“It is 11:30 in the pm. People in Seattle are out partying. And you, ladies and gentlemen, are going to climb Mount Rainer.” JJ Justman, well-decorated RMI Mountain Guide with over 200 summits of Mt Rainier and one summit of Mt Everest under his belt, just has a way of getting people going. We awoke to his words in the bunk bed shelter built by the guide company at Camp Muir at 10,000 feet. The next one and a half hours would be filled with gobbling down breakfast, getting our gear ready for an alpine start and summit attempt of the most topographically prominent mountain in the contiguous United States. And hopefully not falling in a crevasse along the way.
“Holy shit, we’re gonna climb that thing?” Ethan, my friend and go-to climbing partner in crime when it comes to adventures like this, rightfully expressed his amazement as we were about an hour outside of Seattle on Hwy 161 in a much too small Nissan Altima Coupe (Hertz, we hate you). We had flown into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, grabbed a rental car and were and on our way to Ashford, the headquarter location of Rainier Mountaineering Inc., the guide company we had chosen for this adventure. The mountain had us already staring at it in wonder and disbelief from the plane about two hours earlier on the approach into the airport when Mt Rainier was rising up from the floor, a massive snow-covered crease in the earth’s crust. But now that we got closer, the reality of this soon-to-begin adventure up this stratovolcano slowly settled in our minds.
After orientation and gear check on the first day and mountaineering school, where we learned how to properly climb with crampons, self-arrest us with our ice axe in case of a fall and walk while roped up to other team members on day 2, the actual ascent up the mountain began on day 3. Heavy rainfall woke us up in our motel room in Ashford and, caught up in the early morning daze, we had serious doubts this climb would actually happen. By the time we got off the shuttle bus in Paradise on the south slope of the mountain at 5400 feet, we stepped into a slight drizzle, some wind and fog clouds.
A final gear check and we were on our way up the Skyline Trail to Pebble Creek and then crossed the Muir Snowfield to reach Camp Muir around 3:30 pm, perched on a rocky ridge between the snowfield and the Cowlitz Glacier. Luckily, the further up we climbed, the more the weather conditions had improved. By the time we reached camp, any precipitation had subsided with barely any wind.
Once we had settled in, our guides Lindsay, Ben and Katrina filled us in as to what to expect from the next couple of hours. “Don’t worry about sleep. This mountain has been climbed with a few hours of sleep and even with no sleep at all,” Lindsay tried to address concerns of fellow climbers worried about sleeping at altitude. “JJ, for example, won’t be sleeping at all. He just likes to practice his Italian,” she added with a chuckle, referencing the lead guide of the other RMI group climbing with us.
When playing in the mountains, nights are usually short. This one was no different. Taking advantage of good, calm weather conditions, JJ woke us up 30 minutes to midnight and I was standing outside in full climbing regalia at 1 am, fellow climbers around me putting on crampons, adjusting harnesses and clipping into their spots on the rope on their rope team, each team usually consisting of three to four members. To the beam of our headlamps and the almost full moon, we proceeded to cross the Cowlitz Glacier and onto the Ingraham Glacier via the rocky section at Cathedral Gap.
My rope team was comprised of Lindsay, our lead guide, Ethan, Rob, a slender, tall, soft-spoken guy from New York City, and myself. The pace was comfortable, the grade not too steep yet, which gave us time to adjust and get into a walking rhythm. I felt good.
After Cathedral Gap the steepest and most demanding section of the climb, Disappointment Cleaver, awaited us at around 3 am. Climbing about 800 feet in half a mile, we had reached the bottom of it about two hours after leaving Camp Muir. The snow was firm and the crampon spikes provided enough traction not to slip, yet it was the most difficult part of the climb for me. My calves were screaming in agony and no matter which technique I tried, none of them seemed to make it any easier.
