I: Understanding the Mountain
From a hundred miles awaywe could make out its silhouette jutting up far above the horizon, still visible in the waning light of dusk. ‘The Mountain,’ Seattleites call it, for it requires no further description. Its height of 14,411 feet is only the fifth highest in the lower 48, yet it holds a special significance, exceeding that of Mt. Elbert and Mt. Whitney in prestige.
Mount Rainier, you could say, is our Everest. We’ve hiked nearly 300 miles on this trip and successfully scaled nine mountains, but all the while Rainier remained in the far corner of our minds. The challenge of Rainier lurked just beyond the horizon, and each hike completed meant we were closer to the foot of The Mountain.
A few weeks ago, when we found we wouldn’t be able to climb Grand Teton, because of our lack of expertise with technical climbing, we were devastated. Worse still, we thought: does this mean we won’t be able to climb Mt. Rainier, as well?
Mt. Rainier differed from Grand Teton in that no technical climbing was required in climbing it. But—and this is a big but—Mt. Rainier is covered in glaciers, and the route up to the top required hiking up steep inclines of snow-covered terrain. This meant three things: that we would have to wear crampons, use ice axes, and rope up for the ascent. Crampons are metal thingies with 10 two-inch thick points you attach on your boots for better grip on the snow. Ice axes allow you to self-arrest… to stop the forward progress of a fall down the mountain by sticking the axe in the snow and hoping that it slowed you down enough. The rope was in case one of us fell- then the others you were roped with could self-arrest and stop your fall.
Prior to our ascent of Mt. Rainier, none of us three had any experience with all three.
In comparison to climbing Grand Teton, the impression we got from our research was that for us, Mt. Rainier was actually doable. The route was well marked by wands with little colored flags stuck into the snow. What explained most failed ascents of Rainier was stamina. People wore themselves out by going too fast, or were simply not fit enough to go up the mountain. Hell, stamina was the ONLY thing we had going for us. We were no strangers to long, strenuous hikes and extreme altitude gain. As long as we got the equipment we needed and the weather smiled upon us, we had a good shot at conquering Rainier.
There was one thing, though. In all of our research, heavy mountaineering boots were highly recommended. You needed boots with ‘heft’ to get up the mountain, whatever that meant. We shrugged– we had no choice but to take our hiking boots, armed with crampons, up The Mountain.
II: The Equipment
The research we did also revealed that it was gonna be pretty cold up there. The weather forecast for Camp Muir, where we would spend the night before the ascent, predicted a temperature of 35 degrees. As for the summit? 20 degrees, give or take.
We needed more clothes to keep us warm. With our skintight budgets, we dragged our broke asses down to Goodwill, scrounged up Old Navy and Columbia fleece jackets that fit us, and took ‘em to the checkout counter.
We also stopped by a general store and bought gardener’s gloves, the ones with rubber grips. Scott took one look at these gloves and decided to rent gloves instead.
It isn’t that we were reckless, wearing gardeners’ gloves and secondhand goods up The Mountain. We knew how cold it was going to get up there. We bought stuff that we thought were going to keep us just warm enough to get to the top. The bare minimum. Some hardship was alright by us, as long as we got to the Peak.
From a rental shop, we got the technical equipment: crampons, ice axes, harnesses, helmets for each of us, and the rope. The rope weighed at least 20 pounds, and was probably 200 feet long, a half-inch thick in diameter. We stared at it, lifted it to test its heaviness, and thought: Mt.Rainier ain’t playin’.
III: The Snowfields of Muir
Remember Mt. Elbert? The tallest mountain in Colorado and the 2nd tallest of the lower 48? (Yes, the very same peak we chugged beer on.) The hike up to the peak of Elbert was 4.2 miles long and gained 4,500 in elevation.
The hike up to Camp Muir alone took 4.5 miles and also gained 4,500 feet. We lugged our equipment, our Old Navy fleece shirts, food, sleeping bags, and water (Kevin took the rope without complaint, cementing his title as the best hiker of us three) all the way up to the camp, at 10,000 feet.
It’d rained that morning, and we waited in the car with our bags all packed. Finally the rain cleared, leaving behind a thick fog that reduced visibility to probably 15, 20 feet. Squinting into the distance for the wands that marked the trail, we trudged in the wet snow from marker to marker. We saved our crampons for the ascent from Camp Muir, so we could barely gain purchase on the wet snow with our trail-beaten hiking boots.
