This is a story about how I attempted to climb Mt. Rainier in June 2012 with RMI Guides via the Emmons Glacier. As my first glacier or technical climb of any kind, it was likely to be quite entertaining no matter what, and while it turned out a bit disappointing — okay, very disappointing — when we were turned around by weather, it was still a great learning experience. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.
First, I suppose, is the question of why? I never really had aspirations of climbing snow-capped mountains in the past, but a bad day hiking last year in Denali (Alaska) seems to have changed that.
My mother and I were out in the middle of nowhere when she stepped in a hole and tweaked her recently repaired ACL. As result, we spent several hours and some very amusing moments trying to get back to the road and make the last bus out of the park before nightfall. The next day, hiking was out of the question, so we took an awesome flight around Mount McKinley (Denali) itself.
And when I say “awesome,” I don’t mean in the “hey, dude, that wave was totally awesome” casual slang that everyone throws around these days — but the true, original, nearly religious experience kind of awesome. Denali rises out of the lower peaks and glaciers around it with such force that it looks like God punched His way up through the earth. It towers over the land around it with razor-sharp ridges, hanging glaciers, vast snowfields and an overall presence that is both humbling and inspiring.
At one point, we flew by the Wickersham Wall, a north-facing flank on the mountain nominally covered in deep snow and ice and the site of the first attempt to climb the mountain in 1903. From our aerial vantage, we saw thirty foot deep, hundred feet wide slabs had torn off the mountain down to bedrock, revealing what was perhaps the most unstable, terrifying natural environment I’d ever seen. Climb up that? No way in hell.
But the other side of the mountain, the vast glaciers and West Buttress, suddenly seemed intriguing. People do that? I’d like to do that. Huh. Who knew? But, perhaps, it would be best to start with something a little smaller. And learn something about climbing in snow. On glaciers. And so some months later we come to the Emmons Glacier on Rainier as a great training area for larger climbs…and a way to find out if I even like this sort of thing. Hiking in temperate weather on trails in the Sierras, Grand Canyon or Adirondacks is one thing. Travel on snow and ice at high altitudes is something else altogether. And, as I discovered, far less predictable.
It turns out several of my relatively new skiing friends are also phenomenal backcountry skiers and climbers, so I started by picking their brains, and they all suggested just renting some equipment and trying out some local backcountry first. Cheaper, and safer, and perfectly logical. So, of course, I decided to bypass all of that and go straight to Rainier based not on their wise recommendations but the fact that Ed Viesters (a famous mountaineer) used to guide there and some other silly rationale. Basically, it seemed like a cool way to learn a lot of new stuff, bag a new peak, and meet some new people without bugging the crap out of my busy and far more athletic friends.
RMI (Ranier Mountaineering, Inc.) is the oldest, most reputable and “reasonably priced” outfit I could find — and where Ed Viesters had guided in his youth — so I picked one of their seminars and signed up. I was also hoping to meet the Whittakers and other famous climbers who founded RMI, but at root I wanted safe, smart, incredibly experienced people to answer my insanely dumb questions. Why do you use a figure eight on a bite instead of butterfly knot? I had no idea, but they would. And they’d have to tell me. Genius.
From my cousin Jaymz, “Dude, why would you walk up a mountain? That’s what chairlifts are for.”
So, I signed up for the Emmons Skills Seminar at RMI, a rather expensive 6-day training and climbing class that included a peak climb for June 9th, 2012. And then I started training like mad despite a jacked-up Achilles and rather well-founded fear that all the equipment I had to acquire was going to break the bank. Ice axe? What ice axe? And so the adventure began…
Training & Packing
I was pretty excited about training for the climb. It’s great to have a goal, and having recently climbed Whitney, I figured this would not be that big a deal physically (additional pack weight aside). But I wanted to be in good enough shape to enjoy it. My training was by necessity going to be very simple — a lot of aerobic work after work during the week, and as much hiking as possible on the weekends. The recommendations for training from RMI were a bit vague:
“Nothing ensures a personally successful adventure like your level of fitness and training. Bottom line: Plan on being in the best shape of your life and ready for a very challenging adventure!”
Well, okay then; off to the gym. My training regimen such as it was basically to get as fit as my friend Andre was on the worst and least fit day of his life. Which, for me, was setting the bar a bit high — especially given work and scheduling issues, and the fact that I didn’t start training until late March or early April. So, the more detailed idea was to do this:
- Saturday – Short Hike
- Sunday – 2x Spinning Classes or Long Hike w/increasing weight
- Monday – Rest
- Tuesday – Spinning Class
- Wednesday – Hill or Trail Run (Usually at Torrey Pines)
- Thursday – Spinning Class
- Friday – Rest or Upper-Body Workout
And this actually was going pretty well until mid-May, when I had a very fun day following Andre and his equally fit wife up Mount Baldy (a nice high point in the training process).
T-Minus 3 Weeks / Shawn Re-Injures his Achilles
Then, of course, I re-injured my Achilles on the following Wednesday while running at Torrey Pines (a really bad low point). At which point, the training stopped cold and I thought I’d have to cancel the trip. I had no desire to ruin a group climb by popping my Achilles at 14,000′ and having to be evacuated from the mountain a stretcher or something equally absurd.
Unfortunately, all the seminars at RMI were full for that month on and there was no way I could reschedule. That meant forfeiting the entire fee (ouch) and losing out on the trip for nearly a year, although it was partly insured. Then fate stepped in — an opening appeared in the June 22nd seminar and one change-fee later, I was set. Flight changed. Insurance changed. Then I just had figure out how to train to climb a mountain without using my legs or reinjuring my Achilles.
Given the fact that I don’t really swim much anymore due to a rotator cuff injury and an inability to spend more than 20 min at a time on the Krank (upper arm spinning machine) at the gym, this really meant that aerobic training was over. My new goal was to avoid hurting myself and pray that I wasn’t the least fit person in the group. And buy lot’s of equipment. And borrow some more. And limp around a lot. Plus some yoga thrown in for kicks.
