Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Mount Rainier

Washington's highest peak is also the highest in the Cascade Range, the 4th highest state highpoint and the 21st most prominent peak in the world. After being unable to gather a team for an independent climb, I joined RMI's 4 day summit climb program. I can't say enough nice things about their staff, the guides and my team mates. Most importantly, I have to thank my family for their support. Without them, this would not have been possible.

Trip dates: July 10-13.

Partners: Biren, Jeremy, Michael, Luigi, and Todd. Guides: Brent, Megan and Bryan.

Stats: 18 mile round trip with 9,000ft gain from Paradise to Columbia Crest. Summit Elevation 14,410ft. Alpine grade II, class 3/4.

Gear notes: Lots of layers and prepared for a wide range of conditions.

Links: Mount Rainier on Summitpost.orgCurrent conditions.

Overview of the route.

Warning: Personal reflection below! (Scroll down to get on with the story.)

Why Mount Rainier? Because its there! Okay, okay, no George Mallory quotes!

I guess my story of Why Mount Rainier began almost thirty years ago while visiting family in Washington, from which one odd memory from my childhood sill remains vivid. I was standing at the baggage claim in Sea-Tac watching in awe as the guys grabbed these huge duffle bags, backpacks and boots off of the baggage carousel. I believe it was my aunt who said something like "Oh their here to climb the mountain. It's stupid; everyone who tries to climb it dies..."  Obviously, she was not a climber. No one in my family was. I definitely was not.

Off I went with my family and I remained largely oblivious to the world of climbing until I was about 12 when I watched the movie K2: The Ultimate High. I remember being so engrossed by it; basically mesmerized. I knew that I had to do that, in some capacity, to be complete. With no climbing family or friends, my exposure came in the form of a couple library books. From that point I remained semi-conscious of the climbing world. As I got older, I was still drawn to reading about Himalayan expeditions and high altitude climbing. I got into snowboarding, then more and more into hiking, then backpacking and finally rock climbing. All the while, Mount Rainier was in the back of my mind. How could I work up to something like that?

I grew a bit jaded of the cragging scene here in Boise and began to look into climbing bigger peaks. Wouldn't you know it, Idaho has a lot of them! I started small: Cervidae, Pilots Peak, Mores Mountain, Grand Slam Peaks, etc, then worked up to bigger and bigger mountains. I decided to set a major goal; Borah Peak. I kept at it, looking more closely at the Cascade Range. As I kept climbing more and more peaks, I settled into the alpine environment and the adventure of this style of climbing. A couple of years ago, I began to get serious about an attempt of Rainier. I started getting gear in order and tailoring my climbs and training to simulate the demands needed as best as I could. I set Mt. Adams as my test piece for Rainier.

After getting the chosen prerequisites under my belt, I got planning for Rainier. I wanted to go on an independent team and learn the skills of glacier travel and crevasse rescue. For various reasons, that didn't happen. What did happen was this: I lucked out on one inverted February morning here in the Treasure Valley. While mindlessly looking at Rainier stuff on the line, I saw there was an opening on a 4 Day Summit Climb program with RMI in July. These trips sell out really fast and are often booked six months in advance. If there is one thing I have learned from mountain climbing that relates to life in general, it's to be patient. Listen to the mountain. It will tell you when to stay put, when to back off, and when to go up. A few more clicks later and I was officially committed to dates for Rainier. When I started climbing, I made a deal with myself. Lack of physical fitness was not going to be a reason I didn't summit. Now I was going to train harder than I ever had before as I headed into my biggest climbing goal and beyond.

The actual trip report begins here!

Weather is key on Rainier. The last month or so of weather in the Pacific Northwest had been atypical. The usual dome of high pressure was not present. Rainier was getting hammered with snow and blizzard like conditions. On an independent climb, you can wait for the magical weather window to open. On a guided climb, you have a specific date for your summit attempt, weather window or not. Our dates were not looking too bad, but not great.

I arrived in Ashford, at Rainier Base Camp on Sunday afternoon for orientation. The team gathered outside of the Summit Haus with our gear. One by one we trickled in and exchanged greetings and handshakes. We totaled 10 climbers at this point. Two guides showed up. Mike Uchal and Brent Okita. Brent had recently passed 500 summits of Rainier, 504 at the time to be exact, as well as a 25th summit of Denali about a month and a half ago. After they introduced themselves, they called out names and divided the big group in two. Call it dumb luck or mountain magic, but I was pretty darn stoked when I was called onto Brent's team. We all took a seat in the Mountain Haus, introduced ourselves and Brent gave us the rundown on recent conditions on the route. He had turned back on his last climb just 3 days ago due to an area of wind loading at 12,500ft.

