Sat, Jun 16, 2001
On the drive back from a rather enjoyable solo ascent of Mt. Shasta earlier in May, I was so excited by my recent success that I decided I would make plans to return to Mt. Rainier. My first goal would be to find others willing to join me, as this is not a mountain that one can easily just go it alone (solo climbs require written permission from the Rainier rangers, not easily obtainable). I first turned to Michael, who had done the most climbing with me in the last few years. Asking me if I'd been trained in crevasse rescue (to which he fully knew the answer) and receiving a sheepish, "No," he politely declined, deciding the risk was too high. Another climbing friend, Mark who joined me for climbs of Clarence King and North Pal the previous summer, was to be in Alaska the same weekend, and unable to join me. I posted a notice on the Yahoo board, but got no positive responses. In a conversation with my younger brother Tom, I was surprised to find that he would indeed be interested in joining me. Tom is not a regular climber, but he has joined me for some notable epics on Mt. Laurel and Half Dome, and so at least understands the level of commitment such a venture entails. A few days later Tom asked if his friend Jeff could join us. Not having climbed with him previously, I was wary that he might not be up for such a demanding peak. To make matters worse, Jeff had never even been backpacking before. Tom assured me that Jeff was capable of suffering a good deal and would push himself quite hard. I decided that three on a rope was safer than two, and so started them on a crash-course training regimen. Actually I just told them to carry heavy weights uphill a lot. They came up with the regimen for the three weeks prior to our departure.
Carrying 50-70 lbs packs up Mission Peak and Mt. Diablo in the east hills of the SF Bay area, they had a good introduction to sore shoulders, blisters, and the fun of carrying heavy packs for many hours. A week and a half before departure my older brother Ron decided to join in the fun. While Ron is also not a regular climber, I had a great deal of faith in his abilities and level of endurance. Ron had been on the same epic Half Dome with Tom and I previously, and had performed better than the rest. He had also been with me on a 22 mile North Dome epic in Yosemite where he was among the five (of fourteen) survivors (non-survivors either turned back at Yosemite Falls or walked out to Tioga road after reaching North Dome). Ron enjoys "a good workout," particularly if it involves something new or unusual.
None of the three had ever used crampons or axes before, so I spent a great deal of time in preparation: photocopying chapters on Glacier Travel and Crevasse Rescue, preparing maps, gear lists, and countless emails back and forth providing advice on boots, clothing and all manner of gear. Not having been on Rainier's upper slopes before, and never having done roped glacier travel, I read up all I could, practiced pulley setups at home, and prepared to teach the others classes on knots, axe use, rope travel, and crevasse rescue. I spent hundreds of dollars on gear, buying pickets, flukes, ice screws, a 9mm rope, accessory cord, pulleys, harnesses, belay devices, locking carabiners, books, etc., and numerous hours sorting and organizing it all. I joined the Yahoo! Rainier Club to get all the beta I could on the DC (Disappointment Cleaver) route, purportedly the easiest on the mountain.
We planned to fly out of San Jose on Thursday evening, climb on Friday and Saturday, and return Sunday morning. There was no room for bad weather. If the weather was bad for a Saturday morning ascent, we would have to go down. In the week before our climb, it looked like the weather might be rather uncooperative. They had had an unusual late season storm that dropped five inches of snow on Tuesday (20" total on the upper mountain over several days). Chains were required with snow levels down to 3,500 feet. When I called the park on Wednesday the precipitation had stopped, but the forecast called for light showers on Thursday and Friday mornings. Partly Sunny predicted for Saturday and Sunday, then chance of rain again on Monday. Not the best forecast I could have hoped for.
On Monday I received an email from Mark D. from the Yahoo clubs. In a very long, but well-considered letter, he was asking if he could join us in Rainier on short notice. I had not climbed with Mark previously, but from his trip reports I could surmise that he had a good deal of stamina and would likely do quite well. He was planning a driving circuit of the Northwest peaks over ten thousand feet, and Rainier was the one peak he could not climb solo. I told him that we'd love to have him join us, and gave him the choice of meeting us at the Paradise Ranger Station, or on the mountain at Camp Muir. With a fifth member, we could travel on two ropes instead of one, which would give us more options should we need to perform a crevasse rescue, or if we needed to make a partial retreat on summit day.
We all gathered at my home (except Mark) before heading out. My in-laws prepared a last supper of spaghetti for the four of us, and then we headed to SJ airport. I had planned to conduct the initial class instruction on the plane, but we were too late to get seats together and were split up on the flight. Tom and Jeff had their heads buried in their photocopied reading material nearly the entire flight, and several of their seatmates found it almost humorous that they were studying so intently, with so little prior knowledge, for such a demanding summit. On our way across the Oregon-Washington border we had wonderful views of first Mt. Hood, then Mt. Adams, and shortly before landing, Mt. Rainier. It sits as an enormous monolith rising from the lowlands to what seem likes a tremendous height. It commands one's attention in an area encompassing 40,000 square miles. From its flanks stream glaciers from the crater rim down to below the cloud layers that encircle up to around 6,000 feet. We saw nothing of the land below, just the cloud layer and the few peaks that rise above it. From the air, Mt. Rainier looks impossibly high.
We landed in Seattle shortly before 10p, got our bags and rental SUV, and set off for what was supposed to be a straightforward 2 hr drive to the mountain. With Ron driving, and myself navigating, we got lost not 15 minutes out of the airport. Ron took a call on his cell phone while I fumbled with the map, and the combination of distraction and incompetence had us off the freeway and driving some backwater roads trying to find our lost route 161. We eventually found it after about 20 minutes, but once on it and heading in a southerly direction, we couldn't maintain our course and somehow ended up on route 512 heading west into Tacoma. I was stripped of my navigator position despite the fact that no one could explain how we managed to wind up in Tacoma (I think there began to grow creeping doubts of my navigation skill on the mountain). From the backseat Tom took over navigation duties while Jeff used his GPS to ensure that we were not driving to Oregon, Canada, or the Pacific Ocean. Tom declared that the Budget Rental map and the map from the Rainier book were mutually incompatible, and struggled a bit to make sense of the Washington highway system. It is not a simple route from the airport to the park. We backpeddled on route 512, turned off on route 7, and headed south. From here we found it was easy enough to find our way by simply following the Rainier-this-way signs. Tom and Jeff both fell asleep somewhere on route 7, while we drove on to the park.
At the entrance there was no one at the booth, but a car in front of us was struggling with the self-pay machine. We watched the driver insert and re-insert his bill, each time the machine rejecting it indifferently. Ron backed up the car and drove in through the exit as we watched the other driver continue to struggle with the machine. I wondered if he would go on indefinitely, try another bill, or simply exit the park if he couldn't get it to work. Maybe this was a method the Park Service employs to reduce the number of visitors to the park. We were glad they didn't have metal spikes on the exit side of the road.
We drove up towards Paradise, stopping at Cougar Rock which I had remembered was the last campground before Paradise. On a Thursday night there were few visitors, and we easily found open campsites even though over half the campground was closed off. It was fully overcast, but no precipitation. As it was already 1a, no one wanted to set up a tent, but none of us wanted to be awakened by rain falling on our face, either. We took our chances and simply used the tent and rainfly for ground cover and threw our pads and bags on top. I judged that if it started to rain I could get up and into the car with all my stuff before the others. They probably felt likewise. There was no way there'd be room for all of us in the car under such circumstances...