T-Minus 24 Hours / Shawn throws out his Back
I woke up to go to the bathroom the morning before I was booked on a flight to Seattle, and suddenly heaved over in pain and had to crawl to the bathroom. Back out. Stress? Absurd yoga injury? Premature decrepitude? God knows, but I was down for the count. Fortunately, a few hours and lots of ice and Ibuprofen later, I was able to stand without keeling over. Screw it. Time to pack for the trip. Now my goal was to be the nearly-least-injured, not-quite-least-fit person on the trip. Yeah.
T-Minus 12 Hours / Shawn Stuffs Trader Joe’s, REI & A16 into his Pack
This is only a mild exaggeration. I had borrowed a large pack from Andre (as my pack wasn’t quite big enough), and packed all my new, old and borrowed stuff into its vast canvas compartments. I was up to 50 pounds without food or water. Which meant (a) I was going to have to carry half my stuff up the mountain in my hands or hanging off the back like Bojangles (b) it was going to weigh 70 pounds and (c) the other climbers would make fun of me. I was going to be the John Candy of Rainier.
So, out came the “extra” food, the fleece vest (so cozy), the extra hat (I have only one brain to cover), the CamelPak bladder (probably a bad idea anyway) and a lot of other little stuff. Success! Well, at least it fit in the pack. Unfortunately, and this was something I was only to discover upon arrival at “Basecamp” in Ashford, WA, there is also this weird concept of “group gear.”
“RMI provides the following equipment for your program: tents, group cooking gear, shovels, climbing ropes, and blue bags (for solid waste disposal).”
Which I assert strongly implies that they’re not just providing it but carrying it. It never occurred to me that I had to fit part of that stuff in my pack. As it turns out, you do. So add a gas canister, stove parts and 1/2 tent to the mix. Oof.
For those of you who want more information about the painful details of what was required for packing, what was packed, and whether it worked out or not, there is a fairly detailed gear list below. It’s quite exciting. You should totally read it just before bed.
Transport & Lodging
For RMI trips, most people stay at the Whittaker Bunkhouse because, well, it’s right there. For other people who “procrastinate” a wee too long, the Nisqually Lodge just down the road is a very nice alternative.
The only other thing I’d say on this topic is that I’d booked my trip with Frequent Flyer miles and so there was no charge when I had to change the flight dates. I would almost try to plan it this way from now on, as trips like this seem inherently prone to change.
The Seminar and Climb
We followed the itinerary pretty closely, but there was clearly time built in for the vagaries of weather and such. I’ve included the original Seminar itinerary for each day, followed by a quick overview of what actually transpired.
Day 1 – Technical Training Day (8am – 6pm)
“Meet at Rainier Basecamp. We begin our Technical Training Day with a welcome and introduction of team members and guides. Throughout the day, your guides will provide…detailed equipment discussion and gear check, an introduction to safety practices, including use of helmets, harnesses, and avalanche transceivers, route planning and prep, including instruction regarding Leave No Trace practices and environmental considerations, and a discussion/ demonstration regarding knots, anchors and the first steps toward understanding crevasse rescue.”
This day went pretty much as planned. We met up around 8am with the two lead guides, JJ and Gilbert, and began the process of getting all trained up. The gear check was interesting. I expected something more military, along the lines of an item-by-item inspection to make sure we didn’t forget anything important, but the actual check was more of a “read the list and nod”. They were careful to check on boots, mittens, ice axe, cordelette, ‘biners and parkas, but the rest was pretty casual.
The group talked about this later, and the general conclusion was that Rainier, while a serious mountain, wasn’t exactly McKinley — so there was more room for error than on a more serious expedition. No one really seemed to forget anything, so it didn’t matter either way and most people probably brought too much rather than too little.
The rest of the day was spent on some pretty basic knot lessons, and then on the creation of prussic-based self-rescue systems using the 6mm cordelette we’d all brought. That was probably my favorite part — especially the awkward rope ascents as we tangled our prussics and ‘biners and generally looked ridiculous dangling from the fixed rope anchored to the beams of the Basecamp Bar & Grill.
It was also interesting how trends move through mountaineering like any other activity. The butterfly knot I’d memorized was now out of style and real mountaineers just used figure eights on a bite. Who knew? Well everyone, apparently. And overhand knots were not as universally despised and derided as I had thought — turns out, they’re easy and aside from being darn near impossible to untie, they’re incredibly reliable. Good basic stuff.
Toward the end of the day, JJ announced that we needed to figure out if we wanted 2 or 3 people in a tent, as that would impact how much group gear we carried. I sort of stared blankly. Group gear? I looked at my pack, and laughed. I was going to need lubricant and an industrial compressor to get any more in there.
Fortunately, Gilbert took our stunned looks as an opportuntiy to offer an impromptu “this is how you cram stuff in your pack” lesson wherein she threw out all interior stuff sacks and anal-retentive organizational nonsense and just starting packing stuff in according to when it was needed. Net-net, I was going to have to repack again, but there might just be room. I should have saved the money on all the cute little Cordura stuff sacks.
That night, Kathleen, Steve, Mike, Jeff and I had dinner at a restaurant down the road called the Wildberry, based on a recommendation from JJ about their Yak Burgers. Yak, it turns out, tastes just like lean hamburger and costs twice as much. Sometimes exotic does not mean interesting. Jeff just had huckleberry pie a’la mode for dinner, and I knew I was going to like him. Why didn’t I do that?
Day 2 – Mountaineering Day School (8am – 5pm)
“Meet at Rainier BaseCamp. Our Mountaineering Day School is spent training in the field on the lower slopes of Mt. Rainier. On this day, you are introduced to many skills, from the basic techniques of efficient mountain travel (rest-stepping and pressure breathing), various safety practices including use of helmets, harnesses, and avalanche transceivers, cramponing, roped travel, ice axe arrest practice, anchors and running belays, fixed line travel, and the basics of crevasse rescue.”
This may be an incredible surprise to people, but it rains a lot in the Pacific Northwest. This June it seemed they were trying to prove the point. It had been raining and looked to continue to rain into the foreseeable future, which meant three things: (a) we never saw the mountain we were supposed to be climbing the next day (b) it was snowing like crazy higher up and that meant avalanche danger and slogging through deep snow, both of which hinted for the first time that summiting was not inevitable and (c) we got to test all our gear out in the rain. Nice.
