The Grand Teton

A couple weeks ago I did a race called the Speedgoat. It’s a highly specialized kind of race for mountain runners, and represents, at least to me, the big show. Leading up to it, I thought I had something to prove, at least to myself. I wanted to know that I’m a great mountain runner, I wanted to be recognized, I wanted to see it in print in the results. When you work so hard at anything, it’s natural for anyone to want to be successful at it, right?

Well, I failed. I came in 20th. It was the first time I’ve ever tried to actually race a race, to give it my all. No matter how bad I felt I would think, “Am I going as hard as I can right now?” and the answer was always, “Yes.” I went as hard as I could, and I still failed. It was heartbreaking. I had thought being a mountain runner was my identity, and now here I was, not even good at it.

I’ve been dreaming about the Grand Teton for years, long before I ever saw it in person 3 years ago. About 3 million people go to Grand Teton National Park every year to stand on the sidewalk at one of the overlooks and take their picture in front of that big elegant beast. I’m sleeping at the park boundary, and I drove past it today, and saw dozens of the people posing with arms outstretched, no doubt for Instagram. I dreamed of the Picnic, of the Grand Traverse, of putting a fast time on the Owen Spalding route, just of standing up there.

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First Teton trip, pc Skylar Lincoln

My second trip to the Tetons was to climb, but we got rained on pretty much every day and it was later in the season so the Grand was covered in verglass, we had just missed the window to climb it. On the last day of our trip, we had a rare beautiful day and summited the Middle Teton. The route up the Middle starts from the south side, so when you gain the ridge you get a breath taking view of the Grand. It made my heart rage in my ribs like a jungle cat, it brought tears to my eyes. I said, probably out loud, because I’m weird like that, “I’ll come back for you.”

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Grand Teton from the Middle Teton

It was on that trip that I understood what it is to fall in love with a line, a mountain, and thus to have a responsibility to it. I don’t know if people that don’t climb can understand climbing objectively, from the outside. It takes years to develop the strength and skills and confidence to even have any business going up there in the first place, let alone attempting it, let alone actually being successful and summiting. I know people don’t get it because they’re always asking “why?” Because you have to.

I sped into the Lupine Meadows parking lot at 1:10am, I was late because I hadn’t ever measured how long it takes me to get there and I had underestimated it (nobody’s surprised). I met my partner for the first time, the night before we had set up this climb last minute through Mountain Project. His name is AJ, he works for the forest service. We’re packed up in a matter of minutes and blazing on the trail with headlamps. I say blazing because the guy is like eight feet tall and hikes extraordinarily fast, so fast I’m often running to catch up with him. It wouldn’t have been a challenge, except that just a few hours before, I had run the Middle Teton,

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And then gotten no sleep, not even for a minute, so I was a little tired. When we reached the meadows, we could see the headlamps of a handful of other climbers both above and below us, getting ready for what promised to be an extraordinary day, however it turned out. Just above the first rock climb, we couldn’t find the trail and so did what turned out to be a totally unnecessary snow climb, but at least we used our axes since it turned out they were unnecessary for the mountain, the remainder of snow on the upper mountain had just finally melted off.

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My partner AJ

Twilight came, and then sunrise. As we got higher, the views of the middle and the rest of the southern part of the range got more and more incredible. I read once that when you’re in nature all the time, when you make it your home, it ceases to be beautiful and it just becomes normal. I don’t think the guy that said it meant it in a bad way, but I hate that. It’s never happened to me, and I was fortunate to have an equally incredulous partner, both of us continually astounded by how beautiful everything was. After a lot of difficult and high consequence scrambling, we roped up on an exposed catwalk they call Wall Street for 1700 feet of exposed and difficult rock climbing.

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Yeah those people up there, other climbers getting ready to start the ridge

Throughout and after the climb we couldn’t stop saying how awesome and amazing it all was, and I’m not sure what else to say about it. There was tons of exposure, there was tons of beautiful climbing, there was some shitty climbing. Some parts were easier and we simul climbed (still roped up, but climbing at the same time instead of one belaying to protect the one climbing), some parts were harder. I hand jammed with gloves on and pulled off a heel hook on wet, snowy granite. AJ climbed beautifully and confidently but I don’t think we made any of the same moves on any pitch, we climbed so differently, which was very cool. The V Pitch was possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever climbed.

