Blue sky

Baker is behind the garage and tree under today's clear skies.

The weather seemed to play out as forecast, so the right call was made to delay the climb. Emily and I were in Seattle Saturday night and yesterday, where we walked, ran and drove through rain. It cleared up as we were heading back to the peninsula yesterday afternoon. A upper ridge has replaced the low pressure, and while it’s a bit hazy over the north Cascades, it’s going to be clear through Wednesday. We’d be worried mostly about too much sun if we were going today and tomorrow, but scheduling these things with sufficient warning to take vacation from work is tough. Hoping we get the group and the wx together for another attempt in four weeks.


Well, fuggity fuggity fuggity. This wasn’t our weekend to climb, based on the forecast and the already difficult route finding necessary on Baker’s upper slopes. It was never a horrible forecast…just a miserably unpromising one.

It appeared we would huddle in our tents for a night, maybe get some play time on the glacier the next day or maybe just head down — but almost certainly would not have made an attempt at the summit. We’ve canceled for this weekend and are trying to put most of the group together for an attempt the last weekend in June.

Gear and food are packed away for now.

Wx, wx, wx

So things are not looking good for this weekend’s attempt to climb Baker. Baker, by the way, is another of those feature names that sticks only because it’s an easy one to pronounce and was bequeathed to the mountain by a European. Let’s call the mighty volcano, which would be visible from where I lie on the living-room couch but for the peak of the garage and the neighbor’s tree, Kulshan, at least for the remainder of this post.

Kulshan is sitting in an upper-level trough, which will be followed by an upper-level low and another trough. Plenty of low pressure to go around these next few days. The NWS says up to a few inches of snow will fall on Wednesday and up to another few on Thursday. has around 10″ Thursday, 15″ Friday and lighter snow continuing through Sunday.

There’s not much more detailed or reliable info on Kulshan’s forecast available as far as I can tell. Upper-level lows are apparently difficult to forecast and result in snow at altitude and otherwise very inconsistent conditions. Or that’s my simplistic understanding, anyway.

Were we on a distant expedition, we’d sit tight, move up when we could and await a break in the wx. Maybe that break will come Sunday, and maybe the snow that falls before then will be in good shape. Or maybe it won’t. So do we try it, possibly to spend a sodden weekend below 6000′ and lessen the chance that we get the group together later to try again? Or do we make other plans and try to align schedules for another go in a few weeks, possibly to spend a dry weekend under high clouds when we could have walked on top of Kulshan?

Hopefully the forecast becomes a little more clear in the next day or two. Until then we wait and look at forecasts (like this tabular version and the discussion, both of which I forgot to include in my last post). It’s too late to do an effective high-pressure dance.

Prep and wx watching

Six days to go before we head toward Baker. We are currently a group of ten: four tents, three ropes if everyone goes beyond base camp.

We’ve been filling some gaps as a team — allocating tents, finding enough pickets, counting wands, counting ropes. The majority of the group went up to Marmot Pass on Sunday. It was mainly an opportunity to check our conditioning, but we tied in at the top and practice clipping through, practiced self arrest and ran through a crevasse-rescue scenario.

The hike also provided an opportunity to test some gear, so I tried out my new gloves and hoodie. The gloves are OR Highcamp, which have Primaloft Gold insulation and Ventia instead of Goretex. They replace the OR Arete gloves I tore up on the tow rope, which had Goretex but no insulation. The Arete gloves were really good to me, but I have cold fingers and like warm gloves — the Highcamp gloves seemed to keep me warmer playing around in the snow at Marmot Pass.

The hoodie is OR’s, too. They just started making a men’s version of the Echo hoodie, which been around for a couple of seasons for women. Long overdue and a quick favorite. OR makes other versions in the Echo line now, too, but we only have the hoodies. It worked well on the hike, and it goes to Baker.

Emily has an alpine harness and inflatable sleeping pad on the way, but everything else is here and just needs to be sorted and packed. Eh, maybe a little more. Gotta set up the four-season tent, which has been stowed for over a year, and the screens on my ABC watch need to be reconfigured to be more useful when climbing.

