Climbing Mount Rainier

I can’t say when I first decided I wanted to climb Mt. Rainier, but I can say it’s been a special place for me my whole life.  My mother grew up in Eatonville, Washington along the mountain highway where she could see Mt. Rainier daily (or at least on the clear days) from her front yard.  Living in Georgia I saw Rainier a little less frequently, limited to summer trips every few years, but given how many cloudy days there are in the Pacific Northwest, perhaps I saw the peak only a few days less than my mom.
Mt. Rainier and I have had a somewhat complicated relationship over the years.  I’m not sure if I did something to offend the peak, but in my past several attempts to adventure on her slopes I have been denied.  In high school, probably around 1996 (turns out I’m getting old), while staying at Paradise Inn with my family I decided that someday I wanted to spend a summer living and working at Paradise.  This dream was realized in 1999, coincidentally the park’s 100th birthday year, with a job selling flocked animals, cedar boxes, and other lovely trinkets to tourists at the Paradise Inn Gift Shop.  During that summer I ventured up to Camp Muir, one of the base camps for climbing the mountain, as often as I could, telling myself that I wanted to learn the skills necessary to come back and climb this mountain.  At the time my mom generously offered to pay for me to take a guided trip up the mountain with Rainier Mountaineering, but I declined with the hopes of someday returning and being capable of climbing the mountain self-supported. 
After twelve years I was finally able to amass the appropriate gear and even learn the right way to use is.  With skills and equipment all I had left to do was to assemble my A-team for a summit bid.  (I should note that I was part of another summit attempt in 2009 with friends from the San Diego Mountain Rescue Team, where we were forced to turn around at the top of the aptly named Disappointment Cleaver due to some projectile vomiting, yay for altitude sickness.)  Over the course of the last couple of years I had been talking with friends about making another attempt on Rainier, and putting together an A-team that would be hard-pressed to not make it to the summit, weather permitting.  The final team was going to be myself, Grayson Hough, Jean Wheeler, John Sieckowski, Tim Kelly, and the Iron Lady aka Linda Phillips (yeah she’s done 9 ironman triathlons, so of course she made the A-team cut).  On this team we had 5 current or former Search and Rescue members, one paramedic, a teaching assistant for the EMT class, ultra-marathoners, and a West Canada trained Canadian Mountaineer.  Now all we needed to do was find a set of dates that worked for all of us, get a permit, and get in shape (more important for those of us that aren’t the Iron Lady).
There are several important things you should do when training for a major mountain climb, particularly one of Mt. Rainier’s caliber.  I have even outlined them for you here in 5 easy to follow steps:
              1.   Move to the flattest state in the United States, Florida. 
         2.   Four months before your planned climb sustain a major knee injury, like a tibial spine avulsion fracture, while skiing.
         3.   Spend two months on crutches working on your upper body strength, you’ll need it on the mountain.
        4.   As soon as you can start riding your bike and doing physical therapy exercises like crazy, you’re going to need that quad and hamstring strength back.
        5. Keep on planning that trip!
Each of these steps is very important, important to avoid that is, except perhaps for the getting strong part of step 4 and all of step 5.
The Trip
Now that you are all sufficiently bored with the backstory, lets get to the actual trip.  We had a permit for June 19-22 (see above about finding dates that worked for each member of the A-team).  The climb itself can be done in as few as 2 days, or as many as 4 depending on how many days you want to stay at base camp, or how many days you are forced to wait and hope for a weather window.  We decided on a plan that would allow us to hike to base camp (Camp Muir) on Sunday, rest and practice skills on Monday, then go for the summit Monday night/Tuesday, after which we could decide whether or not to spend another night at base camp or head down the mountain for beer and pizza. 
I flew into Seattle on Thursday night so I could spend Friday doing last minute preparations for the team, getting any gear that couldn’t be purchased in Florida and picking up food.  By Friday afternoon Grayson, Jeanni and I met in Seattle and drove to Mt. Rainier National Park to camp in Cougar Rock campground where we would be meeting the rest of the team on Saturday.  We drove into the park in beautiful conditions and set up camp.  At some point in the middle of the night a storm rolled in and we were dumped on.  Not to worry, we stayed dry in our tents, but getting up in the morning was a stand off between who would run to the car and get their rain gear out first.  Saturday was spent wandering the park, hanging out at Whittaker’s Mountaineering, and watching the rain.  Around 5pm we met up with Tim at Longmire and decided to swing by camp before heading to town for dinner, to see if Linda or John had arrived yet.  What we found was even more wonderful, a note in my now water logged tent informing us they had a room at Whittaker’s Bunkhouse and that there was plenty of room.  We quickly packed up our gear and zoomed down the road, excited by the prospect of being out of the rain, drying out the tents and not starting our climb with a bunch of wet gear.
At Whittaker’s we not only dried out our gear, but also filled our bellies with pre-summit beer and pizza before sorting out all the group gear and getting our packs ready for the hike to Camp Muir the next day.
Day 1 (June 19, 2011)
In an attempt to be as rested as possible for the climb we slept till about 7am before we got up ate breakfast, lost car keys, found car keys, packed the car and drove to the Ranger Station at Paradise to pick up our climbing permit.  While having breakfast we were able to log on to the internet and checked out the Camp Muir webcam, where we saw nothing but sunny skies overlooking a sea of clouds.  After hearing reports of the whole mountain being in clouds the day before this gave us hope that perhaps the weather was going to be on our side.  With the found car keys and visions of sunshine above we drove up to Paradise, where we shouldered our bags and headed up into and through the mist of the clouds. 
Loading our packs out of the rain below Guide House at Paradise.