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Here’s me at the top of the V Pitch, this amazing photo by AJ

The confidence that I lack in climbing was really on display, at least three times I yelled to AJ checking that he had used gear to anchor himself to wherever he was in case I was about to fall on my next move. I never did fall, and those moves I executed beautifully, but I suppose it’s apparent why I don’t want to lead trad. Every time I do something hard and scary, I think, “Now I am fearless!” But then, something harder and scarier happens.

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AJ on the Exum ridge

I broke several of my toenails in the Speedgoat race, and all the steep and technical running I’ve done since being in the Tetons hasn’t helped, so 10 hours in climbing shoes was more painful than I can describe. There’s a last little bit of easy but high consequence simul-climbing to the summit, and the pain was so extraordinary that I thought I couldn’t bear another step. Getting those shoes off was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me, and I’ll never again make fun of people that complain about their climbing shoes. Also, there were summit gummy bears!

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Summit of the Grand motherfucking Teton

Upon the summit, we found several other teams, some we had been in proximity with throughout the day. Climbers are such cool folks. I’ve complained a lot about the people I come across in the mountains of Colorado, but you don’t find those sorts of folks in the Tetons. There’s no jealousy or competition. The Tetons are so brutal, I wonder if it’s that the sort of folks that are badass enough to climb them are much too cool to be competitive, and the people that can’t climb them are so humbled they feel inspired instead of jealous? Anyway, the folks on the summit were so badass and cool, and I feel very fortunate that these are the people I’m surrounded by now.

We hadn’t taken pictures yet, but teams started leaving and we hoped to tag along so we didn’t have to find the rappel stations ourselves, so we rushed to put away the rope and a very cool dude from Bozeman took a couple quick pictures (above) for us before we hastened out. At that point, we had no idea that the downclimb would easily be the crux of the route. The rap stations weren’t hard to find, and the raps themselves were extraordinary. The following downclimbing was just awful. Miserable, way too difficult, butt puckering, sometimes exposed, and everything made worse by our bodies hurting and a day’s worth of adrenaline ebb and flow. And, probably, a hard climb yesterday and a night of no sleep to speak of. I said many times, “I’m never doing this again.” And as usual, when things are scary and high consequence and also really, really scary (it bears repeating), I thought, “I’m done with mountains.” Only once, I warned AJ that he might be about to see me cry, on a 20 foot chimney with a roof that you have to downclimb, but I somehow kept it together, despite my nervous system being well over capacity and my fear and adrenaline being far outside what I considered to be my acceptable limits.

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Middle from the Exum ridge

I texted several important people “It was everything.” Afterwards. and I couldn’t mean it more. It was beautiful, painful, terrifying, surreal, brutal, fierce, extraordinary, powerful, life-affirming, joyous, crippling, heinous. At one point we even called the route disgusting. It’s hard to pick and describe any particular moment, but I often felt the most scared and the happiest I’ve ever been at the same time. An alpine climb like this, you get the entire range of the human experience all in the same day, and sometimes all in the same moment. Every cliched quote imaginable is applicable here, I kept thinking “you’re stronger than you seem and braver than you believe” afterwards, but in the moment all you can think of is, “I don’t have a choice I have to do this no matter how hard it is or terrified I am.”

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the Exum ridge to the Grand

Our bodies had been so broken by such an accomplishment, 7100 feet gained, 14200 total change (my knees and toenails will never be the same), 2700 feet of rock climbing, 2 long rappels, approximately (here I’m guessing) 2700 feet of downclimbing, we struggled to put one foot in front of the other for the last few miles back to our cars. We kept saying, “I can’t believe we just did that.” And in one day. We divied up our gear, hugged, and went our separate ways. The moment I started driving, I wept. Not for one particular reason, but for all of them. I had just realized an enormous dream, years in the making, and it was harder and more beautiful than I ever could have conceived. I’ve done lots of things now that I never believed I could, I’ve had lots of wonderful successes in the mountains, I’ve stood up to and overcame fear many times before. Each time it’s like it’s on a bigger scale.

