride to Paradise.

Day 2: Snow School
We met everyone at Paradise around 9:05 am the next morning. There we took a few minutes to fill water bottles, apply sunscreen, and make last-minute bathroom runs. In addition to Brent, another guide Maile was there to help with snow school. She was also great and full of enthusiasm. We hiked for about 30 minutes until we got to the bottom of a steep snow field where we learned mountaineering techniques.

We began with learning how to breathe. It seems simple, I've been breathing for 17 years and I thought I was pretty good at it...However, when you get higher in the atmosphere there is less oxygen to absorb. A normal breath won't supply sufficient oxygen. It's crucial to inhale and exhale deeper than normal, but not every breath because hyperventilation doesn't make climbing any easier. Then we learned the rest-step. It's a way of ascending the mountain while minimizing the expended effort in my legs. Basically I learned to take a quick step with my uphill leg while locking my downhill leg. This allowed me to rest on my skeletal system instead of relying on my quads or calves.

The rest of the day we learned various methods of ascending/descending the mountain, rope travel, crampon use, running belays, self-arrest, and team-arrest. Some of this was a review from our previous snow school before Mt. Hood, but most of it was new. Extra practice was definitely a good idea and our guides ensured that all 9 group members were competent with the newly acquired skills.

We learned a few neat things about our guides today. Brent's best friend in college is my little brother's best friend's dad, and Maile was on the same ski-team as my cousin! What a small world! Unfortunately Maile wasn't going to be our guide on the climb, she was only helping with the snow school. We ended around 2:15 and headed back down to Paradise. Then the rest of the group boarded the shuttle and headed back into Ashford.

Bill and I stayed at Paradise again that night. After an excellent early dinner at Paradise I went back to the room to pack/read The Help while Bill went to the Visitor Center. We went to bed fairly early in preparation for the next day.

Day 3: Climb to Camp Muir
We met again around 9 am and filled water, applied sunscreen, and went to the bathroom. It was another beautifully clear and sunny day. During snow school and the the climb to Camp Muir we had pristine views of Mt. Rainier and the surrounding area. We started from Paradise at 5400' and hiked up onto the Muir Snowfield and finally to Camp Muir at 10,060'. This 4.5 mile hike took most of the day. We would hike for roughly an hour and then break for 10-15 mins.

Rest Break to Muir
The guides set the pace and created footsteps for the rest of us to follow. We got to know our two new guides, Pete and Thomas. We took 4 breaks up to Muir and on the last one the guides gave a speech about what to expect at Camp Muir.

About 40 mins later we arrived at Muir, and it was about 3 pm. Up there, there was a ranger station, a RMI guide hut, a RMI climber hut, and a public bunk room. Luckily there were compostable toilets so we didn't have to use a "blue bag," but they smelled horrific. Once we got there, we lined our packs up against the rock wall above the RMI bunk room and proceeded to take the garbage bag (full of all our gear) out of the bag. It was an almost impossible task with heaving and straining, but to no avail. Eventually I had to take everything out of the pack and reload it into the plastic bag afterwards.

Then we all clambered into the hut and claimed our bunk space, unpacked, and rested. About an hour after our arrival at Muir, Brent and Pete came into the hut and described with great detail what our plans for the rest of the day and for the summit climb. Then they gave recommendations on what to wear for the next day and advice on what to pack for the summit day. As soon as they finished they brought hot water for our freeze dried meals, soups, and hot chocolate. I had lasagna with meat sauce, but due to the altitude it was difficult for me to eat very much. We had to go to bed at 6 pm so we would be rested well enough for the night/day ahead.

Day 4: Summit Attempt
We were awakened around 11pm that night and we all hurriedly ate oatmeal and drank hot chocolate. Oatmeal at sea level isn't very appealing, but oatmeal at 10,000' is the worst. One of my biggest problems when I'm at high altitude is eating and drinking enough to keep me going. After packing our bags, and making a rushed last bathroom visit, we put on our harnesses and crampons. Bill, Josh (another climber in our group), and I were on Brent's rope team. Once we were clipped in and the three rope teams were assembled, we started the slow slog up across the Cowlitz Glacier to Cathedral Gap. The pace Brent set was very great to follow, not too fast, not too slow, and extremely consistent. As we were traversing the first glacier we heard some rockfall and the last rope team in our group narrowly avoided falling rocks.

Cowlitz Glacier to Cathedral Gap - saddle to the left of rock ridge
Our procession of headlamps spaced about 40' apart looked like street lamps in a suburban town, well almost. After reaching Cathedral Gap, we continued to Ingraham Flats for our first break around 1:10 am. At each break we had to wear our heavy duty down parkas to retain our heat while eating about 200 calories and drinking 1/3 of a liter of water. We brought 2 nalgenes and there were 6 rest stops during our summit day before returning to Camp Muir so we had to evenly space our water consumption.

