Recovering from a lack of sleep turned this weekend, I think, into a post-Rainier depression. As a SAR team, we were looking forward to Rainier for the better part of a year, at least since first talking about it last fall. During the winter, our plans shaped up to include a preparatory climb of The Brothers, which turned into two prep climbs when we added Mt. Constance (one benefit of the early season caused by a low Olympics snowpack). My brother Jimmy planned a trip here months in advance, and that added a long weekend of climbing in the Constance area to my calendar. All of that was scheduled well in advance for late April through late June and brightened the horizon.
A couple of those didn’t happen — I turned back from Constance once due to a mild knee injury, and Jimmy and I aborted the long weekend mostly due to our grandmother fading quickly. However, I soloed snow on Mt. Angeles a handful of times and summitted it once on rock with Jimmy and his friend. Angeles throughout the winter, The Brothers in April and Rainier last week still comprise a bigger climbing season than I’ve ever had.
It was all very amazing, but now I have nothing on my plate, and I feel it. I can’t plan anything to rival Rainier. My mental performance last week shook my confidence about using what remains of this season’s Rainier climbing pass — and about signing up for a serious climb with other climbers in general. The lack of snow has been a depressive element all year, but Rainier and its glaciers were the bright spot. I’ve never done a long climb on rock, and the snow is long gone.
Jimmy says ride it out and stay in shape. Emily and I have a couple of runs scheduled for next month, 10Ks for me and half marathons for her. A trip to Vantage’s sport and trad walls sounds about right, but that will have to wait until the fall when the weather cools and the rattlesnakes go to sleep.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
1500 Tuesday. We made it to the top of Rainier this morning and just got back to camp. I’ll write it up later, maybe on the drive home if I can stay awake. Haven’t slept since 0500 or so yesterday, and we have to break camp, climb out a bit then hike out the relatively easy (and downhill) trail. Everything hurts on everyone, so it’s not going to be fun.
1545 Monday. We have one last shot at the summit starting tonight. Forecast is better, and what we saw of the snow today Bob thought encouraging. The lower route should hold together for ascent in the dark. Higher up we will likely have to make our own way, but it will be light by then.
We spent the morning and early afternoon setting up anchors above a crevasse to practice rescue a couple hundred feet higher along the route. That devolved or evolved into some belayed crevasse climbing. We were down climbing to a ledge then climbing back up, but I explored a bit left on the ledge, jumped a bit and was trying to make it across the end of the ledge to the next wall, separated by a branch of the crevasse, when the whole thing fell out below me. I think both my axes came out of the relatively loose snow wall of the crevasse. Or something. A few seconds later the ledge came apart enough to hit the bottom. Fucking thrilling, and that was enough crevasse climbing for me.
Back to base camp for lunch/dinner, melting more snow and getting everything dry for tomorrow. I really was not feeling like going up tonight…but instead I want to hike out. That’s not an option, so why sit here when I feel strong enough to go along on the attempt? We will try to wake up at 2230 again and hope for better weather.
Like last evening, a group showed up here and is gonna be noisy for a while. It’s a guided IMG group, so our quiet corner of the mountain turned into a circus, complete with large tents. They got here a while ago, though, so hopefully we will get some sleep.
0730 Monday. In an anticipated but far from inspiring turn of events, we had to cancel last night’s attempt. We woke up a bit before the 2230 alarm. Bob poked his head outside the tent and immediately said “no,” but he, I, Michael and Bill stood around looking hopefully at the clouds for a while anyway before headed back to the tents.
It was the right call, because the forecasted rain and thunderstorm finally materialized a couple of hours later. We’re standing in the sun now, having rebuilt the snow kitchen and reburied tent stakes, but we would have been in trouble had we been on the route during the storm.
We went wrong in trusting the forecast for yesterday morning. Several parties summitted (or tried) in relatively good weather. We had preemptively delayed at the trailhead. When we did that, though, we allowed for an extra night on this end of the trip. That leaves us with another shot at it tonight. It remains to be seen whether we trust the route, which was already melting out, after this morning’s heavy rain.
We are planning to do some crevasse-rescue practice and then decide.
1715 Sunday. We are prepped for an attempt tonight. We changed to a single rope of five: Bob, Micah, John, Bill, me. Michael is dropping out of the climb and staying at BC. I get it…this has already been amazing, especially today being up this high on the glacier, with the summit looking (it’s not) a short way above us, and he was feeling the worst of us.
We were all liking the idea of having two separate rope teams to aid in crevasse rescue. Since we will not have that, we are carrying a second rope.
The route is falling out, but there are options further to the right on the Winthrop Glacier, which joins the Emmons just above us here. A little rain this afternoon did not help. We’ll see how it goes, and if conditions aren’t right we won’t summit. If they are, and if we are strong enough, we should be up there around 8 or 9 am.
Time to try to get a little sleep before the alarms go off.
