One week ago, we were in our sleeping bags, going to bed at Camp Muir after summiting. I’m not sure if that feels longer or shorter, but it was an entirely other world apart.
“You just need to adjust your expectations, and take everything one step at a time.” The climbing ranger told us while they were processing our permit. He told us we had everything we need, and it seemed like we knew what we were doing. I got the impression, though, that what he meant was, “I trust that you two will know when it’s time to turn around.” I asked him for route conditions information, and all he could say was, he didn’t know. The first team of the winter had only just made it up the week before, three Russian guys, and they had checked out per the conditions of their permit, but hadn’t left any beta on the upper mountain. Apparently, none of the guides had even made it up this winter. “You’re going to have the mountain to yourselves. It’s unlikely that anyone is even heading up to Camp Muir this weekend, and we haven’t issued any other permits. I also need you to know, rescue isn’t really an option, and conditions permitting, it would take at least 48 hours to get anyone up there. There’s no helicopters in the winter. Just realize, you’re alone up there.”
We weren’t relying on SAR or anything, but the whole speech was a little chilling.
The Monday before we left for Washington, I ran Elbert to test out the GPS, as I hadn’t ever used it for navigation before. I thought it wouldn’t hurt to get up high, either. Mt. Rainier is 14,410, which is 30 feet below Elbert. I thought about the relationship that I have with these mountains, my home. I’ve thought for years that it was my love of the Nolan’s line that brought me here, that led to thousands of miles of snowmelt stream crossings, talus hopping, getting lost, numbing my feet in the snow, destroying my legs running uphill and down. The lions, the cold, the lightning, the storms. The 245 times I’ve stood on top of Elbert. And I finally understood, it was never Nolan’s. That was just this idea of challenge and aesthetics that was appealed to my brain, that’s wired in this particular way. These were the first mountains I fell in love with, that I gave my heart and my body to, and that filled me up in return. I know there are a lot of ways that people can feel like their heart is too big to fit in their chest, but this is mine. I knew then, that while it was very scary, I was ready for Rainier, it was just time to move on. These mountains used to make me feel scared, too, but not for a long time.
There are a variety of weather forecasts that include Mt. Rainier, and I checked all of them several times a day for two weeks before we left. I think they changed hourly. Everyone who lives with mountains says that they make their own weather, but it’s truer with Rainier. I imagine the 13,212 feet of prominence has something to do with it. There aren’t other big mountains around it, it’s just this massive volcano in the middle of nothing, right next to the fucking ocean, to create the least predictable and most harsh weather anywhere outside of Denali. The week of our trip, it was mired in storms, with a lot of snow accumulation likely, high winds, and only one possibility for a small break in the weather before the storm cycle picked up again: Saturday.
I don’t know if you ride in airplanes a lot, but the idea that you can strap yourself and your belongings into a metal cylinder, and said hunk of metal will speed down a road and somehow end up airborne is ludicrous. In two hours, we would be transported from Colorado to Washington. We had to bring extra bags to hold all the crap that gets strapped to the outside of our packs normally, because you can fly with your weapons (ice axes and crampons) if they’re packed inside a bag. We could see the mountain above the clouds as we approached Seattle.
We got our permit to go up the mountain, but there was a whiteout at Paradise, the trailhead, so we stayed in the giant rental SUV the first night. Our expectations needed no tempering, we were already bummed. It’s a big risk to plan a trip like this when the weather is so volatile, and in the winter, when the success rate is something like 10% or less. I had still been feeling like, we go up and see what happens, but man, climbing ranger Seth really put the smackdown on our hopes and that night I think we both went to bed feeling a little down. There was Rainier beer, though, undoubtedly made from water direct from the Nisqually glacier itself.
In the parking lot, there were two weathered-looking gentlemen (some of you might not see that for the excellent compliment it is) packing up very aggressive packs and prepping alpine touring setups, and it turned out that we wouldn’t be alone, so I guess there was one glimmer of hope. One of them was a local, they had Rainier summit experience, and they proffered, “we might try to go up on Saturday.” While I do love to be alone, and a big part of choosing a winter attempt was avoiding the hordes (10k climbers attempt each year, the success rate is less than 50%, and 99.99% of those attempts are in the summer), I loved the idea that we would have some buddies up there. Our new friends, Craig and Dan, headed up that night, and we told them we’d see them at Camp Muir tomorrow.