Other than those things, we just check the weather. Several times per day. We’re not quite up to next Sunday on Same for the NWS point forecast. That’s a lot of snow over the next few days. The Weather Channel thinks they can see more of the future. The drier weather they predict for Saturday and Sunday is a good sign, but it’s not very solid.

Edit: Based on what I was missing on last weekend’s hike, I revised the Garmin Fenix (original version) mountaineering and hiking profiles to this sequence (plus a navigating screen when in track-back mode):

It’s a few too many screens, but I can delete them easily later if some are never used.

Planning for Baker

The big climb discussed this year by our team that went to Rainier last year has been Mount Baker. We didn’t pick a date months in advance like last year, when we lined up successive months’ climbs on the Brothers, Constance and Rainier. But it’s been on the horizon, something to look forward to after spending January through March sitting in a classroom getting licensed as an EMT.

A month ago plans solidified around Memorial Day weekend, which is only two weeks away now. We picked up a few people that didn’t go last year, too, so we may be two or even three rope teams depending on how many stay at base camp.

I’ve been sorting gear and filling a few holes, like the gloves torn up by the tow rope at Hurricane Ridge this winter and the backpacker meals we’ve haven’t restocked in a while. Being located so close to Outdoor Research means the gloves ordered yesterday will be here today. Backpackers Pantry order should be here next week. And a resupply of Gu arrived the other day.

Everyone knows you can’t climb a mountain on four packets of Gu.

The Gu is in larger packages this time, because I’m hoping a single pound stuffed into my pocket will eliminate the practice of searching every pocket and corner of my pack for the little bastards (and always only finding empties until I get home and unpack). I really do not function well at all when I don’t get regular energy inputs. I am slow, cranky as hell and prone to injuring myself due to shaky, not confident legs — it makes for miserable descents.

But you can if each contains a solid pound of the magic life-sustaining substance.

I’ve also been studying the route: the Easton Glacier, approached via the Railroad Grade moraine-top trail. From the pictures I’ve seen, the mountain starts to look pretty small once you get to base camp. The major feature toward which the lower part of the route is aimed, an actively venting crater, appears to sit within reach, and what can be seen of the summit above that looks equally attainable.

The same thing happens on Rainier. They are huge from down here, with Baker especially looming over the water northeast of Port Townsend. Rainier, when visible to the southeast, isn’t quite a massive presence on the skyline but is obviously enormous as evidenced by its distance and its height above everything around it. Yet when you approach to within a few thousand feet of the top, what remains is reduced to a few thousand feet, obviously. A day’s hike here and a day’s climb there and you’re at the top.

That’s not to minimize the effort involved in climbing nor the difficulty in finding one’s way up and then down that apparently minor distance. Route finding on Baker in any kind of weather is reportedly difficult, especially on the descent, due to the vastness of the upper snowfields. We’ll be running a couple of GPS track logs and wanding those portions of the route.

Mentally, I need to feel I can do a better job on Baker than I did last year, or I’ll stay at base camp. It’s apparently not likely that we will find as much ice on Baker, and a little snow on the steeper sections would make for a more psychologically secure climb. A surface that takes more than just the tiniest bit of crampon teeth and one that the ice ax of a self-arresting climber actually bites into rather than skittering off would be ideal. However, as I learned last year, an overblown fear of a steep descent on a solidly frozen surface that freaks me out during the ascent can be worse than the actual descent — I must control the mind.

More to come, of course. I don’t know if I’ll be posting from camp on 4G like Rainier, but I will write and post when we find coverage.

ABC/running watch

I ran a 5k last year with Emily, even though I hate running. I agreed to that one both because I was tired of watching her run races and because it was on the airfield at NAS Whidbey Island. I think I ran a kilometer or two before I had to walk a bit, but it wasn’t that bad. At her urging, I have ran a few more races since then, switching to 10k races (where possible) a couple of months ago when Emily switched to half marathons, and I will attempt my first half marathon this coming weekend.

We have both been using the Fitbit app to track our runs and to watch distance and pace while running. That works alright, but it is asking a lot of each of our phones to play music and record a GPS tracklog at the same time — crashing is not infrequent. I’ve also had my eye out for a reasonably priced ABC watch for hiking and climbing but have not found anything that didn’t cost more than my cell phone (or my laptop, to be honest).

