Mount Rainier

October 14/15 2000

random trip report

'Mt. Rainier is considered to be the toughest endurance climb in the lower 48 states. The two-day climb is eighteen miles round trip, with an elevation gain and loss of 18,000 vertical feet.' -- from the RMI informational brochure

'Some days, the mountain talks to me. Today, the mountain screamed.' -- Mike, Rainier guide, 10/15/2000

SYNOPSIS: I attempt to climb Mt. Rainier as part of a guided group. We're turned around by avalanche conditions (to be precise: an avalanche) at 11,500', 3,000' feet short of the summit.


About a month ago I decided to try climbing Mt. Rainier. Why?

  • Rainier is beautiful. I've always loved it.
  • Rainier represents the most advanced type of mountaineering to which I aspire. No Denali, no Everest for me.
  • I'm about to turn 45, aches and pains are accumulating, and there's a 'now or never' feeling.
  • I felt physically very good after climbing Mt. Conness recently.
  • A Mt. Shasta climb was cancelled by weather last month.

Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI) has the guide concession on Rainier.

RMI is run by, among others, Lou and Jim Whittaker and Eric Simonson - climbing legends.

I contacted RMI and signed up for a slot in the October 14/15 climb - the last of the year. There's a mandatory one-day training class on the 13th (a Friday - gulp!).
The climb plus class costs $588 - quite reasonable in my opinion.

The climb leaves from Paradise Lodge, at 5,400' on the south slope of Rainier. The first day you climb to Camp Muir, a group of wood and stone huts in a protected saddle at 10,070'. On the second day (which begins at 2 AM or so) you climb to the summit (14,410'), then descend to Camp Muir, then back to Paradise (right, that's a 9,000' descent).

Preparation and trip

Use of present tense begins here.

I don't do anything to prepare for the climb. This is due not to cockiness but to lack of time and a feeling that training does me more harm than good these days.

On Wednesday - one day before departing for Seattle - I seem to be coming down with the flu. Weak and feverish (but with no actual fever). This is the worst possible thing. I buy some Chinese herbal pills - Ying Chiao - billed as early-stage cold remedies, take them every few hours, and (except for some last-minute shopping at Marmot and REI) stay home and relax. The pills work, I think - on Thursday at least I'm not worse.

I pack up my gear and fly to Seattle. We fly past Rainier around sunset; its upper half floats above the cloud layer. I rent an SUV and drive 2 hours to the Whittaker Bunkhouse (run by RMI), a climber-oriented motel/cafe in Ashford, a one-horse town just outside the park. At the Bunkhouse I switch my reservation from the bunk room to a private room; I need rest. I take half an Ambien and sleep.

Bunks are $25/night; private rooms, $65.

Climbing school

On Friday morning I get up early, feeling more or less OK, pack my gear and drive to Paradise at 9 AM.

Climbing school has 6 other students and 3 instructors. Class begins with a fast one-hour hike to the base of the Muir snowfield. This is a weed-out procedure: if you can't keep up the pace, you're not in shape to do the climb. Everyone passes. I feel fine; years of running have given me heart and lungs that let me do this sort of thing in my sleep.

The teacher is Brent, half Japanese, a bit pedantic but an excellent teacher. Assisting are Phil (a big rough-hewn local guy) and Dave Manning.

Nisqually glacier, a bit ragged and dirty at the end of the summer

We go out on a snow slope with boots and ice axe and do basic stuff: axe grip, securing the ice axe, basic self-arrest, self-arrest from awkward starting positions (e.g. on back, head downhill). I win a booby prize by getting caught with my ice axe in the downhill hand. Uphill walking: step kicking, duck walk, crossover, rest step. Downhill walking: heel step. Then we put on crampons and cover the analogous techniques. Finally we rope up (teams of four, tied in at the waist to a 50-meter rope), and cover protocol, switching back (stepping over the rope), crossing an anchor, and the importance of not stepping on the rope with crampons.
More material from the class is here.