We met at Basecamp around 8, all gussied up in our finest rain gear, newly tied prussics in hand, and boarded a bus for Paradise. The ride up the mountain took a good half hour or more (I wasn’t really paying attention), and while there were allegedly great views along the way, we saw a lot of very nice fog. White-on-white is the Northwest blue.
We disembarked at Paradise in a light drizzle that quickly became a more steady rain bordering on sleet, prepped, and got started hiking up to the snowfield where we’d practice basic mountaineering skills (gear moistening techniques, “waterproof” glove angst, carabineer fumbling and, most importantly, shivering in place). Along the way, we roped up for the first time and learned the all-important rest-step.
What, you ask, is the rest step? Well, it turns out just walking up a mountain isn’t nearly cool enough. To really rock your way to Himalayan heights, RMI and others recommend a totally different style of walking called rest stepping. This involves taking a quick step, resting with your lower leg locked, then another quick step, then another, so that you’re never resting with weight on a bent leg. This preserves energy, muscle and creates a very pleasant if monotonous rhythm to the process of going uphill with a heavy pack.
I was dubious at first, but it really does work (and if you don’t do it, JJ mocks you and Gilbert just looks at you with pity and derision, both of which are very motivational). Rest stepping, combined with keeping your crampons and boots flat on the snow and cross-over stepping on steeper slopes, filled out the “this is how you learn to walk” portion of the day. Now back to shivering.
On a hump of snow called something very interesting that I can’t remember, we stopped and prepared for rappel training usiing the Munter hitch. The Munter is not the fat German kid from the Simpsons, but rather a simple knot run through the belay ‘biner on your harness that allows you to belay or rappel without a mechanical breaking device (I think I said that right).
This was fun for two reasons; First, it was the only thing we did that day that felt very mountaineering-y as we leaned back and lowered ourselves over the snow ledge using the Munter to slow and brake our descent. Second, as your other hand guides the main rope during this process, you quickly realize how not-waterproof your light gloves are. By the time you reach the bottom, your gloves are soaked with freezing, dirty rope water and you quickly understand that something better is needed for real world conditions.
I’m pretty convinced this is how they get you to buy more stuff at the Whittaker mountaineering shop, but it was better to learn it here than anywhere else. One of the other clients got some very cold hands as a result, so I gave her my relatively dry gloves and put on a warmer pair myself. Which was another little lesson in itself; clearly, being on the mountain means depending on each other a great deal.
Next was the self-arrest lesson, wherein we get to jam our ice-axes into the snow, stick out butts up in the air, and kick our boots into the snow like we just don’t care. Probably the most important thing we learned all day, and for those who had never done it before, strangely awkward (and funny, let’s be honest).
This was something I really wanted to learn well, as my previous experience with self-arrest while skiing even moderately steep slopes was that it kinda worked but kinda didn’t (if the slopes were too steep or you were sliding too fast). But it turns out, other than really good, fast execution, there’s nothing magical about it and no advanced super-secret way to do it. It either works or, well, it doesn’t. The key lesson? Don’t fall. Keep the slack out of your ropes. And don’t fall.
A quick rest for lunch in the Paradise Lodge, and even quicker anchor-building lesson was followed by a short bus ride down the mountain. Within seconds of arrival, we were devouring pizza and beer at the Basecamp Bar & Grill. And buying new gloves. Then picking up our group gear. Steve and I partnered up and split the tent, took our portions of MSR stoves and fuel bottles, and headed to our rooms. The next day, we were to begin the fun part — actually climbing the mountain.
Day 3 – White River to Somewhere Snowy (6am +)
“Our climb leaves the White River Campground (4,440′) on a beautiful 3.3 mile hike through mature forests… we begin to work on the foundational skills that make us more efficient and capable climbers. These skills include pressure breathing and the rest step, dressing appropriately for the weather and workload, kicking steps and climbing in balance when on snow…”
After meeting up at 7am (the mythical 6am meeting having been tossed out by JJ & Gilbert as both cruel and unnecessary), we boarded the tightly packed van — which, for added reasons of group-building, had neither a radio nor working heat / air conditioning). After about an hour, we disembarked at the Safeway in Enumclaw to pick up last minute stuff because, you know, you can never have too much crap in your pack. This was the first time we realized that Mike was basically sick as a dog from the beer and pizza the night before.
Another 45 minutes and we were at White River Campground, trying to figure out what to wear given the variable drizzly weather and doing the final cramming into our increasingly massive packs. I got all my stuff as together as it was going to get, and stepped back from my pack. Gilbert walked by and said, “What the hell have you got in that thing?” which I found very comforting. The backpack I had borrowed from Andre looked like a stuffed blue sausage. Any minute now it was going to explode and cover the team with fleecy black entrails and crushed Top Ramen.
Now we climb! Well, now we hike. We trundled to the Glacier Basin Trail and started up into the forest. Which was beautiful. The minor peaks surrounding us had amazingly steep flanks — far steeper than the Sierras I was used to — and the trail was soft and even a bit loamy. I quickly started to do what I do best (sweat), but was otherwise an uneventful hike.
About an hour in we hit the first patches of snow. About two hours in, a lot more snow. About three hours in (and I’m totally guessing here), we emerged from the forest and into the lightly vegetated Glacier Basin campground. Mike had fully recovered and was raring to go, which was a great sign. The lower snowfield covering the Emmons Glacier’s terminal moraine rose above us into a gentle bowl before vanishing into the clouds. All was right in the world.
Except that it was still overcast and clearly snowing up above. We had yet to see the mountain that we were to climb the next day. As we packed up and clomped our way to first camp just below the Inter (Inner) Glacier, I had my first real misgivings. Would they let us climb?
A while later we reached a rather nice patch of snow by some nice rocks just below the main bowl, and this was declared first camp. Shovels appeared. Two tent platforms were dug, one by the clients, one by the guides, and soon we had tents up, anchored, and full’o gear.
