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

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

Friday, August 12, 2011

Highpoint 47 Complete!

Great news everyone! Bill and I did successfully make it to the top of Montana's highpoint Granite Peak at 12,799'! The only highpoints I have left are Alaska, Hawaii, and Vermont! I'll post the trip report when I get home and I'm able to use a real keyboard. I'm thrilled to have completed this last challenging highpoint in the contiguous 48 states!

Kristen Kelliher

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Headed to Montana!

Hi Climbing World,

I'm at Logan this morning for a 5:30 flight to Denver. Then were going to rent a car, drive to Red Lodge Montana, an try to summit Granite Peak the highpoint of Montana. We've given ourselves enough time to make multiple summit attempts if the weather doesn't cooperate initially. We'll start hiking tomorrow and spend 2 days hiking into Froze to Death Plateau. From there we're only a few miles from the top. We plan on having to belay a few pitches and rappel them on the way back down. With the worst possible scenario we'll be off the mountain on next Saturday. Hopefully we'll have some extra days and Bill can work on his heliostats in Cheyenne Wyoming on the way back to Denver. I hope I'll be blogging about a successful summit of Granite soon!

When I get back I'll also write up my Mt. Rainier (Washington's highpoint!)

Kristen Kelliher