Heading up the snow in the clouds of Paradise.
The climb starts at Paradise at an elevation of about 5400 feet and heads up through the meadows of Paradise, past Pebble Creek and onto the Muir Snowfield to Camp Muir, which is nestled below Gibralter Rock at 10,080 feet.  In early season (i.e. on our trip) it almost seems like one endless slushfield of snow from the parking lot to Camp Muir.  For the first couple of hours, we kept our heads down and hiked slowly but steadily upwards until finally punching through the top of the clouds around 7800 feet.  After several more hours of progress we made it to Camp Muir, where we dug out some lovely tent spots in the snow, cooked dinner, and melted snow for the evening before turning in for bed.  The plan for night one was to get as much sleep as possible to be ready for the summit bid.
Our first glimpses or Rainier with a few clouds still in our way.
Sunsncreen and snack break on our way to Camp Muir.
Final stretches above the clouds on our way to Muir.

Our dinner spot at Camp Muir.
Our tents at Muir (the two on the left and the one on the far right).
Day 2 (June 20, 2011)
I’m not going to lie, there is something nice about hearing other people getting up for an alpine start at midnight, knowing you don’t have to get up and can simply roll over in your nice cozy down sleeping bag and go back to sleep for many many more hours.  Because as it turns out 11pm makes a much better bedtime than wake up time.  Especially considering that in summer in the Pacific Northwest, its light till 10pm. 
Day 2 was a pretty relaxing day, in fact I am now completely sold on having a rest day on big mountain climbs.  We woke up, spent many hours melting snow, filling every bottle and bladder we had so we would have plenty of drinking water for the day and the summit bid that night.  After spending the morning making snow we split up into two rope teams of three that we would be in for the summit attempt and roped up and reviewed basic rope team techniques in the snow around Camp Muir.  We formed the Orange Team (myself, Jeanni, and Tim) and the Blue Team (John, Linda, and Grayson), based on the colors of our ropes.  Roping up and practicing skills as a team also allowed us to have the ropes pre-rigged for a quick and easy tie in at night.  Its much easier to set out rope lengths and tie knots when well rested and in sunny mid-day weather than when half-asleep in the dark and cold of an alpine start.  Snow playtime was followed by an hour long nap before dinner, since in my experience its easier to get a nap in when you are just thinking about waking up in time for dinner, compared to trying to sleep to wake up to climb a big tall intimidating mountain.  After naptime we cooked dinner, topped off water bottles with more melted snow, chatted with the rangers on updated route conditions and were in bed by 6pm for a 10:55pm wake up. 
Its practice time!