When “hots” or hot water was ready, we ambled over to the cooking area and lined up to make hot chocolate or whatever else we had brought to drink and warm up. It really wasn’t that cold, but the hot chocolate was good and it was the first time I got to use my Sea to Summit collapsible mug. And then, the same exercise with Ramen and potato flakes in a larger collapsible bowl, and that was the day.
After that, which was around 7pm maybe, people started crawling into their tents, and getting their relax on. I unzipped the tent and encountered an odor that was both sweet and eye-watering, some strange combination of random odors and wet socks and boots. As I’ve come to understand it, this is the usual eau de mountaineering. Not available at your local perfumaria. How bad can it be?
From Steve, “I don’t know if that Beef Strogonaff agreed with me.” Uh Oh.
The night was uneventful. I had imagined that I’d change into long-johns to sleep, but as it was I just slept in my climbing pants and long-sleeve shirt, and didn’t even zip up the bag until later that night; it just wasn’t that cold. And the effort of changing (given that I was likely to have to go out in the middle of the night to celebrate the liberation of bodily fluids) made it seem kind of silly.
It was snowing lightly around 2am when I tromped off to the designated bathroom area. Snow fell ever so lightly, and the sky was completely black. The crunch of each footstep seemed impossibly loud, but once I stopped it was utterly peaceful. Somewhere up above, the peak of Mount Rainier waited in seclusion for us to arrive, or not; the temperature was dropping fast.
Day 4 – Climb to Camp Schurman (9,940′)
“Shortly above our first camp we will be climbing over the flanks of Steamboat Prow onto the heavily crevassed Emmons Glacier. As we make the ascent to our high camp (Camp Schurman, 9,440 feet), we continue to hone our new mountaineering techniques.”
In the morning, I discovered the benefits of both sloth and efficiency. If you pour your oatmeal into your hot chocolate, you use only one cup and get all your calories in one chocolatey, gooey cup. Delicious.
The mountain remained hidden in clouds above us, and light winds buffeted the camp. We we slowly tore down the tents, packed up and got ready to climb, you could tell we were all thinking the same thing; would the weather break in our favor? Was the summit even a possibility?
The climb up the Inter Glacier was steeper than what we’d done before, but steady and rhythmic. Enjoyable, the way that certain repetitive types of labor are enjoyable. You can get lost in your steps and breathing and just relax into it. The rest step got a little more natural. The weight settled onto your back. It was easier to keep the slack out of the rope without constantly stopping. For the first time, I felt like we weren’t just hiking in snow. Fantastic.
We were roped up in four teams of two clients and one guide. As the last group out, we followed deep steps up the slope until the team in front of us called a stop for some reason. We pulled up next to them and learned that someone was having trouble. So Mike, who was now strong as ever, joined our rope team and we continue up. The other client fell further and further behind, alone on his rope with other Mike (guide). Strange to see so early in the climb.
We took a short break at Camp Curtis to look out over the ridge at the Emmons, the first real view we had of the glacier itself. A vast field of ice and crevasses inched their way downward, carving their way toward the valleys below. It was the first time I felt pure excitement about the climb. I couldn’t wait to get on the glacier proper.
As short traverse later, we dipped tantalizingly onto the side of the Emmons and then dog-legged right around a small crevasse onto the ridgeline where Camp Schurman offered relatively luxury for the mountain. There was a ranger cabin and a bathroom perched behind it under a rocky ridge of Steamboat Prow — a triangular wedge of crumbly stone that drives the Emmons and Winthrop glaciers apart. Not exactly the backcountry, but I wasn’t complaining.
After hots and dinner, there was a long discussion with the guides about whether we were going up or not. We had watched Mike and Eli (guides) do an avalanche risk test fairly near the camp, and the results were not good. A foot or so down under lightly packed fresh snow was a layer of fat ice crystals — the ballbearings of the avalanche world. Fresh wind-loaded snow on the glacier above us would cover this layer, but do nothing to stabilize it. Above us, the mountain ramained cloaked the whitest of clouds.
We were told to be packed and ready to go, taking our warm weather gear, food and water, and little else. We’d hear from them at midnight, or 1am or 2am if the weather broke. Which means that there was still hope, and I wanted that, so I took what I could from it even if it seemed hollow; you could tell the guides weren’t buying it.
And a bit later, it was over. Our guides and IMG (another guiding service) had gotten together and talked about conditions higher up. Apparently, it was too risky, there was too much fresh snow and that was it. We were done. We tried a week sort of negotiation — talked about going up the next night and coming all the way down the next day — but it was all for nought. We were done.
It took a while to sink in. First, I was just annoyed that I’d forced about 3,000 calories of ramen, potatoes, cookies and snacks down my throught to carbo load for the next day. Then I was just bummed. We screwed around, took pictures, had pointless what-if conversations, and then convinced ourselves it was all right. Such an odd, deflated feeling.
That night it was cold, and occasionally windy. I dreamed about Dall Sheep in Denali, how white they looked like tiny white spots on the distant mountain scree. They looked down at me from their rocky perches and whispered things I couldn’t understand.
Day 5 – The Not-So-Summity Day
“Today we put it all together and make our attempt on the summit. The Emmons-Winthrop Glacier route climbs the northern edge of the largest glacier in the lower 48 states, the Emmons Glacier. The spectacular 35-degree central ramp of the glacier offers a corridor by which we are able to access the crevassed slopes of the upper mountain. We skillfully thread our way through these immense crevasses toward Columbia Crest, the true summit of Mt. Rainier!”
The morning was cold and windy, blasting gusts of snow and ice against tents and faces, making the tent chords flex and vibrate. We stumbled out of our tents and looked around. You could tell that several were relieved we weren’t climbing in this weather, and I guess I was as well, but then again not so much.
To me, the weather was like a lot of days skiing at Mammoth; windy and cold with a chance of more wind and cold. The peak was almost visible above us between gusts of snow and cloud, and I wanted to be on it, to see it, to feel the pain of reaching it. For some reason, while I knew I had nowhere near the skills to get there on my own, I knew JJ and Gilbert, Mike and Eli could get us there safely. It might suck, it might be cold, there were objective hazards we couldn’t avoid, but it just didn’t feel like the avalanche danger was that great. It just looked hard, and I wanted it to be hard. I wanted to earn it. Otherwise, it was just a walk up. Stupid thoughts, but I couldn’t fight them.