The class also covers the mental and group-function aspects of climbing. It's your responsibility to remain as strong as possible so that you will be an asset to the team, not a liability. This type of climbing is a group activity; the group can save your life.

A light rain begins when we reach the snow, and gradually gets heavier. By the end of class I'm soaked through, especially my gloves.

I return to the bunkhouse around 4 PM. I hang my wet stuff by the heater, hoping that it will dry by tomorrow (it more or less does)

To my dismay, I'm pretty much wiped out, and the flu/fever feeling has returned. My shins hurt, presumably from the downhill walk. I lie down for an hour; when I rise my shin muscles cramp. I visit RMI's 'Summit Haus' next door, and buy a balaclava. I drive to the general store, buy some extra food to augment my collection of 10 Clif bars and 6 Food Goo packets, and have dinner for one at the Highlander, which is packed with boisterous locals. Back in my room I gulp Ying Chiao pills, hoping that my body can simultaneously fight off the virus, repair the day's wear and tear, and digest/store energy. I'm extremely apprehensive about tomorrow's climb. I have a short phone call with Lynne, not wanting to stand for too long in the cold at the phone booth.

The first day

Saturday dawns. Except for stiff shins I feel OK. We meet the lead guide, Mike, an energetic and charismatic young man. The other guides are Phil and Dave from the climbing school, and Kent, a Berklee grad who lives in Boulder.

All the guides say 'right on' (with an intonation that starts high, falls, then rises slighly) with alarming frequency.

There are 9 clients, the group from yesterday plus some additions. Tim is a programmer and 5.9 rock climber from Chicago; I click with him. Jennifer is a 20-something San Diego, compulsive schmoozer; she asks everyone in the group at least 3 banal questions. Todd is short and pleasantly offbeat. Tony from Atlanta is tall and pink. John and Bill are friends from somewhere. Sean is a network admin from Seattle. Ben is tall, bald, and outdoorsy. Most of them are mid-30 to mid-40's. Not all of them look athletic, but they all prove to be impressive climbers.

Throughout the trip there's not much talking among clients (except for Jennifer's chit-chat). The focus is internal, either on pragmatics or on motivation/anxiety stuff. Also, the guides remain distant from the clients; they deflect personal questions.

We start for Camp Muir, this time with heavier packs and ski poles, and at a slower pace. It's overcast and cool, but no rain. When we reach the snow (about halfway up the 4,500' vertical rise) the pace slows considerably and we do rest-step and step-kicking. The goal is to reach Camp Muir as fresh as possible.

The previous day's summit climb group passes us going down. They didn't summit, due to avalanche conditions. Mike assures us that conditions can change fast; we may be able to summit.

We rise above the cloud layer. The trudge up the Muir snowfield is quite pleasant: bright sun but cool, little wind, and Mt. Rainier in its full glory spread out in front of us. I enter a trance-like state. The pace is so slow that I'm just breathing normally.

We reach camp Muir and stake out bunks. The hut seems crowded even with seven; normally it sleeps 24. The guides bring pots of boiling water for drinks and freeze-dried dinners. They demo the harnesses and helmets, which are stored at the hut.

Me at Camp Muir, looking over the Cowlitz glacier

Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood viewed from Camp Muir

Most of the talk among the clients concerns the pit toilets. Jennifer thinks they smell too bad to use (I've smelled much worse).

Bedtime is 6 PM. I stack up 4 foam sleeping pads but it still feels like jute mat over concrete. I spend the night sleeplessly, tossing and turning; any given position is bearable only for about 5 minutes. At least I'm warm enough.

The second day

I welcome the 2 AM wake-up call; let's get this show on the road! There's about an hour of eating and equipment-shuffling, and another 30 minutes forming the rope teams and putting on crampons. The guides attach an avalanche radio beacon to each client. These are not discussed; I guess they don't want to worry us. I take a caffeine pill.

