5-day Mt. Rainier Expedition, July 6-10, 1998
This is a personal account of a 5-day Mt. Rainier expedition written by Mike Sommars and edited by his brother Wayne Sommars.
Day 1Pinnacle Peak
Our five-day expedition began at the Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI) guide house at 9:00AM, Monday morning, July 6th. There were two other five-day seminars and a two-day climbing seminar starting at the same time as our five-day seminar. So it was quite crowded when RMI opened the doors to let in everyone. While waiting outside, my brother Wayne and I talked with a few other climbers who were also signed up for a five-day seminar. Unknown to us, none of those we talked with would be in our seminar.
Just like last year we all had to wait in the same line to check in with RMI and to rent equipment, a process that took maybe twenty minutes. When it was my turn I gave my name and was checked off the climber list. I noticed from the other names that my brother and I would be in an expedition with six other guys. I left a credit card as deposit and took my receipt over to the adjacent rental counter and rented boots, crampons, and ski poles from the eager-to-help RMI folks there. Last year I wore leather boots and used my own crampons on a two-day climb of Mt. Rainier and decided this year that Id give plastic boots a try. The size 11 Raichle climbing boots I rented were very comfortable and included a synthetic liner that fit snugly into a plastic outer boot. Although Wayne and I had Stubai step-in crampons that wed brought with us, the guy behind the counter was doubtful theyd stay on without full leather straps (which ours wouldnt accommodate), so I rented SMI crampons as well. RMI provides harnesses and helmets so I didnt have to worry about them. Wayne didnt need RMIs since he had done some technical climbing and had his own Black Diamond harness and Blue Water helmet.
None of our guides seemed to be in much of a hurry to get started so the climbers took their time getting the rental gear together. Once Wayne and I had everything we needed we went to the far end of the parking lot in front of Paradise Inn to meet up with our guides. Chris, our lead guide, was there with two assistant guides, Brian and Dennis. They had all of the group gear laid out on the asphalt to divide up between the eight of us. What a lot of gear it was! There didnt seem to be any way we were going to be able to carry the overstuffed sacks of food, stoves, tents, shovel, and pots and pans before us. They even had huge bags of tortilla chips! How would it all fit? Once everyone arrived with their gear Chris had us gather around and proposed that we do our expedition a little different than normal. He said that hed done enough expeditions that hed learned to dread hauling all of that stuff up the mountain and then hanging around in one spot for four or five days. "Boring!!!" seemed to be the message he was trying to convey to us. Apparently, thats what the traditional RMI 5-day expedition is all about - all five days on Mt. Rainier. The first day is spent lugging up the 70 pound backpacks to one of three base camps: Camp Condom below Camp Muir (named because its well protected from both wind and avalanches), a high camp on Ingraham Flats at the eastern base of Gibraltar rock, and one on Rainiers west side probably at Camp Hazard. To get an idea if wed be interested in a different type of expedition, Chris asked us why we were there and what we hoped to get out of it.
Several of us had climbed Rainier once before and expressed an interest in learning enough that wed feel confident to venture out unguided on other glaciated peaks. A couple of guys said they wanted to get enough experience climbing and camping on snow to be able to backpack earlier in the season each year. One guy had a lot of experience climbing Colorado "fourteeners" and was here because his wife gave him the trip as a birthday present. Another had already signed up to climb Mt. McKinley next year and was using this expedition as a warm up. Wayne and I wanted to get more experience before we head off to Pico de Orizaba and Iztacchiuatl in Mexico either this fall or next year. On a personal note, I had broken my arm on Christmas Day last year and looked at this expedition as a personal test to see if Id fully recovered. Wayne and I had both trained many long hours, including weight training, stairmaster, thousands of flights of steps, running, and for Wayne many days spent lugging an overstuffed pack up the Sandia Mountains east of Albuquerque. Was it all enough and would my arm hold up?
After listening to each of us list our goals, Chris seemed pleased that we all wanted more than just a "routine expedition" and proceeded to propose that we climb two nearby peaks, Pinnacle Peak and Little Tahoma, in addition to Rainier during the next five days. This way wed spend two days camping (and eating our stock of food) at low altitude (about 4,000 feet). On the third day wed climb to base camp on Rainier with less food and, consequently, lighter backpacks. It didnt take much time for all of the climbers to enthusiastically agree to this plan. However, none of us knew at that point what we were getting ourselves into. Id heard of Little Tahoma, but not Pinnacle Peak.
Chris asked for volunteers to transport everyone and the gear for the first two days. I volunteered the GMC Jimmy rental car wed gotten at Seattles airport two days ago. Gregg volunteered his pickup truck, and Brian used his station wagon as the third vehicle. It worked out very well because we loaded all of the backpacks in the pickup truck and all of the other gear in the Jimmy and station wagon.
We drove about two miles from Paradise to Pinnacle Peak trail head on the south side of Reflection Lakes at elevation 4,867 feet and parked the vehicles. Pinnacle Peak is the imposing and jagged looking peak visible almost due south from Paradise and is located in the Tatoosh Range. We loaded our backpacks with light rain gear, helmets, harnesses, crampons, food, water, and cameras. It was warm with clear skies so most of us wore T-shirts and shorts. We started around 11:30AM and encountered snow not far up the trail. Chris picked the first large snowfield with a fairly steep slope to practice snow climbing skills. We first took a break to eat lunch and then practiced rest stepping until everyone was either reacquainted with the technique or felt comfortable with it. Next we put on our top shell and snow pants and practiced self-arresting on the snow covered slope. A couple of climbers had problems arresting the head-first-on-back and head-first-on-stomach falls, but the guides patiently worked with them to make sure they got it right. Chris said hed never, ever seen anyone fall backwards and need to use any technique other than the feet-first prone position self-arrest. That was comforting since the likelihood of arresting while sliding head first seemed to be a remote possibility at best. We next put on our harnesses and practiced climbing as roped teams.