After breakfast, we tromped over to a nearby crevasse to practise setting up rescue systems, but it was deemed too risky for a team our size, so instead we packed up a bit more and climbed higher on the ridgeline to find another crevasse. Then that was halted as the snow was considered too unstable. And that marked the high point of the climb: 10,500 or so.
We spent the rest of the day making crevasse rescue anchors and pully systems closer to camp, practising on an impromptu fixed rope course. We explored a snow cave dug in the camp that had been abandoned by the Colorado Springs Team and was soon to be occupied by a frenetically prepared team from New Mexico. We had a really lame snowball fight where I hit everything but another human being. And then the sun came out, the skies cleared somewhat and we could tell the next day was going to be beautiful.
I woke with a start at 3am, and got up to go visit the men’s room. I ran smack into group from New Mexico as they got a late start on their summit bid. I wished them luck and they spotlighted their way up the slope into the darkness above. The stars were bright and brilliant against a clear black sky. The lights of the valley below were visible for the first time. The big dipper hung over the Winthrop glacier. It really was beautiful.
I wondered about nights like this on distant peaks, on other continents on even clearer nights. About climbers who found themselves bivying alone at night over 8,000 meters instead of 10,000 feet, too far gone from high camp and food and water, too tired to do anything but sit and stare up at the night sky. When all that was left was the pro forma effort to get down in the morning, to survive or at least die moving instead of sitting. Was it any less beautiful to them? If I knew my life were going to end tomorrow on this very mountain, would I still appreciate the stars shining in the impossible cold of space above me?
Day 6 – Descent to White River Campground
“The final day of the program is spent descending our route from high camp, and returning to the trailhead. Our shuttle will then take the team to Rainier BaseCamp in Ashford.”
Dawn was as bright and beautiful as any I’ve seen. Blue sky, bright white snow and no wind at all. I turned to face Columbia Crest and the top of the mountain for the first time, 5,000 feet above us but so close you could stick your tongue out and lick it. Well, if you had a really long tongue.
The team from New Mexico was about one-third of the way up, black specks in the middle of a snowfield in the middle of an explosion of crevasses in the middle of a gorgeous morning.
We ate and packed quickly, efficiently, as if we almost knew what we were doing. Except that I had dead-manned five separate sections of trekking poles to hold our tent, and now they had to be chipped out of a foot of packed snow and ice
“Bomber anchors,” JJ cracked. “Time for a Sherpa takedown?”
Meaning just cut the lines and go. Even Gilbert lent a hand. Maybe I had overdone it, but on the other hand, if we had been struck by gale-force winds, I think we alone would have survived. So there’s always that.
The trip down flew by. We walked, glissaded, and walked some more. We did a short avalanche transceiver glass during which I discovered that my borrowed analog transceiver required dog-like hearing not required by the visually enhanced digital versions. And then, in what seemed like minutes, we were back at Glacier Basin snacking on our last snacks and looking up at a mountain that got bigger and more amazing the further you were from its peak. From there, you could finally appreciate the scope of the glacier we had hoped to climb; the largest glacier in the contiguous 48. Amazing.
The only incident on the way down was that one of our crew badly sprained his ankle. The guides took it all in stride (no pun intended), ferrying his pack down so he could gimp back to the campground with relative ease. A few hours later, we were back in Ashford drinking beer, eating pizza, and getting certificates conspicuously missing the word “summit.”
From Jaymz, “Dude, you climbed halfway up. That’s halfway impressive. I think we can drive up that far on the other side.”
The last chapter in Hillary’s book about climbing Everest is called, “The End of Adventure” or something along those lines. This moment with beer and pizza and new friends at Whittakers wasn’t the end or the beginning, but a waiting place. A moment in the middle of time, between what might have been and what would be. I wondered what everyone would do next, what mountains were ahead in all our lives. It was not a perfect moment, but it was a good one, and there will be more.
See pictures on Google Photos.
We had four guides on the trip: JJ, Gilbert, Eli and Mike. They were all great, and they were all different. I often wondered how they regarded us; like fumbling children in overpriced new gear? Maybe. But no matter how inane the question or stupid the action, they were patient, kind and generous with both time and information.
The gear list for this trip, as recommended by RMI, is pretty extensive and detailed. I’m reproducing a lot of it here for reference — mostly so I bring LESS next time. Sufficed to say, I had to buy a lot of the gear that I couldn’t borrow, and rent the plastic boots. I like to think of the purchases as investments, but honestly it’s just fun to have lots of cool new gear.
I’ve indicated things that I never wore with a “**”, but that doesn’t always mean they weren’t needed. The down parka, for instance, is an absolute necessity for those who actually climb the freakin’ peak instead of just gawking up at it.
Oh, and bring lots of shiny new stuff, or the other kids will make fun of you.
Pack and Bag
Backpack (“A 90+ liter pack”)
I was originally a little skeptical about the size, until I tried to pack the rest of their list into my 75 liter pack. Who knew down took up so much room? The 90 liter I borrowed turned out to be barely sufficient for travel packing (checking the pack for the flight up) — although some things will come to the outside during the actual climb. Net-net, 90 is probably about right. I still suspect that once I know more about all this stuff, I can pair it down some.
Sleeping Bag (“A bag rated 0° to 20°”)
I had purchased a Mountain Hardware synthetic Lamina 0° (on sale) for this very purpose, and used it a few times pretty casually. This is the first time I used it in real field conditions, and I have to say it rocked — I was always comfortable in the bag even when it was 20 or so and very, very windy. My feet stayed warm even when the bag got wet from touching the front of the tent. The only downside to the bag was that the zipper constantly jams on the small protective seam that’s supposed to prevent jamming, but at least it’s an ironic failing.
Compression Stuff Sack for the Sleeping Bag
Only thing worth noting here is that I considered getting a dry / waterproof compression sack instead of using the one the bag came with. Instead, I used the original plus a plastic bag to keep out moisture in the pack. No idea if it matters much one way or the other.