Jeanni all roped in.

Cooking dinner before our early bedtime.
Day 3 (June 21, 2011)
Technically the alarm went off on June 20, but I went to sleep and woke up so we’re just going to call it a new day.  It makes it easier that way.  Although it may be debatable if much real sleep occurred.  Most of the time I think I closed my eyes then re-checked my watch to make sure we hadn’t overslept the alarm.  I was envisioning how upset everyone would be with me if we all overslept and missed our alpine start window because I didn’t hear the alarm.  But don’t fret, I did hear the alarm and we all got up, ate some breakfast, and got ready for our start up the mountain.  I wish I had a photo to show you, but you’ll have to take my word that the stars at Camp Muir were beautiful when we woke up, and the clouds were clearing down below and we could see the lights of Paradise and distant cities. 

Tim ready to hike up the mountain.
The plan for the climbing day was that although we were two rope teams we would try and stick together so if anything went awry we could work together and help each other out.  But each team was also completely self-sufficient with all the gear and know-how to perform a crevasse rescue if necessary.  If you refresh yourself on the members of the A-team you will know that we had boatloads of know-how and fitness ready to charge up Mt. Rainier.  At around 12:15am (woo! We made it to June 21) we left Camp Muir and headed over the Cowlitz Glacier, through Cathedral Gap and onto the Ingraham Glacier (sounds familiar to your route to Grandmother’s house doesn’t it?).  We took a short break at the Ingraham Flats to adjust layers and to eat another snack before venturing onto Disappointment Cleaver, or the Cleave as we called it. 
In getting from Ingraham Flats to Disappointment Cleaver we got our first up close and personal look at a crevasse as we hiked up and around a line of crevasses that were opening up on the Ingraham before descending to a traverse that led us to the base of the cleaver.  Getting onto the cleaver is always a fun experience and involves a few moves of wow am I really going to want to do this again on the way down.  But I always remind myself that things seem scarier in the light of the headlamp than under the full sun conditions of the descent.  This time getting onto the cleaver involved a few delicate moves around a rocky bulge at the base before you finding yourself on steep snow. The first 400-500 feet of the cleaver were steep and had hand lines that could be grabbed if needed  (as opposed to the second half of the cleaver which was still steep just not as steep and without hand lines). Heading up the first half of the cleaver was full on burly, making sure you have your two points of contact with the snow at all times and keep on moving up one step or ice axe placement at a time. Slow and steady is the name of the alpine game.
After my team, Team Orange, made it to the top of the cleaver with an elevation of about 12,400 feet we plopped down in the snow for more snacky treats and to rest while waiting for Team Blue.  However, when we got there Team Blue was no longer right behind us.  We ate our food, waited for several more minutes, then asked a party coming up if they had seen another team of three on the cleaver.  They had, and the team was resting near the top of the fixed ropes and was probably at least a full rope length behind them.  We waited for a few more minutes, but after seeing no sign of their headlamps near the top of the cleaver decided that since they were fine, and given the cold we should proceed upward to stay warm. 
From the top of the cleaver the route climbs another several hundred feet up before traversing out right to the shoulder of the Emmons Glacier.  From this traverse the route climbs and climbs with few good spots to rest for quite some time.  We were finally able to find a nice spot to rest around 13,500 feet.  At this point Team Orange was starting to feel the altitude so we stopped for a nice long break.  Tim’s stomach had started to bother him, and I was hoping it would hold out for the summit.  After our break it was decided that we were okay to proceed up the mountain, and that I would set a nice mellow pace.  About 10 yards from leaving our break Tim’s stomach decided it had had it with the altitude and some dry heaving ensued.  (Don’t you like how this is appropriate talk for a mountaineering blog).  Being nervous about proceeding we decided to turn around and head down.  However, after taking a few steps down a guided group came around the corner and the guide asked us why we were descending.  He encouraged us to proceed and told us we were less than an hour to the summit.  We let the guided team pass and decided to proceed at our mellow rate to the summit. 

