Saturday, July 11, 2009

Mount Rainier ... The Real Deal

Over the Fourth of July Weekend, I got high. Real high.

Like over 14,000-feet high. Again.

While most of you were watching fireworks displays, I was stuffed like a sardine with 17 other “teammates” at the John Muir Camp situated at 10,000 feet up Mount Rainier, the most massive single mountain in terms of sheer size in North America. And let me tell you it is impressive.

I summited Rainier on Sunday morning after an all-night climb over glaciers and around bottomless crevasses, up steep snowfields and under cliffs that threatened to release rocky missiles at the least provocation.

At 14,410 feet, Mount Rainier is the highest point in Washington and represented the 43rd high point in my current quest to stand atop the highest points of all 50 states.

But this story doesn’t start in Washington and when it did start, last September, I only had seven high points to my credit – the six New England states and New Jersey. This high-point obsession had yet to become even an idea. Last fall I was in Colorado hoping to finish off the 23 remaining 14ers I needed to complete that list, a three-year odyssey to get all 54 official and five unofficial 14,000-footers in Colorado.

I had just failed to find the summit of Crestone Peak in a whiteout and was dejectedly headed back to the parking lot realizing that with my tight itinerary, I would have to return to Colorado again this September, probably just to bag one last peak. Then I made an amazing discovery behind a large boulder at the bottom of Crestone Peak … I ran into Tom and Sandi Yukman, a couple from Colorado Springs who were momentarily ducking out of the wind after having successfully summited the same mountain I had just bailed off of.

They told me the correct way to find the precipitous summit – I should have stayed in the “red gully” all the way to the top, but my guidebook had said to climb on the rock wall to its right, which led me to a dead end and a 3,000-foot drop if I took another step. But since the storm that was raging was picking up, I decided to hike out with Tom and Sandi instead of rescaling the ice-coated peak. When we reached Broken Hand Pass, they talked me into climbing the Crestone Needle – rated as one of the hardest 14ers in Colorado – with them instead of hiking out to the trailhead. I reluctantly agreed, since I was already figuring a return trip for Crestone Peak would probably include the Needle as well. We talked about climbing on the way up – they also were close to finishing off all the 14ers – and when we got to the summit, we found the weather improving. By the time we got back to Broken Hand Pass and the hike out, the sun had come out and the sky was blue. And as Tom pointed out, it was still only 1 p.m. Plenty of time to go back and bag Crestone Peak.

So that’s what I did, following the red gully to the top and taking a sharp left and scrambling the final 200 feet to the summit. Elated, I hiked back to my car to find Tom’s business card tucked to my windshield. I had hoped they would do that … they wanted me to give them an update when I finished my trip. Incredibly, the weather over the remaining two weeks was absolutely perfect and I knocked off the final 17 peaks I needed over an 11-day span, completing all 59 of Colorado’s 14ers – both official and unofficial – and was headed for the airport in Denver with the first major snowstorm of the season giving chase.

So two months later when Tom and Sandi called and asked if I wanted to go climb Mount Rainier with them in July, it was a no-brainer. I figured they had saved me paying for a return trip to Colorado, so why not spend the money and go to Rainier, a peak I was eventually going to need to bag anyway? But I had told them even before then that the next time I saw them I owed them dinner for saving my Colorado trip.

I arrived in Seattle two Fridays ago with plans to run the inaugural Seattle Rock’N’Roll Marathon that Saturday, but an Achilles tendon injury caused by running my first 100-miler at Massanutten in Virginia the month before convinced me to leave all of my running gear at home so I wouldn’t talk myself into something stupid at the last minute. I did show up at the marathon expo to pick up my T-shirt, but when someone overheard me say that I wasn’t going to run, they immediately begged me to give them my bib number. Seems this sold-out show was in hot demand. I gave him the number, but when I got to my friend Charles’ house later that day, he said he wished he had emailed me about the bib number as he had a friend who was hankering to run. I also could have sold the number on craigslist and recouped some of the $100 entry fee and $10 parking fee I lost. I told the guy who I gave the number to to email me to let me know how we did, but I never got word.

Charles is the head of the Department of Transportation for the city of Seattle and he and his wife, along with sons Zac and Ty, had a wedding to go to on the Olympic peninsula on Saturday, so I held down the fort at Charles’ house until they returned on Sunday afternoon. Zac and Charles I had first met on a volcano in Mexico two winters ago and we had stayed in touch; Zac had climbed Mount Whitney with me last March and we’re planning an Aconcagua trip for either this January or next. Charles had already told me that whenever I got out to Seattle, base camp would be waiting for me in the form of his beautiful little house in the hilly Queen Anne section of Seattle overlooking Puget Sound and the Olympic range beyond. A short walk from his house was the Kerry Park Overlook which offered stupendous views of the city skyline with the Space Needle in the front left and Mount Rainier hovering in the right in the far distance, looming over the city like the monolith it is.