My alarm went off at 5a. Four hours sleep. This wasn't as early as it might seem, as the sun rises at 5:15a in these parts, so close to the summer solstice. It gets light out around 4a and doesn't get dark until after 10p. That doesn't leave much actual darkness for sleeping. I got up and packed my stuff, waking the others in the process. We had no permit to climb the mountain, and no reservation at the high camp we planned to stay on Friday night. From the message boards I had gathered that it could be a dicey situation to get a permit at the last minute, others having opted for advanced reservations. I had no idea what sort of demand there'd be to climb Rainier via Camp Muir. It hadn't been hard at all nine years earlier, but I didn't know if it had become a much more popular venture in the interim. So we planned to get to the Ranger Station by 6a and wait in line, hoping to be among the lucky few to get a permit.
As we drove into Paradise shortly after 5:30a, we found the Visitor Center completely dead. Heading up to the main parking lot, we found the Ranger Station and parked nearby. Nobody in sight. A sign on the door indicated it opened at 6a. Things were looking good. We pulled out all our stuff and began the task of packing all the gear in our backpacks. I distributed group gear and individual climbing gear from my large duffle bag. Tom and Jeff had together brought more food than the four of us combined could consume. That was a good thing, as it meant we'd hardly worry about food, and someone else was going to carry the bulk of it. My pack without the group gear was probably the lightest, but after loading the rope and large tent it brought my pack's weight up to the others at close to 45 lbs. 7a came and went, no ranger showed up. Three other groups mulled around the entrance as well, reading and re-reading the posted notices, wondering if we were misunderstanding. Outside were maps and information on the mountain and our route. I found a more accurate set of coordinates that I entered into my GPS (with two GPS's in our group, it seemed it would be difficult to get lost, even in poor conditions).
A ranger finally showed up at 7:15a. A young guy in his twenties, he seemed to take his job casually as he administered permits for such a dangerous climb. No one asked him why he was late - that might bring bad karma. He handed out forms for us to fill out. As climb leader I dutifully filled out all the information requested. It had a checklist of gear that asked how many pieces of each we carried. I noted that we had no wands and a few other items. Was I going to be denied a permit if I didn't have all that was on the list? I dare not ask fearing I'd bring attention to myself, so I let someone else go first in turning in their form. No questions were asked, the ranger didn't even glance at the list other than to see that both sides of the card were filled out. When it was my turn he dutifully copied the important information to his computer and issued the necessary permits. I reminded him that I didn't have an advance reservation as he hadn't asked if I had one. He replied that unless it was exceptional weather or a 4th of July weekend, there is never a problem getting a permit. When I asked about availability of spots in the Muir Hut, he replied that they are on a first-come, first-serve basis. Already knowing that, I probed further, asking what the likelihood would be. I would prefer to leave our tents behind if I knew we could get bunk space. He responded that officially he'd have to suggest we take our tents along. But if he were going up himself, he wouldn't worry about it. Excellent. After paying our fees I went back to join the others. We removed the tents from our packs and redistributed the gear. By this time I had expected Mark to show up in the parking lot, but we saw no sign of him, just a few other groups getting ready for the hike like ourselves. It was another half hour before we were finally ready to hit the trail, and at 8a we were off.
It was overcast, but the cloud layer did not look too thick. It looked to be a fine day, and our worries about the weather were diminishing rapidly. From the start we were hiking on snow. It was soft at this lower elevation, but not slushy, and became firmer as we climbed above 6,000 feet. Hiking up the Skyline Trail we began to get our first views of the summit through the thinning clouds. We could see clear to the crater rim: much snow, massive rock outcrops, and a solid blue background behind the peak. The Nisqually Glacier spilled down the southeast face of the mountain for ten thousand feet. There were huge icefalls and gaping crevasses on the glacier, making it quite clear that this was no fair-weather Sierra mountain. The trail was nicely marked with wands (small bamboo poles) every 40 yards or so, and the trail was cut by dozens of boots that had gone before us, since the last snow several days earlier. Route finding would not be a problem. There was a hundred-foot steep section below Pebble Creek, but not steep enough to require crampons or axe. Above there the trail wound through some rocky outcroppings before coming out above on the open snow.
After the first hour we climbed above the cloud layer into the bright morning sun, and stopped to put on some sun screen and take a brief rest. We continued on for several hours, climbing ever higher. There are almost no flat areas on the ascent, just a steady climb. The scenery is gorgeous and it is easy to see why it is popular with skiers and dayhikers. Behind us and far to the south are some of the other great cascade peaks poking through the clouds: Adams, Hood, and St. Helens, looking left to right. Almost nothing else below the clouds can be seen. Ron and I find that we've gotten ahead of the others and wait a few minutes for them to catch up. We were all climbing fairly well and I was happy with the progress both Tom and Jeff were making. Jeff would do ok, I thought to myself.
Two waves of returning climbers were coming down the snowfield around 10a. The first group was happily sliding, striding, and plunging their way down. They had the happy faces and smiles that I thought indicated they were returning from the summit, but as we found out later that was not the case. This was an RMI group that had spent several nights on the mountain. They had attempted to reach the summit the day before (Thursday morning), but had turned back due to avalance danger. They had not tried again today. The second group was from the same expedition, just those that were coming down at a slower pace. RMI (Rainier Mountaineering Inc) is one of four licensed guide services on the mountain and by far the largest. They lead 3,000 paying customers a year on expeditions to the summit via Camp Muir and the DC route. That's a lot of climbers. They do a very good job considering the number of clients they have and the wide range of skill and fitness levels they must deal with.
I was enjoying myself immensely. I kept up a very strong pace for the next hour, and only Ron kept up behind me. It wasn't a furious pace, but it was relentless, and I could sense Ron's determination to keep up. Nothing seems to motivate Ron like a good challenge, and I could see he was determined to stay in step. We didn't speak at all for some time as we marched up the hill. As we approached Moon Rock, I decided it was time for a break, and headed for some rocks off to the left of the trail that we could rest on. I had expected Ron to fall back some, but he had kept up doggedly. Tom and Jeff were a good twenty minutes behind by now, small figures down below. As we rested Ron admitted he had been close to calling it quits with the keepup game. What I didn't tell Ron was that I had been close as well. I actually pulled over to rest half expecting Ron to keep going, but only then found out he was as tired as I. We waited for the others to catch up, had snacks, and reapplied sunscreen. As they caught up with us, Ron joked to Jeff that we didn't have a thousand-foot rope, and he'd better plan to do better the next day if he wanted to get to the summit. Even before Ron finished his remark Jeff had brought both hands waving that familiar gesture that made it very clear what he thought of Ron's joke.
Off again, I made a bee-line up the hill towards where I knew Camp Muir was nestled below Gibralter Rock, an impressive mass of rock that sticks out from Rainier's eastern flank. I scanned the southern face of it looking for the Gibralter Ledges that are part of one of the more difficult routes out of Camp Muir. I could see nothing but sheer rock and no trace of a feasible route. It was certainly more adventure than I was prepared for! Ron didn't bother to try to keep up for the last half hour push to Camp Muir. On my previous trip we had come up far to the east at the edge of the Paradise Glacier near Anvil Rock, nearly getting lost. Not today. I arrived at the Camp Muir, elevation 10,040 ft, just after 12p and anxiously went to check out the hut for available spaces. I was relieved to find it nearly deserted. There were two sleeping bags and some accompanying gear on the lower berth, but little else.