Sleeping Pad (“Full length inflatable or closed cell pad”)
I brought my Therma-Rest, with some concerns that it would not be think enough as a single layer between my bag and the tent floor. Turns out it was perfect. I was never cold, and there were no cold spots on my hips or shoulder.
The only point I’d make about the sleeping bad is that moisture accumulates under the pad as you sleep (between the pad and tent floor). When packing it, I wonder if anyone wipes off the mat before packing it up, or if that even matters?
This is the cool stuff, about which I knew the least and learned the most.
Based on a few recommendations for my height, 6’4″, I picked up a 75cm Black Diamond Raven Pro. It turned out to be a great, comfortable axe and perfect for the slopes we were on — never more than 40-45 degrees. The fact that the pick teeth don’t go all the way to the shaft meant my gloves didn’t get chewed up, which was a complaint of some with other axes.
Climbing Harness (“A comfortable, adjustable climbing harness”)
I borrowed this for the trip, and it worked, by which I mean I didn’t pop off the rope and end up in a crevasse somewhere. The only complain I have about harnesses in general is that is seems rather hard to find your ‘biners and other gear when you’re wearing a heavy coat and other nonsense. I know I’m clumsy, but d***…
3 Non-Locking Carabiners
2 Locking Carabiners
Only comment is that I brought three auto-locking ones, and loved them. There was no screwing and un-screwing and whatnot. No idea what the safety trade-off is, but they rock.
Helmet (“A lightweight climbing helmet”)
Good thing they made the comment. I was thinking of bringing a coal mining helmet because of the cool built-in headlamp. Instead, I brought a golden-yellow Petzl Ecrin Roc Helmet that was adjustable, light and seemed likely to stop very small rocks from entering my head.
Crampons (“10 to 12 point adjustable crampons”)
These I had to borrow from Andre, who had crampons meant for either leather boots or plastic. I took the ones meant for plastic, and they worked well. I did have a brief technical issue on two mornings where the crampons and boots were not just getting along. JJ may have made fun of me. I learned my lesson, and I learned right from left, which I think is a valuable life lesson.
Avalanche Transceiver (“A digital transceiver is preferred”)
This is another item I borrowed, given the $200+ price tag. The borrowed version was a bit busted up and required some duct-tape repair and new Lithium AA batteries. Kind of excited about learning to use this, but terrified that I should ever need it.
Trekking Poles (“Lightweight and Collapsible”)
These I had already; two pairs actually. Oddly, RMI recommended the elliptical versions I used to have. The bottoms had snapped off of one of them on a hike in the Sierras, and REI had to warranty them out for whole new poles because the unique tips for the ellipticals weren’t in stock. I’m guessing the elliptical shape is for added longitudinal strength, but not sure it’s worth the difficulty matching spare parts…if that actually is an issue.
Mechanical Ascender (Optional)
They look cool. Hope I get to do a trek that requires them someday. I did not buy or bring one.
24′ Perlon Cord (“6mm Cordelette in One Continuous Length”)
We cut this into sections to make a waist prussic, Texas foot prussic, and the girth hitched loop for the pack haul strap.
15′ Perlon Cord (“7mm Cordelette in One Continuous Length”)
This was used for anchor building.
I’m totally glad they said to bring one. It wasn’t on any of my lists.
Warm Hat (“Wool or Synthetic”)
“It should be warm and thin enough to fit underneath a climbing helmet.”
Neck Gaiter or Balaclava
I have a mild obsession with balaclavas, and own about 8 of them. Not going to go into details. Lost my favorite one in a tragic accident on Whitney and have never been able to replace it. Keep your loved ones close, and your balaclavas closer.
Lightweight Ball Cap or Sun Hat
Dudes don’t wear sun hats; I’m just sayin’. So instead, I rocked an Outdoor Research Sun Runner Sun Hat with detachable Lawrence of Arabia style wrap-around sun protection drape thingy — which is both way more manly and doubles as an ironic burka suitable for all social occasions. As a result, the only thing I really burned on my face were my lips and the bottom of my nose, which as of today is nicely scabby.
“A pair of dark-lensed sunglasses with side shields or full wrap-type sunglasses.”
I couldn’t find a pair that fit any better than my current ski sunglasses, so that’s what I brought. They cut out all sun and glare except coming up from the bottom, so I made a pair of snap-ons from drip irrigation tubing and black Duct Tape that worked perfectly. Cost? About $2.00.
“Amber or rose-tinted goggles for adverse weather. Additionally, contact lens wearers may find a clear-lensed goggle very useful on windy nights.”
I brought my ski goggles, and wore them once. I can’t even remember how long I’ve owned these babies, but it’s a long time and the warranty has got to be up. Next time I wear them, the lens is going to shoot out and kill a tree squirrel. In the meantime, more than adequate.
I brought the Petzl and spare Lithium AAA batteries, but never used it except for bathroom trips. Although now that I think about it, that’s pretty darn important. Given the latitude of Rainier, and the fact that our seminar started the day after the solstice, battery life was unlikely to be an issue…but still comforting to know the light was there when needed.
I brought two. One dude brought three. Awkward.
Lightweight Glove (“One pair of fleece gloves”)
I brought up both a very lightweight OR glove and a pair of Arcteryx fleece gloves. The fleece ones ended up staying in the car and the OR ones were replaced by First Ascent versions that were more waterproof. The replacement FA versions worked very well, but I’ve yet to test how they work in very wet weather.
Medium-Weight Glove (“Wind & water resistant insulated mountain gloves”)
I brought a great pair of Marmot gloves that were perfect for colder days or when we were standing around. I have long used mittens by default just because they’re warmer, but these were reasonably warm and allowed for the dexterity necessary to put on crampons and work on knots, etc., without constantly pulling them off and exposing bare skin to the cold.
Heavy Weight Insulated Glove or Mitten **
“Wind/water resistant, insulated gloves or mittens for protection against wind, snow and cold. These also serve as emergency back-ups if you drop or lose a glove.”