It wasnt long after we were all roped up and had practiced a while that we continued up the trail toward the summit. Much of the trail was on snow with a little mud and rock mixed in. We climbed for about an hour until we
reached a saddle that wasnt far from the summit and then took a break for food and water. Curiously, Chris promptly pulled out a block of Pepperjack cheese from his pack and began munching away. Wed soon learn that eating foods high in animal fat was the best way to accumulate the 10,000 calories/day required to climb for 18 straight hours. Power Bars and low-fat snacks wouldnt cut it. From our vantage point on the saddle, there appeared to be little snow and plenty of rocks from the ridge to the summit. However, we could still see plenty of snow fields below us.
Chris asked Brian to climb on ahead of the rest of us and fix a rope on a 200 foot class IV section of the climb near the summit for the less experienced rock climbers. Most of the way from the ridge to the base of the class IV pitch was a scramble up loose rocks and boulders. But the last 200 feet was serious climbing that required keeping three points in contact with the rocks at all times, lest one fall and tumble head over heels with no chance of stopping. Everyone took turns climbing this steep part, and some relied on the rope, but most didnt. Halfway up the pitch was the first time I seriously asked what Id gotten myself into. I decided that I didnt particularly like rock climbing. By 3:00PM we were all on the summit (6,562 feet). The weather was still mostly clear, but clouds were moving in and partly obscuring Rainier. The massive volcano was still visible enough through parting clouds for a
few good photo opportunities, and Reflection Lakes were visible below. The panoramic view was spectacular on all sides; there was even a mountain goat leisurely resting on one of the snow patches in the distance. We stayed on top about 15 minutes and then reluctantly headed down.
We were back at Reflection Lakes by 4:00PM. Gregg and I were both very low on gasoline so Chris suggested we drive to Packwood to fill up. The tiny town was roughly in the direction of our campsite for the night and had the nearest gas station. We filled up with gas and bought some snacks, the guides once again demonstrating their incredible appetites by loading up on fried burritos, pints of ice cream, and cured meats. We then headed back to the White River Campground about a mile and a half from the Wonderland Trail that we would take the next day to climb Little Tahoma.
At camp we all decided to sleep under the stars without tents so we each picked out flat spots and laid out our sleeping pads and bags. While dinner was being prepared, Brian taught us how to tie several different knots, including the fishermans, the double fishermans, the bowline, the prusik, the figure-8, the rewoven figure-8, the butterfly, and the girth hitch. We would use most of these knots later in the week. We also made slings to tie off our packs in case we fell into a crevasse and a large prusik foot loop and small prusik harness loop from our 6mm Perlon rope. The latter would be used to self-ascend the rope in the event of a crevasse fall, assuming the climber wasnt injured. In the meantime Chris and Dennis had set up three MSR stoves for cooking dinner. Two were for heating water and one was for heating tortillas. They used plywood wrapped in aluminum foil to reflect the heat and to insulate the stoves. They also used foil wrapped around the stoves to concentrate the heat and shield the flames from the wind. Just as it was becoming dark, we ended our knot tying lesson and gulped down tortillas made with refried beans and rice complete with cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, and guacamole toppings. Since Chris had warned us wed be waking up at 2:30 the next morning, we loaded our packs and headed off to our, hopefully, warm and cozy sleeping bags. For such a warm day it was getting surprisingly chilly. Some of us used ear plugs because of the ever chirping crickets and ceaseless whistling of marmots. Because of the ear plugs, there were some surprised sleepers the next morning when the guides nudged us awake.
Day 2Little Tahoma Peak
We awoke on day two as planned at 2:30AM, in my particular case to muffled shouts from Dennis as he stood half stooped over me with his head lamp shinning on his face. What a scary sight! The night before we each slept with our head lamps within arms reach so that we wouldnt stumble around in the dark after we woke up. I strapped mine to my head and reluctantly crawled out of my warm down sleeping bag. As the guides prepared breakfast (cereal Lucky Charms, Muselix, and Corn Flakes with powdered milk and either hot chocolate or hot tea), each of us gathered our things together and loaded our backpacks with the essential gear we would need for the day and jammed them into the pickup truck. This included two quarts of water (we were told we could fill up at a glacier stream about 4 miles up the trail at a place called Summerland), food, helmet, harness, and cameras. Everything else we packed into the Jimmy and station wagon.
By 3:45AM we were on the Wonderland Trail hiking through magnificent old growth forest with only our head lamps to light the way and the high pitched whistles of marmots to keep us company. Travel was easy on the well worn trail which started at an elevation of 3,850 feet. Fryingpan Creek, raging down from its namesake Glacier still miles ahead and thousands of feet above, intermittently roared past us on the left as the trail zigzagged near and then away from it. Our first break came just before dawn at a wide area along the trail scattered with rotten logs. It was a welcome rest since, even in the cool morning, I had worked up a sweat. We drank and ate snacks, not talking much, and then continued up the trail. By this time we extinguished our head lamps and made our way in the early morning twilight. The trail crossed Fryingpan Creek several times before reaching Summerland, sometimes with well-built bridges, sometimes with rough hewn logs put in place by the Forest Service. Because of the fast-moving creek below, and the ever present possibility of a misstep resulting in a sudden and dangerous swim, I never felt comfortable crossing the logs. I moved quickly and with few steps to get to the other side as fast as possible.
As we hiked along the creek and the forest thinned out as we approached its edge, the variegated views of neighboring ridges and unnamed peaks became spectacular in the morning light. Some of us mistakenly thought the peak on our left, bathed in golden light from the rising sun, was Little Tahoma, our goal for the day. Chris knew better as he led us farther up the trail. He was the only one of the eleven of us, including Brian and Dennis, who had previously climbed Little Tahoma. Last year only 27 climbers had summited Little Tahoma. After the last bridge crossing we reached some steep snow fields in a thinly wooded area where we carefully snaked our way up along switchbacks.
By early morning we reached Summerland, the first big open area out of the woods and at the base of a steep snow embankment that led to Fryingpan Glacier. It was a beautiful sub-alpine area with patches of grass and flowers with lots of snow in-between. Small streams cut through the snow as they headed toward Fryingpan Creek. We took a break on the snow and found our way down to the creek to refill our water bottles. Some of us took a little time to explore the stone shelter located in a wooded area on a nearby hill. We all geared up for the long climb up the glacier and split into three rope teams. Dennis stashed our ski poles in clumps of trees before we left Summerland.