The Muir Hut is a stone and wood shelter that was built in the early part of the 20th century in honor of John Muir. The Park Service maintains it (somewhat), and it is available on a first-come basis. It has a reputation for being noisy, cramped, and uncomfortable, although I have found it to be none of these. This may be because I have only stayed there during mid-week when the weekend hoards aren't around. It might be a different matter altogether if it were filled closed to its thirty-person capacity. Inside is a row of bunks, plywood platforms that stretch from the door to the far wall. Across the room from the bunks is a long shelf that spans the length of the hut as well. This can be used for cooking, sorting gear, etc. There are no chairs, nor space for them, as there is only a two-foot isle between the bunks and the shelf. There is ice and snow on parts of the floor and under the shelf, so one must be careful to avoid slipping. There is graffiti carved on the bunk posts, beams, and the cement & plaster walls. Nothing offensive, just names and dates from a number of its vistors.
I put my pack on the top bunk in the back of the hut. This seemed like the more desireable location since it would have fewer people trapsing back and forth, making for less disruptions. As I went back outside to wait for the others to arrive I was momentarily blinded by the daylight. The altitude, the bright sun, and the snow on the ground combined for a maximum solar exposure that's hard on the skin as well as the eyes. I had taken my glasses off when I went inside, but could not handle the brightness outside without them. In a scene I would replay at least a dozen times, I walked outside, shouted "Arrgh!," and promptly went back to get my glasses.
Outside are three outhouses nearby, although only one was operational while we were there. I suspect they save the others for use when the big crowds hit Saturday afternoon. All the waste has to be flown out by helicopter, so they have to manage it closely. Further away to the west are the RMI client and guide bunkhouses. I never actually saw the insides of the other abodes, but I imagine the paying clients live in a bit better style than the slummers. Immediately behind the Muir Hut to the east was the climbing ranger's deluxe tent. An employee of the Park Service rather than RMI, the ranger digs aren't quite as nice, but not bad either. Scattered about outside were a few tents from climbers who wished for a more outdoor experience and tend to shun the Muir Hut. Platforms are dug out of the snow in which the tents are then anchored, a laborous task at best. Perhaps its part of the more serious mountaineering experience. I'm happy to just clown around in the Hut.
Ron appeared about ten minutes after me, and the other two about 15 minutes later. We all made pretty good time, to be sure. I was particularly impressed with Jeff who had a fine outing for his first-ever backpack trip. No slackers here. After piling all the gear inside, our first order of business was to melt some snow for water. We'd pretty much polished off the two quarts per person that we carried up, and there is no running water available in the camp. While I fired up the stove, I handed a shovel to Tom and asked him to dig some snow from outside into a pan. Since it had snowed several days earlier, there was a good 5-inch crust of fresh snow, and finding reasonably clean patches was pretty easy. Tom was a little concerned by the bits of debris that inevitably came with the snow, but I pooh-poohed his concern as I dumped the snow into the warm pot. As it melted the debris settled to the bottom, but I didn't bother to filter it when I poured it into the empty bottles. I similarly didn't bother to boil the water either, as it would consume a good deal more time and fuel, and besides I wasn't much concerned with contracting illnesses. Clearly Tom didn't share my lack of concern, but then he didn't refrain from drinking the water, nor did he bother to strain it himself.
After the water bottle filling routine, I melted more snow and made a pot of hot water for six bags of ramen. Hot noodle soup tasted pretty good for lunch, but Ron refrained from joining us due to his dietary preferences. His diet is vegetarian, and he avoids processed foods whenever possible. Salads, fruits, juices, and pretty much anything vegetarian from Trader Joe's make up the bulk of his diet. Ramen, of course, may win the prize for processed foods, perhaps placing second to slices of American Cheese (which is actually called "Cheese Food," since the cheese industry called them on that one for false advertising some twenty years ago). Ron was happy to indulge in a few protein bars while we had our fill of soup. Yummy.
After lunch we all went outside to begin classes. We wandered down the Cowlitz glacier for about 50 yards, where there was some good slopes for practice. The first class was axe and crampon use, so we all strapped on our 12 point crampons. There isn't much to know about crampons. Walking on them is pretty much like walking anywhere else. There are some techniques for climbing steep slopes that can give one better footing, and though we practiced these, we later found there was no real need for them on our summit bid as the slopes never exceeded 30-40 degrees. It is important to keep the crampons off the ropes and away from clothing, and this takes some practice. After Jeff had first put on his crampons he swung his foot around while I was bent over and smacked my helmet with his crampons. Good thing I had my helmet on or I'd have had a gash in my forehead. I admonished him to be more careful. We practiced using our axes for self-belay (which mostly means using it as a cane on steep slopes to act like a third leg) and self-arrest, which is a little more interesting. If one falls on a steep or icy slope, the first line of defense comes from the fallen climber who must throw his arms and shoulder onto his axe to drive the sharp end into the snow/ice to arrest the fall. This takes some practice to get used to, and can roughen one up if practiced on icy slopes (which is why I was happy to stand idly by while giving instructions).
About this time another climber came walking by looking for me by name. Mark introduced himself as we shook hands, and in turn I introduced the others to him. Driving up from San Francisco on Tuesday morning, Mark had climbed Mt. Lassen that afternoon, drove most of Wednesday through the rest of Californian and Oregon, and had climbed Mt. Adams the previous day (Thursday). He looked no worse for the wear, and I was happy to have another experienced team member. We all went back to where we'd left our gear and got out our rope, prusiks and other stuff that we would carry with us to the summit. We donned our waist and shoulder harnesses, and I demonstrated some knots for tying into the rope, which we all did in turn. We went over the different pieces of gear and practiced setting flukes and pickets, different types of gear used for creating an anchor in the snow. After we were all on the rope and each had a handful of the rescue gear that we'd also be carrying for our summit bid, we took a practice walk further out onto the glacier where there were some serious crevasses.
We approached one crevasse that we had seen others using earlier, with the intention of practicing some crevasse rescue techniques that none of us had ever used before. This was the part that had bothered my friend Michael the most, and had been a key factor in his decision not to join us. We approached the crevasse single file. Mark, out at the front of the rope, stopped first to examine it. At it's deepest point it was perhaps 40 feet deep and ten feet wide. For a first crevasse, it was pretty darn big. Mark crossed to the other side at a point where it narrowed and had been crossed previously. Each of us in turn walked up to the crevasse and gazed inside. It was a stunning sight. The edge was quite solid, the walls gleamed shades of blue and white. We gathered on the other side about 15 feet from the edge of the crevasse. Here we formulated a plan to practice our rescue technique, in a fashion similar to what might happen for real, but with added safety backups to ensure no one gets hurt.
Already at the front of the rope, Mark readily volunteered to be the climber that "falls" into the crevasse. Second on the rope, Tom would be responsible to arrest his fall by diving to the ground and burying his axe in the snow. Third, the rest of us would build anchors to relieve Tom from holding the fall, then we'd build a pulley system to haul our fallen climber from the crevasse. For safety backup, we decided to build an anchor on the rope behind Tom, so that it would hold Mark in the event Tom wasn't able to. Of course in a real fall this anchor wouldn't be there so handily ahead of time. Jeff dug some grooves in the sun-softened snow for the fluke while I pounded in a picket. I equalized the two by tying a knot in the connecting slings and then clipped the rope onto it. Mark prepared to go into the crevasse, but it occurred to us that it isn't as easy as just jumping in. We didn't want to shock load the rope if we could help it, and besides the shock might produce some unpleasantness for Mark when he comes to a sudden halt. He tried backing down into the crevasse, but with 40 feet of air beneath you, and an overhanging lip to boot, it wasn't as easy as he first guessed. He tried twice, giving up both time. Mark then decided to belay himself down, but it occurred to us that because he wasn't going to come to a rest on the floor beneath, it would be difficult to extricate himself from his belay device while hanging in midair. It seemed the safest way to lower him was for me to belay him on a second rope that we had carried with us. With me still tied into the end of the main rope, I took up a position in a belay seat that the previous party had dug, most likely for the same purpose. I tossed Mark one end of the second rope which he tied to his harness, then I sat down, put the rope through my belay device, and lowered him down slowly. This provided a second backup as well, and I was feeling much better about the safety of our little operation.