We headed out of Paradise in the morning, shocked at how heavy our packs were and hoping that we’d catch a glimpse of the Mother of Waters herself. We weren’t disappointed,
I thought my heart might explode. Aside from being immensely prominent, Rainier has 27 major glaciers, covering 35 square miles. It is almost constantly surrounded by a ring of clouds that hangs between 7,000 and 10,000 feet, making you feel like you’re in a constant fog. We got this view when the wind picked up for about 6 seconds. Then it was back to the long slog up the Muir Snowfield, that looked about like this:
The Muir Snowfield is just one of the so very many objective dangers on Rainier. It’s just a long, brutal snow climb (while they say it’s 4500ft to Camp Muir, my watch said 5,246), but the thing is, in low visibility (like basically always) you could easily walk off the edge of it and over a cliff, or accidentally cross over and find yourself on the heavily crevassed Nisqually glacier (I called this the Snoqualmie glacier for the entire trip. There is no Snoqualmie glacier). Between 90 and 100 alpinists have died on the high mountain during summit attempts since the 1890’s … 294 deaths have occurred elsewhere on the mountain, mostly on the Muir Snowfield, charmingly described as “A huge, featureless killing field.”
Anyway, because of the cloud ring, you can’t tell what the weather’s actually like.
Then, suddenly (after taking jackets off and putting them back on 60 times):
We are above the freaking clouds and it is windy but sunny and clear. I had thought that I was appropriately trained enough, and did zero hauling practice, and greatly underestimated how different it would be to climb a mountain with an extra 50% of my bodyweight (I know Steve House *says* to carry a pack full of rocks and gallons of water when you’re training, but … then you go slower, and it just didn’t seem necessary). Our legs were sort of crushed.
But it was super beautiful.
And we were getting really close.
The Camp Muir public shelter was built in 1918. There’s a sign inside that I should’ve but didn’t take a picture of that says “The Camp Muir Public Shelter is an historic building, built in 1918. Out of respect for its namesake, John Muir, please pack everything out. Do not defecate in the shelter. YES, PEOPLE HAVE DONE THIS. DON’T DO IT.”
The shelter has a dutch door for when the snow’s piled up, and inevitably, the area around the door is piled high with drifted snow. There’s a counter, cubbies, and bunks. In the summer, climbers don’t get to sleep in here, but one of the (few, decidedly very few) benefits of a winter ascent is that we got to live in the shelter. A half hour or so after arriving at Camp Muir, we had some company, and it wasn’t the skiers we were expecting, it was two badass young guys from Golden, Tom and Zach. They, too, wanted to make a go of it during the possible weather window on Saturday, which still didn’t look great, but promised a huge decrease in wind speed. The comradery caused us to start saying things like, “Saturday’s our day.”
We got down to the delightful business of melting snow for water; our new friends offered to share their garbage bag of collected snow with us, in return I gave them a coveted morale-boosting Reese’s Easter egg, and a lifelong friendship was forged. An hour or two later, our skier friends arrived, and we set up our beds in a cheerful cabin, stationed way up high on a big, scary mountain.
Because I don’t have any foresight, this blurry picture of all our stoves lined up melting snow is the only one I have from inside the shelter.
Now that morale was officially boosted, we were all making preparations for summit day. Packing our bags, melting snow, discussing route beta, worrying about avalanche conditions, wondering about crevasses, and eating (and burning a layer of Tasty Bites onto the bottom of the stove that would flavor our water Cajun for the remainder of the trip). It was basically like all of the Christmas Eves of your childhood culminating on this one, penultimate Christmas day: SUMMIT DAY. In the midst of all of the excitement, I went outside to brush my teeth (even mountaineers brush their teeth, because nobody likes fuzzy sweater teeth):
Yeah these pictures still make me cry. Camp Muir is so fucking heartwarming, I can’t even describe it. You can see the public shelter in that second photo. It was originally called Cloud Camp, you can guess why.
Just as everyone was getting settled, two more guys showed up, friends of the skiers, and in the wonderfully charming, weathered mountaineer way, came inside asking “Is there cocoa?” I wish there was, man. I wish there was.
Anyway. Did anybody sleep on Summit Day Eve? I doubt it. When the alarm went off at 3am, I was buzzing like I had been electrocuted. And so, all the stoves are lit, and the pots filled with snow to melt (and a layer of burnt Tasty Bites), and everyone is eating their oatmeal and tying up their boots, and the first person goes outside to pee and comes back saying, “It is fucking beautiful. The wind is low, it’s perfectly clear.” And it was. The most optimistic forecast: Saturday, partly storming, is suddenly: Saturday, perfectly clear. Tom and Zach headed out to Gibraltar Ledges, and Dan and I roped up and headed for Disappointment Cleaver and the Ingraham Glacier. I don’t know that either of us thought we’d get a summit, there were so many objective hazards that we had to evaluate, and the chance that weather would hold AND all the other things would line up was … well, it seemed like it would take a miracle.