Blanketed by the fog
Put yourselves in our slush-soaked shoes: climb two steps, and suddenly the snow gives away beneath your left foot, forcing you to quickly regain your balance with a quick jab step of the right foot. Now you’ve gained a total of one step, and you’ve exhausted the energy it would’ve taken for four steps. Then repeat the entire process a couple thousand times. We painstakingly earned every inch of the approach up to Camp Muir. And when we finally got there, the peak loomed still higher, 4,400 vertical feet above.
By the time we settled into camp, our shoes were soaked through and our feet were freezing.
IV: Camp Muir
One of the things that surprised us was how easy the process of getting a climbing permit was at the National Park. We strolled right into the Ranger Station, and the ranger asked “So when do you wanna start?” No questions asked.
But as we got to Camp Muir and settled into the public hut, we saw that the National Park wasn’t as careless as we thought. A couple rangers were stationed in their own private hut went around the area, checking with each group of climbers. When we were packing out our stuff, a ranger came into the hut. Just as Kevin took off one of his boots and turned it upside down so the water could drip out, the ranger took notice. An expression of mild incredulity crept over his face as he gestured towards the boot and spoke. Kevin just pointed at his boot and held up his index finger: only one pair of boots (and therefore was headed up the mighty mountain with them).
With a perplexed smile, the ranger left the hut.
We still had a slight problem that needed solving before we could go anywhere closer to the peak. We had the rope and a harness for each of us, yes. But we didn’t know the appropriate knots to tie and how far apart we were supposed to be. We found someone to help us solve these mysteries easily enough.
When we were finishing up our rope lesson, the park rangers turned up. Immediately, they launched into a series of questions:
Are these boots the only ones you have? (Yes. But we’ve got crampons.)
It’s going to be below freezing up there, and your feet will go numb, giving you less-than-sure footing. Are you sure you’re prepared to go up the mountain? (Yes.)
Are you fully aware of the dangers of going up the mountain? (Yes, we were well aware of the possibility that we’ll fall into a crevasse and freeze to death.)
Next they scrutinized our clothing.
You’re wearing cotton sweatshirts. These are USELESS when wet. Do you have any other clothing, with synthetic fabric? (No. But we’ll make do.)
Finally they turned their practiced eyes to our climbing expertise.
You’ve got all the equipment you need- ice axe, harness, rope, crampons- but do you know how to self-arrest? (Yes. Sort of. You just press the sharp end into the snow as you fall down the slope, right?)
How about if someone falls into a crevasse, and you’ve secured yourselves by self-arrest. Are you trained in any techniques of pulling the fallen man out of the crevasse? (No. There’ll be others around to help if this happens, right?)
The rangers had us there. Forcing other groups to help save us would be unfair to them, since we were going up the mountain unprepared. The rangers said they couldn’t force us to turn back, but they STRONGLY RECOMMENDED that we not attempt to climb any further.
The conversation was maddeningly frustrating. We were in better shape than anybody at Camp Muir. The rangers only took notice of us because we didn’t have fancy four-hundred-dollar mountaineering boots. And now they were encouraging us to turn back. We looked around, and saw unfit people preparing to go up the mountain on the coattails of their guides. Fifty-year old men with graying hair and potbellies had passed the rangers’ inspection because they had North Face jackets, $100 snow pants, mountaineering boots that cost a small fortune, and enough money left over to hire a guide.
We defiantly told the rangers that we were going up the mountain, no matter what. We thanked them for their concern, told them we’d be cautious and turn back at the first sign of unsure footing, but we were going to at least try.
We retired to our uncooked canned dinners, and climbed into our sleeping bags at around 7 PM. The alarm was set for 11:30. Our ascent was slated to begin at half past midnight.
As we lay in our sleeping bags, an idea came to us. The problem with our hiking boots was that they got soaking wet, and the dampness accelerated the freezing of our feet. Why not use plastic bags to line our boots, to separate the damp from getting into our socks, thus keeping our feet dry and warm? It was a good idea, but we didn’t have enough plastic bags with us to put this idea in effect.
We were pondering a solution while drifting in and out of sleep, when Scott got up to go to the john. There were a couple outhouses just outside the hut. When he got back, he announced jubilantly that he solved our problem. He held out his hand. In them, he held blue plastic bags.
“But they’re for human waste,” I told him. The National Park was adamant about keeping human feces off the face of the mountain, and these blue bags were designed for packing out poop.
“Hey, whatever works,” Scott answered. And so we had a solution.
We woke up at 11:40. Outside, the pitch-black sky blazed with the tiny lights of a thousand stars. It was a cloudless evening. We ate our cold Pop-Tarts in silence. Butterflies fluttered in my tummy. The night before we climbed our first 14er, Mt. Sneffels, Kevin said he felt nervous, like he would if he had a big basketball game the next day. Here, 4,400 feet away from the top of Mt. Rainier, I felt as if we were about to start in a Final Four game.