Roped together, we headed up the snow embankment on the southwestern side of Summerland. At its top we caught our first glimpse of Fryingpan Glacier sprawled before us. It was a huge expanse of ice and snow turned to mush because of the clear blue summertime skies and temperatures in the 80s, with occasional crevasses scarring its surface. Because of the sunny skies we would learn firsthand how Fryingpan Glacier got its name. Being moderately flat and several miles across, with no breeze at all we quickly began to feel like fried eggs, sunny side
up, in the blazing sun. Even stripped down to our poly tops and bottoms and shorts we were still sweltering. And it seemed to go on forever. In fact we traveled about 1 1/2 miles before we reached a rock outcropping that we stopped at for our first break. It was another 1 1/2 miles across its snow mush surface before we reached Whitman Crest, a rocky ridge separating Fryingpan Glacier from Whitman Glacier. We had climbed 3,350 feet since leaving Summerland at elevation 5,850 feet and we had already traveled over nine miles!
After our much needed break at Whitman Crest, we roped up again and headed toward steeper slopes with some approaching 45 degrees or more. We would climb the remaining 1,938 feet to the summit in roughly a mile. As we neared the summit on a particularly steep slope we all carefully and meticulously kicked in each step, often more than once, until we felt our crampon points grip as tightly into the slush as we could reasonably hope for. If we fell
our team members would self arrest to belay our fall, and under ideal circumstances they would succeed, but none of us wanted to face the alternative on this slope. It would be a long slide down the upper portion of Whitman Glacier, and who knew what hidden crevasses were below us. After reaching the safety of a small patch of boulders, we all ditched our packs, unroped and began a scramble up a 20 foot class IV section of rocks. Some of us thought the summit was at hand only to be disappointed to see 200 additional yards of rocks to scramble over. Some places were fairly steep, requiring careful climbing up wet surfaces but most were class II and III. Much of the rock near the summit was very loose and dangerous. Some of our group took their time while others pushed ahead.
By 2:00 PM Chris was the first of us to reach the true summit at 11,138 feet. Hidden by a false summit, it was 20 feet higher and separated from the lesser peak by about 40 feet. The only way to reach it was to cross a saddle with a shear 2,000 foot drop-off on the right and a more gradual drop-off on the left. Ultimately though, falling either way would be fatal. Chris was patiently sitting on the summit as most of the group gathered on the false summit. Dennis set up a rope for those who wanted a belay while crossing the gap. Two were brave enough to shun the belay while three others used the rope. The rest of us decided against it. I thought Id cross using the rope belay, but chickened out after starting across, my life-long acrophobia winning out again. I unroped and enjoyed the view from the false summit. The skies were clear and Mt. Rainier seemed close enough to reach out and touch. However, it was only an illusion since the immense Emmons Glacier, largest on Rainier and looming 2,000 feet below, separated the two peaks.
Our summit of Little Tahoma had been remarkably uneventful - until one of our climbers about to return across the saddle experienced a harrowing close call. With his back to the true summit, he was about to bend down to crawl over the saddle when a 500 pound boulder broke loose from above and fell toward him. As large as his torso, he grabbed the rock in a bear hug as it glanced off his chest and upper leg. The belay held and, dazed for a moment, his balance teetered until he was able to regain his footing. He was extremely lucky. A few more inches and the boulder could have crushed him. Instead, he would settle for a bruised and lacerated leg. For the first time during our expedition I noticed a genuine look of concern on Chris face as he expressed, "That was a genuine close call." Had our propitious ascent and intoxicatingly stunning surroundings lulled us into a sense of carelessness?
We headed down after another half an hour or so on the summit. Our descent down the rocks seemed more precarious than our ascent; every step sent down a cascading slide of rocks . We made our way back to the apex of Whitman Glacier, geared up, reformed rope teams (in reverse order so that the guides were at the back end of the rope), and began our long trip back to Summerland and then Wonderland Trail parking lot. Most of us were very tired at this point so the guides reminded us to be speedy but cautious on the way down. It didnt take long to see the effect of fatigue when somebody on the rope team ahead of mine fell. His fellow rope team members successfully arrested his fall, he climbed back up, and everyone continued. I was in the last rope team and it seemed to take a long time to get moving.
All three guides kept up a very fast pace on the way down, one that most of the climbers were not comfortable with on the upper slopes. It caused tensions to build on our rope team, forcing a couple of climbers to ask our guide to slow down. The problem was that the lead rope team members, with long-legged Chris leading them, would speed up as they got to flatter slopes, while the trailing rope team members were still on steep slopes. This forced the trailing members to move at a much faster pace than they felt comfortable with in order to catch up. The guides were somewhat accommodating, however, and slowed down the pace a bit. I would later learn that Wayne was none too comfortable with Chris pace as well. As he explained it, he had trained primarily to climb up, not down. Living in Albuquerque and having access to the second longest tram in the world provided him with a unique training capability. Seems he would park his car at the base of the tram, climb to the Sandia Crest with a fully loaded pack, and then take the tram back down in order to save wear and tear on his feet and knees. Descending Little Tahoma this fast was not something he had planned on.
There was a minor diversion though to take our minds off the punishingly monotonous descent. At the far end of frying Pan Glacier, at least two miles away, Chris spotted a pair of climbers moving slowly toward us. He was concerned that they might be Park Rangers investigating why an RMI group was climbing in the eastern part of the Park. Apparently, the Park Service had recently granted concessions to other guide services on Rainier, and some sort of professional but unwritten agreement between them was that RMI would stick to its established routes. We kept an eye on them for nearly an hour during which they hardly moved at all. Chris finally decided they could be bears, probably a mother and its cub out for a Tuesday afternoon glacier stroll.
Every couple of hundred yards Chris pulled a bamboo wand out of the snow beside our trail and stuffed it between his backpack and back. Brian had planted them during our ascent. I suppose it was good thinking because a whiteout or even moderate storm, given the size of Frying Pan Glacier and lack of prominent landmarks, would have gotten us hopelessly and dangerously lost.