After a detailed equipment check, we were dismissed. We all went off to pack for the next day of training and then gathered at the Base Camp Bar and Grill for dinner and a couple of pints. We were already beginning to mesh and come together as a team.

The next morning, we took the bus to Paradise and hiked out to the training area with a low cloud deck and occasional drizzle.

Packing up at Paradise.

Michael ready to hike.

Todd and Luigi getting ready.

Biren, Brent and Michael getting set.

Hiking on the trails above Paradise.

Hiking out to the training area.

The training day was ground-up instruction on basic snow climbing, roped travel and running belays. It was good to be out on the mountain, but the low clouds were a bummer. The team consensus was that we would take whatever weather we got and not complain until summit day. Then we would ask for better weather. Afterword, we gathered at Base Camp for dinner and retired early to pack and rest for the hike up to Camp Muir the next day.

Before the bus. Left to right: Tom, Biren, Michael, Todd and Luigi.

The next morning brought another low cloud deck but no drizzle. Before getting on the bus, we met the sixth climber on our team, Jeremy and the other two guides, Megan and Bryan. Jeremy had already done the training day and this would be his fourth attempt on Rainier.

Looking down the Muir Snowfield. Photo: Luigi S.

The 4,660ft hike up to Muir was awesomely boring. Hike for an hour, then a fifteen minute break. Repeat times three until arrival at Camp Muir. Bryan and Megan offered a couple of riddles to occupy our minds along the way. On our way up, we passed a few groups on their way down after summiting. They all kept saying the top of the cloud deck was close.

Todd and Luigi at a break on the snowfield. Photo: Luigi S.

Welcome to exotic Camp Muir, elevation 10,060ft. Come for the altitude, stay for the views. The clouds had risen with the warming temperature and were now above Muir when we rolled in at about 2:45pm.

Camp Muir.

Camp Muir.

Camp Muir. 

Backpacks and sharp things stayed outside the hut. We brought the rest of our equipment inside and got settled. There was a bit of a nervous atmosphere, but everyone had made it to camp and was in good spirits. 

In the hut. Left to right: Luigi, Biren, Tom, Todd, Brent, Jeremy and Michael. Photo: Luigi S.

Brent and Mike gave us the rundown on what to expect on the 4,350ft climb from here. They would wake us up at some ungodly hour between 11pm and 2am depending on weather. The exact time went undisclosed due to being classified intel. Then we would leave Camp Muir under the cover of darkness and travel for about one hour to Ingraham Flats, our first break. From there, its about an hour and a half to the top of Disappointment Cleaver and the next fifteen minute break. One more hour to high break, then about another hour to the summit. If we reached the summit, our time there would depend on how the weather was and how well the team was feeling. Our team was subdivided into 3 rope teams with a 2:1 ratio. Brent, Jeremy and Todd. Bryan, Luigi and myself. Megan, Biren and Michael.

Notice a pattern? 1 hour hike = 1,000+ft gain. 

Biren, Todd and Luigi getting settled in the hut.

Normally, they cram eighteen people in this small mountain hut. With both groups, we totaled eleven. For some reason, our group turned out to be smaller than normal, so it was more like a private climb. We all agreed that eighteen people would be pretty packed. We felt lucky. 

Dumb luck or mountain magic?

We had dinner and were in our sleeping bags about 6pm. We all doubted that we would get any sleep, but it wasn't too long until someone was snoring. Camp Muir is a noisy place, but it eventually quieted down. I was able to quiet my own mind long enough to get two good blocks of sleep. Just as I came out of the second, I checked the time; 11:32pm. The hut was quiet and still. I rolled back over and began drifting back into dreamland. 

What happened next was the perfect combination of alien abduction and boot camp drill instructor. Brent came in with his headlamp shining, clanking the metal containers of hot water together and flipped on the lights. It was 11:51pm.

The weather Gods had given us the nod; the summit attempt was a go.

