Ever since I first saw Mount Rainier on a day trip to Mount Rainier National Park last year, I had my eyes set on getting closer and setting foot on the upper mountain. Seeing climbers preparing and setting off from Paradise inspired me to take on the challenge of attempting a climb myself. After booking a trek for September 2020, training for 8 months and riding the rollercoaster of COVID-19 threatening to impact/delay my journey, I finally had my chance to take on the most glaciated peak in the contiguous U.S. and the tallest mountain in the state of Washington.
It was a short, jammed packed trip to say the least. I flew into Seattle on Thursday evening and planned to fly home early Tuesday morning after coming off the mountain Monday evening. All in all, four days in Washington with three days of climbing and two nights camping on the mountain was my set itinerary. We had a team of 8 climbers with 4 guides.
After a quick hotel stay in uptown Seattle and fighting to avoid jet lag, I met up with my climbing team at Alpine Ascents International headquarters for our gear check. Alpine Ascents did an incredible job preparing us early on for what we should expect and pack. They outlined everything on their website and sent us numerous reading materials and videos to ensure we could prepare as much as possible before meeting for our final gear check. This gear check was meant as a verification for the guides (and us to a lesser extent) that we had everything we would need for a safe expedition and was led by Lakpa who would be our lead guide. We took out every piece of gear we brought, and one by one went through the gear list, showing Lakpa and getting his approval that it met expectations. At this point I was just shoving things haphazardly back into my duffel bag and backpack, planning to take more time later to properly organize and pack and hoping that everything would fit.
Everyone drove individually from Seattle to Mount Rainier National Park (about a 2 hour drive southwest). I had booked an AirBnB for Friday evening so I didn’t have to get up super early Saturday morning to make the drive. I was able to properly pack (everything fit!) and mentally prepare for the journey I’d been awaiting for over a year. A quick check of the summit weather forecast showed high winds for our summit day, so I started to prepare mentally for both a challenge and the potential that summiting may not be an option. Of course I was hopeful that we would be able to summit, but preparing for disappointment early could help make a life saving decision easier when you’re in the heat of the moment.
We hit the trail at 9am Saturday morning after brief introductions and final packing optimization tweaks in the lower Paradise parking lot (the overnight lot). It was a gorgeous hike along the popular paved trails of Skyline enroute to Pebble Creek and ultimately the Muir Snowfield. There were some severe forest fires in Oregon and California prior to and during our trek and the winds brought the smoke over northwest Washington. Visibility was limited, my eyes stung a bit, and breathing was sometimes difficult, but the subalpine meadows and hazy outline of Mount Rainier kept me focused and inspired to push on.
The rule of thumb was that our team climbed 1,000 feet non-stop (about 1 hour) before we took a 5 – 10 minute break to eat, drink and do whatever else was needed. Dropping our packs and sitting on them became a welcomed norm throughout the climb. I learned how to optimize my time on these breaks to ensure I was eating and drinking enough to fuel my body as we climbed higher (about 200 calories and 1/2 liter of water per break was my average).
After about two hours, we hit the beginning of Muir Snowfield, an iconic 2.2 mile strip of snow (actually more of a glacier itself but still referred to as a “snow field”) that climbs about 3,000 feet to Camp Muir, our final destination for day 1. We donned our mountaineering boots for better traction and started our first snow/ice section of our route. It was still pretty sunny (and hazy because of the smoke) and about 60 degrees at this point, so I was just in a sun hoodie and my softshell pants still.
During breaks, our guides would check in with us to see how we were faring and tell us tidbits of information about themselves and the mountain. Mount Everest came up as a topic and Lakpa had us going that he had never been to the summit. We soon learned that Lakpa is a Sherpa who got his start with Alpine Ascents in Nepal leading Everest expeditions and had the opportunity to come to America and continue leading various other climbs. He is the company’s lead Everest guide and has led 26 Everest expeditions. Needless to say, we were in good hands on Rainier. One other helpful tip we learned was “pressure breathing”, which basically is exhaling like you’re blowing out a candle. This helps to expend all of the gases in your lungs allowing more air to be taken in on the next inhalation. Helpful when each inhale you take at higher elevations contains less and less oxygen as you climb higher.
After about 5 hours of climbing, we reached Camp Muir at 10,000 feet. Our tents were already set up for us just beyond Camp Muir on the Cowlitz Glacier. Everyone got their own tents on the expedition (one of the positive sides of COVID?) and we spent a lot of time in them. This part really surprised me because I’m used to sitting around camp visiting, but I soon learned when mountaineering, getting as much time horizontal as possible is vital to proper recovery and future success higher on the mountain. We all took to our tents for some rest prior to a quick dinner and an early night. Everyone was tucked away again in their tents by 7pm that evening and we were told to be up, packed and ready 8am the next morning.
I had a fairly restful night of sleep despite the wind picking up and shaking the tent throughout the evening. I stayed warm and was very pleased with how my body was reacting to the elevation. Previously, I had only been up to about 9,000 feet while snowboarding and 6,400 feet while hiking, so I had no idea how sleeping at 10,000 feet would affect me. No headaches, nausea or other ailments. It seems I was acclimating well to this new environment.
We trained for three hours Sunday morning, learning vital skills that we would need in order to safely maneuver higher on the mountain, including moving while wearing crampons on both ice and rock, how to stop a fall and self-arrest using an ice axe, and how to efficiently move while on a rope team. From Camp Muir on we would be on rope teams of three, connected by a rope about 30 feet apart. This formation was set to ensure that only one person was traversing a crevasse at a time and would act as a “human anchor” system in the case of a fall.