During our descent down the Fryingpan Glacier the rope team ahead of mine arrested several times because of falls. Fatigue was setting in fast. My rope team was lucky up to that point because none of us had fallen. I thought we would make it to the next rocky ridge in good shape, but I was wrong. As we were traversing the last steep slope before the ridge and I had just planted my ice axe in the uphill slope above the traverse, my left foot slipped out from under me. I lost my grip on my ice and had nothing to hold onto. I yelled, "Falling!" and all three of my rope team members, including Brian, arrested my fall. As I slid 15 feet or so the rope went taught and I felt my weight being supported. I was more startled than scared and realized that I had to start digging my feet into the snow to take my weight off of the rope. I vigorously kicked my feet in to form footholds and climbed back up to the trail in the snow. The climb back up was surprisingly tiring. Unbeknownst to me, Waynes group had seen my fall from the ridge. He would later recount to me that Chris had mumbled, "What did I teach these guys?" I was embarrassed about letting go of my axe the last thing you want to do when falling. My rope team continued across the slope and joined Waynes rope team waiting for us on the rocky ridge. After we got to the rocks I thanked my team members for arresting my fall.
After we finally arrived at Summerland I remember feeling tremendous relief that the most difficult part of the climb was behind us and that we could finally unrope. Staying roped together for so long was a trying experience. We took off our gear, repacked, refilled our water bottles with glacier melt water, and rested awhile. Meanwhile Chris couldnt find our ski poles because Dennis had hidden them so well. Apparently, its true that bears coexist with the sparse human population in the Park and, being bears, theyre curious about shiny things. Dennis hadnt wanted any large, furry company at Summerland.
After half an hour we continued the "easy" 4.2 mile hike back to the trail head, and it seemed to take forever. It was about 7:30PM by then and the sole of my right foot was bothering me. I hoped it wasnt a blister. It also occurred to me that I was going to be too exhausted to carry out Chris plan to get up early (5:00AM) the next morning to climb to base camp on Mt. Rainier. By days end we would climb a total of 14,576 vertical feet and travel 21 miles, an accomplishment Chris said, " would have killed 95% of the population." One by one I started asking the other climbers how they felt and all but two agreed that they were too tired to launch into another hard climb early the next day. On top of it all I discovered that I had forgotten to bring some medication that I needed. When Wayne and I finally got back to the vehicles at the trail head, I approached Chris hoping he might have some in his first aid kit, but he didnt.
Whit and Wayne, the two oldest members of our group, were the last non-guides to arrive back at the vehicles between 8:45 and 9:00PM. Brian and Dennis brought up the rear. It was getting dark, we hadnt eaten dinner yet, and everyone was tired. Several of the climbers, including me, told Chris how we felt about his plan for the next day. He and the assistant guides consulted among themselves privately for a while to decide on a plan. After resting and massaging our feet, we loaded our gear and headed for Packwood, arriving after 10:00PM only to discover that the grocery store was closed. I would be out of luck until the next day. But while we were in town we decided to stop by the Blue Spruce Tavern to eat dinner. It was a welcome decision because some in our group were nearly catatonic with hunger. After burning many calories that day the double cheeseburgers, french fries, onion rings, nachos, beer, and Cokes tasted mighty good.
We left Packwood around midnight and headed back to Cougar Rock Campground southwest of Paradise and about a mile from Longmire, our starting point for the next morning. The drive back was insane because we were exhausted while trying to navigate winding roads that were engulfed in patches of fog at nearly every curve. We didnt know exactly where we were going and the lead drivers were driving much faster than we felt comfortable with, but we had to keep up or risk getting lost. We finally arrived at the campground at 1:00AM and hastily picked the first open spots to park. Though it was crowded with campers, we quickly picked whatever bare spots were available and laid out our sleeping pads and bags. It didnt take long for unconsciousness to set in.
Day 3Mt. Rainier Base Camp
We slept in late the third day and reluctantly crawled out of our sleeping bags at about 7:30AM to the sound of the roaring MSR stoves. Soon afterward we discovered that the campground ranger had surreptitiously paid us a visit during the night and left tickets on our vehicle windshields, our penance for arriving too late to get permits. Fortunately for us, Chris knew the young lady working at the campground pay station that morning. Seems he had danced with her at the recent Jansport party that all of the guides, rangers, and outfitters are invited to each year. She remembered him enough to agree to reduce the fines from $15 to $10.
I was glad to see it would be another bright and sunny day. Our expedition breakfast included cereal and toasted bagels with cream cheese and bacon that we ate around a picnic table. A large, half-full bag of tortilla chips provided a culinary variation this morning. We stuffed our packs with everything we would need for three days on Rainier so that we wouldnt have to spend too much time in Paradise before hitting the trail. Steves leather boots had nearly disintegrated off his feet yesterday so he needed to rent boots at the RMI guide house. Meanwhile, I needed to check the Paradise Inn gift shop for the medicine I needed. Brian went with me to say hello to his girlfriend while Dennis took Steve to change boots. The gift shop did not have what I was looking for, but Brian suggested we try the store in Longmire. Meanwhile Steve and Dennis finished with the boots and the rest of the group began their trip to base camp.
Longmire was a dead end so we decided to check Ashford which is about 30 minutes each way from Paradise. The general store in Ashford had what I was looking for. Rather than start up the trail hungry Brian suggested we eat lunch before we started. We both had giant chili dogs at the Paradise Inn snack shop. We started up the trail around 1:00PM.
Since the food, tents, cookware, and other supplies were divided as evenly as possible between all of the members of our group, our backpacks were quite heavy. I estimate that mine weighed at least 60 pounds, perhaps more. Remembering the long climb to Camp Muir from last year, I was dreading another long climb to our base camp. The trail leaving Paradise is paved and it was laborious trudging along the asphalt and then the ill-spaced steps that the Rangers must have installed at several places along the path. It wasnt until the first break, after an hour or so, that I started to get into the rhythm of the climb. But my North Face Renegade pack wasnt adjusted right since most of the weight was on my shoulders. It bothered me enough that I took the time to adjust it so that most of the weight was on my hips.
