I climbed Mount Rainier earlier this week. When I was putting together my new year’s goals for 2018, Rainier was on the list — but I knew it wasn’t a climb I could plan and execute on my own, and I had no idea what shape my year would have pending grad school applications, so I put “climb to 14,000 feet” on my list instead of “climb Rainier.” I figured I could maybe make Whitney or Shasta or a Colorado 14er happen if I couldn’t manage to get up on top of the big mountain I used to stare at out the car window as a kid in Washington. Never thought back then that I’d ever climb it! Never thought, when I moved down to Portland for college, that I’d climb Hood, either! I like surprising myself. I like the person I’ve turned out to be. Can’t wait to find out what I do next!
(This post includes photos by myself, Ben, Rico, Greg, and whoever took that photo of me at Smith Rock. Thanks guys!)
When the Mazama climb calendar came out this spring, there were just a few Rainier climbs. One of them was a climb Rico was leading of the Ingraham Direct route in mid-May. I applied, and Rico emailed me to check in: “Are you sure you’re fit enough?” I spent a day second-guessing myself, but emailed back: “Yeah.” He put me on the climb. The next day I went to Smith Rock with this year’s BCEP group, and I loaded up my pack with everything I could think of plus a whole bunch of water and a rope — and then I climbed an awful scree field (at the top of which I weighed my pack: 48.5 pounds) and hiked all the way around the park all day.
Later I ditched the rope and gave away a whole bunch of water and did a terrifying 90-meter overhanging rappel at dusk to cap off the day, but that’s another story. The next day I hiked another big loop around the park and over Misery Ridge with a slightly-lighter pack, and then we drove back to Portland. And the next day, I woke up with my upper back in horrible, terrible, no-good, very bad knots. Uh-oh.
I managed a long training hike with a reasonably heavy pack the next weekend, up Table Mountain, and I got in a few short runs, but every morning I’d wake up a solid hour or two before my alarm, stiff and sore. Walking helped, so I started most mornings with a slow walk around my neighborhood. A few days after Table Mountain, I begged my coworker Jen, a massage therapist, to fit me into her schedule. She gave my back and shoulders an excellent and painful working-over. The next few days sucked, but the knots in my back slowly started to unwind. I did another long hike with my mom in Forest Park. Then the Rainier climb was cancelled due to poor weather. I was secretly a tiny bit relieved. My boyfriend Ben and I started planning a trip next month to climb Mount Shasta. We also got last-minute permits to climb Mount Saint Helens on Mother’s Day, and I stood on the crater rim a few days after I was supposed to summit Rainier, thinking that the view I got of it from there was a pretty good consolation prize.
…and then there was a perfect weather window and Rico’s schedule opened up and we all said oh yes we can make ourselves available those days, let’s go. On Monday morning we drove up to Paradise.
We checked our packs, weighed ’em (mine was only 35 pounds!), and smeared sunscreen on our exposed skin (a lot of it — it was warm). Rico filled out whatever paperwork needed filling out, and then we stepped off the parking lot and up onto the snow, and up and up and up. Already this part is blurring in my memory. We followed wands up the snow slope and over a few sections of rocky ridge. The snow was soft and the sun so bright I touched my sunglasses several times to make sure I was wearing them and not my regular glasses. It seemed impossible that it could be so bright. I’d gotten a little snow blindness on Mount Saint Helens, so I’d made sure to wear the duct tape side shields I’d made for my sunglasses this time, but I was still a little worried about my eyes.
I had a headache. We stopped for lunch on a rocky section, and I rummaged around in my pack for my first aid kit, looking for some ibuprofen. I couldn’t find the little blue pouch that is my first aid kit, but Rico pulled out his and kindly shared it. (My first aid kit turned up later when I dumped out my entire pack at Camp Muir.)
We climbed some steep sections and some less steep sections. There didn’t seem to be any really good consistent boot tracks, just a mess of footprints at strange and unpredictable intervals. By the time we arrived at Camp Muir, a few buildings tucked up on a little saddle, I felt pretty toasted. I dropped my stuff in the public shelter building, unrolled and laboriously inflated my sleeping pad on the upper sleeping platform, tossed my sleeping bag on top of it, and then crawled back outside and laid myself down on the concrete roof of another small building nearby. I pulled my cap over my eyes and basked in the early afternoon sun.
We spent the next few hours melting snow, filling bottles, and hanging out on the roof of the little building. I made myself a big freeze-dried dinner and ate the whole thing. Around 5:30pm, we returned one by one to the shelter and crawled into our sleeping bags. I lay down for a moment, and then had to pee. I sighed, wiggled out of my bag, fumbled around for my glasses, pulled the earplugs out of my ears, pushed my feet into my heavy boots, tied the laces loosely, and scooted to the edge of the platform, trying to avoid waking my sleeping teammate, Jonathan, next to me. I climbed carefully down the ladder and hopped onto the wet floor of the shelter, climbed through the door, and clomped through the snow to one of the outhouses. Then I reversed all these steps, lay down again… and shortly thereafter had to pee. I stared at the ceiling in denial for a long while, and then got up again. I did all of this three times, and then decided the altitude was messing with me. After a couple hours, I managed to fall asleep.