Once I had Mark lowered to the end of the main rope, about 10 feet below the crevasse lip, Tom took the load from me onto the main rope. He was surprised to find that he could hold him so easily. Evidently there is quite a bit of drag as the rope cuts through the crevasse lip and across the snow. From my belay seat I gave directions to Jeff and Ron to set up a couple anchor points in front of Tom with our second fluke and picket. Ron tied a prusik knot onto the main rope and tied it to our new anchor. This would be used to take the weight off Tom who was still face down in the snow holding the force of the rope. Ron and Jeff then retrieved the safety anchor we had set up initially, and used them for a third and fourth anchor point near the other two. These were then equalized to the other anchor points so that the four could (nearly) equally take the weight of the rope. We then had Tom get up slowly, and as expected the anchor was easily able to take the full force as the prusik tightened about the main rope. I had Ron tie a second prusik to the main rope close to the crevasse lip. He checked on Mark who'd been hanging there about 15 minutes now. Mark was practicing his own self-rescue, prusikking up and down the rope a few times. A pulley was attached to the anchor system, a second pulley to the second prussik, the rope running through both, and twenty minutes after we'd started we were ready to haul Mark out. We'd set up what is called a "Z-pulley", named for the shape the rope took as it wound through the pulleys. This clever hauling system allows a 3:1 mechanical advantage, meaning that a 100 lb force pulling on the rope should be able to lift nearly 300 lbs from the crevasse (minus some amount for the friction). I wasn't sure how it would actually work as the rope was now well established in the the crevasse lip, but we'd never know if we didn't try. So with me backing up Mark with a belay on the second rope, and Ron tending the prusiks to keep them from jamming in the pulleys, Tom and Jeff gave the old heave-ho on the end of the rope. To our pleasant surprise, they managed to haul him quite effectively, and after resetting the prusiks once, he literally flew up over the lip of the crevasse. Success!
The sun was about 15 minutes from going behind Gibralter Rock and I knew from past experience that it would proceed to get cold soon after. So we packed up our gear and headed back by the same route we'd taken. It would have been better to be able to practice more rescues with different persons playing different roles, but it was past 6p and we'd run out of time. It'd been a fine afternoon to cap off a fine hike in the morning. Even if we didn't make it to the summit the following day, I decided that it had already been worth the time and effort.
As we returned to camp I learned that the two climbers who had set out for the summit at 10p the previous evening had finally returned at 5p. That was a long time to be on the upper part of the mountain. They had been successful, but had a hard time of it due to the need to break trail for all of the route past where the RMI group had turned around the previous day. They looked rather beat after being on the go for so long, not surprising after 19 hours.
Back at the hut we began the task of melting snow again, this time for our dinner preparations. After I put some snow in the pan, I left Ron in charge of making sure the cooker didn't sputter out (it needed to have the fuel canister pumped now and then), and went outside to use the restroom. As it was occupied, I decided to climb the small outcrop of rock behind the hut, a 2 or 3 minute exercise. I was rewarded by some last rays of the sun, a nice view looking upon the lower half of the Cowlitz Glacier on one side, Camp Muir on the other, and a grand view of the peaks to the south. Beyond Mt. Hood and a bit to the right, I could just make out Mt. Jefferson, the next volcanic peak south in the Cascade chain. As I poked around the rocks I found a plaque fastened to the rock facing towards camp and the setting sun. It was a memorial plaque placed by the family of Janie Diepenbrock in honor of her and Willi Unsoeld who died on the mountain in early March of 1979. The story is retold in the book, Ascent by Laurence Leamer, which recounts the life of Willi Unsoeld, a famous climber of the 1960s and 70s. Janie was a student at Evergreen College where Willi taught, and was part of a large group of students that Willi led on a winter ascent of Mt. Rainier. The group got caught in a ferocious storm while on the summit, and had made a harrowing descent with food supplies low and a number of the students nearly exhausted. Willi was on the lead rope with Janie just behind him when they got caught in an avalanche just below Cadaver Gap. Others on the rope survived, but those two did not. From where I stood it was easy to see Cadaver Gap, about a mile distance, at the far upper end of the Cowlitz Glacier. A very steep approach leads to this gap which affords a shorter route to the Ingraham Glacier than Cathedral Gap, the more circuitous, but easier path. It was this steep slope that had avalanched, burdened with three feet of new snow on that fateful day in March. I had some moments of reflection on the mountain, and appreciated the words of encouragement that her family had provided on the plaque, in celebration of Janie's life.
Back at the hut there was a good deal of activity as the others prepared for our early morning summit attempt. I had originally planned to have us rise at 2a with a 2:30a departure, which I thought would give us plenty of time to get up and back before the snow softened in the morning sun. We found that the other groups were planning departures anywhere from 10p to 12a, which made us feel like late risers. Mark and I decided to set our alarms for 1:05a, moving our departure up an hour. (The extra 5 minutes was a psychological padding I threw in on a whim.) One of the other groups had already gone to bed, and a second was only minutes from joining them. Most of our group was busy sorting gear and deciding what to bring and what not to bring, while I kept shovelling snow into the pot. Mark had declined to join us for dinner, and instead went outside to prepare his meal where it was getting quite cold. Once our water warmed enough, Ron put his Trader Joe dinner pouches in the water to heat them up. They were vegetarian Indian fare, vegetables, spices, and other yummy stuff. He did not have rice to go with it, so the volume he was consuming seemed low to me. That did not seem to bother Ron. I'm of the opinion that more calories is better than selective calories when doing such physical exertion. When Ron's meal was done warming, I prepared a couple batches of soup. This seemed to fill Jeff and Tom, and I couldn't convince them to eat more. So I made a pot of noodles with some sort of cream sauce which I ate while the others prepared for bed. After dinner I went out to use the restroom (I had forgotten that I was unsuccessful an hour earlier) and briefly visited Mark who I found out behind the hut by the ranger's tent. Mark was busy cooking dinner in a niche that was somewhat protected from the wind, but it was too cold for me and I hurried back inside after a few minutes. In the bantering that accompanied the preparations, Jeff had asked me what we would do if he had to quit before reaching the top. Having already gone through that one in my head, I readily replied that we'd send Tom back with him. After all, Jeff was Tom's friend, and it was he who had invited him on the venture, so it seemed the obvious choice. Had we only been three, as originally planned, we'd all have to turn around. Had we been four with a single rope, I'd have been happy to cut the rope in half at that point and send two back. With five persons and two ropes, we had a good deal more options for turning back, should it be necessary.
I spent the next half hour packing and preparing for the next day. It was very quiet inside as everyone except Mark (still outside) and myself had bedded down. There was plenty of space inside the hut, maybe 12 folks in all. Before turning in, I went outside one last time to enjoy the view south as the sun began to set in the west. I finally climbed into my upper berth and inside my sleeping bag at 9:00p, and Mark did likewise a short time later.
