Summit day

I’m already getting over the sore legs and shoulders. My lips and the underside of my nose — which resisted my efforts to keep them covered in sunscreen — are peeling. I’ve been back to work yesterday and today between bouts of catching up on sleep. But I am still processing the summit day, trying to think through what happened during the sleep-deprived hours in the dark, continuing up in the early morning light and the day-long descent to the trailhead.

We got up at 2230 on Monday night to clear skies. Bob seemed to catch a little sleep before the alarm went off. Maybe Bill got a little. I didn’t get any, nor did Micah and John. Beyond the anticipation and bright skies, the main culprit was a group from Alpine Ascents who set up their tents on the rock next to Micah/John and directly above Bob/me. They talked from 1700 until 2130 or so about every juvenile male topic they could think of, usually quite loudly, while the rest of camp tried to sleep before their summit attempts. I’m not sure why they did not have to summit that night; the itinerary on the AAI website has them summitting the day after their arrival at Camp Schurman, but they were not going for it. And perhaps their guide had not explained summit day and the desire to sleep before it — they were only just learning about AMS/HAPE/HACE that evening, so maybe summit prep would be described in the following night’s lecture.

Base Camp
Some of the crowd at Camp Schurman. These teams and more headed for the summit simultaneously.

So I laid in the tent for a while, read a bit, eventually stuck my head out the entrance and watched the sun drop approximately over Port Townsend. It was still barely light when we got up to make tea and oatmeal. As we did, the rest of camp (other than AAI) started to make the same preparations. Despite our best efforts to prepare earlier in the day, it took around ninety minutes to get started, and we left camp the second team but in the midst of all of the teams, including one or two that came up from the lower camp and must have started slightly earlier. Departure time according to my GPS log was 0009 on Tuesday.

That meant we had a traffic jam on the lower slopes and through much of the Corridor. At times we had rope teams on both sides of us, and eventually Bob, leading, let one of them pass us. The three ropes of IMG wanted to get past us, but that would have taken a while due to the narrow route at that point — it worked out for the best, because they took longer breaks despite their faster pace when moving.

The difficulties with crevasses started fairly early, but I have little recollection of timing. I know Bob protected one messy area with a picket perhaps an hour into the climb. I pulled the picket and held it between my pack and my back until we regrouped later. This would become a routine later, above the Corridor when traversing a steep slope, when doing a short ice climb with our single axes, when crossing particularly soft snow bridges and when climbing steep snow steps.

The surface seemed perfect. The clear night and relatively low temps had frozen the top inch or more. We did not punch through it at all and had to kick pretty hard to get decent crampon penetration when needed. Getting solid ax placement when desired also took some work in a lot of places, though the snow alongside the boot track was fairly soft in comparison with that underfoot. We stayed in the primary boot track for a lot of the route, and that provided more solid footing for ankles unused to using proper crampon technique to ensure all points caught the surface. When we diverged from the main route, steep slopes required extra care, but it was necessary to get around the end of a crevasse rather than crossing a questionable bridge or to get across the ‘shrund safely.

It was this last, mainly, that gave me some difficulty and caused me to give the team some trouble. I looked down in the early light before sunrise. I could only look briefly before the rope got tight but saw convex slopes below with no end in sight. Considering the consequences of any one of us slipping off an improperly edged crampon or in a moment of carelessness and dragging the entire team down added to the stress of no sleep and the climb in general. It did not help to be at the rear of the rope, not hearing what was going on up front, not knowing how far we had gotten and what remained and not having any control of the situation beyond making my feet follow my nearest rope-mate. I started panicking. Panicking is not so great in that place. I much prefer to use the excitement of exposure and danger to feel alive and to enjoy the thrilling experience, but that wasn’t happening.

Break time was in short supply. When we stopped every 60-75 minutes, there was time to pee, eat, drink, breathe or check our elevation — not more than one of those. If we gathered together in a relatively secure place for a break, I was last to arrive and when they started had at least to be ready and watching the rope come tight, so I felt like there was even less time. Finally, it seemed to my panicking mind, we stopped for time enough for me to break down a little. I told Bob what was going on and sobbed a bit, digging my heels into the slope and leaning on my ice ax driven deep, clipped to the leash just in case I slipped. It wasn’t a sufficiently secure spot to relax enough to get rid of the madness, but it helped. When we moved again, my mind was clear for a while. I looked down the Emmons Glacier and loved the view.

Me with some of the troublesome exposure below. Photo by Bill.

The panic came back later, and I wanted so badly to stop. At time I felt dangerous due to my inattention. I thought about how much I hated the experience — and questioned how I could feel like that when there is no natural thing in the world I love more than mountains and nothing more I love doing than experiencing them. And I thought how many people were on other ropes on the mountain on their very first climb. And how people climbed the Lhotse Face hundreds of times each year without complaining about the exposure and very rarely falling off. I could not put together a rational explanation that would either make my panic justified nor convince me to get over it. I was of clear mind enough to realize how irrational the fear was when I looked down at a slope that ended at the exposed opposite wall of a crevasse and felt more comfortable with those because at least I could see the likely end point of a fall. I kept thinking about the coming descent, facing out on those fucking convex slopes that ended somewhere unknown and crampons skittering across the icy surface. And how the further we went up the further we would have to descend the same slopes.