Jeanni and I enjoy our high break.  This is right before we almost turned around.
After a few false summits, I was finally able to see the inside of the crater.  At this point, Tim and Jeanni were suspicious of these false summits and called up to me that they wanted a break.  I yelled back, “I can see the crater!”  Which they didn’t hear over the wind prompting a repeat of “We want a break!”  Finally, with enough gesturing and shouting over the wind I was able to convince them I could see the crater rim and we continued another couple minutes until at about 7:15am we popped over the crater rim into the crater, where we dropped our packs and enjoyed the break from the wind that the crater provides.
At the crater rim I spoke with the guide from the other group to find out which of the high points surrounding the crater was the true summit.  He pointed us to where the summit registry was, and to the true high point of Columbia Crest at 14,410 feet.  From where we dropped our packs in the crater it was about a 15 minute hike to the top of Columbia Crest where obligatory summit photos were snapped before signing the summit registry.  Once back in the crater we enjoyed some ceremonial summit chocolate before retying in and starting the long descent back to Camp Muir.  On the way down Tim took the lead, and set a nice pace for the descent.
Brain Trust (Me and Tim) on the summit of Rainier!

Me and Jeanni on the summit!
Its official, our names in the summit registry.
The crater.
At this point I was wondering what had happened to Team Blue.  Did they get scared off by the cleaver? Had they run into trouble?  I was of course still hoping that all of us would make it to the summit.  Before leaving camp we had set a hard turn around time of 8:30am, meaning if we didn’t make the summit by then we were turning around no matter what to ensure we got down before the snow got too slushy and ice and rock fall danger increases.  So when we left the summit around 8am I knew that if Team Blue was going to make the summit they needed to be close.   Fortunately, only a few steps out of the crater and down the mountain we saw them.  We assured them they were within 5 minutes of the crater rim.  Team Blue pushed on towards the summit and we (Team Orange) continued our path down the mountain, arriving back to Camp Muir around 1pm.  At which point we untied from the ropes as quickly as possible, used the restroom, and dove into our tents for a quick nap.  Before dozing I pulled out the FRS radio from my pack and radioed Grayson to check the status of Team Blue.  They were part way down the cleaver and everything was going well.  By 3pm Team Blue made it back to Camp Muir.  Once back in camp John and Linda decided they wanted to spend another night in Camp Muir, while the rest of us (myself, Jeanni, Grayson, and Tim) decided to proceed down the hill to Paradise to meet my sister, partially motivated by the fact that strong winds were starting to whip through Camp Muir, indicative of a new weather system that was moving in.  By 5pm we were headed down the mountain and by 8pm we were seated in the back stinky corner (stinky because we were there) of the Paradise Lodge Dining room inhaling food like it was sea level air.  Coincidentally on the trail down we ran into my sister Meg who was hiking up to Panorama Point to get some sunset pictures, and some photos before the weather moved in. 
Day 4 (June 22, 2011)
We woke up toasty and warm and out of the wind in our room at the Paradise Lodge, ate a tasty breakfast, reorganized stinky gear, packed the car and waited for Linda and John to arrive.  When we left Muir the afternoon before we made a plan to regroup at Paradise and make sure everyone was off the mountain before going down.   By about 11am we saw John and Linda heading down the trail, (who my sister Meg ran into and met on the trail above Panorama Point that morning).  It is worth noting that Meg had never met these folks before, but seeing a man and woman walking down decided to ask if they were in fact John and Linda.  After regrouping, taking a few post-photos, John and Linda headed to the showers before we all headed back down to Whittaker’s to eat a celebratory meal. 
John, Linda (and Meg) taking the last steps to the parking lot at Paradise.

The A-team (John, Linda, Tim, Grayson, Jenny, and Jeanni).

3 thoughts on “Climbing Mount Rainier

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