I awoke when the first party rose at 10p to leave. They were very quiet and considerate, and I fell back asleep after they left a short while later. The pattern was repeated as the second and third groups arose at 11p and then 12a. The last group took considerably longer, maybe half an hour, before they were out the door. I was awaken some time later:
With that I popped up. My alarm on my watch is pretty faint, and I had slept right through it. Mark's had gone off as well, waking him, but he lay in bed a few more minutes before getting my attention. How he kept from falling back asleep was beyond me. I woke up Ron who was sleeping next to me, and after I had my clothes on and my bag stuffed, I leaned down to wake up the boys below. I didn't want to make much noise since I wasn't certain others weren't sleeping, so I shined my flashlight into Jeff's face, waking him with a start. In turn he woke up Tom, and we all began getting ready albeit slowly. I ascertained that all the other sleeping bags were empty before talking aloud. We were the last in the hut. By 1:45a I had my harnesses on and was ready to leave, but the rest of our crowd was far from likewise. Tom and Jeff were particularly slow, and I did some prodding (particularly of Jeff) to get them moving. I went outside to check the weather and found a sky full of stars. There was a wind, 5-10 mph, but it was not biting cold, merely "brisk." One of my biggest worries was that it would be much too cold in the middle of the night, but that worry was fading as I found it less harsh than I'd expected. I could see lights on the Cowlitz Glacier, headlamps of parties that had headed out within the last hour or so. The RMI bunkhouses were coming alive with activity as they prepared to leave likewise. To my surprise, I saw a couple headlamps coming up the Muir Snowfield from below. Who would be climbing up so late at night from Paradise? Back inside, our team was making progress, but ever so slowly. I helped Jeff get his harness and gear on, and did what I could to impress some sense of motivation to get moving. At 2a a couple of Australians walked into the cabin. They had been climbing from Paradise starting at 10p. They planned to rest a short while and then continue on to the summit. These guys were tough. It wasn't until 2:15a that we all finally convened outside. A string of 20 lights was heading high across the Cowlitz Glacier, no doubt the RMI team that had just recently left. There was no one else stirring about camp. Excepting the two Australians still back in the hut, we would be bringing up the rear. It took another 20 minutes to tie in and straighten out the ropes, but finally we were ready at 2:35a. Our extra hour headstart that we'd planned had been consumed in getting ready, and we were leaving about when we had originally planned before the trip began.
We went out on two ropes. I led a rope of three with Jeff in the middle, Ron at the trailing end. Mark led the second rope with Tom on the other end. It was a gorgeous night. I warmed up soon enough, and we kept a steady pace as we angled up and across the glacier, following the "trench" of all those that had gone before. The trench was only about three inches deep, but it was well-packed and made for relatively easy walking. Additionally, there were more bamboo wands every 100 feet or so to mark the route. Useless at the moment, they might be very handy to have should wind and whiteout conditions come along to obscure the route. Halfway across the glacier there were a few extra wands that marked the only crevasse to be crossed on the Cowlitz. Only a foot wide, it was an easy step across that hardly broke our rythm. As I looked out to the east, I was greeted by an intensely red crescent moon that had just risen. I stopped to point it out to the others before continuing on. Slowly it turned orange, yellow, then white as it rose above the atmosphere on the horizon. Even at night one could clearly make out the tops of the clouds thousands of feet below us. Some peaks and ranges far in the east rose above the clouds, but in the near vicinity it was only the bulk that was Rainier that held its own against the cloud layer.
As we approached Cathedral Gap we caught up with another team. It was not the RMI team that was in front of us earlier, but a three person team. They seemed to be having some difficulty negotiating the switchbacks up to the gap, and were moving slowly. When approaching a sharp turn while on a rope, it is necessary for the second on the rope to slow down as the first person makes the turn. If they don't adjust the pace, slack develops between the climbers (which can lead to tripping and stepping on the rope). As the second person then approaches the turn, it is necessary for either the first to slow down, or the second to speed up. A similar adjustment is needed between each pair of climbers as they negotiate the turn. Usually some communication can help make this adjustment smooth, but the party in front of us did not seem to have considered this before hand. While the first person went up the switchbacks, he did not slow down for the second, who ended up cutting the switchback and heading in a more direct fashion up the slope. The third person was then caught in the seconds line of ascent, and they both headed up the more direct, although slower route. It was slower due to the lack of established trail and the difficulty of negotiating the loose, gravelly terrain found here. Thus the second and third on the line pulled and dragged on the first, and the whole rope was going rather slowly. As we came up behind them, there was little the last person could do to let us pass, as he was out of communication range with the leader. So we followed slowly behind them (we stayed on the trail) waiting for a chance further up.
Jeff was finding this slope difficult (it was class 2) due to the lack of snow. With our crampons on it was fairly straightforward to march up a pretty steep slope. As the snow gives way to rock and loose sand/gravel, the footing is less sure, one slips more, and a bit more effort is required to stay upright. This was not sitting well with Jeff at all. At a number of spots he had to unhook the rope between he and I where it had snagged on a rock, and this seemed to take a good deal of his attention and energy. He did not seem to feel comfortable at all on his footing. We took our first break at the top of the gap. We made some adjustments on the rope, namely shortening the distance between those of us on the three-person rope. This would make it easier to negotiate the switchbacks with less snagging of the rope. Jeff asked if this was the hardest part of the route, letting me know that he found it a bit hairy. I did not have a good answer, and told him I thought the most difficult part was still ahead on the DC.
After about 15 minutes we continued on, traversing the backside of Cathedral Gap where it leads onto the Ingraham Glacier. When we came to a flat area below the camping area, we found the other group resting and took the opportunity to pass them. We took a short rest to let someone remove some clothing. Two unroped climbers went by. They were the Australians that had come up the same night from Paradise, and they were looking as strong as anyone else. It occurred to me that many climbers from other parts of the world probably think we Americans are overly concerned with safety, and most might find such a climb as we were on to not be worth the effort of using a rope. They might be right. But I was hardly skilled sufficiently in glacier travel to make a similar judgement, and I was happy to have a rope tied to me for what little extra work it entailed. It was 4a when we reached Ingraham Flat, a large smooth area on the left side of the glacier. Presumeable this area is relatively stable without serious crevasse danger, as it is used as a regular camp location throughout the season. There were only two tents pitched on it when we went by, but by evening it would probably begin to fill up with as many as 35 climbers that are forced by permit limits to camp here when Muir overflows. The sun was an hour from rising, but it was sufficiently light out to forgo the headlamp. I switched mine off and noticed the others did likewise soon after. Already there was a soft, warm glow on the eastern horizon. The breeze had died down by now, and it was looking to be great day.
Looking to the north, we could see a few parties on the DC. I was surprised to find that the steepest portion was all on snow, which would make it easier to climb. I had expected to find a loose, steep, rocky slope, but was happy to have the snowpack still covering it. The trail led past the tents and up higher on the glacier to get around some spectacularly broken crevasses in the more direct line. Again there was a small step-across crevasse at the apex of the trail before it began descending towards the base of the Cleaver. The RMI team was about 100 yards in front of us at this point, and the first climbers in the group were already climbing off the glacier onto the Cleaver (there are a dozen rocky outcroppings around the mountain that are named something-or-other Cleaver, for the way they seem to "cleave" two adjoining glaciers). As we approached the north side of the glacier, we were confronted with the first serious crevasse crossing. There were several competing trails in the snow to cross the crevasse, one having been abandoned when the snow bridge had collapsed sometime earlier, though not likely today. 10 feet further up a new trail was formed, though this seemed to look like it might collapse with the heat of the new day. Still, where we crossed it wasn't more than two feet across, so a serious crevasse fall was still unlikely. But it felt good to have a rope tied to one's self...