From the Flats we headed up and then traversed over to Disappointment Cleaver. Before we got to the Cleaver we had to be short-roped to speed up the climbing. The Cleaver was the steepest part of the climb and there were fixed lines that we could hold onto. This part of the climb was extremely hard, long, and steep. Even though Brent had a consistently slow pace and I used the rest-step it was difficult. At one point I thought we were close to the top and I asked Brent if it seemed like the terrain was leveling out. He said that it was but we were only 1/3 of the way up the Cleaver. That was killer. Since the Cleaver was so steep we couldn't walk straight up without burning out our calves so we had to do the "duck step" or "cross over step" while using the rest-step. This portion of the climb was the longest stretch and took about 1.5 hours.

When we got to the top of the Cleaver (12,300') we had another 15 min break. From here some of the team members decided to turn around because after the Cleaver it didn't get any easier. Pete turned around with two team members and Janna (another teammate) joined my rope team.

We had started out with a mostly clear sky and high winds, but as we continued to climb more clouds covered the sky. On our way to our third rest stop, "high break" we expected a beautiful sunrise. However, the clouds only intensified and our visibility greatly decreased. After traversing to Eammons Glacier  and beginning the endless zig zags up to "high break" it began to snow. At high break the winds were whipping ice at our faces, the visibility was about 20', and the snow didn't help anything. Brent decided to push onward so long as we could still see the wands marking the trail. It's imperative that we didn't stray off the path because it guided us safely around and across crevasses. Wavering off the path could endanger the whole group. Finally after leaping a few crevasses, breathing heavily, and hunkering away from the wind we reached the crater rim. We had gotten to the top of Mt. Rainier!

Me at the Crater Rim
Unfortunately as I had broken my goggles when I sat on my backpack so I had to switch to my glacier glasses which gave significantly less protection against whipping ice/snow. We spent about 5 mins at the top and immediately turned around. It was getting dangerous because the ice was sticking the wands at the side of the trail. This began to camouflage the trail markers. The trail was carefully laid finding the best routes around and across crevasses and if we got off trail, the potential for danger would increase exponentially. However, going back down was no easy feat. Whenever we faced the wind I tried to protect my face with my glove and whenever the wind was at our backs it was blowing me around. It seemed like we were on an endless trail of switchbacks winding our way down Eammons Glacier. Finally, we rested at the top of Disappointment Cleaver, where we short roped again and cautiously made our way downhill. Going down the Cleaver was steep and treacherous, but luckily I couldn't see what lay below me! When we got to the steepest part of the cleaver we had  to use an arm wrap with a fixed rope to slow our progress so that we wouldn't fall. From there we traversed back under the ice fall zone and made our last stop before Camp Muir back at the Ingraham Flats.

From the Flats it was only another 40 minutes until we reached Muir Again. Once we arrived we were out of any crevasse danger so we unroped, took off crampons, and put away our ice axes. We were given approximately an hour to collect and pack all of the things we had left in the hut that were unnecessary for the summit. I packed my sleeping bag, extra clothes, extra food, and trash back in my black trash bag and crammed the rest of my things in the backpack. When we had arrived at Muir, we had finally gotten out of the weather above us and a bright sunny day lay waiting. Since it was such a nice day Brent recommended that we either leave the trash bag out of our bags or put on our gore-tex pants. It seemed like a bizarre suggestion at first because it was such a nice day below the clouds, but in the end it was worth it.

Walking down from Muir was a blast! On the steeper pitches we were able to slide down thanks to either the garbage bag or pants. The snow was in perfect conditions and soon we were all zipping down the mountain (except for the guides)! This made the walk down easier on the knees and much more enjoyable. About half way down we took a short break to regroup and get all the snow out of our shirts and pants! It was actually just another break to snack and drink. From there we kept walking for another 15 minutes until we got to steep 700' straight pitch. There were grooves in the hill from other people who had slid down before us, forming a luge run. It was AWESOME. Then we only had a brief walk down the parking lot and awaiting shuttle to bring us back to Ashford. Bill nicely allowed me to jump on the shuttle and head down while he found the car and then drove down to meet us.

When we were back in Ashford we returned our rental gear, changed our clothes and waited for the guides. There was a final closing ceremony where certificates were passed out of either completion or participation. It felt so good to be able to check another highpoint off the list! After the awards we hung around and ate pizza and chatted with Pete and Thomas and a few other group members. Then we headed to bed to get some much needed shut-eye!

Kristen Kelliher

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