After a couple of short day hikes up Kendall Peak in Snoqualmie Pass and to the ever-popular Mount Si, and of course the mid-week excursion with my new friend Doug to bag Mount Hood, the highest point in Oregon, I headed to Mount Rainier on a Thursday afternoon excited about climbing what would be my most impressive mountain to date. Well, that or Mount Whitney. I’m not sure which was the tougher climb.

I arrived at Rainier Mountaineering’s headquarters next to Whittaker’s Bunkhouse where I was staying in time for the 3 p.m. first-day meeting with the entire team and our main guide, Mark. First, though, we all went inside to watch a slide show presentation about the climb. After that, we went back outside and unloaded the contents of our backpacks on the ground. Mark then went over every item on his checklist to make sure we had all the gear necessary to climb Rainier.

Satisfied, he dismissed us and Tom, Sandi and I went out to dinner at the Copper Creek Inn about five miles up the road so I could take care of a little matter of a dinner I owed them. I couldn’t convince Sandi to order anything more than a hamburger, but Tom had a delicious salmon dinner. Then came dessert, which was Copper Creek’s famous blackberry pie topped by a big scoop of vanilla ice cream. Normally, I never eat dessert at a restaurant, but this pie was not to pass up!

Friday they bused us up to Paradise which is the Visitor’s Center on the south side of Rainier. Then we went to school. Mark and fellow guide Mailey hiked us up onto a snowfield about a mile from Paradise and we began to learn how to hike a mountain. Like I don’t know how to hike a mountain!! I was expecting to be bored silly, but I found the day interesting and informative, learning many of the techniques that will come in handy when I head to some bigger mountains (Denali in 2011?) and understanding why things are done a certain way.

First we learned several different types of steps for varied terrain; and pressure breathing, to get enough oxygen into your lungs … I’ve never had a problem at altitude with my cardio, so I don’t recall ever pressure breathing once on the climb, but it was a good technique to know. Then they asked us if we knew what the two types of arrest were: the only one I could think of was “house arrest.” Just kidding. We spent the next couple of hours flopping around in the soft, wet snow getting soaked as we learned how to self-arrest if you fell down yourself, and how to team-arrest, if someone else on your rope fell.

We all hoped these techniques would not come into play over the following two days, and thankfully they did not.

After that, we all got roped up for the first time and were shown how to maintain proper spacing on the rope in case someone did fall so that a team arrest could successfully keep everyone on the rope from being swept off the mountain simultaneously. Something like that would ruin your whole day! We learned how to take corners and step over the rope without snagging it on our crampons, another no-no.

On Saturday, we began our ascent, climbing from Paradise in tandem the 4,600 or so feet up to Muir Camp at about 10,000 feet. We didn’t need crampons or ropes for this part of the climb as the trail was relatively moderate and the snow soft from the nearly 70-degree temperatures … I even got some sunburn up the sleeves of my T-shirt from the sun reflecting off the snow.

We took nearly six hours to climb to Muir Camp, though there were trail runners going by us in shorts and no shirts that probably made it in two hours … I secretly wished to be one of them. But we finally arrived and set up camp, which was to throw our sleeping bags on one of the 18 foam pads in the hut. We also prepared our packs for the summit climb, making sure that they were packed in the reverse order of when we expected to need certain pieces of gear and clothing. They brought out hot water so we could all eat our pre-packed dehydrated meals (yummy!) and then we were instructed to try to get some sleep – even though it was only 6:30 p.m. and it wouldn’t get dark until about 10.

With 18 people in a cramped bunkhouse, the place soon took on the smell of one of the outhouses out back, for the obvious reasons. Why is it that when you get a bunch of guys together (and a couple women) everyone just starts letting ‘em rip!

The wakeup call came at 11:10 p.m. and I had yet to sleep a wink – just like on Hood earlier in the week. We all ate breakfast and waited for the guides to call us out for departure. We left Muir Camp with crampons on and roped up as we crossed the top of the Cowlitz Glacier to Cathedral Gap and then climbed on loose rock and scree behind the Cathedral Rocks. We took our first break at a flat spot at the top of the second glacier we climbed, and then headed for the crux up the climb, Disappointment Cleaver, which is where we would cross under a steep cliff face and then zig-zag our way up it to the top. It was the steepest climbing of the day (though it was still the middle of the night) and after another break, we crossed another large glacier and had to circumnavigate several monstrous crevasses, a couple of them only a foot or two wide but with bottomless abysses … as you stepped over the chasm you couldn’t see the bottom below!