I have a great old pair of OR Gore-Tex mittens, but they’re all tore up and not nearly as warm as a modern equivalent. I never needed them on this trip, but the mittens that others brought would clearly have been better on severely cold days. Another future investment…
Light to Medium Weight Baselayer **
“Long-sleeve wool or synthetic top will be used as your base layer. Zip-neck styles will allow for better temperature regulation.”
This was oddly something I was worried about. Did I have the right kind? Should I bring 2 or 3 to change when the manly odor coming from my side of the tent was overwhelming? As it worked out, light baselayer #3 never made it past the T-Minus 12 packing purge, and I never wore either of the two I brought. Ever.
Instead I wore a silk-weight top and long-sleeve synthetic shirt for pretty much all 4 days on the mountain. Add a little deodorant, and it was both kinda warm and tolerably on the odor side. It was just never consistently cold enough to keep on a good pair of long underwear.
Light Insulating Layer (“A fleece or other insulation layer”) **
I brought along my North Face mid-weight fleece, which is so old it’s basically a lightweight fleece. But just like the long underwear, I never wore it. It was just more convenient to use the soft shell (below) as a baselayer and a light puffy over that when it got colder.
Soft Shell Layer (“A windproof, water-resistant & breathable layer”)
I brought a Marmot Soft Shell (Gore-Text Windstopper), and it was perfect. Reasonably breathable, warm, and vaguely water resident. And, very importantly, pretty odor resistant.
To augment this layer, I also had a light synthetic Arcteryx LT puffy that I pulled on as another layer when it got cold or we weren’t moving. This is part of the reason why the parka was never used.
Hard Shell Jacket (“Rain/windproof material with attached hood”)
This was a hard one (no pun intended). I have a North Face jacket that I’ve skied in for the last 10 or more years (not kidding), and while it’s beat up, a bit dirty, the main zipper pull came off, and all the cording is stretched out and dangly, it has generally been a tough, warm and bomb-proof jacket that kicks butt in all weather conditions. And considering the $400+ replacement cost, there was never really any other option.
But it turns out that all good things really do come to an end. Even after a Knickwax waterproofing wash, it simply did not hold up in the rain on Day 2 during the outdoor mountaineering school up at Paradise. The steady, cold drizzle quickly soaked the outer water-repellent membrane (which was expected) and then passed through what must be a shredded old Gore-Tex layer. Still a great jacket in snow and cold, but it just can’t handle rain or sleet. Before the next serious climb, I’ll need a new jacket.
Insulated Parka with Hood **
“This item becomes of highest importance when we are faced with poor weather. This should be an expeditionary-type heavy parka that extends well below the waist and above the knees. Goose down is recommended versus synthetic fill. It does not have to be waterproof, but that is a nice feature. The parka is worn primarily at rest breaks on summit day and as an emergency garment if needed. When sizing a parka, allow for several layers to be worn underneath; buy it large. The parka must have an insulated hood.”
I had picked up a Mountain Hardware Chillwave Parka on sale in Mammoth for 60% off, and it rocks, but I should have bought an XL. The large is not quite large enough. But as it turned out, I never used it. It did make for a nice pillow in the tent.
Non-Cotton Hiking Shirt (Optional)
“Lightweight, synthetic shirt with either long or short sleeves is nice for July and August. Long sleeve is preferred for sun protection.”
I would actually make this required — you just need something when it’s hot on the snow or down below, and long underwear is way too hot. Maybe this isn’t quite as true in February, but if you run hot, I don’t see how you can live without a light layer like this.
I brought this largely to complement my upper body, which gets melancholy without a little company. It gets lonely on top.
Underwear (“Non-Cotton Briefs or Boxers”)
Yep, wore ’em. Highly recommended. Plus, your tent mates will totally thank you.
Light to Medium Weight Synthetic Baselayer **
I brought Smartwool long underwear, but never wore them. These are great lightweight baselayers, but I ended up just wearing my climbing pants the entire time, essentially using them as a baselayer under the hard shell pants or as long underwear at night. Probably necessary for colder trips, but not at all on this one. Definitely would NOT have worn them on summit day (just too hot), and I wonder if a puffy pant would be better for resting and summiting than long underwear?
Strangely, I also brought a pair of heaver North Face compression long underwear, which are crazy warm and comfortable, but way too hot for this occasion. I wore them one day when I thought we were going to be standing around a lot (non-summit day), but even then it was overkill. Just too warm in combination with the climbing pants.
“Synthetic climbing pants offer a wide range of versatility. You can wear them alone on hot days, or in combination with the base layer on cold days. The thickness (insulation quality) should be based on how well you do in the cold.”
I had bought a pair of Patagonia Alpine Guide Pants for this trip, and they rocked. very comfortable, flexible, warm, breathable, etc. Highly recommended.
Hard Shell Pant
“A pant made of breathable rain and wind-proof material will be needed. Full-length side zippers are required for facilitating quick clothing adjustments over boots and crampons in cold, inclement weather.”
The Mountain Hardware hard shell pants that I brought had been purchased for skiing, and were intentionally a bit beefier than some of the lighter Arcteryx and other stuff you see out there nowadays. I have no idea if one is better than the other, but I have fewer issues with contact-cold using the slightly heaver pants.
Lightweight Trekking Pants or Shorts (Optional)
“A lightweight, synthetic pair of pants is a good option for the approach trek when hiking at lower altitudes and in warm conditions.”
These pants made it to Seattle, but not into the pack for the climb; there just wasn’t room. In retrospect, I would have really liked them on any days where there were long ascents or descents in consistent weather. For glissading, I would just put on the hard shell anyway.
My feet were my biggest concern. I got frostbite on nine toes a few years back, and really didn’t want to repeat the experience. As it turned out, this was never an issue, but I was very focused on having dry socks every morning.
“Insulated plastic boots are the preferred choice for ascents on Mt. Rainier. They provide the best insulation as well as a more rigid sole for kicking steps and holding crampons. Leather mountaineering boots that have completely rigid soles are also adequate, but they will need to be insulated and may still result in cold feet on summit day. Lightweight hiking boots without insulation are not acceptable as they don’t work well with crampons, or in very cold or wet weather.”