me on exum ridge

Me on Exum, photo by AJ

 

 

There’s a part in Again to Carthage where he talks about ascent, unfortunately I’m in Jackson at the library and not a home where I can look it up (and I just checked, this library doesn’t have it). The quote also isn’t on the internet, so I have to paraphrase. He’s talking about how different regular adult life is from running full time, and how when you’re running full time, you’re always on an ascent. You’re always bettering yourself, and the results are measurable. Day to day, year to year, you’re getting stronger, faster, etc. But in regular life, it’s sort of like you have wins and losses, things happen, and it all goes along pretty steadily. And he misses so much that feeling of always being the ascent. I’m pretty sure I’m very lucky to have a life like that. Looking back on the race, now, after something so much bigger and more important, like the Grand, I can’t even believe I bothered to do that race, let alone be hurt by the results. There is no race that makes you extraordinary, it wasn’t even a particularly interesting experience. Every moment that you choose to overcome, to be stronger or better, to be scared out of your mind and do it anyway, that is what makes you extraordinary.

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Rainier pt 2

so here we areGOPR4481.JPG

We’ve ascended this nightmare headwall, and arrived on top of this ridge. In this picture, you can see my partner in the very corner, but just down the ridge from him you can barely make out the two figures of Zach and Tom, our friends from camp.

I think I already mentioned that I, at least, had the feeling that any moment we would come to the obstacle that was the reason that only one team had gone all the way up. At this point, we were well off the GPS track of our route, on this ridge, looking up at heavily crevassed danger field. We speculated on potential routes, and thought we’d collaborate with our friends when they headed up.

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That’s Mt. St. Helens in the distance

The guys came up the ridge, and they felt pretty confident about the line they’d been scoping from a little lower, so they headed up slowly betwixt two large crevasses that may or may not be connected, hoping for a strong snow bridge, Tom driving his axe in with every step.

We headed up behind them, and I thought, once this was all over, I would share the morale apple cobbler with our new friends.

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This part was nerve wracking, and I was very nauseous and a little shaky now after all that adrenaline had worn off. It’s more than a little unnerving to know that under each step, there may or may not be anything but a couple inches of snow and a lot of nothingness. As we crested the next point, the top of this section, we could see that actually, this steep snow climb just continues forever.

Which is a mindfuck, right? Just side step after side step of steep snow and bears everywhere, although they’re getting smaller as we get higher. Sometimes, they look filled in, and sneak up on you. Sometimes, they look filled in but they’re not, really.

This section really dragged. I was still wondering what was yet to come. My watch said we had quite a lot of gain left to go, and I was unsure if over the top of one of these crests we would find something really spicy, or what anything might look like. I started to think about, if I died, how screwed my family would be trying to sort out my life. This is silly and very specific, but I thought, my parents won’t know where my storage unit is, and the bed my dad made me is in there, and they wouldn’t want to lose that probably, but since they don’t know where it is, they won’t know to get it out (nor would they have the key, which was in that monstrous rental car in the Paradise parking lot) or pay the rent on the unit, and what if Jim sells my stuff because the rent’s not paid? And I though, well at least Pip is with her family.

Dan stopped, and I don’t remember why it came up, but I admitted to him that I was struggling with morale, despite that high morale is usually one of my major strengths. “Actually, I’m thinking about what would happen if I died.” He looked nonplussed, and handed me some chocolate. “Don’t do that.” I’m pretty sure is what he said.

I started counting my steps, 1-100, and we carried on. Side step, side step, side step, side step, switch axe to other hand, change foot direction. Side step, side step, side step, side step. 98, 99, 100, 1, 2, 3 … infinity side steps.

I saw on my watch when we had 1000 feet left, and I couldn’t believe it. Side step, side step, step over tiny crevasse, side step. Cross over. As we ate up more feet and rose in elevation, I started wondering if this was really going to be it. Could there be one more pit of despair that blocked us from the summit? When we were getting really close, something caused us to stop for a moment, and neither of us were that stoked. My belly was raging and I couldn’t do anything besides apologize and poop into a blue bag. When we got back up to continue, it was mere moments before we reached the crater rim.