It takes lots of time and energy for me to put on my strap-on crampons. Clip-on crampons would be preferable here.

There are three rope teams, each with a guide followed by 3 clients. I'm in the first team, led by Mike; I'm last on the rope. We set off across the Cowlitz glacier. It's clear and cool (around freezing) and there's a nearly full moon. The snow glows a faint irridescent blue. The whole scenario - giant heavily-crevassed glacier, thousand-foot black rock walls looming overhead, moon and stars, climbers with glowing headlamps inching along - is like a beautiful dream. I experience a surge of joy. I also concentrate on my balance, and on the footsteps in front of me; the route snakes between deep crevasses.

Cowlitz glacier. Our route took us past the crevasses to 'Cathedral Gap', the notch on the far side. Total distance about a mile.

We cross the Cowlitz and start up the ridge. The intensity increases abruptly. I have to really concentrate on my breathing. We switchback up a steep slope, mostly volcanic ash and rock, traverse out onto the Ingraham Flats on the flanks of Ingraham glacier, and take our first break, at about the 75 minute mark.

I take off my pack, which contains the last 40' or so of the rope, coiled. I put it down on the wrong side of me, so the rope crosses under my feet. As I step over the rope a crampon point catches on my pack. I try to undo it, balancing on one foot, then lose my balance and fall over into the snow. Mike notices; I recover quickly but am flustered; am I becoming a liability to the team? I forget to replace the batteries in my headlamp, and I replace my outer gloves before zipping up my parka; instead of getting my hands cold again I just clasp the parka across my chest, which is not quite adequate - it's cold now (around 20 degrees F) and windy.

The other rope teams arrive. I'm cold and eager to resume climbing. Mike previews the next leg, which will be long (2 hours) and hard, and will feature the main 'objective hazards', i.e. rock and ice fall. We will cross these traverses 'smoothly', which I assume means fast and super-alert.

We set out, at first directly up the Ingraham glacier. I turn off my headlight, which seems to be getting dim, to save batteries; the moonlight is bright enough to climb by.

We traverse across a region called the 'Ingraham icefall'. At the far side is Disappointment Cleaver, a rib of crumbling rock. We cross the icefall region; Mike has just reached the rocks, and I am a rope length (about 100') away.

Suddenly I hear a roaring sound and look up. Several hundred feet above and behind me is a big billowing cloud of snow - an avalanche. I shout 'ICE!!'. I'm not in the path of the avalanche, but will it hit the rope team behind us? Mike shouts 'move quickly towards me, but don't run'. I do just that, and reach the rocks in a few seconds. We're in a dangerous place, right under a big cliff noted for rockfall. We don't turn around to watch the avalanche. We traverse quickly across about 100' of extremely steep rocky slope, and stop at a safer place.

Mike contacts the other rope team leaders by radio. Good news: the middle rope team hadn't reached the ice fall area yet, i.e. the ice fall went between the 1st and 2nd teams. Mike decides to turn us around. Deep down I am happy to hear this, not because of avalanche fear, but because I'm getting tired.

First we have to re-cross the icefall area; a second avalanche is a distinct possibility. We cross without incident, although I do hear some ominous rustling sounds, far uphill, at the end. A collection of ice boulders, some of them a few feet in diameter, litters the uphill slope; they weren't there before. It looks like the avalanche barely reached the level of our path. Our tracks are still there - the avalanche was mostly ice, not much snow.

We convene the whole group on the Ingraham Flats. Mike and the other guides try to ease clients' disappointment at turning around. Actually, I don't think any of the clients ARE disappointed; Tim says 'This has been a fantastic experience for me, whether or not we reach the summit' and I think he speaks for the group.

Mike talks about his job as guide: reading and interpreting the subtle conditions of weather and snow, assessing the risks, and making decisions that are literally life-or-death (and that, on the flip side, can give life or death to the dreams of clients, some of whom have prepared for a year).