At the base of the Cleaver, the RMI guides had fixed several hundred yards of ropes on the steepest pitches beginning at the bottom. Despite the steep slopes, the trench had been beaten flat, and it was a fairly easy trail climbing up. The two climbers that had summited the day before had referred to this section as "dicey" even with the fixed ropes, but I thought it relatively harmless. I declined to use the fixed rope, partly because it seemed like cheating, partly because there seemed more manliness in not doing so (I was unable to flush the testosterone from the system before the hike), and partly because I wanted to give Jeff some sense of relative non-danger in climbing the slope. Jeff was highly thankful for the extra rope, and clung to it tenaciously. As I watched him climb up behind me, I was struck by the raw beauty of the gaping crevasses framed behind him, down on the Ingraham Glacier. When I told him to check out the scenery behind him, Jeff curtly responded that he would continue to look forward and pass on the scenic appreciation moment. It was at that point that I recognized that fear had gotten the best of him, and he might not be able to continue much longer if things got any hairier. I remember the look and reaction from Michael when we climbed Mt. Clark and knew that jokes and trivializing the dangers were no longer appropriate.
When we got to the end of the fixed rope on the spine of Disappointment Cleaver, Jeff would not let go of the fixed line. He was on his knees, clutching the last foot of rope and could not detach himself. He asked if the difficulties continued, and looking ahead all we could see was more steep mixed snow/rock travel. "Yes," was all I could truthfully answer. As the others came up, we pulled in our climbing rope and had a break. Tom and I were more aware of Jeff's fear than were Mark and Ron, as the later two tried to talk him up, offering reassurances, encouraging him to eat and drink, and rest as long as he liked. To me it was fairly certain Jeff's summit bid was up. Jeff's second biggest worry was not wanting to disappoint anyone by spoiling their chances for the summit. Tom readily agreed to return and did his best to convince Jeff it was no big deal, but Jeff wasn't convinced. He wanted to know if it was possible to leave him where he was and pick him up on the way down. It might be 8 hours before we returned I suggested, and it would not be prudent to leave someone alone on the mountain for that long. I, for one, would freeze to death long before that time without bivy gear.
Sometime in the middle of all this discussion the sun began to rise, and we stopped all attention to Jeff as we went for the cameras. I had read beforehand that the Ingraham Glacier affords some spectacular sunrises, and we were not disappointed. It was just after 5a. After we snapped a half dozen pics, we returned to our discourse on Jeff and in the end agreed that he and Tom should return. We moved Jeff to Tom's rope, moved Ron to the middle position vacated by Jeff, and put Mark in Ron's old position at the end of the rope. We instructed the others to go slowly and rest often, they had literally the whole day ahead of them. There were no serious dangers on the return route we felt, so there was little concern about sending them on their own. After they were on their way, Ron was eager to get going, saying he was freezing. Usually I'm the one that gets cold first (and I was getting pretty cold, too), so I was happy to comply. With the three strongest members on the remaining rope I headed up at a much increased pace. We warmed quickly. The snow gave way to loose rock and gravel mixed with patches of snow, but like everyone else we did not remove our crampons. I had gotten information ahead of time that most teams unrope and remove crampons for this section, but they must have been referring to later in the season. Even with a very low snow year, mid-June did not warrant such actions and we climbed roped the whole route.
At 6a we reached the top of the Cleaver, having climbed the whole length of the spine in 35 minutes. That was a blazing pace. Here, we caught up with the RMI team again and a few others as well. We passed one small party, but the RMI group was heading out onto the Emmons Glacier above, before we could catch up. Five of their team had decided to call it quits and were returning on a single rope. Ron had guessed they were early returnees from the summit, but by the drawn look on some of the faces you could see these were not the strongest members of the team. The climber at the end of the rope fell as they went by us, even though the slope was very gentle. The second on the end yelled for the others to go into arrest, but forgot to do so himself until after the fallen climber had already gotten back up. They were clearly a tired bunch. We took a break here ourselves, and afterwards slowed our pace. It would not have been possible to continue our fast pace, and we still had a long way to go. Ron estimated that we'd climbed 2/3 of the elevation, but a check with the GPS showed we'd barely gone more than half. Ron found this rather depressing and it was the last time we used the GPS above Muir. Although it was but 6a, we began the first applications of sunscreen. There would be several more, but still I would get too much sun. The altitude, cloudless sky, and snow everywhere around us all conspired to maximize our exposure to the UV rays. My lips would blister in the following days though I repeatedly applied protective lip balm. I also failed to sufficiently cover my exposed skin, and parts of my neck and under my nose would also peel in the coming week.
The wind was picking up now as we climbed above 12,000 feet. The trench had disappeared, although there was ample evidence of footprints to show the way. Wind-packed snow had taken the place of the softer snow below, and additional snow driven by the wind smoothed over the footsteps making them more difficult to follow. Fortunately the line of climbers not far ahead of us and the wands that now led all the way to the summit made the route-finding a trivial matter. Just when it seemed we were finally going to pass the RMI group, we began taking more frequent breaks as Ron was beginning to wear down. I began using the rest step in order to conserve energy. The rest step is heavily touted by RMI and used by all their climbing groups. It involves a deliberate rest with each step, with a slight pause while weighting the outstretched leg behind. This allows the leg muscles a momentary rest as the body weight is taken on the skeletal structure and off the contracted muscles. At the same time, one is taught to deliberately breathe outwardly on each rest, which forces the body to take in more oxygen than it normally would (without acclimatization, the body tends to breathe less than it should at altitude where the air is thinner - deliberately breathing at a faster rate improves the oxygen uptake noticeably.) At lower altitudes it is almost laughable to watch the RMI "trains" as they chug slowly up the mountain to Muir. Of course RMI uses it on the lower reaches of the mountain as training to get their clients in the habit for higher on the mountain where I readily concede it helps a great deal.
Somewhere around 13,000 ft we came upon the RMI group leaving from an extended rest. They left behind one of their exhausted members in a sleeping bag resting on a pad. The ground had been carved flat with shovels on the steep slope, and the sleeping bag was secured by an anchor driven into the snow just above it. I surmised that at this point they could not afford to send guides back with single climbers who could go no further, and it is for just this reason that they instruct all their clients to carry sleeping bags to the summit with them. The first returning groups began to descend around this time, probably having reached the summit an hour earlier. I figured we must have been making pretty good time since we'd made up several of the hours we started off with behind. The trail zig-zagged back and forth a number of times in what felt like relentless switchbacks. The turns in the trail seemed to do more with avoiding crevasse areas than in easing the slope. By 13,500 feet I was no longer as interested in the scenery about me. I was starting to feel a headache and a bit of nausea to go with it, the beginnings of altitude sickness. The National Park website had mentioned that 70-80% of climbers on Rainier get symptoms of altitude sickness, so I was hardly surprised. From the looks of him, Ron seemed to be fairing a bit worse, and at each rest he would lament that this was the hardest thing he had ever done in his life. Mark may have felt bad, but he didn't show it - ever. He seemed to just go on happily with whatever pace we set. The winds were picking up ever stronger, blowing at maybe 30mph now. I donned my facemask even though I knew it would fog my glasses, I had no choice really. Ron did likewise, and both he and Mark put on ski goggles. I was now wishing I had brought a pair myself. After rounding a few bends, expecting the crater rim each time, we finally did make it there at 8:30a. 14,000 feet, and we were exhausted. But we still had 400 feet to climb. We could see the summit off in the distance, and it looked much farther than it was. None of us wanted to continue at this point. We watched the RMI team, having arrived right in front of us, drop their packs and huddle in a circle. Five of their members left to climb the summit, while the other 15 were happy to call it a day where they sat. Seeing the five go off unroped answered our questions about whether there were crevasses in the crater, and we happily decided to leave our rope and packs as well and head off to the summit.