At our second extended break, I asked through tears whether there was anywhere before the crater where I could be parked to wait for the return trip. I really did not want to stop the team from continuing. For one thing, Bill had circumnavigated the peak last year, looking up at her for two weeks, and he really wanted to be on top. He was very encouraging along the way, with obvious confidence and excitement for the summit. I could see in Bob some of the stress of leading the team, knowing that I was adding to it unnecessarily (while what I took for his stress during the earlier routefinding had added to mine — a horrible feedback loop). And everyone else was fine — hell, even I was fine physically. Conditions were pretty great considering the abnormally low snowfall this year. Bob said he could park me on the slope above the bergshrund, which seemed hopelessly far away, but what choice did I have? I said let’s go, let me know when we get to that point, and then show me the route above there and describe it to me so I can decide whether to stop or keep climbing.

Again, the little breakdown and the longer break cleared my head a bit. I was dragging the rope a bit like an anchor, but Bill kept the rest of them at the pace I needed to go. Earlier in the morning, I could keep up when they climbed over something and then accelerated on easier terrain, or when they had to pause after a difficulty, resting while the next person went over it and I had to go straight back to climbing with no one behind me to belay. I let my mind slow me down and keep me from performing like that during that hour below the ‘shrund, so I slowed the team considerably.

We had taken a turn to the right above the Corridor, as had most or all of the teams that morning. We continued up and then headed further right directly below the ‘shrund, eventually coming to a place where it could be surmounted with minimal difficulty on a steep but short section of snow around 0730. Bob had told me earlier that we would be about a thousand feet below the summit at the ‘shrund. I was of two minds, thinking both that a thousand more feet of that terrain was too much for me and that the mountain did have a bit of a round top on it, so maybe the last bit wasn’t as bad.

Last climbing to the top
Climbing the last bit of steep snow.

Getting above the ‘shrund all the way on the right put us over the broad saddle at the top of the Winthrop Glacier, so now that saddle was the end point of our slope. Further, the slopes above were not all that steep. The fact that Bob was comfortable parking me there coincided with terrain that I was comfortable climbing. The exposure below that had caused my panic was still going to be there on the descent whether I summitted or stopped here. We were not going to add appreciably to the descent difficulty by continuing, so I could either sit there like an asshole or keep going. My conclusion was that the latter was best. So stated I, and with a great shout we continued up together.

The saddle
The saddle below us when the angle lessened.

Bob had also warned of the seemingly interminable snow slope above this point, so it was manageable at our slow, perhaps slightly improved, pace without getting demoralized by its length. I placed a few macaroni-and-cheese-taped wands along the way to ensure we found the top of our ascent route, having placed only a few at key crevasse crossings and decision points lower. Before long, Bob called down the rope that he saw the summit rock. We continued to the foot of the rock, which is a huge bar of loose, wet gravel sitting on top of the mountain.

Approaching the summit rock
Approaching the huge gravel bar.

Unclipping and dropping axes, crampons and some packs there around 0844, we started up the gravel and walked along its top to the apparently highest point, which GPS (and Bill hiking over to another point to look back in comparison and Bob stating from his past experience once he got up there) confirmed for us. I reached the summit behind Micah, John and Bill at 0858. Pictures were taken, my camera app stopped working, I rolled a smoke and sat down to enjoy it and pictures were taken again once the very nice IMG guides showed up and snapped group shots for us.

Me at the summit
Me at the summit. The belay jacket was unnecessary, but I hauled it all that way, so I kept warm. Photo by Bill.
Group at the summit
Our happy group at the summit. Photo by an IMG guide.

On the summit after 8.75 hours climbing, the weather was clear and calm. The view? Incredible and isolated. The other volcanoes, particularly Adams and St. Helens, were the only features of any consequence on the horizon. It was very different from mountains in a normal range, where even the highest peaks have somewhat comparable neighbors. The foreground was crazy, its bare gravel, snow on the summit itself, two craters, boot paths from the other routes crossing the craters. We spent a little over an hour between the summit and signing the summit register, which is below the summit tucked next to the more stunning crater. The only real effect of the altitude I noted was that the salt bagel I brought to the top (thanks to Metro Bagel in PT) was no longer appetizing, but I stuffed it down anyway.

Summit register
Signing the summit register for Jefferson Search and Rescue.