We saw our friends’ packs stashed there, and the guys in the flesh heading towards us across the crater, after being the 4th and 5th people to stand on the summit all winter. We removed our packs and adjusted our gear so we were only carrying essentials, and headed across the crater.

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We arrived at what looked like the high point of the rim to find that another point further along the rim looked higher, so we continued.

I wish so much that I could say we were celebrating, that it was all joy and excitement and maybe even tears, high fives, and hugs. I think the anticlimax had a lot to do with the descent that we still had ahead of us. But looking back, after all that had happened, we were there. Standing on top of motherfucking Mt. Rainier in the winter. We had done it, despite the 5% whatever chance that Ranger Seth had given us. Despite the crappy weather forecast, and the playing of the weather lottery that we were doing in the first place by booking plane tickets for a notoriously volatile mountain. Despite the bears that were fucking everywhere. Despite the piles of new snow accumulation that might have created a high chance of avalanche. Despite our legs that were screaming from carrying around an extra 50 pounds for a couple days. Despite the fucking fear that plagues anyone doing anything interesting. Fear that you could die here, fear of discomfort, of falling, of failing, of not being good enough, of being alone up there. Of feeling so, so very small. I’ve met a lot of climbers that have big egos, which is so absurd because if you spend any time up there, the mountains will put you in your place.

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But here we were. This holy mother of mountains had allowed us to share her bigness just for this moment.

Of course, it didn’t seem real, yet.

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We were the 6th and 7th summits of the winter.

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Looking back from where we came from, it looked like that point might actually be higher. So we trudged back and took more summit pictures just in case. When we got back to camp, I’d ask the Zach if they knew which point was the summit, and he said no. We then asked the other Dan, who had summited Rainier 8x, and he also said no. We consulted a map, and Dan told us that every time he’s been on either one, the other looked higher. I would eventually find out, after making it back home to CO, that the difference was between Point Success and Columbia Crest, and that the northern point, the second we visited, was actually slightly higher. So we have a lot of summit pictures.

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We had a snack back on the crater rim, and I sent the “summit” message on the SPOT, as I had left it in my pack and neglected to take it to the actual summit.

Mt. Rainier is still an active volcano, which is very easy to remember when you’re standing upon its crater. It last erupted in 1894, and I can’t find exactly how high it used to be, but apparently it lost a lot of height in that eruption. It’s on the decade list, one of the 16 volcanoes in the world most likely to erupt in the next 10 years. They say that the ash and mud flows could bury the PNW, from Vancouver to San Francisco. Apparently, up to five earthquakes are recorded near the summit of Rainier every month. I hadn’t ever yet met a mountain that was this alive.

The story of the descent isn’t very interesting. I tried not to trip myself and we came down the steep snow quickly.

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We had to down climb the steep headwall, which scared the shit out of me. It was steep enough, remember, that one could not see their own feet beneath them. I laid out our options: building a deadman anchor with our picket and rappelling off of it, untying because a fall would take us both down and self arresting was unlikely on this steep of grade, or remaining tied in and attempting to belay each other off an axe anchor which might decrease the magnitude of a fall.

Dan said he wasn’t worried, and planted his axe to makeshift belay me down the first 20 feet or so, the steepest part of the down climb. I’m going to go ahead and admit that I was shaking visibly, and had to kick each step in 3 or 4 times to make sure it was good before I bore weight on it. There was a brief section that my axe and front points bit into like ice, which was glorious for about 10 feet of stability, then back to the unpredictable snow for what seemed like forever. Much longer, anyway, than the up climb of it. Dan came down like he was casually descending a ladder from his roof or something. Down climbing isn’t a strong suit of mine, but I feel as though I at least got a bachelor’s degree in it after what seemed like hours but was probably 30 minutes of gritting my teeth and hoping for the best.