Mike says: 'Some days, the mountain talks to me. Today, the mountain SCREAMED.' His analysis: an avalanche has occurred at the coldest time of day. The danger will increase once the sun comes up; the worst areas are still ahead of us; and we would have to cross them twice. Apparently yesterday's good weather softened the snow that fell three days ago. It adds up to a no-brainer to turn around.

The avalanche occurred at about 5:30 AM. We were at 11,500' at the time - one third up the mountain from Muir.

The guides talk a little about the 1998 accident, on an RMI-guided climb, in which an avalanche swept a rope team over a cliff. The rope was anchored, and the climbers dangled from their harnesses. The conditions - melting snow and steepness - made the rescue extremely difficult. The climbers were rescued after several hours. The last climber on the rope, unfortunately, was suspended in the path of a rivulet of icy water, and died of hypothermia.

We start down. The eastern sky is getting light; I don't have to worry about my headlamp. Going downhill, I have to work hard to keep up the pace. It makes it hard to concentrate on foot placement and balance. Sure enough, on the rocky slope above Cowlitz, I catch a crampon on something and pitch forward, landing on both knees on rocks. No injury, but holes in my fleece pants and two scrapes with slight blood. I feel embarrassed - I am now a definite liability.

The sun is coming up when get back to Camp Muir around 7:00 AM. We pack up, then sit around for a long time - the guides have to close up camp for the season, nail plywood over windows etc.

We put on crampons for the hike down and set out around 9 AM. Immediately I have problems - I'm paranoid about tripping and falling again, my back is starting to hurt, and my knees feel tired and shaky. I start falling behind the group. Even hurrying, I lose ground; there's something about walking downhill that is awkward and difficult for me. Todd is also a bit slow - his toes are hurting. A guide (Kent) brings up the rear with us.

We catch up with the group resting at the bottom of the snow field, about halfway down the 4500' descent. We take off crampons, and now with some effort I can keep up. I use the ski poles to absorb shock with each step; basically I am walking on crutches. It's a major arm/hand workout.

Tim and I stop to take pictures and end up, together with Mike, bringing up the rear. We're able to relax and chat; Tim and I talk about Jennifer and the personalities of the group, Mike talks about his upcoming trip to Ecuador to guide some climbs on Chimborazo, Cotopaxi and Tungarahua; he's familiar with Banos, my favorite town there.

We reach the bottom. There are some quick congratulations and farewells, but the group evaporates; no bonds have formed. I find myself a little subdued as I toss everything in my rented car and start the drive back to SeaTac airport. Culture shock sets in as I reach the infestation of strip malls around Puyallup.

Summary and post-mortem

Injury report: very sore back. Very sore right big toe. Large blister on left big toe. Soreness in all leg muscles, especially shins. Scabs on knees.

I blame the blister on the socks I wore from Muir on down: the green 'Miracle Socks', so named because I wore them for 5 consecutive days on the Otter Trail and they didn't smell bad - Mark Daly and Dawn Hawk can testify to this.

If there had been no avalanche danger, and our climb had not been turned around, I probably would have made it to the summit OK. However, I think I would have had problems on the roped 4,500' descent to Camp Muir; I would have slowed down the team. And I would have had MAJOR problems after that.

The big question: will I return and try again? I doubt it. I got a full dose of technical climbing. I'm not sure if my body will ever be up to walking down 9,000' in one day. Maybe if I could ski down from Camp Muir.

Having said this, I confess to some bittersweet feelings when, from my car, I looked back towards Rainier and saw it looming, visible with crystal clarity from bottom to top - a rarity in the foggy Northwest.

Mt. Rainier in my rear-view mirror

I felt like it was teasing and taunting me, having led me on, extracted my full measure, and then capriciously turned me away. Any future glimpse of Rainier will evoke deep, strong memories and unsettled feelings.

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