Climbing is no good without descending, though, and we had a long way to descend. We hoped to be back to Camp Schurman by 1300. At 1011, we regrouped below the gravel bar, roped up in slightly different order — Bob, Micah, me, Bill, John — and started down. Below the upper snowfield, we watched the IMG group circle out on the broad saddle and begin their descent between the only two apparent crevasses on the upper Winthrop Glacier while we picked our way down by another route, even further to climber’s right than the way we had come up. Both worked out well and took about the same time. Picking our way back below the ‘shrund, we descended the rest pretty much as we had climbed it, skipping one big traverse around a crevasse and taking substitute bridges in a couple places, including skipping one with an obvious boot-shaped hole all the way through the middle of it. My earlier panic in vain, we eschewed the previously frozen steps and plunge-stepped into secure-feeling, softened snow.

GPS track of summit day on topo
Recorded GPS track on the WashingtonTopo map in Garmin Basecamp, showing the slightly different ascent (blue) and descent (green) routes. Rainier’s summit is on the left, with Camp Schurman and our approach route (magenta) on the right.

It took us 4.5 hours to descent to camp, arriving at 1442. Michael had melted snow to refill our empty bottles and make tea; he had not hiked down to the trailhead to pick up the pizzas we had discussed in moments of mutual torture. Most real food gone due to the trip taking our maximum number of days, we traded and borrowed what snacks remained to be found in pockets and bags. I sucked down the last couple of Gu packets I had saved.

Emmons-Winthrop route
Our route from Camp Schurman to the summit and back, low detail, from inReach satellite tracker.

Around 1730 we were ready to depart. It is hard to get straight to the work of repacking gear and breaking camp when you know it means strapping boots back on your feet and roping back up to get back on the glacier for more descending on tired legs. We had a few challenging moments back on the Emmons where a crevasse crossing had grown narrow in the sun and rain but otherwise proceeded quickly to a point on the ridge west of Ruth slightly higher than our earlier crossing point. That gained us the upper portion of the Inter Glacier, which we intended to glissade if possible. We tried that briefly but ended up walking down and across it to a glissade track that start at the top of the glacier’s steep section. In the soft snow, we needed a considerable slope to make it work.

We found that, and glissading roped together meant the lead person could tow the others. That is what happened, John and then me whipping down the slope being pulled by Michael, ax furiously dragging first on one side then the other to follow the curves sufficiently to stay in the track, snow piling up under and in front of us. On the other rope, somewhere Bill lost his helmet up high and had to walk back for it, likely erasing for him much of the fun and preserved energy of the glissade. We gained the loose lateral moraine below and alongside the Inter Glacier, stowed the ropes and began the hike out — 1.5 miles back to our Glacier Basin camp, where boots were exchanged for approach shoes, and 3.1 miles from there to the car at White River Campground.

Approach and climb
Our route for the entire trip, White River Campground to the summit and back, low detail, from inReach satellite tracker.

I think we drove off at around 2130. An hour later, Bob stopped his car (him, me, Michael and Bill) at McDonald’s in Enumclaw. It was likely the only restaurant open between the mountain and Tacoma. It worked for me, since I allow myself to eat fast food only after major outdoors adventures and have a tradition of eating a double-quarter-pound cheeseburger on my return dating back to 1999 getting off the plane from Nepal and 2001 getting out of the Wind Rivers. This time I made it a triple and added an Oreo blizzard thing; Bob ate a couple of fish sandwiches; Michael’s preference was one chicken and one beef, both with jalapenos added, and a Tillamook ice-cream cone. Only Bill was shut out, having walked across the street to Safeway to find something less unhealthy but seeing nothing good. To me at least, the food did not taste good, but it felt right to fill an empty stomach. I have been eating a lot since I got back but still do not find anything to taste very good.

Back in Port Townsend at 0100 on Wednesday, Bob dropped me off so I would not have to put my bag back on for the two-block walk through the woods from his house. Michael and Bill were asleep but woke briefly to say goodbye, no energy left in any of us for debriefing or more than the very necessary few words of mutual admiration and appreciation. I woke up Emily to let her know I was home, took a shower and collapsed for a few hours of sleep before work.

What now? I still have to wrap my head around this. Writing here what I remember helped. I don’t know where this big route fits into what I want to do as a climber — or, more basically, as a lover of mountains. Was that my Everest South Col? I was not there as a guided client, but I was not there as a fully equal partner, either, with Bob providing much of what the rest of us lacked. Will I climb that type of route again? Should I go back to working on smaller mountains, increasing skill and experience with mountain travel and weather? Should I stick to mountains with manageable couloirs instead of expansive glaciers? How will I react next time, and how do I fix my apparently natural mental reaction to what I love? Will I return simply to looking at big mountains and appreciating them from below? Only that last option sounds wrong right now. The rest will take some time to process.

2 thoughts on “Summit day

  1. Hell Yeah! You did it. I suspect you will hunger for more challenges in the near future. Get ready Jimmy. Enjoyable read Matt, I could feel the danger the mountain applied. The more the danger the greater the thrill. I wish I was there at the end when you were sharing food. I would have enough to fill everyone’s needs. Ha!

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