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Dan had shit to do for a minute, so I stopped and took some pictures and sat still for a bit. I thought about how I would describe this day to my parents. It was terrifying, beautiful, really hard, and amazing. We weren’t down yet, but we were most of the way to Camp Muir, and certainly past the worst of things, and I cried and cried, finally. My nervous system is well trained to stay calm and not cry until I can afford that energy to be wasted, and apparently I felt safe enough here.

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Still, this place is just full of sleeping bears.

We wove through the icebox and bowling alley area, carefully following the route we took up. We jumped over the crevasse that had tried to eat me earlier. We tapped down the ridge on fresh ice, thick like the bottom of a tourist boat. We stood atop Cathedral Gap and looked back at Camp Muir. We had come a long way, and it looked like home.

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“What is there to eat?” Dan asked.

“Noodles.” I answered.

The snow on the Cowlitz glacier was so wet from the sun, it was balling badly on our crampons and actually being pretty hazardous, so we stopped to take them off. The snow immediately hardened on the next part of the route, of course. When we pulled into camp, we untied ourselves, and I managed the rope immediately (why?). We were welcomed with congratulations and whoops of victory from all of our camp friends. I had been hoping they’d be here, instead of trying to descend the whole damn thing that night.

We had heard that the new forecast might include very high winds on Sunday, with a new storm system rolling in. We had discussed going down to Paradise on Saturday night, whatever ended up happening on Summit Day, but throughout the day it had become apparently that we would stay at Camp Muir that night, and especially moreso when we found our friends all still there, ready to spend the night.

“I think it’s going to be a while before either of us gets up to melt snow and make the noodles.” I admitted.

 

“Well, are there eggs?” Reese’s eggs, and yes, there were. Victory Reese’s.

It still didn’t feel real, that we had summited. I guess because we weren’t all the way down to safety, and so the climb wasn’t yet over. But it felt glorious, sitting out in the sun and shooting the shit, telling stories, looking at maps. Talking about all of our respective climbs. Craig and Dan had seen all of us converge on that ridge above the headwall.

“There’s two of them.”

“No, there’s all four of them.”

“What? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“No, look. They’re all up there together.”

And turned around shortly thereafter, too late of a start.

We made noodles and ate them. We sat outside a little longer. It’s tricky, because you can’t let yourself get cold, as you won’t be able to warm yourself up if you do. So one by one, we all ended up retiring to our sleeping bags. I got up a little later and made the Victory Apple Cobbler, a foil Backpacker’s Pantry bag that contained “apple mix” that I would cook in snowmelt for 10 minutes, or more at altitude, then “cobbler mix” that I would mix with snowmelt, spread on the “apple mix” and cook for another 5 or so. Kind of complicated for dehydrated backpacker food, I thought. I gathered the bowls of all of the occupants in the shelter and distributed a scoop to each, which wasn’t a large volume of food, but it was fucking delicious. Like, one of the most delicious memories I have in my life. And I’d wager, with the stunning realness with which I can taste it in my mouth right now, that I will always remember the taste of the victory cobbler, as we celebrated two teams’ successful Rainier summits with our friends at Camp Muir.

I woke up in the middle of the night to pee, unfortunately, and since it makes your body struggle to keep itself warm, you can’t hold it. So I got up and found a snowdrift by the door. I pushed it open, stepped out, and the wind knocked me flat on my ass. There was a raging storm.

I wasn’t the only one who noticed, because nobody even started getting up until around 9am, which means we were all laying in our sleeping bags silently for hours, hoping that the yowling wind, that sounded like an earthquake or another natural disaster, would go away. 70mph winds. The atmosphere in the shelter was as different as it possibly could be. Soberly, we melted water, made our oatmeal, packed our bags.

Zach and Tom were ready to go first, and, as they would be navigating with map and compass, which they were totally proficient in, I told them if they had any trouble, I  was using trackback on the GPS and we would be following our track up precisely. A few minutes later, the other four of us were ready to go. Craig and Dan were on skis, and they were suddenly gone. Tom and Zach were still standing outside by the door. “I think we should stay together.” I agreed. The wind was so loud and hard that it drowned your voice immediately, and to talk, you had to lean to each others’ ears. Dan asked, “Are we going?” and I said, “Let’s go.” As we shouldered our packs, Dan disappeared, and Zach and Tom suddenly said “I think we should wait, I don’t think we should go.” And just like that, they were through the door into the shelter.