The skies were clear and cloud free, providing a spectacular view of the Nisqually Glacier and the south side of Rainier. The warm weather brought a lot of day hikers, and even snowboarders, out on the trail up to Panorama Point. Brian and I were greeted with smiles from everyone we encountered who was heading down. Some looked at us and wondered, Im sure, how we were carrying such heavy loads. Others wished us a good climb as they stepped off the trail to let us pass.
After Panorama Point the climb was almost entirely on the Muir snow field, a long and slightly to moderately steep patch of permanent snow nestled between the Nisqually and Cowlitz glaciers that leads, of course, to Camp Muir. Brian and I took three additional breaks before reaching base camp. At each break, between sips of water and munching on snacks, we talked as I enjoyed getting to know Brian. I probably wouldnt have made the effort if we had climbed with the rest of our group. As we continued upward, in my eagerness to step in Brians footsteps (makes climbing easier in snow) I remember following so close, with my head down scanning for his footprints, that I bumped into his overstuffed pack half a dozen times. I think that my zeal in wanting to arrive at camp was also a factor. I was afraid I was annoying Brian, but later found that he was amused at my stamina. He was probably glad that I was a strong climber and could easily keep up. We made each rest stop either on time or ahead of schedule. Several times on the climb we stopped while Brian visited with other guides headed on their way down.
The weather was nearly perfect, with only a slight westerly breeze, as we arrived at Camp Condom at about 6:00PM. Wayne greeted me by taking several snap shots as I approached camp. Nestled below Muir Peak and a rock peninsula jutting from the snow, this cozy little spot would be our base camp for the next three days. The rest
of the group arrived earlier at 4:30PM and had already set up the tents and dug a kitchen into the snow. Complete with counter space, a water bottle bin, and pantries under the counter, the kitchen became a welcome gathering spot during meals. My brother and Whit had been the first to pitch their tent and had reserved a place in it for me. Its buried rock anchors, snow-block wind barriers, and sunken vestibule step made it an inviting and safe looking
home. The first order of business for Brian was to dig a latrine downhill of camp. Brian and Dennis then set up the guide tent (Brian carried it in his backpack). I unpacked and staked out a spot in our tent, glad that the itinerant part of our expedition was over.
Dennis, our official base camp cook, had been impatiently waiting for the noodles Id carried up in my pack. As soon as he discovered that I had them he wasted no time starting our first base camp dinner of noodles with sauce and bacon. His culinary creation was ready at about 8:00PM, and it didnt take long for our group of hungry climbers to devour it. As dusk settled over camp we all listened to Chris describe kitchen building techniques that hed learned as a guide on his four Denali expeditions. Snow caves complete with serpentine tunnels, ramps, dining areas, and concealed pantries all carefully dug into snow provided both cooks and hungry climbers necessary respite from the bitter cold and winds of Denali. From 100 degrees below zero to storms so bad he couldnt leave his tent for five straight days, his stories made me rethink my desire to one day climb that mountain.
Throughout Chris stories, Brian and Dennis were cleaning up after dinner, melting snow to refill water bottles, and heating water for hot drinks. We took photographs of Mt. Rainiers shadow as it was cast across the landscape all the way to the horizon, the conical image of its inverted shadow mirrored in the eastern skies. Others tossed
snacks to the birds that had already found our camp site. At around 10:00PM we once again climbed into our comforting sleeping bags, zipped both of our tent flies nearly to the top, and then drifted to sleep while bathed in the light of a nearly full moon.
Day 4Mountaineering Skills
A fourth straight day of warm weather and cloudless skies greeted us as we unzipped the fly to our tents vestibule at about 7:30AM. The guides were already up as usual and the MSR stoves roared again as they heated water for hot drinks. Chris had climbed up to Camp Muir to visit with the other guides and raid RMIs, apparently huge, stock of supplies. We again had cold cereal for breakfast but got to supplement it with pop tarts. We werent sure what was on the agenda except that we were supposed to learn or refresh our mountaineering skills. In "Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills" Id read about crevasse rescue and making different types of snow anchors, but I was anxious to get the chance to practice them for real.
After lounging around and in general taking it easy for a couple of hours, Brian started our training off by demonstrating rope anchoring techniques. First was the use of pickets; always use at least two anchor points, make sure the slings are equalized, and use a Girth Hitch that will hold even if one anchor fails. Its disadvantage was that you actually had to carry pickets with you. Brian and the rest of the guides steadfastly recommended against using commercially available snow flukes. The deadman anchor was straightforward and didnt require any
special hardware; a snow shovel or ice ax ads could be used to dig a trough, slanted away from the slope, and almost anything rigid (ski poles, ice ax, pack, or even a body - hence the name) could be used as the anchor. Snow bollards required the most work because they had to be dug into the snow. We tried making two sizes of the upside
down tear shaped bollards with different amounts of rope wrapped around each to demonstrate the safety of each approach. We all sort of winced at the thought of being on the other end as one person was easily able to slice a rope through the small bollard. The larger size bollard held even when Chris, Steve, and I gave it our very best tug-o-war effort. Pleased, Chris announced, "Id rappel from that!" Our guides alternated the training and were very thorough in their instruction.
We again spent some leisure time snacking and enjoying the weather, the scenery, and the mountain. We were all tired and needed the rest. About an hour later we packed our Goretex shells and technical gear and hiked down to Anvil Rock to practice crevasse rescue techniques. Fortunately, Anvil rock was only a few hundred yards from base camp. We picked a practice spot that wasnt really a crevasse, but a moat formed by the edge of the Muir snow field as it shears off to the Cowlitz Glacier about 70 feet below. Chris immediately spotted a tent, partially buried in the snow, at the bottom of the moat. Proclaiming rights to the "booty," the guides set up picket anchors
and Chris promptly rappelled down the cliff to retrieve it. The Sierra Designs tent was battered and unusable but contained a North Face synthetic sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, and a couple of carabiners. Dennis packed the gear in his pack to take down to Paradise tomorrow. Who knows what hapless climbers had returned from a summit climb, on what was undoubtedly a windy day, only to find their tent and only shelter gone?