The discussion of when to rope up went something like, “Well, you don’t have to be roped up until you’re on the Ingraham Glacier, but I’m worried about knowing when to make that decision.” So, because we’re smart and safe individuals, we roped up there.
And I’m sure glad we did, because what happened was exactly what I was worried about. One moment, you’re on a perfectly safe snowfield, and then suddenly, you’re surrounded by huge crevasses (or as I like to call them, Glacier Funhouses). Meanwhile, the sun was rising:
Sorry about the blurry pictures, I’m not a photographer, ok. That’s Little Tahoma Peak, 11,138, which, they say, is a remnant of a much higher Mt. Rainier, from before its last eruption. While it’s a satellite peak of Rainier (aka Mama Tahoma), it’s technically the third highest peak in Washington (Mt. Adams, 12,281, is #2).
So, by way of necessary explanation, let me tell you that sometimes the crevasse danger is lower in the winter, because massive amounts of snow might partially fill in some of the smaller crevasses/funhouses. However, the snowpack is lower than usually there, too, with the unfortunate consequence that the crevasses in this middle section were not only not filled in, but covered with a mean little snowy ice crust. That said:
So we were walking along an enormous Funhouse. I was leading, still following the GPS track, which was an obvious mistake, since we were entering the icebox area and would need to start navigating the crevasses, but I hadn’t realized we’d already passed Ingraham Flats and were heading into this famously spicy section yet. I said, “They’re like coming face to face with a bear. It could eat you, but it probably won’t.” And mere moments later, I punched through the crust covering a crevasse I didn’t see and, just like that, was dangling above an opening in the glacier that started white, turned to blue, and eventually black. I had apparently gotten bottlenecked at the top, where the walls were narrowed, and was tenuously suspended by my shoulders in the snow. I yelled to Dan to self arrest, as if that somehow hadn’t crossed his mind after I had disappeared into the glacier, and once he told me he was secure, I kicked my front points into the wall of the sleeping bear that had thought about eating me, but didn’t, and climbed out.
Yeah, it was fucking terrifying. I had looked down, and after the loose snow had finished falling away, there was absolutely nothing beneath me. It was so deep, it was improbable, right, because theoretically, there’s a mountain underneath there somewhere. I felt pretty dumb, being the crevasshole and everything, but there it was. And that’s why we were roped up, and that’s why you take crevasse rescue and glacier travel courses, etc, so that if something like this happens, you’re protected and you know what to do. After that whole to-do, we had to cross my nemesis somewhere, and found the spot where it’s most narrow to jump over it. It took some doing to work myself up to do it, but I did. and my body was just coursing with adrenaline. I’d pay for that later.
In retrospect, I didn’t take enough pictures looking into mouths of the bears.
Then, there was a long time of winding through crevasses intermingled with what was basically steep uphill crampon walking. A lot of this is steep enough that the most energy efficient way to climb it is by grape vining in your mountaineering boots.
When we finally came out of the icebox/bowling alley crevasse-filled adventure section, we were significantly off-route, headed the wrong direction, and it appeared that what was between us and the official route was just one large funhouse the size of Disney World. The only option, it seemed, was to head for a terrifically steep headwall, ascend it, and figure out what the fuck to do. During this vertical snow climb, we saw a couple folks on the ridge above us, and we all waved and shouted like friendly neighbors. It was our friends from camp (who else could it possibly be?), coming up the Gibraltar Ledges route.
As usual, the scariest part of a vertical snow climb is knowing that you have to downclimb it. But what was also fun, was when Dan got to the top and said, “Don’t look in the crevasse.” Which was exciting for two reasons:
- How could there be a crevasse on a vertical snow climb.
- No one has ever resisted the urge to look in the crevasse after someone tells them not to.
- How could there be a crevasse on a vertical snow climb?!
- You really, really had to cross a crevasse on this vertical snow climb.
- I’m pretty sure I’m afraid of nothing besides crevasses and avalanches anymore.
If it wasn’t such a sketchy situation, I would’ve loved to take a picture of the crevasse-in-the-vertical-snow-climb situation, because it was fucking cool and beautiful. Anyway, here’s Dan on the top of the ridge:
And another shot, same place different angle,
This is about where I started to feel really sick, I think from the adrenaline wearing off. And that’s where we’ll leave it for now. To be continued …