I turned to talk to Dan, but I couldn’t see him anywhere. I started yelling his name, and heard no response. Visibility was literally your feet, and that’s it. It turned out, Dan was less than 10 feet away, and the reality of the situation was as heavy as this mountain all of a sudden. We only needed to be a few feet away from each other to lose each other completely. And we would navigating fully blind, relying totally on the GPS to keep us from walking off a cliff or crossing onto the Nisqually glacier. I told Dan the other guys were going to wait, I didn’t know if we should too? He said, “Wait for what?” and he was right, the storm could have gone on for days, we had no reason to suspect it would clear in a few hours (it didn’t, it went on for several days).

So we started down the mountain. I was in front, pulling back my expedition mitts to check the GPS every minute or two. Dan immediately behind me, so that I could see his snowshoes, and he, mine. We took tiny steps. Because we couldn’t see anything at all, there was also no depth perception, and grade changes or even just changes in the amount of windsweptness threw us off and sometimes caused us to fall. The wind also knocked us down several times. Sometimes the wind blew so hard for so long, it seemed like we would never be able to move again, and might freeze into statues right where we were, in our stances trying to resist it. I followed every weave we had made on our GPS track. With no way of knowing what was meandering that we did, or what slight turns were made to avoid ridges or cliffs, I had to. I’ve never been so hot, but meanwhile, every inch of skin had to be covered because the wind would destroy it. Adjustments were obviously no option at all. We stopped twice, once for each of us to re-attach rogue snowshoes that had tried to bust off on the weirdly angled terrain, in addition to all the times we stopped to resist the wind and check the GPS.

It seemed like days. This was another good mindfuck, because you never felt like you were getting anywhere. There was only white, in the whole world. Just white, barren, hostile. Because I was responsible for navigating us off safely, the thought of dying out there was pushed into a corner of my mind, so instead, I could use all of my brainpower to stay calm and make good decisions. 1, 2, 3 … 98, 99, 100. We crossed light ski tracks a few times, and hoped our friends were safe.

I could tell we were getting to the base of the snowfield, and the steep, shitty couloir we’d have to descend to get off of it, but it was hard to tell which was it. The turn would be to the right, but all signs pointed to walking off of a cliff,  basically. Dan thought he recognized one of the chutes, and there was suddenly a snow wand like two feet from my foot. It was marking our turn.

The descent in boots and snowshoes was already quite painful, and I already have a lot of toenail problems (including several dead and marked for falling off, but not quite there yet) and now, on this even steeper part, I ground my teeth against the excruciating pain of my right big toenail actually coming off, and the left about halfway. After leaving the snowfield and approaching treeline, the storm was much less terrifying, and we could vaguely see two figures about 30 feet away. We assumed them to be Craig and Dan, the skiers, and approached them, only to find two complete strangers. They were a couple that had plans of ascending the snowfield to Camp Muir to practice their skills, but had gotten lost in the storm the night before and now couldn’t find their way back to Paradise. We brought them along, and continued on.

After another seemingly hours (but was probably 45 minutes) there were tents, and people. Like, hundreds of people and tent cities everywhere. There was hustle and bustle, like the winter version of Burning Man. There were folks geared up everywhere, laying on the ground, being “rescued” by their partners. These were guided groups being trained in crevasse rescue and glacier travel, but presumably because of the storm, they were doing it right outside Paradise. This was the greatest feeling of culture shock I have ever experienced. My eyes were crusted thick with ice, as I had abandoned glasses because they were immediately fogged and covered in ice. We felt weathered, as we wove through these camps of humans pretending to do all the things we had just done.