The guides set up a Z-pulley system and a fixed, seated belay and proceeded to demonstrate rescue techniques first with a loaded backpack thrown over the edge. They also demonstrated the "C" and "modified C" pulley systems, first with pulleys and then with carabiners. We then got to take turns with live loads. Whit was the first to set up his own anchoring system while I was his other belay on the rope and Steve was the load. The first time took a little longer than I would have liked if I were in Steves position in a real crevasse. But practice makes perfect. I was next to set up a pulley system, and I chose the modified C using carabiners instead of pulleys. I showed off a bit by hoisting Whit up the cliff by myself. I was also fortunate because I got to practice every position, including
being the load, or climber, over the cliff. Many, but not all of the climbers, got to practice each position. Wayne went last after quietly watching the others make mistakes setting up their pulley systems and executing rescues. While the rest of us averaged about 10 minutes, he needed a total of only 6 minutes to hoist Sean over the edge using the same modified C approach that I used. Chris announced it was the record for the day.
After crevasse rescue we climbed back up to base camp to rest and eat lunch. Although the guides strongly advised us to refrain from lying down in our tents, lest we fall asleep and waste away the day, most of us were tired and did it anyway. After all, tomorrow was summit day. After an hour and a half nap that hit the spot, they soon had us trudging up Muir Peak not far from camp to practice climbing with fixed ropes. We first practiced ascending and
descending using carabiners and then we switched to using Jumars. Since not all of us brought Jumars or ascenders, we divided what was available, some of us getting right handed types and others getting left handed models. It was tricky getting the hang of using the mechanical Jumars and ascenders, and gloves made it a chore to use carabiners.
Meanwhile, back at base camp, our ever diligent camp cook Dennis was doing his best to keep us from becoming emaciated and had created a hearty "chili-mac" dinner that was nearly ready. Famished again, we made short order of Dennis creation. Although the name sounded like something a college kid on a budget would make, it was quite good. Chris even exclaimed there was, "Nothing better!"
After dinner Chris asked if we had any questions and if there were any topics he had forgotten to cover over the past four days. Whit asked about techniques we could use for determining avalanche conditions, and Wayne asked how the guides had managed to bring along cream cheese and bacon without them spoiling. Chris dug a modified Rutschblock in the snow to illustrate snow layers and conditions, and he explained that the cream cheese wouldnt spoil as long as it hadnt been opened, and that the bacon was cured.
Since it was after 7:00PM and our goal was to begin our summit attempt at midnight, we all scurried off to our tents to, with any luck, get at least a few hours of sleep.
Day 5Rainiers Summit
The guides woke us at 11:15PM, only 3 ½ hours after wed crawled into our sleeping bags. The weather was visibly the same, but it was noticeably colder. An ominous lenticular cloud hung over the eastern end of the summit; we all knew it was a sure indication of windy and cold conditions at higher elevations. Aware of the situation yet not showing concern, Chris nonchalantly observed, "It comes and goes." As we put on our base layer of long underwear and shorts, and then our parkas to keep warm before we would start climbing, Dennis and Brian heated water so that we could make instant oatmeal and hot chocolate and hot cider to warm up. They insisted we eat a hearty breakfast and provided extra food including Nutri-Grain bars. Chris wanted to get an early start to beat the two-day seminar climbers starting from Camp Muir. But we were slow, and Chris chastised us several times in his usual way exclaiming, "Efficiency is speed."
We left Camp Condom at 12:45AM, 45 minutes later than planned. By 1:00AM we were at Camp Muir (elevation 10,188 feet) and greeted the other climbers standing outside the RMI hut getting ready for their summit attempt. We stopped only briefly while our guides exchanged greetings with the other guides there (an RMI ritual). The moon was nearly full and the sky was clear except for the lenticular cloud so we conserved our headlamp batteries all the way to Cathedral Gap. It was kind of eerie climbing without our headlamps to light the way, but it was plenty bright without them. Once we reached the rocks of Cathedral Gap, I didnt feel sure-footed enough without my headlamp so I switched it on. The wind picked up through the gap, but it wasnt too bad. I felt comfortable climbing and felt strong, pressure breathing about every ten steps and rest stepping as much as climbing among rocks would allow.
Normal climbing time from Camp Muir to Ingraham Flats, where we took our first break, is one hour. Chris was pleased with us because we made it in 55 minutes. We spent about 15 minutes resting, eating, and drinking water. I spent much of the break redoing my crampons. Just past the gap, the crampons on my right boot came loose. Rather than stop, I took them off and continued along the snow with only one set of crampons until I could fix them during the break.
After about 15 minutes we hastily repacked our gear and continued climbing. Last year we took the Ingraham Headwall Variation which leads directly up to the summit on snow and glacier between Cadaver Gap and Disappointment Cleaver. It avoids the rocks of Disappointment Cleaver, but it was not climbable this year because temperatures had been unseasonably warm and the snowfall last winter was only "average" at 600 or so inches. Many crevasses were exposed. So we headed across the cleaver where we encountered some very steep sections that traversed across long stretches of dark volcanic rock. The skies were still dark while we ascended the first fixed rope. We used a carabiner tied into our seat harness with 6mm Perlon rope, unclipping and reclipping them to the fixed rope before and after each anchor. Our route on the Cleaver continued for several hundred yards with no opportunity to safely stop or rest. Every few seconds the faint call of, "Anchor!" could be heard as yet another of us stooped and fumbled with his caribiner while attempting to unclip and clip into the fixed rope. Despite practicing fixed rope travel the day before on Muir Peak, few of us had mastered the technique. Wearing gloves compounded our awkwardness. We continued until we reached our high, and as it turned out, penultimate break at around 13,000 feet. Throughout the climb to this point several storms had been brewing to the south and east illuminating the distant skies with frequent lightning flashes. Our guides had kept a watchful eye on them as well, and we all had an eerie feeling that they were slowly creeping our way. Soon after leaving high break it became obvious that one of the storms was moving much faster our way than we had thought and that it would hit the upper slopes of Rainier before we summited.