Around 12pm, we set off across Cowlitz Glacier and through Cathedral Gap, climbing about 1,000 feet to high camp situated on Ingraham Glacier between Cathedral Rocks and Disappointment Cleaver.
Again, we rested the entire afternoon in our tents upon arriving to camp at 11,100 feet before dinner and our final briefing for our summit attempt. The guides were very real with us this night. They explained that making it to the summit is not a guarantee and that there are a number of reasons why continuing on may not be possible. Part of mountaineering is adapting to what the mountain throws at you, and sometimes that means making a decision to turn around to ensure you can safely make it off the mountain. Reaching the summit is optional, but getting down safely is mandatory. We were reminded to pace ourselves to ensure we had “enough gas in the tank” to make the descent to the parking lot safely and to be honest with our guides about how we were feeling. Overall this conversation set a much needed serious tone as we all prepared for the uncertainties of the upper mountain.
Later that night, I heard the guides talking about how the wind forecast had increased. At this point, I was fully prepared to not make it to the summit. I was going to give it my all, but respect my limits and what the mountain allowed me to do. Going to bed, I was calm, relaxed and frankly content with everything that had happened thus far and what might be in store as we climbed higher.
Even with the wind howling, shaking and bending my tent throughout the night, I slept for 5 hours and was awoken by Lakpa screaming my name (apparently he’d been trying to get me up for a few minutes, but I was out cold). It was 1am and time to start preparing for our summit bid.
Everything that happened once we hit the trail around 2am Monday morning is a bit of a blur. One climber decided to not continue, so 10 of us (7 climbers and 3 guides) navigated across Ingraham Glacier and accessed Disappointment Cleaver. It is an interesting feeling climbing on rock while wearing crampons (we didn’t want to stop to take our crampons off due to overhead fall danger and to not waste time). Switchback after switchback illuminated only by our headlamps we ascended Disappointment Cleaver. My rope team was last and we increasingly fell behind the other two teams. Our climbing partner was having a hard time catching his breath (we were at ~ 12,000 feet at this point) and we stopped a few times between rock scrambling. To be honest, this ascent in darkness was frightening. With only the knowledge that “a slip here could kill the entire rope team” to calm my mind, it was just putting one foot in front of the other and cringing as the steel crampons scrapped against the rock.
We finally reached our first break at the top of Disappointment Cleaver. By the time we arrived, three climbers had decided they were going to turn around and the guides had to break the news to two others that they were not comfortable taking them higher on the mountain due to a combination of perceived fatigue and a few too many stumbles/falls on the previous section. This left Lakpa, one other climber and myself on the final summit bid team. We were feeling strong, albeit a little sketched out from the previous rock scramble, and Lakpa felt confident enough in us to continue on alone, sending the other 2 guides back to high camp with the other 5 climbers.
And so we climbed, higher onto the mountain, switchback after switchback on hard glacial ice with three feet of visiblity illuminated by our headlamps. When we reached High Break at 13,500 feet, both myself and the other climber were feeling a little strained. I think we pushed a little too hard on the last 100 feet or so of climbing. I almost lost the snack I ate at our first break. We were both considering turning around at this point, but Lakpa encouraged us to rest, eat and drink before making any decisions. I am forever grateful for Lakpa because he encouraged us to push forward. He said we were doing great and that he would not have agreed to continue taking us up alone if he didn’t believe we were strong enough to do it safely. This coming from a guide who leads Everest expeditions; he must tuly believe in us and our abilities. After snacking and resting, I felt much stronger and we decided to push on to the Crater Rim, about another 700 vertical feet away. Somewhere between High Break and the Crater Rim at about 13,850 feet, the wind started to pick up and gusts were close to knocking us off our feet. I felt a tug on the rope (I was in the middle) and looked back to see my climbing partner stopped, trying to catch his breath. Lakpa shouted back over the wind trying to see what was going on, but I had to play message courier between them. He had run out of gas and wanted to turn around. We were about 400 vertical feet from Crater Rim and 550 feet from Columbia Crest (the geological summit).
As the sun was beginning to rise, we descended on the same route we had just climbed. Now that I could see more than three feet in front of me, I was in awe of what we had accomplished. Seracs and crevasses were all around us shimmering hints of blue in the rising sun. It was breathtaking and terrifying all at the same time. We stopped at the top of Disappointment Cleaver to refuel, and I started to consider what had just happened. I was less than 600 vertical feet to the summit of Mount Rainier, and I was the last member of our 8 person climbing team to have “gas in the tank” to continue. While a little disappointed, I was not upset with the decision to turn around. We signed up for this expedition as a team, climbed as a team and we were all responsible for each other’s safety. At that moment, getting back down together took precedence over pushing unsafely past our limits.
We met up with the rest of our group at Camp Muir after descending on Disappointment Cleaver, passing high camp and climbing down through Cathedral Gap. Back on the Muir Snowfield where my first steps on glacier terrain began, the full impact of the journey hit me. With some of the smoke beginning to clear, Mount Rainier showed through as we descended. I left the mountain with a new sense of respect and awe for the high mountain environment. I would not have been able to make it as far as I did without the assistance and inspiration from the outstanding guides of Alpine Ascents, especially Lakpa who pushed me even when I started doubting myself. Even though I didn’t make it to the summit, I proved to myself that all of my training and preparation was enough to feel strong at high elevation and to know that I could have continued pushing on at 13,850 feet. For me, that was enough. The summit isn’t (and shouldn’t be) the only end goal of an expedition like this. Challenging myself and pushing my limits was my own “personal summit” proving “It’s not the destination; it’s the journey”. You win this time Mount Rainier, but I’ll be back to finish what I started.