Until I got a good deal on a refurbished Garmin Fenix. This thing is a tech geek’s dream come true, and possibly a non-tech person’s nightmare if they try to mess with the configuration too much. It’s awesome. Here is what I did and you should do to this thing:

  • First, forget the manual for the most part and read DC Rainmaker’s review instead. Because the review has not been updated for the last few major firmware versions, skim that site’s reviews for the Fenix 2 and Fenix 3, too. One thing that makes the original Fenix such a good deal is that the price has dropped, but Garmin continues to update and support the device. Of course, you can read Garmin’s manual, too, if you are so inclined.
  • Second, create an account on Garmin Connect (and add me as a contact there if you want to).
  • If you use a Fitbit to track your daily activity, create an account on Connect that account to your Fitbit account and your Garmin Connect account. Note, though, that steps recorded on your Garmin device will appear in your Fitbit account but will not count in Fitbit competitions.
  • Fourth, install Garmin Basecamp on your computer. Connect the Fenix to your computer and run Basecamp to install any available updates.
  • Fifth, install the appropriate Garmin app on your smartphone and log in with your Garmin Connect credentials. Using the Fenix Bluetooth connection, sync it to your new watch.
  • Sixth, set up the data pages for each of the activity profiles you want to use (running, hiking, mountaineering, skiing, etc.) Turn off the damn keypress beep in each of them. Configure each of them for when you want the Bluetooth connection to your phone to be active. Reorder the menu. See this post on the Garmin forums for more explanation of the various data fields, and for the Excel-based profile builder in case you really hate doing that much editing on the watch itself.
  • Finally, give that thing a better base map. I combined a western-Washington portion of a Fenix-specific Open Street Maps basic map (available on the gMapTool site) with the Washington portion of the very awesome Northwest Trails map (download at GPS File Depot). This post tells you how to combine two maps into one and copy them onto the Fenix to replace the stock base map. While the combined map looks pretty plain on the computer and falls short of the color topo on my handheld GPS, it is perfectly detailed for the screen and fits in memory on the Fenix. Even if you do not want to mess with making a custom combined map, the maps above and others available online can make better base maps than the stock one, depending on your planned usage — just be aware of the file size and limit geographic coverage appropriately.

That done, it’s time to go running or hiking or climbing. Record some activities. Try the LiveTrack feature, as if anyone on Facebook is really going to sit at their computer and watch you run for a couple of hours (if you are doing anything worth watching, you won’t have cell service anyway). Sync the watch to your phone (it’s buggy on mine, but it works if I reboot the watch to reestablish the Bluetooth connection), and check out your activity details on Garmin Connect.

Some problems noted so far: Without a smartphone connection, I’m not sure how I would sync activities, courses, etc., between the Fenix and Garmin Connect; the latter tries to use Garmin Express, which states that it does not work with the Fenix [EDIT: See note below]. Editing and testing profiles and data pages takes some patience and experimentation. The GPS fix when running in thick woods is okay but not great. The Connect app on Android constantly complains if it does not have a Bluetooth connection to the watch (even when I’m not using the watch or the app), so I had turn off its notifications in Settings>Apps. The app lacks a “sync now” button, as does the phone, and syncing does not update the “your last sync was xx hours ago” unless it has activities to download. Garmin Connect, whether on the app or in a browser, lacks the ability to use social-media and email accounts to find connections, and searching for connections is next to useless due to its broad results and poor detail; you would really have to talk to someone about their active account in order to find and connect with them.

EDIT: The error in Garmin Express stating that syncing the Fenix requires use of another Garmin app is fixed in the newest version of Express, so I was able to sync it through my PC and upload courses. Course upload apparently does not happen through the Connect app on Android phones. However, uploading two half-marathon courses through Express partially bricked my Fenix and caused no end of cursing the day before an overnight trip to do one of those half marathons. Soft resets and attempted hard resets did not help. What finally worked was forcing the unit, connected to my PC, into USB mass-storage mode by holding down the Up button while the unit was starting up (after first holding down the light button long enough to get it to power off). First, the words “software loader” appear; keep holding down the Up button, and the Fenix will eventually show up as a drive on the computer. Then, delete all of the GPX files on the device, because one of those being corrupted is what causes the Fenix to freeze at the first boot-up screen (Garmin logo). I also read online that people left their Fenix powered on and connected to the charger all night and woke to a working device, but I did not take the time to try that.