Soon after we left high break the storm hit with a fury of high winds, blowing snow and plummeting temperatures. We persevered, perfunctorily putting one foot in front of the other, until we reached a safe area that wasnt too steep and stopped to put on our Gortex shells, both top and bottom. Small crevasses were ominously visible all around us. Another climbing party had stopped just ahead of us and the four or five of them seemed to be sitting in the snow or standing around doing nothing. Obviously not as experienced as we were, they seemed confused and unsure if they should continue. Chris generously told them they could follow us to the summit, but they declined and began their descent. Our stop there was cold, windy and unpleasant; our water bottles began to freeze and my Rice Crispy bars became hard to chew. Someone asked if we were going to continue and, in his usual confident manner, Chris responded, "Its nothing we cant handle." I wondered to myself if the stamina and dedication we showed previously this week climbing Little Tahoma had anything to do with Chris decision to continue. Maybe he was "rewarding" us for our efforts by continuing to the summit.
I remember a disappointing sense of déjà vu, recalling our climb in 1997 when the weather was even more egregious. It was not something I had wanted to repeat this time, especially after climbing in beautiful weather all week, but the Mountain had dealt her hand and we had little to do but stoically endure it. We didnt spend much time dressing and quickly packed our gear to leave. Chris was a little over-anxious to keep moving and inadvertently forced the last member of our rope team to get up before he was ready. He had trouble with his pack so we had to wait a few minutes while he fixed the problem. Meanwhile, somewhere beyond the stinging snow and gray skies was a beautiful sunrise; Chris was robbed again of his desire to watch it from the summit, something he had never done in his previous 64 summits of Rainier.
After only a few hundred yards I saw just ahead the familiar rocks of the crater rim. It was at this very point last year when I realized that the summit was at hand, and that I was actually going to succeed in climbing this mountain, that I was overcome by an overwhelming and almost body numbing sense of accomplishment. Inexplicably, this time was different. There were no subtle tears of joy to fight back nor was there any overwhelming sense of anything. Perhaps its true that we always remember our firsts most fondly. Perhaps it was too easy this time. We had trained much more (and much more intensely) than last year and, with due respect to the Mountain and those whove climbed before us, it was little more than a walk-up. Last years summit was a hard fought conquest that defeated half of our novice group and demanded respect from those of us who made it to the top. Last year we watched our guides at every rest stop draw into tight huddles to discuss our options and the possibility of turning back. Last year at every rest stop they demanded from us, "Are you 100%?" Last year we watched over and over as any response other than, "100%!" got the climber sent back to Camp Muir. Indeed, it was different this time. This year Chris, Brian, and Dennis and a very well-trained and tested team of climbers matter-of-factly marched to the top.
Our rope team was the first to go over the rim, and as with last year Wayne was the first non-guide on the top. He didnt say anything about it, but I think he was especially pleased about that. About one hundred feet into the crater we ditched our packs and unroped for the first time since base camp. It seemed even colder in the crater, and the wind was blowing stinging snow that hurt my eyes and fogged my glacier glasses (I knew I should have packed goggles). In spite of the weather the true summit, Columbia Crest, was visible on the opposite side of the crater. This was the first time Id been able to see the entire crater. It was much flatter than Id expected.
After the rest of the group arrived we exchanged congratulatory hand shakes with the guides and each other and took obligatory summit photos. Someone asked if we could cross over the crater and ascend Columbia Crest. Although he was at first hesitant, Chris finally said simply, "All right" and then quickly headed across the crater floor following the faint, windblown trail left by previous climbers. About two-thirds of our group, including my
brother and me, did our best to keep up. In 1997 Wayne and I were denied the crest because of near zero visibility and 30 to 40 mph winds. We were not going to be denied again. Unfortunately, we were slower than the others because I was not feeling 100 percent, perhaps because of the altitude. I had been pressure breathing about every third step on the last part of the climb, but it didnt seem to matter. I silently cursed living in St Louis at only 400 ft above sea level. The wind was picking up and visibility was rapidly dropping by the time we got three-fourths of the way across. The others were already starting up the rim. Because of this and the way I felt, I told Wayne I wanted to return and wait for the others. He hesitantly agreed and we ruefully headed back and rested. Rainier had won again. She had flexed her might and shown us a taste of her immutable fury. While I could have sucked it up and forced myself to trudge on to Columbia Crest, it seemed she was telling us that this was a place we werent supposed to go.
Apparently, the other climbers shouldnt have gone as well. After they returned from Columbia Crest they disappointedly told us they couldnt see anything since visibility was down to about 50 feet. Furthermore, it was so windy on the top that they had to hang onto each other to keep from being blown off the summit. Had the
Mountain chastened them as well? After listening to them I didnt feel so bad. Chris let everyone rest a little before our team roped up and started down, with Chris in the lead. All I wanted to do was get out of this bad weather as fast as possible.
We descended rapidly, circumspectly watching every step and trying to maintain good rope techniques. Nevertheless, there were a few heated exchanges as some climbers allowed too much slack in the rope to nearly entangle the climbers feet in front of them. If civility and compromise hadnt won out we could have experienced some nasty falls. The fixed ropes on the steep sections presented some difficulty for me because I had my overmitts on over fleece gloves and couldnt rapidly unclip and reclip my carabiner at each anchor. Despite a rapid pace, it took us perhaps an hour to drop below the clouds that had enveloped the summit. With the sun peaking at us from behind the clouds it didnt take long to become swelteringly hot wearing our Goretex shells. I think I was not alone wondering if we were ever going to take a break so we could shed some clothes. At the high break we finally stopped and rested and put our warm clothes in our packs. From our high vantage point the weather appeared clear all the way back to base camp. We couldnt see any other climbers on the mountain, and none had passed us on their way up. As we suspected, we would later confirm that our group was the only one to make the summit that day. Those wed passed at Camp Muir made it only to the top of Cathedral Gap only to be forced back by lightning strikes all around them. Others apparently hadnt liked the looks of the lenticular cloud and didnt even start.