I had renewed vigor now, and felt quite a bit better unburdened by the pack. It was blowing at 40mph now, and quite cold, despite the blazing sunshine. We walked more like zombies than bold mountaineers, but then so did the other folks around us. There were probably 40 people in and around the summit crater, far more than had been seen in recent weeks. It was a good summit day. At 9a I reached the summit, and sat down to reduce the force of the winds, now around 50mph. Not far behind were Ron and Mark. In the last 20 yards Ron dropped to his knees and crawled to the summit. Mark actually ran the final distance. We huddled and took a few pictures. I got up and walked around the wide, gently curving top in order to get a view off the other sides. It seemed I should at least see what they looked like before darting back down. I saw a few climbers to the northeast, circumnavigating the crater rim in a clockwise direction. That seemed like fun, but I'd hardly the energy for it. I thought highly of those other climbers in that moment. To the west was liberty cap, a subsidiary summit that is often the goal for climbs on that side of the mountain. But I could see nothing of the cliffs and huge icefalls that are on the north and west sides of the mountain. They would have to wait for another day.
We stayed up there less than five minutes before heading down. I was anxious to get lower on the mountain and back out of the wind that was chilling my bones. Half running down the summit slope, I post-holed up to my knees in a soft section bringing me to an abrupt halt. It was a good reminder that I needed to consider the descent more seriously. Back at our packs we took another rest, taking in the crater views around us. I remembered that there were caves and fumeroles in the shallow depression somewhere, but had no inclination to suggest we hunt them out. We reshouldered our packs and tied back into the rope, and headed down. Once again we were behind the RMI group. Mark took the lead on the descent, and had us going at a pretty descent pace. This was the first time I'd not been in the lead and was quickly finding out that it was not a trivial task to manage the rope in front of me. On the descent, any slack in the rope would gravitate downhill and under the feet of the climber in front. I admonished Ron several times for stepping on the rope, but quickly realized it was my responsibility to keep him from doing so by managing the slack properly. At the turns I would slow as Ron rounded the bend, careful to keep slack from forming. Then I would have to run to get around the bend before the rope ran out and I pulled Ron backwards. I found it sort of fun for awhile, as it kept my mind occupied and off my headache and nausea, which were still my unwelcomed companions. We passed the RMI group as they stopped to retrieve the climber left in the sleeping bag, and another group of three. But our pace didn't last long. Ron relayed to Mark that he was feeling like he was going to pass out, and Mark made a hasty stop off the side of the route. Ron had bonked.
Ron sat down, put his head between his knees, and groaned. He was feeling quite nauseous, and for the first time I realized it was much worse than me. "By far," he exclaimed, "this is the worst I've ever felt. I'm never going to do this again." At the same time I remember thinking, despite my own altitude sickness, that I'd never had so much fun in my life. I've seen Ron like this before, in fact we both looked pretty sad when we finished that exhausting route up and down Half Dome a couple summers ago. I reminded Ron that he was much worse then, but he countered that we still had almost 8,000 feet to descend, and many hours of hiking. He had a point. Mark was very sympathetic and tried through a number of means to get Ron to eat and/or drink something. Ron refused, saying he couldn't eat anything just yet, he was too sick to stomach anything. The RMI team came by and passed us again. Finally Mark was able to entice Ron with Triscuits. He ate a few, drank some water, and ate a few more. His body seemed to respond to the salt, and thereafter the Triscuits were what he craved.
After about 20 minutes we got Ron to get on his feet again, and we began descending at a very slow pace. I was perfectly happy with that - we were making progress, the wind was diminished some, and we had most of the day in front of us still. With a few short rests in between, we finally made it to the top of the Cleaver around 11a. Little Tahoma Peak rose up in front of us to the west. It looked to have some exciting climbing of its own right. Ron was still feeling quite badly, I'd hoped the lower elevation would start to show improvement. We talked about just getting Ron back to Muir, maybe having him stay there that night. Tom and Jeff had already descended to Paradise, where they could get some food and drink and rest. They were expecting us to meet them in Paradise in the afternoon sometime. If Ron and I stayed at Muir, they wouldn't know what had become of us. Mark had mentioned that he might spend another night in Muir, so it seemed I might leave Ron with him. I figured I could meet Tom and Jeff in Paradise, the three of us could still make our 6a Sunday plane, and Mark could drive Ron back to Seattle the next day after they descended. Not the most selfless plan, I admit. And Ron wanted nothing to do with it. He was determined to make it back to Paradise the same day, perhaps after a few hours rest at Muir. Mark suggested that he and I could share Ron's load if need be, which seemed more than reasonable. We weren't carrying that much weight as it was, so it would be relatively easy to take another 10lbs at the moment. Once we packed up all our gear at Muir, I wouldn't so sure. Ron said he was ok for the moment, choosing to continue on, carrying his own stuff. No need to decide things where we were, so we left it unconcluded (except perhaps in Ron's mind).
Before we descended the Cleaver, we shortened our rope considerably in order to make it easier to descend the uneven terrain and negotiate the turns. There was only about 15 feet between us now, the ends of the rope tucked away in the packs of those at the end. Mark began to complain of snow balling up on his crampons, and he paused every 20 feet or so to knock the snow off with his axe. It was much warmer now and the snow had softened accordingly, but I did not have the same problem with my crampons. Perhaps I did and just didn't notice. As long as I felt I still had firm footing, I was happy to not bother checking (it takes more energy than I was willing to expend to raise one's boots high enough to inspect the bottom). In a few places Mark or Ron would knock a chunk of snow off the slope and it rolled down onto the unsuspecting climbers in front of us. They didn't remain unsuspecting for long. On a softball size of snow, we yelled out loudly in warning to those below. On a smaller baseball sized piece similarly dislodged, Ron shouted out much quieter (in proportion to the size of the threat?). I reminded him that to be effective, you have to yell loud enough to be heard below - otherwise you're just wasting your breath. Fortunately no rocks were dislodged which would have represented a more serious threat, although the climbers below were probably equally frightened, not knowing the composition of the projectiles rolling down upon them. I was happy to be near the end of the procession, and we were fortunate to have no one close behind us.
We rested at the bottom of the spine, at the top of the fixed ropes. Ron must have started to feel better as he proclaimed that we'd be back at Muir by 1p (it was currently 11:30a). I thought he was being a bit optimistic, but Mark seemed to agree with Ron. The Triscuits were working their magic. After we'd been resting there for five minutes or so, we noted some golfball sized snowballs rolling down from above. Looking up we could see another party coming down through the firing zone, as we had done earlier. We ended our break quickly and headed down the slope. In front of me Ron was holding the fixed rope loosely in his right hand. At one point his left foot stepped through the soft snow on the lip of the steep side throwing him off-balance on the dangerous side of the trench. To keep himself from falling down the slope, Ron pulled tightly on the fixed rope. This shot the rope out from the uphill side of the slope which knocked me in the shoulder, nearly sending me off-balance. I momentarily felt like we were the three stooges in some sort of mountaineering slapstick routine. Only the consequences were more serious. I held loosely onto the fixed after that as an added safety precaution.
When we reached Ingraham Flat a while later, we took another break. Ron was still complaining, but he seemed to be doing better, evidenced by a renewed interest in taking photographs. A few more Triscuits, and we were on our way. When we reached Cathedral Gap we had a fine daytime view looking at Muir across the Cowlitz Glacier. It seemed so close. Mark had taken off his crampons by now since they were doing him little good. Going down the mixed slopes of Cathedral Gap, he tried to see if he could follow a snow-free line while allowing Ron and I (still in our crampons) to stay in the snow. With the rope as short as it was between us, it didn't work out and Mark gave up that idea, sticking to the established trail instead. We followed the main RMI group, the bunch that had summited, across the Cowlitz, arriving at Muir about 5 minutes behind them. It was 12:50p. Ron and Mark had been correct about our arrival time. Camp was already beginning to get crowded for the weekend, and climbing the last little ramp off the glacier up to the hut we had to thread our way through the various groups that were sprawled about the snow. We stopped outside to remove our crampons and unrope. Inside the hut was still uncrowded, mostly it was our stuff taking up the majority of the taken space. It felt good to remove our packs and lie down, even if it was on a hard piece of plywood.