We had an hour to eat, use the toilet, get dressed and be out front with harnesses on and be ready to rope up. It was 12:45am when Luigi and I were clipping in. With headlamps on, we set out across the Cowlitz glacier to Cathedral Gap, from the Gap to Ingraham Flats and our first break. This first stretch felt like it went by quick as I sat down for the standard fifteen minute break.

Pack down, parka on, sit, eat, drink.

It was here that Todd informed Brent that he wasn't going on. I felt bummed as I congratulated him on making it that far and wished him luck on his descent. It was quite an accomplishment for a first time climber. Luigi and I were now roped up with Brent and his crew as we set out to tackle Disappointment Cleaver. Class 3/4 rock in crampons while Kiwi Coiled and climbing by headlamp was interesting. We had no choice but to keep pace with Brent so this also seemed to go by fast. It was at the top of the Cleaver and the site of our second break that, as Biren put it, "shit got real, really fast."

There was a stiff and cold wind now as we dropped our packs, added a mid-layer, put on mid-weight gloves and put our parkas on. A lot of people made it to the top of the Cleaver, and a lot of people also called it quits. Honestly, I was too busy taking care of myself to pay close attention, but there were several remarks of "my (insert various appendage such as feet) are way too cold."  Some people appeared to be having a real tough time. I was trying to keep focused on my own needs as my team and I exchanged nods indicating  yeah I'm cold, but I'm going on. Jeremy wasn't feeling well and began vomiting. He was transferred to Megan's team and headed down with some others. We told Jeremy to hang in there and wished him well as Brent called "parkas off, packs on." Now it was Michael, Luigi, Biren and I on a rope with Brent. 

Get moving or get cold.  

We could see the lights of Yakima to the east as we headed up the switch backs toward high break. Slowly the sun began to rise. We end-ran a few large crevasses, climbed up one snow bridge and clipped the running belay above a very large crack. The route was fairly direct and, like clockwork, arrived at high break about an hour later. It was finally light enough that we could begin taking pictures. 

Sunrise on Little Tahoma.

Mt. Adams above the clouds at high break.

Layered up at high break.

All while shoving food in my mouth of course. We left high break wearing every insulation layer we had. For me, that was a mid-weight base layer, light soft shell jacket, down sweater and parka, with all the hoods pulled up and a warm hat under my helmet, while moving.  It was dam cold.

We battled some strong gusts as we pushed our way up. Two teams ahead of us had summited and were on their way down. We got to the crater rim about 6:45am with the wind still pushing us around. After a very short break, Michael and I followed Brent to Columbia Crest, Mt. Rainier's highpoint. Luigi and Biren stayed at the break area while the remainder of Mike's team came up. Brent signed in at register rock. Michael and I signed in below him, noting that this was #505 for Brent. 

A team of four headed across the crater toward Columbia Crest.

Looking east from Register Rock over the crater rim.

Mt. Adams from Columbia Crest.

Michael on Columbia Crest.

Columbia Crest, summit of Mt. Rainier, 14,410ft.

After just enough time to get a few pictures, we headed back down to rejoin our team at the crater rim for a short break.

Brent, Michael and I headed back to rejoin our team at the crater rim.

Crater rim.

With half the climb over, it was time to being the long descent. Brent graciously offered to take my camera and get some pictures on the way down. Heading down, we had our backs to the wind but it was still chilly. The warmth of the sun didn't become apparent until we had descended well below the crater rim; now we were sweltering.

Heading down the upper slopes.

Little Tahoma.

Luigi, Biren and I on descent.

I was at the end of the rope team and was placed in the lead for the running belay with six anchors at the top of a steep slope with a very large crevasse at the bottom. I think this had less to do with my ability and more to do with the fact that Brent had the crevasse rescue gear.



Lower Emmons Glacier to the left of Little Tahoma.

After the running belay, we had a brief stop to shed a couple of layers as Brent probed the snow bridge that we climbed over across the large crevasse. We hopped back on the trail and didn't stop until we hit the break spot just above the cleaver. Then we had a nice break and took in the view and some much needed fuel. 

Top of the Cleaver looking at Cadaver Gap.

We Kiwi Coiled in and began the descent of the Cleaver, which was half snow, half rock for 1,300 feet.

Luigi, Biren and I on descent.

Coming down the Cleaver.

Looking down the Cleaver.

We were the only team on the Cleaver, but knocking any rock off was still unacceptable, and some somewhat unavoidable. It felt like we made good time and soon we coiled out as we stepped back on to the Ingraham Glacier.