On the way down Disappointment Cleaver Chris pointed out the steep chute where the avalanche had occurred last June killing one climber and injuring several others. He told us that a snow slab near the top of the chute broke loose above a rope team below. The three middle members of the rope team were swept over the cliff at the bottom of the chute, but two guides became entangled in rocks that prevented them all from falling over. It was only because of another pair of guides, installing fixed rope farther up on the mountain, that the fallen climbers had any chance at all. Although rescue efforts lasted until dusk, they were all rescued. The man who died was the middle man on the rope and had spent hours dangling in mid-air with glacier melt water pouring over him. He eventually succumbed to hypothermia on the trip down to Paradise. We paused for a few moments, in reverent silence to honor those climbers, after Chris explained what happened. Instead of crossing the chute by following several established switch backs, we descended mostly on rock on the west side, staying off the snow as much as possible. Although much of the snow present in June had since melted, I guess RMIs policy is to play it safe.
Further down the mountain, near the top of the Ingraham Flats Glacier, Chris let us stop while I took a photograph of a crevasse bridge. The rickety looking thing consisted of an aluminum ladder, approximately eight feet long,
with 2x8 boards strapped lengthwise across it. It spanned about six feet and was a little unnerving to cross. I dont know how deep the crevasse was since I didnt take the time to look down.
We soon caught sight of another expedition group camping on the flats and took a break close to their camp. The guides were the only ones to visit the other expedition. They exchanged our experiences for the week while we snacked and drank water and I took rope team photos. From our vantage point we had an expansive view of Little Tahoma, our second summit of the week. From Rainier, the peak looked extremely steep and jagged, almost impossible to climb. Our ascent was from the backside, however, and was not nearly as steep. Chris later
indicated that climbers have ascended the west face we were viewing. He also pointed out two hollow smoke-stack features stretching vertically most of the way up the west face. These were vents of the original volcano before it blew its top thousands of years ago.
We reached Camp Muir by 9:45AM and Camp Condom 15 minutes later. The guides had some things to do at Camp Muir so the rest of us headed back without them. Once back at camp we immediately began tearing down our tents and packing up our gear. Again we distributed the tents, cooking supplies, and everything else among each of us. Our packs were once again loaded and heavy. It was partly cloudy and warm at Camp Condom, a nice change from the cold summit.
On the way down the Muir Snow Field some of our group lagged behind. Maybe they were tired or simply wanted to enjoy a leisurely pace and the scenery. At a couple of the steeper hills, we took turns boot glissading down the snow. Even with Chris tempting each of us to, "Show us what youve got," nobody took a face-first dive into the snow. We reached the Paradise parking lot at 1:30PM. It was good to be on flat, dry ground again. We gathered around the cars, unpacked our things, changed clothes, and sorted out the gear. Those of us who rented gear returned it at RMIs guide shack. Everyone agreed to meet at the Paradise Inn bar, The Glacier Room, to celebrate and to receive our certificates of completion. We enjoyed a few beers and eventually parted company.
Over a period of four and a half days we climbed a total of over 36,000 vertical feet and traveled over 36 miles. In our ascent of Little Tahoma we climbed 14,576 of the vertical feet and traveled over 21 of those miles in a continuous trek lasting almost 17 hours. While this wasnt a typical expedition, it was more demanding in some ways than Wayne and I had expected. For Wayne, climbing Little Tahoma was far more difficult than climbing Rainier. Descending Little Tahoma to the Wonderland trail head was torture. You likely wont climb another peak in the contiguous 48 states that ascends, from trail head to summit, more than 7,288 feet in over 11 miles. By comparison, one of the lowest trail heads of all of the Colorado fourteeners is Blanca at about 8,000 feet. From there its a mere 6,345 feet and 7.3 miles to its summit. The summit of Mt. Rainier from Camp Muir is only 4,410 feet over 4 miles.
This expedition challenged me both physically and mentally. I was in extremely good physical condition, and had hoped the week would be "effortless" physically, but of course it wasnt. This years Rainier climb was much easier than last year. Climbing Little Tahoma was probably physically more difficult than Rainier, simply because it was done in a single long day. Several people asked me after I returned home if I had fun. I had to think about the question a minute because I cant really say that it was all fun. Much of it was plain hard work. Ultimately the answer I gave them was that it was tremendously satisfying. I accomplished my goals, and then some, after months of training and conditioning and also got to know some really interesting guys along the way. My only regret is that I didnt unwind from my regular hectic schedule like I had hoped. The week went by too fast. We were almost always doing something and it prevented me from just relaxing and contemplating. Do I feel confident that my brother and I now have enough experience to safely climb Pico and Ixta, and maybe a few other glaciated peaks, without guides? You bet! See you there.
Lastly, for those of you planning a Rainier expedition, wed like to make some recommendations that might make your adventure a little more pleasant. Were not experts by any means, but weve spent a total of 7 ½ days on Rainier and learned a lot from professional guides.
After youve followed RMIs recommendations and packed 7 to 8 pounds of food, go back to the supermarket and buy 8 more pounds. Only a last minute decision by Mike to pack 8 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and the stop at Packwood, kept us from being very hungry. Recommendations to bring along food that you normally eat and that you really like is 100% sound advice. Dont rely on buying food at Paradise because other than a small sample of energy type bars you wont find much there thats suitable for climbing. Definitely avoid the trail lunches you can buy at Paradise Inn. Instead, bring food with you from home or stop by a supermarket at one of the towns along the way. Pizza, peanut butter and jelly, cheese, GORP, dry cereal, chicken, cured meats, and canned meats and fish are all good choices. We found that candy bars and energy type bars got old after a few days - too much of anything gets boring. Pack a wide variety of foods.
We didnt use some of the mandatory clothing items that RMI required. Unless youre climbing early in the season (April through early June), you probably wont either. Heres a list of what we didnt need and didnt pack up to Camp Condom:
Second fleece top
Second pair of gloves
Second pair of mitts
We also needed only one locking carabiner and one non-locking type.
Of all of the optional gear, we highly recommend you bring synthetic type hiking shorts, synthetic T-shirt, sun hat or baseball hat, ski goggles and ear plugs. We wish we had brought ski goggles, and we used each of the other optional items and consider them to be essential. Finally, if you forget your camera, pen and pad then you wont be able to take notes and photos that will help you develop a WEB site like this.