We put on nearly every layer of clothing we brought up (including the blue plastic bags inside our shoes), then the harnesses, and finally, the helmets. By the light of our headlamps, we set up the ropes using the knots we’d learned from the guide just the day before. We saw the guide with his team of climbers just by the hut, setting up their own ropes. Our plan was to wait for the guide to set out, and then we’d follow just behind.
But when we’d finished with the rope, and checked on the team, we found that they’d already gone without us knowing. The guide probably didn’t want us following along, so they slipped away quietly, hoping we wouldn’t find them.
Thrown for a loop, we had no choice but to start our trek by ourselves. My watch showed 1 AM. Kevin went first, me in the middle, Scott brought up the rear. Our crampons crunched in the icy snow, giving us marvelous grip. In comparison to our slipping in the snow just the day before, we had remarkable control.
In the pitch-black night, we followed the well-worn trail. The trail was a semi-deep trench of packed snow, plowed by the daily train of Mt. Rainier trekkers. The light from our headlamps gave us visibility of a ten-yard radius. Looking up the trail, we could see group after group, trains of small illuminated circles.
We caught up to a duo, twin illuminated circles linked by a single rope. We’d lost the guide, but the two guys in front of us went at a steady pace. Though we weren’t roped to them, we stuck just behind this duo for the next three-and-a-half-hours as though an invisible cord of rope held us together.
VI: Disappointment Cleaver
It’s not an uncommon view, the opinion that mountain climbers are adrenaline junkies doing what they’re doing for the pure hair-raising thrill of it. As though the possibility of dying was the main propelling force behind mountain climbers. I thought this was true as well, before I began this trip.
The truth is climbing mountains like Rainier is a long, drawn-out, painstaking process. In the dark, my world shrank down to the ten feet in front of me. At the cautious pace of the duo in front, we took our sweet time with each step, planting our feet firmly in the ground, ensuring that our crampons bit hard enough on the snow that we wouldn’t slip. Step by step, one foot in front of the other, as the minutes ticked by and turned into hours.
Thirty minutes into the trek, we’d passed the guide we wanted to follow in the first place. As turtle-like the duo was pacing, the guide was going the pace of a snail. Still, the peak was a long way up, and we returned to the ten-foot circles of our illuminated worlds after we overtook the guide.
The plastic bags we’d stuck in our shoes for insulation seemed to be working miraculously. My feet felt snug and comfortable after the first hour, which we went without a break. My garden-gloved hands, though, were a different story. The shocking cold of the steel ice axe bit through the rubber glove and iced the palms of my hands.
As the hours passed, the duo stopped a couple times to rest. We stopped right when they did, and lingered until they resumed their trek. They didn’t complain, and seemed to enjoy our following them. Perhaps it seemed to them a compliment—imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery.
Two-and-a-half hours into the trek, we encountered a particularly difficult stretch of the trail called Disappointment Cleaver. Disappointment Cleaver was a ridge of rocky terrain, and we had to climb it with our crampons on. Crampons don’t agree with rocks, as their steel tips are designed for ice. So we scratched and screeched our way up the Cleaver, dulling our rented crampons. When we finally completed the Cleaver, it was 4 AM, and we came to rest just behind a large group.
As per our custom, we waited on the duo until they resumed their trek. This particular break was infuriating, because everybody else was changing into warmer gear. They pulled out their thick coats, tugged on even thicker gloves, donned warm caps. To start with, they already had warmer gear on, and now all we could do was watch and shiver as they made themselves even warmer. To top it all off, what would make us warm was to keep moving—and we had to sit and let the cold seep into our cotton sweatshirts and chill our bones to the marrow, until everybody had finished.
Another concern crept upon us at this point: the plastic insulation no longer seemed to be working. The first two hours, it’d worked perfectly, but during the third hour, our feet began to feel the effects of the cold. The plastic had successfully kept our socks dry from the ice outside, but it’d caused our feet to sweat even more, thus soaking our socks from the inside. Once wet, our feet began to go numb.
Just before we left, we found that we were still 2,000 vertical feet from the top. Two more hours of trekking remained.
VII: Island in the Sky
As we broke from the resting place at the top of the Cleaver, the sun peeked from the horizon. The pitch black night slowly flowed into a bluish-grey sky. Suddenly, we found that we were on a steep incline—the peak was still nowhere in sight—and that we were surrounded by a great white ocean of billowing clouds. Only in the distance was the ululating flow of the clouds broken by three distant peaks: Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Hood. We were on an Island in the Sky.