The overnight parking lot at Paradise had two cars in it when we left, one of them being ours, and now it was full. There were maybe 75 cars. We dropped our packs and screamed at the top of our lungs, “WE DID IT! WE FUCKING CLIMBED MT RAINIER! OH MY GOD! WE REALLY DID IT! WE SUMMITED MT. RAINIER!” We hugged and congratulated each other and Dan said, “I finally don’t feel like we’re going to die anymore.” We got the Rainier beer out and cheersed.

Looking back, yeah, we risked our lives. We did some really dangerous shit, faced major objective hazards, and came out okay. It wasn’t because we were lucky, which we also were, but because we were ready. Hidden crevasses is one of the additional dangers of winter ascents, but that accident was handled perfectly, textbook, and I’m lucky to have such a good partner that did everything right. That’s why we take courses, practice, train. Climbing up and down that headwall was one of the scarier parts for me, but it wasn’t as dangerous as it was scary, that’s one of those mindset things. Navigating the Muir snowfield blind is how 200 something people have died on it, but we had our GPS and knew how to use it, acted carefully, and made good decisions, and it delivered us back to the car in excellent, if bedraggled and shaky, condition (along with some extra hikers that didn’t know how to use their GPS). Sure, we were uncomfortable and scared lots of times, but we weren’t in over our heads. I’m just so very proud of us for being calm and doing everything right, for being brave and strong enough. I had told the climbing ranger that we’re risk averse, and we are.

We stopped at Longmire to check out with our permit. “What should I write in comments?”

“Fuck yeah.”

“Okay.”

“Wait, did you actually write that?”

“Yes.”

The rangers were concerned about our friends Zach and Tom, as Zach’s mom had been calling, and I guess there was a discrepancy of when they were supposed to be back. They must not have a SPOT, since our moms were watching our every move on a map via satellite. We told the rangers every detail of the story, and that they were waiting it out safely at Camp Muir, and that yes, their moms could call us if that would help them feel better (they did). Climbing ranger Kelly called that evening to let us know that they made it out okay, they must have decided to go for it a few hours after we left.

We stopped to drop a few things off and use the bathrooms at Whitaker, and Dan said, “I want to tell everyone.” So we did. At the first gas station, we stopped for snacks, and it was overwhelming that you could have whatever you want, all laid out there in front of you. We weren’t even on the mountain that long. That afternoon, showered and dressed in regular people clothes after removing our sewer-smelling layers in the middle “transition section” of the rental car, we were eating pizza in Seattle, altitude: 3 feet above sea level. I can tell you, there is nothing more surreal.

The next morning, we packed up all of our [soaking wet] things and got in a metal cylinder with wings, that lifted up into the sky and brought us back to Colorado in about 2 hours. Just like that, it was over. The culmination of years of training, experience, courses, climbing, running, and living in the sky, just like that, was over. We had won the weather lottery, the trip was a complete success. We had summited Mt. Rainier.

“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars. You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness. I take my two pipes in the afternoon, no more, and no less. And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed— because ‘Thou mayest.’” East of Eden, Steinbeck

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For anyone who’s interested, here’s our GPS tracks:

https://www.strava.com/activities/1484642139/embed/ead8fd472b750eaa278860b7953358baf9623fa6

https://www.strava.com/activities/1484642873/embed/1b771a629db605eabb42d104ca12acb5f200d1e7

https://www.strava.com/activities/1484643337/embed/d89e3285455babd6e0782f6e025746d9abe91dfe

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rainier pt 1

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.

 

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Camp Muir is in the near middle of this picture, just to the right of that snowy peak in the distance

 

“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.

 

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This is obviously from Mt. Elbert, not Rainier

 

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.

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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,

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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:

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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.

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Then, suddenly (after taking jackets off and putting them back on 60 times):

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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.

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But it was super beautiful.

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And we were getting really close.

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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.

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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):

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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:

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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.

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In retrospect, I didn’t take enough pictures looking into  mouths of the bears.

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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.

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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:

  1. How could there be a crevasse on a vertical snow climb.
  2. No one has ever resisted the urge to look in the crevasse after someone tells them not to.
  3. How could there be a crevasse on a vertical snow climb?!
  4. You really, really had to cross a crevasse on this vertical snow climb.
  5. 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:

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And another shot, same place different angle,

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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 …