Someone’s alarm went off at 11:30pm. I wondered why mine hadn’t, and pulled my phone out of the chest pocket in my puffy. Ah… I’d set it for 11:30am. Nope — it was only figuratively morning. I felt around for my glasses and headlamp, pulled myself out of my cozy sleeping bag, put on my boots, and scooted past my still-sleeping teammate towards the ladder. I braced my left arm on the top of it and lowered myself over the edge of the sleeping platform, aiming for the lower platform with my foot. And… ouch. Shit. What had I just done to my shoulder?
I ignored it and set about readying my pack. “How are you feeling?” Rico asked.
“Good,” I answered, mostly confident that it was true.
“Great,” he said. “We’re changing up the rope teams. It’ll be me, you, and Linda, and then Greg and Alden on the second rope. Jonathan’s not feeling well, so he’s not gonna go up.”
I nodded and pulled my stuff out of the small door to the flat and mostly-dry area just outside the shelter. My left shoulder twinged a couple more times, but I thought it’d be okay. I said as much to Rico, just in case. Then I pulled out a bar and ate it quickly, surprised by how close it already was to our midnight departure time. I visited the outhouse, strapped on my crampons, and took off my extra-puffy down puffy and shoved it into my pack. Start cold, right? With almost no wind (amazingly!), I wasn’t actually too chilly at all in my fleece and thin synthetic puffy.
We tied in and headed out, following the boot track from Camp Muir across the Cowlitz Glacier towards the ominously-named Cadaver Gap. My crampons crunched on the firm snow, and I concentrated on keeping just the right tension in the rope between me and Rico. When we hit the rocky section at Cadaver Gap, we coiled the rope between us and picked our way up and over, following wands placed by the guide services and more-or-less obvious trails. Past the Gap was Ingraham Flats and two groups of tents. To the right of the boot track, headlights bobbed as a guided group headed up and out just ahead of us. Rico greeted them as we pulled up behind them — an Alpine Ascents group.
We headed up onto Ingraham Glacier, following the boot track as it switchbacked up and up. I had hoped for nice kicked steps, but alas, the track was mostly just sort of unevenly bumpy, and I felt a little stretch in my calves with each step — I placed my whole foot on the snow, heel-to-toe, to make sure my crampons had good purchase. My boots scraped against the back of my heels every time I picked up my feet. Oof, that wasn’t gonna be good. I’d climbed Mount Saint Helens nine days prior with zero blisters, but I hadn’t been wearing crampons or climbing on firm snow. I’d let myself believe my imperfectly-fitted boots had at long last magically, I dunno, broken in or something, so I hadn’t bothered taping my heels or toes. Spoiler alert: I would live to regret that.
Up we marched. I grinned a little at the first maybe-crevasse I saw, a tiny crack in the snow that we stepped right over. Then, all of a sudden, my headlamp lit up the edge of a huge one coming up on my left, and another one on my right. “Holy shit,” I said aloud as I followed the boot track along the three-foot gap between them. We crossed another snowbridge a little later. I was sort of glad to be climbing in the dark — glad for the small world contained within my headlamp’s glow, which was easier to comprehend than the glacier around me and the huge task at which I was chipping away, step by step.
Up ahead at the end of the rope, I saw Rico pushing his ice axe into the snow of the slope above the track. “We’re gonna use protection here,” he yelled back, and I passed it along behind me. He clipped his rope into a picket already placed by the guide groups. Rico walked on, and when I reached the picket, I yelled “picket!”, feeling a little hiccup of excitement at doing a thing I’d practiced and taught in BCEP four years running but never actually done on an actual glacier. “Clipping!” I yelled, and then “through!” when I’d clipped through to move my knot to the other side of the carabiner attached to the picket.
And then, the reason for the protection: up ahead, a crevasse had opened up across the track; a new track dipped down below the end of the crevasse somewhat precariously on the steep slope. I stepped down and gingerly poked around with my ice axe, looking for firm ground, then carefully stepped around the hole in the snow. Rico had clipped another picket on the other side, and we clipped through several more on the switchbacks above.
Up and up. My water bottle was frozen. I had my big puffy on at this point, the hood pulled up over my helmet. The sky started to lighten the tiniest bit, and a thin red band appeared above the horizon. From whatever elevation we were at, the horizon appears completely flat in every direction that’s not up. The red band widened and bled yellow light further into the sky, and then the round red sun appeared and splashed pink light across the ice.