In the distance, Mt. St. Helens rises above the clouds
We found ourselves not only trailing the duo, but a series of guided groups, totaling twenty-some people. We had to wait on those people, then the duo, and then we could move. It sometimes took a full minute or so before we could even move one step. The wind blew without mercy, and from far above, the first of the group we followed sent pebbles of ice careening down the mountain. Tottering on a 65-degree incline, pelted by ice and assailed by the wind, waiting a full minute just to move a single step pissed me off. But what could I do? It wasn’t like we were hiking Mt. Elbert, in which case we’d just skip off the trail and overtake the slowpokes in front. We had a trail to follow, and to divert from it would be to put our nearly-numb feet on precarious ground. So we stuck to it, step by long step.
It took us a full hour to climb up to relatively safe ground, a small flat space before another incline. My watch showed 5:15. The wind was blowing so hard that the snow had blanketed over the trail. What remained were the wands showing the way. Already the group in front started up the incline, kicking in the snow with their hard mountaineering boots, the sugary ice pouring in after each step. We stared on in disbelief.
Our feet were numb at this point, and our hands weren’t much better off. The wind tore at our faces, making our eyes watery. A guy behind us announced that we had 1,200 feet to go.
“About an hour up until the peak,” he said.
Still the group continued up, kicking at the snow, trudging through. Halfway through the incline, the leader was down to his knees in the snow.
We’d promised the rangers merely 12 hours before that we’d heed their advice. We swore that we’d be careful, and if we felt we couldn’t go any further, we’d stop. But not one of us thought we’d get to that point. We’d made it all the way to 13,200 feet.
The group had all already left, then the duo, and we were next. Suddenly Kevin turned to us. He couldn’t feel his feet, he said. The snow was over a foot thick and everybody else had their fancy boots to protect them. It was finally light enough out to see each other’s faces clearly, and Kevin’s face was quite a sight to see. His lips were nearly blue, and his nose was Rudolph-red.
To say he looked cold would be a gross understatement. He was freezing his ass off.
Out of the three of us, Kevin wanted to bag Rainier the most. All trip long, he could not stop talking about The Mountain. Kevin was also the best mountain trekker of us three. For him to admit as much as he did at that point— we knew Rainier would have to wait another day. We stepped aside from the trail, barely able to talk.
One of us, I don’t know who, pointed out that we had to have a picture before we went back down. So we asked a guy, and got our picture, 1,200 feet from the top of Rainier, the biggest Island in the Sky of Washington.
Final photo before we got back down.
VIII: The Rangers Again
We met the rangers again on the way back down. They were climbing Mt. Rainier, beginning so late in the day because that’s how perfect the weather was.
The rangers, making their way up Rainier
The weather couldn’t have been better. As dawn progressed into morning, the heat of the sun forced us to strip down, relegating our sweatshirts to our backpacks. We started to wonder—what if we’d pushed on, and the sun warmed us up as we approached the summit?
But it was an ‘if only’ question, and heaven knows that’s a dangerous trap to fall into. We’d turned back, that was it. Besides, we were going back down the mountain, where it was warmer. Even if the sun kept with us up the mountain, the increased elevation would have kept the air at around the freezing temperature. The forecast said that it’d be 25 degrees up on the summit that day.
The rangers resumed their trek, leaving us with a final word of caution to go back down safe. And so we trudged all the way back down.
To invest that much time, energy, passion, not to mention money, into something and come up short left us devastated. We thought we could go up with our hiking shoes, no problem, because we underestimated The Mountain. At the rental shop, the mountaineering boots would have cost us only $40 extra (not to mention $10 extra for gloves, an option wisely exercised by Scott). It was a lesson learned, to be more fully prepared before undergoing such an ambitious adventure.
We had to hike all the way back from Camp Muir to our cars, a 2.5 hour hike that left us plenty of time to think about our attempt on Rainier. Sometimes I was left shell-shocked—we’d actually turned back from the summit when we were just an hour away. It made me think about the stories I’d heard of people climbing Mt. Everest. They’d gotten to the South Summit, which was just 300 feet away from the true summit, when they’d had to turn back. For those Everest climbers, it meant that weeks of preparation, tens of thousands of dollars, and a lifetime of dreaming ended up a football field short. Our Rainier failure had only cost us a few days of research, a couple hundred dollars, and a summer of fantasizing.
When we’d gotten back to the car, the summit was almost 9,000 feet away. A mere six hours before, we were on The Mountain, and we nearly bagged the peak. That’s all we have to hang onto for now—until we go back and try it all over again.