1430 Sunday. We reached our base camp a couple of hours ago and have been busy making a wind break, sitting area and stove enclosure out of snow. Camping on rock is an option here, too, but Bob loves making a very temporary home out of snow, it seems. Bill and Michael went the same way, and Micah and John are up on the rocky area.
The climb this morning started on the old, large lateral moraine that shows the former extent of Inter Glacier. That brought us to the current reaches of Inter Glacier, where we roped up (mostly for practice and getting to know that type of travel together) and put on boots and crampons. The crampons were overkill most of the way but didn’t hamper us. The surface most of the way was a few inches of icy, wet, somewhat loose snow on top of a harder layer.
We climbed to the ridge near Camp Curtis, then unroped for the short rock/snow descent to the Emmons Glacier, which greeted us with a beautiful, huge, twisted crevasse. I’ll add pics later, because I do not want to waste battery life on those uploads. We roped back up for the short climb on the glacier proper (finally) to Camp Schurman.
Progress was frustratingly slow. I have more doubts now about our ability to summit tomorrow. We are planning to leave earlier, waking up at 2230 tonight and leaving as soon as we can. We will have the ropes and as much gear as possible set up before we try to sleep (which should be soon). That might give us enough of a shot. But while I came up with little effort beyond fighting off boredom, others were struggling. We have 5000′ to go on somewhat steeper slopes than today’s. I don’t see everyone making it, which means none of us will. Frustrating, because I’m feeling strong, and the wx, while far from suitable for perfect conditions, appears to be cooperating well enough.
1230 Saturday. As is obvious from my ability to post these (and from Bob answering his phone), we have cell service here at our low camp. This wasn’t the case at the campground last night, but we are a bit higher and can look back down the White River valley. My phone is still off or in airplane mode most of the time to preserve battery life.
Today’s hike was 3.1 miles on a decent trail. We are around 6000′ now — lots more to climb. Tomorrow we will get an early start to beat the heat, hike a mile and a half to where the trail runs into the Inter Glacier, climb that to the ridge off the end of Ruth, then drop to the Emmons Glacier, which will be our home until we turn back to the cars. We will climb a little on the Emmons and end up tomorrow at Camp Schurman, our high camp. Tomorrow brings boots and ropes if not crampons.
Nothing much else to do until it’s time to sleep, so we each walked up or down the trail a bit, filtered some water, snacked, etc. The views from this area are not as wide-open as those from this morning’s trail, because we are close enough to have ridges blocking our look at the route. I’ve been reading my Kindle (in the tent to avoid the flies) and am having a cup of chocolate chai. I’m hoping an early dinner turns into an early bedtime followed by an early start tomorrow.
0400 Saturday. I saw the route yesterday for the first time. It was easy to pick out the boot track of the previous Emmons Glacier climbers from below the Corridor continuously to the bergshrund as it weaved around crevasses. The Corridor now seems more aptly named, or at least more obviously advantageous: to the left and right of it are the largest icefalls I’ve seen on a mountain I plan to walk on.
There are much, much larger and more thrilling ones on the Annapurna range, of course. But even from here, where the Rainier fills as much of the skyline as Annapurna South and Fishtail combined fill from Pokhara, I don’t feel the same kind of longing I do looking up at those. I don’t think that’s because my deep love of staring up at mountains has faded by living near them. I think it’s both because this mountain feels attainable and because my mind is filled with thrill and anxiousness more proximate to the task at hand.
Yesterday, the mountain looked smaller from here than it does sitting by itself as viewed from home and from Seattle. I know we are just about exactly 10,000′ below the summit, but it just didn’t look like it. Seeing the tiny lights of other parties make their way through and above the Corridor just now brought it back to scale. That reminds me that this is my first time seeing that. Other than the flags on the top of Annapurna, I’ve never seen evidence of climbers above me on a big peak, and just like Annapurna, their tiny showing of existence makes the mountain look even larger.
Camping here last night in the NPS campground was an accommodation to the forecast. We can’t climb in lightning, and lightning is forecast for tonight through tomorrow night. It’s probable that we will delay a night at high camp to let it pass, though we will get up and ready at 2300 tomorrow to see if the time is right.
Today will be an easy hike, though with heavy packs, to our low camp at Glacier Basin. We are taking our time on the approach. We could push to high camp in a single day, and many parties do, but that would likely tire us enough to hamper our ability to summit and descend to the cars the next day.
Rope teams are set. Bob, Micah and Bill on the first;, Michael, John and I on the second. I don’t really care where I end up. Pace on the rope will be what it is, and this route is sufficiently non-technical and our respective experience levels insufficiently differentiated (other than Bob’s, since he has climbed Rainier three times among other things) that it does not much matter whether one is leading. Regardless of position, no one can fall without self-arresting, roped or not. We’ve trained for recovery from a fall, but we don’t want to use that.