I was moving really slowly at this point. The Alpine Ascents group had pulled ahead of us. After we stopped for a break, Rico gestured up the mountain. “That’s the crater wall, right there,” he told me, but when we got up level with the spot he’d pointed at, the mountain continued to rise higher above it. A while later, he said it again — “That’s the top, right there.”
“That’s what you said last time,” I told him.
“Yeah, but this time I’m telling the truth.”
I was skeptical, but I continued plodding on, one impossible step at a time. I tried a little chant in my head: “Just keep moving. Don’t stop moving.” But it kept getting mixed up: “Just stop moving…” Why on earth had I signed up for this? Why on earth would anyone want to do this? What even is this sport? I never wanted to climb another mountain again. My feet were killing me. The backs of my heels, the balls of my feet, and my pinky toes all felt raw. My thighs burned with every step up. The last thousand or so vertical feet felt interminable.
And then, finally, I stepped over the crater rim, and Rico let the rope slacken so he could catch some photos of me, bedraggled, as I arrived. I mustered up a smile as I wobbled towards him.
Linda followed me up, and we dropped our backs and pulled out snacks and unfrozen water bottles. I wondered how on earth I was going to get back down, and entertained a little unserious fantasy of somehow falling and breaking a leg — they’d have to send a helicopter for me! I wouldn’t have to climb back down this whole goddamn mountain! I had pretty much zero appetite, but managed to eat some peanut butter pretzels and a couple ginger chews. We waited for Greg and Alden to arrive, and then we all set off across the crater to the true summit. It was mostly a flat walk, but with a cruel little hill to cap it off. We took our summit photos and then headed back to retrieve our packs, apply sunscreen, and head on down. I also took a moment to, um, use my blue bag. I mean, have you really been to a place if you haven’t pooped there? Well: I have pooped in the summit crater on Rainier.
On the way down, I moved slowly, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other. Or next to the other, or just behind the other, or whatever the terrain required. My feet hurt a lot. My quads felt just done. But down we went.
It was admittedly pretty awesome (and/or terrifying) to see the crevasses we’d passed by in the dark and navigate the same obstacles with a better sense of the exposure and the hugeness of the mountain and the smallness of us. We used the guide groups’ pickets again on the way down, and I was glad to have them.
It warmed up as we continued down, and soon we’d stripped down to t-shirts. Ingraham Flats and the guided groups’ tiny, tiny tents were visible in the distance, but they never seemed to get any closer. With no wind to speak of, we quietly roasted. At least my water bottle, recently unfrozen, contained cold, crisp water.
After forever, we reached Ingraham Flats, and then crossed Cadaver Gap again. The wending path over the rocky section seemed much longer than it had in the dark of the very wee hours, but then there was the gently sloping path across the Cowlitz Glacier, and there was Camp Muir.
We rested briefly and gathered our things and repacked our packs for the final descent down to the parking lot. I gratefully took off my crampons, and per a suggestion from Rico, I stripped off my outer thick wool socks (it was too hot for them anyway) and left just my liner socks on. I pulled the trash compacter bag pack liner out of my pack and fashioned it into my signature glissade pants. I didn’t want to walk one more step if I didn’t have to; I figured I’d slide down as much as possible of the remaining descent. After 45 minutes or so, we were off. There weren’t glissade chutes to speak of, and the fall line veered right of where we wanted to go… but still I slid gleefully down bumpy boot tracks for a few hundred feet at a time, then picked myself up and traversed left to meet up with the team again.
Eventually, we spread out out a bit — Alden powered down the slope ahead of us, while Rico and Linda plunge stepped down behind us. Greg kept pace with me, sometimes following me down a glissade chute when I found or made a decent one. My boots and socks and gaiters soaked through in no time in the wet snow, but it was so hot out I didn’t care.
We followed wands down towards the parking lot. One spot I remembered as particularly awful and steep to come up had a beautiful deep glissade chute going down it that twisted from side to side — a little taste of what it’s like to be a bobsledder. We started to meet dayhikers, and as we got closer I got more and more cheerful. I’d joked to myself earlier in the day that, yeah, I never wanted to climb a mountain again, but, you know, ask me again in a week… Nearing Paradise, though, I knew it wouldn’t take nearly that long before I’d be wondering what’s next. What’s not to love about blisters and sunburns and sore thighs? I felt great.
Finally Greg and I clomped onto the pavement. I wandered around in a daze looking for a place to sit down while Greg, with more useful instincts, looked for Rico’s truck and Jonathan. Within minutes, there he was with the truck! And Alden with the car he and Greg had driven up. I pulled a change of clothes out of the back of Rico’s truck, pulled off my wet boots and socks, sat down on the warm pavement, and felt very cheerful indeed.
Rico and Linda got down a little while after us, and we celebrated with the obvious choice. Cheers.
Fantastic! I love reading your account of climbs we have done together. You are an excellent writer! I love your determination. That was a GREAT climb! I look forward to sharing other summits with you!