The reasons I’m leaving CAP

I post this because of frustration, sure, but also because the reasons I’m letting my Civil Air Patrol membership expire could be addressed and resolved if there were interest in doing so. I’ve raised these issues through the chain of command with no result. And I’m not in the military: CAP is a volunteer organization, run mostly by its members, and participation is a costly, time-intensive endeavor. We’re not paid for it nor for our public silence on problems like this one.

I gave it a little over a year of effort. Shortly after moving to Washington from Illinois, I drove myself to a wing-level exercise — no one else from the local squadron was interested. I wore one uniform and brought two others, packing ground-team and aircrew gear so I could be assigned anywhere I was qualified or a trainee. Ended up on an air crew that found a beacon. A few months later, I got a ride from PT’s airport with a crew inbound for an airborne photography exercise. Brought my camera and did one sortie before getting a ride home. Both times, it was great to get in the air, but neither translated into mission callouts.

I emailed and called up the chain about the lack of callouts. I am admittedly isolated out here, with none of the operations-oriented comradery we had in Chicago, so I had to go up the chain. Where was the callout email and text system that notified ES-qualified personnel of actuals? Was I missing something? These were the simple questions I repeated until I was sick of it. Eventually, the DO put me on the pilots email list so I could see some of the mission opportunities.

When our squadron commander left, I took the job, though I was not really qualified. That got me all sorts of emails: lots of reports and demands for reports, an incredible number of carefully prepared personnel actions in PDF and Word docs attached to blank emails (I eventually ceased bothering to open attachments), and some training opportunities. It seems the level of administrative bullshit in a SAR organization is inversely proportional to the organization’s ops tempo.

Not a single mission callout did I receive. A couple informal warning orders came through the pilots email list, though I received no responses when I said I was qualified and available.

Yet, in the most recent issue of the wing’s own magazine (low ops tempo apparently yields time for such things), the CC writes of recent missions, and the officer of the monthly ground training school talks of getting a callout for missing hikers by text. I learn of more actuals though Google News. Missions apparently do happen in Washington wing, though you wouldn’t know it by my experience. I saw those occasional notifications to the pilots list, but pilots in the air means mission-base staff, at minimum. Where are the calls for radio operators, staff assistants, logistics officers, etc.?

As squadron commander, I made a final attempt to get something going, bringing wing ops staff over here to meet with the county’s emergency manager. While the county was most accommodating and agreed to register our squadron members as state volunteer emergency workers so we could play, the wing staff showed up less than impressive or inspiring, verbally pessimistic about the chance to use CAP members on anything other than airborne photo missions. It was demoralizing showing added to everything else I’d experienced.

At that point, I decided to resign my commander post. I’m not in CAP to do cadet programs. Administrative bullshit is necessary, and it’s even tolerable, but I won’t keep up my ground, base and air quals (none of which have expired yet since I moved from a wing that made use of them regularly — I’m still fully qualified) by traveling the long distance to training on busy weekends unless those quals would be used on actuals.

After resigning, I really wanted to stay involved to support the new commander, but there’s no excitement in it for me, no chance to give back in the way that I’ve trained and equipped myself to do. So my membership expires in a couple of months, and I wish it were sooner. Having put countless hours into training and missions and countless dollars into equipment, I’m more than a little bitter about a transfer to this wing making those investments irrelevant.

At least I have had an opportunity locally to do more. I’ve been learning mountain SAR and responding to a fair number of missions, though I miss having friends in the air with their eyes and radios providing support. And I miss the people who were in CAP to get their boots dirty, who dropped everything to get in a Cessna and fly to the east coast when the balloon went up, who trained (and trained me) because they knew the call would come, who worked hard and bonded hard, who treated this as more than scouts with planes or some sort of exclusive club I was unable to crack.

Post-climb funk

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.

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.


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.