By now the sun was coming up and our pace seemed to be slowing. Mark, our guide, had put the two least-experienced climbers, Brian and Ryan, on his rope, with me as the fourth person pulling up the rear. I understood what he was doing … putting his strongest climber as anchor on the rope with the two weakest climbers … and it made for a bit of a frustrating day for me. I knew when I signed up for this trip, however, that we would be moving at the pace of the slowest climber and that’s exactly what happened.

That person happened to be Brian. As we got to 13,000 feet, Brian was about spent. He could barely move and was often incoherent when asked a question … the altitude, the amount of energy expended and the lack of proper nutritional intake combined with his inexperience to make Brian a liability on the rope. But the guides assessed his condition continuously and prodded him up the mountain, even though I once urged our third guide, Tyler, to send him back down. While I must admit that I was a bit concerned that Brian was going to keep us all from summiting – especially me, I must selfishly admit – I truly felt that Brian was completely spent and would have trouble getting down.

But the guides knew what they were doing and though it was about 7:30 in the morning, we finally made it into the crater rim at the top of Mount Rainier – all nine of us in our group made it (we later learned that two people in the other group of nine turned back). Finally we were let off our leashes and everyone scurried to various places on the open crater to pee – except in order to turn your back to everyone you had to stand facing the 40 mph wind, so it was a bit of a tricky maneuver. I guess it’s better to be pissed on than pissed off!

Then, those who wanted to, crossed the crater and climbed the far rim, where the actual high point is. On our way, we stopped to log into the register book, and then hit the summit. I was elated as it meant state high-point No. 43 for me, leaving me only seven more to go, but it was great to see some of the others in our group who had never climbed a mountain before stand so proudly on the top. Like Ty and Jason, who had hatched the plan to climb Rainier over a bottle of whiskey with Ryan.

And then there were Tom and Sandi, who each took a can of Rainier beer from Ty, who had carried up a six-pack, and broke one open, toasting the summit in style. Another spot along the rim looked higher and Mark bet me it wasn’t, so we hiked over there and looked back at the others and I realized he was right. I lost the bet, but there was nothing riding on it, as he said he had made the same mistake the first time he summited Rainier.

We then all headed back to where we left our packs and roped up for the descent. This time, Mark put me in the front and told me to set a strong and steady pace on the way down … this I liked!! It was my reward, I guess, for being on the end of the slowest rope team coming up. Tyler had already started back down with Brian, and we caught them part-way down the mountain. The hardest part was descending the steep and rocky Disappointment Cleaver, which was just nasty down-climbing. Then we had to scoot quickly under the lip of the cleaver hoping the warming temperatures wouldn’t dislodge any ice or rocks and rain them down on us. We safely made our way across and back past all the crevasses that now appeared even more massive in the daylight than they had in the darkness of night.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, we were back at Muir Camp and could finally take our crampons off. I can tell you that your feet are never happier than to have crampons removed from them! At least my feet were feeling much better than they had on Hood, thanks to the pair of Koflach plastic double-boots I had purchased in Seattle the day before I arrived. On Hood, I wore a pair of borrowed boots that were too narrow in the toe box and my feet were in agony, especially on the descent, just as they were on Whitney last March in a pair of similar boots. I think I will be very happy with the Koflach’s, which I picked up on sale for $150, about half price.

We were all excited to be back at Muir Camp, but we still had to pack up everything and hike the 4,600 feet back down to Paradise, which was a couple hours away still. But this was some of the most fun we had on the trip as there were several steep down sections and with the softening snow, it made for some excellent boot skiing. We arrived at Paradise with sore, wet feet, but it was all worth it.

After the 45-minute bus ride back to Ashford and RMI headquarters, we had a short awards ceremony where we were all issued a certificate of achievement for climbing Rainier. And Brian was now feeling much better and announced that beer was on him since he had slowed us all down so much on the way up. The beer was greatly appreciated, though I could only have a couple as I still had to re-pack everything in my car for the plane trip home the following morning. Fortunately, everything fit in and I drove back to Doug’s house in Seattle where I stayed again on Sunday night. I went to say goodbye to Tom and Sandi, but they had apparently already gone to dinner and I missed them. They were going to start a six-day hike of the Wonderland Trail – a 93-mile trail circumnavigating the entire base of Mount Rainier, the next morning. I hope they had good weather.

I arrived at Doug’s just as he pulled in with his girlfriend, Kristia, and we all went out to dinner along with his roommate Aaron at an Indian restaurant and then I crashed on their couch – hard. The next morning, I headed for the airport and as I flew out of Seattle I got one last long look at Mount Rainier out the window. An amazing sight and one hell of a mountain that I am glad to have checked off my bucket list.

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