While I was not affected by the altitude as much, the wind and the temperature of around 15F was the bigger struggle. We usually took breaks at every major milestone on the climb up, three in total. The breaks were too short for me to get organized and get everything done that I was told to: “Put down your packs, get some food, water in you,” Lindsay commanded us in a brisk, but friendly tone. A lot of questions went through my head at the beginning of all of those breaks: Am I too hot? Do I need to shed a layer? Add a layer? If yes, where in my pack is it? What do I want to eat during the break? Where is it in my pack? Finding all those items in the dark with only the beam of my headlamp turned out more difficult than I thought.
The time during those breaks just flew by and in a moment of lost composure, I might have cursed at Lindsay for getting us going again so quickly. But the brevity was justified. You can’t just sit around and let your body cool down for too long on a mountain. So I did the best I could, get at least some food and liquid in me and take the best guess whether my layering situation was still okay. I also had an issue with my balaclava, which, as warm as it was, made drinking and eating with it on a real hassle. It was too stiff to stretch over my face to free my mouth and the breathing hole was too small to drink out of a wide mouth Nalgene bottle without spilling half of the sip (I ended up losing the balaclava to a crevasse on the way down, which I wasn’t too sad about).
Leaving the cleaver behind us, the climbing got a little easier while we made our way towards the upper part of the mountain on the now Emmons Glacier. We followed a switchback pattern that brought us up to 4000 meters and just when that little bit of boost of motivation was necessary, the sun announced itself with orange and yellow slivers on the horizon. There have been very few moments where I was as delighted by a sunrise.
We then traversed, more or less from the east-south-east towards the west and then approached the summit crater of the volcano from the south. We reached the crater, but in order to get to the true summit, we circled around the southwestern part of the crater rim, dropped our packs and then conquered the last 100 vertical feet to reach Columbia Crest and the summit of Mount Rainier at 7:30 am on June 14.
Making it to the summit was a personal victory over the struggles that haunted me and the events that shook my life for the past several months. A fight against my demons but also to push those struggles aside for a few hours and just be in the moment. I thought about my dad a lot, carrying his picture up to the summit with me as I did on Mt Whitney a few weeks earlier.
We enjoyed the summit views in sunny weather with some slight wind for a brief few minutes, before starting our descent back down towards Camp Muir. Reaching Disappointment Cleaver, we were treated to a straight-on view of Little Tahoma, a side peak of Mt Rainier, set in front of a sea of clouds. Getting down the cleaver wasn’t as challenging as coming up it, yet with the melting snow, conditions got more slippery and we also had to give way to groups of independent climbers who, absurdly, only started coming up now with snow conditions worsening. With every descent, it is of utmost importance to not get distracted, since a bad step here can be as fatal as a misstep on the way up. The fact that you don’t have to fight gravity works in one’s favor, but the rising temperatures, the slushy snow conditions and the UV rays unforgivably reflecting from the snow cover do not.
Mt Hood in the distance while crossing Cowlitz Glacier again brought us back into Camp Muir around 11 am. Back in camp, our tasks were to rest up, followed by packing the remainder of our stuff that we had left in the bunks about ten hours earlier and getting ready for the descent back down to Paradise. We descended down the snowfield which, the closer we got to the cloud layer, got warmer because of the UV rays trapped in this sandwich of clouds and snow. As soon as we dove through the layer, typical “Pacific North Wet” weather welcomed us back: rainfall and fog.
Over slushy snow and rain dripping down from our shell jackets, we made it back to Pebble Creek. We crossed over several small hills covered in water-soaked snow before we were back on the Skyline trail. The last couple of miles it seemed that the visitor center and the virtual finish line would come into view at any minute. Instead, it was just more fog, low visibility, slushy snow, and sparsely distributed pine trees along the trail.
Voices of tourists who, for no good reason, decided to come out in this kind of weather, signaled us that we were getting closer and back to civilization. Finally, around 4 pm, we were back in the parking lot at Paradise. Slightly wet from the drizzle and with excess amounts of sunscreen still smeared all over my face, exhausted, but content I fell asleep on the shuttle back to RMI headquarters.