I rented these from Whittaker, size 12 1/2, and they worked well despite my oddlly shaped and differently sized feet. Definitely one of the first things I’d purchase if I keep doing this soft of thing.
“A knee-length pair of gaiters, large enough to fit over your mountaineering boots. This will protect you from catching your crampons on loose clothing.”
These were essential, and I only sliced a small cut in one of them with my crampons… saving my far more expensive ski pants.
Two (2) Pairs of Socks
“Either wool or synthetic. Some people find liner socks useful for reducing friction.”
I brought 3 pairs instead, to deal with the aforementioned foot issues, and 2 pairs of synthetic liners. I had originally intended to wear the liners under the socks, but was advised that it might cause additional friction and blisters, so instead I wore them in my sleeping bag to protect it from the smelly feet acquired in the rented plastic boots. Actually worked out pretty well.
In addition to the stuff above, I brought some additional things listed here, plus a small compass, map of the mountain and random other things. Nothing terribly noteworthy.
Extra Batteries for Headlamp
“Lithium batteries perform best in cold environments.”
So, this is one of my only gripes with the list. They specifically told us to bring Lithium, which we did, but when we got there, they told us (a) we need spare batteries for the transceivers and that (b) we shouldn’t use Lithium because it interfered with the device. As Adam Sandler once said, that would have been good to know yesterday…
Lipscreen (High SPF)
Yes. Next time I should really use more of this. Lips are currently a wee bit chappy.
2-3 Water Bottles
“One-quart water bottles are required. Wide mouth bottles are ideal since their opening is less likely to freeze.”
I brought the usual one-liter Nalgenes, but JJ mentioned a half-size Nalgene she uses for both mug and water and sleeping back/coat warmer. Need to check that out.
2 Garbage Bags (Large)
“We recommend lining your backpack with garbage bags to keep items in your backpack completely dry.”
Done. It wasn’t that wet on our hiking days, so no idea if it worked, but it’s a pretty cheap and easy alternative to wet clothes.
Zip-Lock Bag (1 Gallon)
“Please use the Zip-Lock as your personal trash bag.”
I brought and used these, but I can’t say they really helped. They didn’t cut out enough sound to really help with sleeping, and after the first night, it either wasn’t necessary or the wind was too loud anyway. May need a better solution here.
I brought my Panasonic Lumix DC Vario, a recently acquired waterproof digital jobby used mostly for hiking and skiing. It’s a nice enough camera, but seems to have trouble making rapid adjustments to light vs. shadow, and with extreme contrasts. On the other hand, the battery lasted forever.
I probably don’t need to say too much about this stuff, but one of my favorite all-time descriptions of mountaineering reality is Ed Viesters description of what he wears, eats, sleeps in…and how he manages to use the Lou at 8, 000 meters. Sounds odd, but it’s the little things that make all the difference and people tend not to talk about it.
Toothbrush & Toothpaste
Obviously vital. You feel dirty enough without smelling up your own mouth and flaming out your poor tent mate.
I had never used them before, but they rock. Who knew? Oh sure, parents everywhere, but did they tell the rest of us? Nope. But now you know.
Hand Sanitizer (“Personal size (2 oz.) bottle”)
Good stuff. Turns out there’s rarely running water higher up on a glacier.
Yes. Bring more than you think you’ll need. The alternative is not so much fun.
Makes eating easier, and for interesting dinner-time conversation. “Ooh, is that the new semi-automatic, fully retractable and biodegradable sporking system? Wow. I have the Gen 1 Sporkfire Plus, but sometimes it just doesn’t do the job.”
I brought a collapsible Sea to Summit bowl for the first time, and loved it. Very compact, easily cleaned, and large enough for a good-sized meal. Plus, on dull days, it’s almost a good Frisbee.
Same comment as for bowl. The Sea to Summit is insulated enough to protect the hands, but you can still warm you hands around a good cup of cocoa.
Spoon or Spork
The dual spork-spoon thingy I brough worked fine. I’m not sure how it would have malfunctioned. But it seems oddly ungaingly, large and sharp when you’re trying pack it.
Brought it. Would have used it to adjust my auto-releasing crampons if Gilbert hadn’t lept to the rescue with her Leatherman first.
Yep. You gots to share the burdon. It’s not just a saying.
2-3 Person Tent
The tents provided by RMI were the Mountain Hardware Trango, which was a pretty good tent as far as a I could tell. As long as you set it up right, JJ, I know. I know.
MSR Stove Parts and Fuel
These are really LOUD but they BOIL WATER REALLY WELL.
I’m not going to say that JJ was obsessed with this stove, but he made it very clear that if we ever went to Denali with him and didn’t bring one of our own, he’d hang us upside-down on the Wickersham Wall with our own cordelette. Plus, it makes good hot chocolate and makes way, way, way less noise than the MSR.
I brought a lot of other things, some small, some not so much. Here is a quick breakdown and reminder for myself on whether I’d bring them again.
I brought several Cordura stuff stacks and a few Sea to Summit dry sacks. I probably only needed 2-3 at most, for laundry, food, and clothes that I wanted to keep dry. The rest were extraneous and hampered efficient packing.
I brought a bunch, and always do. In addition to a gallon-sized one for trash (as recommended above), almost all my food was taken out of original packaging and double-bagged. And I had several extras. Love them. Maybe a bit too much.
Paperclips for Coat Zipper
Probably a good idea even if my zipper hadn’t already been jacked up. They take up no room and weigh almost nothing, and make for a fantastic zipper pull fix. Add some Duct Tape, and you’re off to the races.
I brought a tiny, emergency-only full body bivy sack. Never used it, but that’s the point; it’s for emergencies. I’d definitely bring it again.
Best. Stuff. Ever.
This doubled for putting in contacts in the morning and as an emergency signaling system. Though, on snow and ice, I’ve gotta wonder if anyone would see yet another tiny reflective surface.
Contact Lenses, Glasses & Glass Case
All necessary. I think I’ll get Lasik someday, but in the meantime, this is the bare minimum.