Disappointment Cleaver. Note the rope team of 3 near the edge of the snow half way down. 

Our pace was as quick as it was vigilant due to the risk of rock and ice fall in this area. The worst mountaineering accident in American history occurred here  on June 21, 1981. Eleven people lost their lives when a serac calved off of the upper Ingraham Glacier. None of the bodies were ever recovered.

Icefall on the Ingraham Glacier.

Crossing the Ingraham Glacier.

It was nice to finally see what we had climbed in the night by head lamp and I think we were a little startled as we re-crossed the ladders at high crack.

Ladder across high crack.

Crevasse on the Ingraham Glacier.

Ladder crossing on the Ingraham Glacier.

Ladder crossing on the Ingraham Glacier.

After getting past the icefall and ladders, we were back on easy street. Arriving back at The Flats signaled our second and last break between the summit and Camp Muir. It was 10:00am and the day was beginning to heat up. We were allotted a slightly longer than normal fifteen minute break and watched as Mike's group came into The Flats. 

Group photo at The Flats. Left to right: Tom, Biren, Luigi and Michael.

Mikes team beginning to cross the Ingraham Glacier.

Crevasse's on the Ingraham Glacier.

Leaving The Flats on the last push to Muir.

The push back to Muir was hot and thankfully uneventful. We arrived back in camp at about 11:00am where we rejoined the rest of our group and were glad to see that Todd and Jeremy were doing well.

View south from Camp Muir.

After a little more than an hour of rest and re-packing, we began the descent to Paradise.

"Coming down the mountain is like ripping off a Band-Aid; you can do it fast or slow." - Bryan.

I've always been a fan of BOD's - breaks off descents.

Leaving Camp Muir.

Bryan leads the descent, followed by Todd on the Muir Snowfield.

Anyone up for some boot skiing and glissading!?

Biren glissading.

Mount Rainier from the Muir Snowfield.

Luigi on a steep glissade.

View from Pebble Creek.

We stopped at Pebble Creek for a rest before ripping the rest of the descending Band-Aid off.   

Team photo. Left to right - front row: Bryan and Megan. Back row: Todd, Biren, Tom, Michael, Luigi and Jeremy. Behind the camera: Brent Okita.

With the first day of sunshine in almost a month and the proximity to Paradise came the meadow stompers, selfie sticks and crying kids being tortured by their parents as they were prodded uphill. A sure sign that the parking lot was close.

That kid needs to pressure breathe! She wouldn't have such a tough time if she would just rest step!

Michael gets his toes cooled off.

Back at Paradise, we compared feet. Well, blisters really. It felt good to have my boots off and see that I wasn't in the gnarly blister club. Brent thought it would be a good idea to irrigate Michael's black and blue toes while we waited for Mikes team to arrive. It was easy to pass out on the bus back to Ashford, but hard to stay asleep for long during the bumpy ride.

Celebration beers! Clockwise from left: Todd, Megan, Biren, Tom, Michael, Bryan, Brent and Luigi. Photo: Luigi S.

Arriving back at Rainier Base Camp, we had the standard fifteen minute break before the team celebration. Jeremy apparently headed for the nearest urgent care and we wished him well.

Showers are not allowed. Team rules! 

We gathered for our planned pizza feast, complete with lots of cold Rainier beer. It goes without saying, but this was probably the best climbing I've ever done. I was a bit apprehensive about doing a guided trip, but I really can't say enough good things about RMI. I learned a lot and still have a lot left to learn. Its easy to understand why Rainier is a stepping stone into the greater mountains like Denali and in the Himalaya. Am I Denali bound? Possibly one day. Brent seemed sure I was. Biren seemed sure that he had caught the climbing bug. Todd plans to go back to Rainier. Luigi was headed to Alaska for more hiking and Michael wasn't sure what was next for him in the mountains. They all have an open invitation to come climb in Idaho. This also goes without saying, but I've made four new friends and hopefully we will get to climb together again soon.  

Pro tip #1 - Don't be the last guy out of a rest break more than once. Pro tip #2 - Last one to the party buys a pitcher of beer!

Happy trails!


  1. Tom,
    You caught the essence and the highlights of the entire trip - thank you for writing it. This is a very fantastic memoir that will provide a great remembrance when I retire from mountaineering. Say, did anyone ever look at Mt Elbrus………

    1. Thanks Michael. I have not looked at Elbrus but probably a good choice.