We had pretty much run out of water between the three of us, rationing it a bit for the last few hours. We figured we might be awhile melting snow to replenish or stock, but to our surprise Tom and Jeff had left us nearly three full quarts. They had cleaned up the stove and gear and put things nicely in order. They deserved a big tip. By now Ron wasn't feeling so bad and had gotten a new wind. He lay down for only a few minutes before deciding he was ok to head down sooner rather than later. A couple of climbers who had returned before us were in their bags resting, and they concurred that it was better to keep going than to rest. Once in their sleeping bags, they had a hard time trying to get themselves back out. So Ron and I began packing up. He asked if I could help by carrying his heavy stuff - climbing gear, crampons, axe, etc. As my pack was not very large, I had to trade him my bulky lighter stuff, like my sleeping bag, pad, and clothes bag. In addition we had a bunch of extra water bottles to bring down, which take up precious space. We jostled things back and forth, but managed to get it all in the two packs. In the end his pack ended up weighing nearly as much as mine anyway. Mark planned to take a while longer to pack up and leave, so we gave him a quart of the water and said our goodbyes. Mark had a large plate of peaks ahead of him in the next two weeks, an enviable adventure.
It was 2p when we headed out again. The packs were heavier, but no rope and crampons, and milder slopes seemed to help balance the added discomfort some. We'd hoped we'd be able to glissade a good deal, but we knew the snow had gotten quite soft by now. We hit upon the idea of using our shovels to sit on, thinking they would provide less friction and allow us to ride higher in the snow. It didn't work. The snow was too soft and the slopes weren't steep enough to let us do more than slide a few feet before sinking in the mush. At first it was pretty nice descending through the soft snow, as we stuck to the side of the trail away from all the boot-holes and the main trail. But the lower we went the more spread out were the other tracks, and it became impossible to find a clean track in the snow anywhere near the marked trail. It was a bumbling, sloppy process of descending over the very uneven snow, and more than a dozen times I fell to the ground.
Although we should have expected it, we were amazed by the sheer number of climbers, dayhikers, skiers, and snowboarders that climb up to Muir on a Saturday afternoon. There were three or four RMI groups of 15 or more interspersed with another 150-200 others in smaller groups or as individuals. There were no sections of the trail where you couldn't see another climber within 100 yards. In fact the only time we couldn't see other climbers was as we descended into the cloud layer starting around 8000 feet. This dropped us quickly into near white-out conditions with visibility of around 15 yards. This forced us to stay reasonably close to the trail, and we even managed to wander out of sight of the wands a few times. We continued to try our shovel-glissade and continued to be disappointed with it. At one point while in the clouds I had to relieve myself in a serious way. Not wanting to wander out of sight of the wands, I stood about 15 feet away, fumbling with my two pairs of pants, trying to get the inside zipper down. I faced uphill and away from the trail to minimize my exposure, but it wouldn't take a genius to figure out what I was doing. No sooner had I started that Ron informed me that there was somebody coming up the trail through the fog. No, there was a group. Actually it was a whole train. I couldn't put things away fast enough and got quite embarrassed. I used my shovel to bury the evidence, then sheepishly started back down again. Mental note: Don't relieve myself in a white-out unless I'm darn sure there's no one else around - no time to react!
A couple snowboarders passed us on the way down, and Ron asked how much they'd rent him the board for. Either they didn't hear or they didn't find it worthy of a reply, in either case they simply continued on. We discussed what we'd pay to have someone carry a board to Muir for us to use on the way down. Somewhere in the vicinity of $50 was our conclusion. I don't know if there's a business model in this, but the idea seemed intriguing. I'd guess someone might be able to carry 3 boards if they were fairly fit, so it wouldn't be a gold mine, but better than working at McDonalds.
We found a decent glissade that was short and steep going down to Pebble Creek, at about the halfway point, about the same time that we came out from the bottom of the cloud layer. Ron had taken off his waterproof pants by now, so he didn't bother to try the glissade. As we crossed the creek a father with his nine or ten year-old son came down past us. By now we were on some mixed terrain where the skiers and snowboarders had to remove their boards in a number of places, and we found that they weren't able to make any faster progress down the mountain than ourselves. By now most of the folks heading to Muir were above us, but we still came across many people out for a little hike in the snow. Below Pebble Creek we came to the top of that first steep section we'd encounter the day before. A nice glissade path had been worn in the snow for about 40 yards. We watched a family of 5 in front of us laugh and cry out as they each went down in turn. The youngest ones then stopped at the bottom to watch Ron and I with our full packs come down in turn. If only the whole way down could have been like that! There was much snowplay along the last mile of trail, with people scattered all about. Around Glacier Vista we had a fine view of the lower reaches of the Nisqually Glacier. There were at least three separate groups out among the huge crevasses on the glacier, no doubt taking crevasse rescue classes. It was shortly before 4p when we finally caught sight of Paradise, the Ranger Station, and the parking lot.
We had little trouble finding the Isuzu Tom and Jeff had left in the parking lot. A note attached to the back window informed us they were at the lodge having beers. We could only imagine how many they might have had by now (turns out it was only two). We dropped our packs (ahh...), Ron went to retrieve the others while I lay down on the parking lot asphalt for a short rest. That felt good. There were people milling about, some wondering who this guy was lying on the ground, most looking to catch a glimpse of Mt. Rainier through small holes in the clouds. Ron returned with a key, and we stuffed all our gear in the car and drove to the visitor center to check in with the ranger as we were told. I ran in while Ron waited in the car. As I waited in line, I heard the middle-aged women in front of me ask a rather general question of the ranger, "What is there to do around here?" I wanted to scream, "Go outside and appreciate God's creation!" but of course I didn't. The ranger calmly explained that there were exhibits to view, and a film about the park that was starting in ten minutes. The film seemed to satisfy her, so she shuffled in the direction the ranger had indicated. It never ceases to amaze me the number of people that visit our national parks and make a beeline for the visitor center where they spend most their time. Ah, I knew I was back amongst civilization again.
I'd forgotten the return form I'd been handed when we'd been issued our permit, but that didn't bother the ranger. She handed me a small piece of paper that asked only two things: How many in the party? How many made it to the summit. I'd mistakenly thought the Park Service cared to ensure that all parties returned safely, but apparently the only thing they did with the return forms was to get the climbing stats for their web page. We were 3 of 5, for a 60% success rate, pretty close to the overall average of 52%. We drove back to pick up Tom and Jeff who'd finished their beers by now and headed back to Seattle. We managed to take all the right roads this time, right up until we went from I405 to I5. We missed the turnoff to the airport and our hotel, and somehow it ended up being my fault again. Oh well, better to get lost on the highway than in the Wilderness... We had a couple of rooms in the Radisson reserved, complete with pool and hottub. A fine seafood dinner after showering was sufficient to revive me, though we were still sleep-deprived. Four hours each of the last two nights, and we had a 6:15a flight to catch in the morning. We resorted all the gear and packed things up for the morning, and I was off to bed at 10p while the others went for the hottub. Needless to say I slept quite well, even if it wasn't for as long as I'd have liked. It had been the best climbing weekend ever.
If you haven't had enough of this adventure, you can read Ron's account of the same trip. It's a Microsoft Word document, so you may have to save it off before opening it.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Rainier
This page last updated: Wed May 16 17:06:41 2007
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