I love watching the sun rise from new places. The sunrise is so often lost in the scuttle of day-to-day life that I’m always grateful for the rare chance to simply enjoy these few moments. On this morning, I’m more grateful still for the chance to experience dawn on the summit of Washington’s Mount Rainier. This is the story of our climb.
When you’re invited on an adventure, say yes.
Recently I had the good fortune of being invited on a Mount Rainier summit climb with revered mountaineering guiding operation RMI Expeditions and Seattle-based gear outfitters Eddie Bauer. I recently joined forces with Eddie Bauer, and would be accompanied on this adventure by five of my cohorts from the company. The crew consists of myself, Justin Vasquez, Kelsey Aanerud, Lisa Meaney, Harumi Nishiyama-Williams and her husband, Jason Williams, whose smooth-talking wife managed to get him in on the trip. I’m excited for new friends and a new objective.
Our group of six is signed up for RMI’s Four Day Rainier Summit Climb. The guided climb includes a half-day gear check and orientation day followed by a day of on-snow instruction covering some of the mountaineering basics we’d need for our ascent. Day three would be the trek from Paradise Visitor’s Center to Camp Muir. The big day, day four, would see us rising in the early morning hours to climb through the night in hopes of reaching the summit with enough time to descend before the August sun makes conditions too dangerous.
Our gear check is more fun than it sounds; I learn a few clever tricks about packing for efficiency on alpine climbs, and get familiar with my new Alchemist 40 backpack. I see a lot of them coming and going from base camp, and I look forward to seeing how the bright green carryall performs on the mountain. They certainly seem popular with RMI’s guides.
The following day our crew heads for Paradise, the main visitor center on the south side of Mount Rainier National Park, before climbing to a snowfield steep enough to serve as our classroom for mountaineering school. This is our training day, and it’s spent covering the basics of walking on a rope team, self-arresting, and footwork with crampons. There is always something new to learn, and I try to absorb all I can from our guides. When the school is over we trundle down the mountain feeling slightly sunbaked and anxious about tomorrow’s climb. I know I’m not the only one looking over his shoulder at the looming peak behind us.
Nightfall finds me neurotically packing, unpacking and repacking my bag in my room in the Whittaker Bunkhouse (the bunkhouse itself is a deal at $35/night if you don’t mind that it’s, well, a bunkhouse), and trying to get a few winks of sleep. Tomorrow we climb!
Clad nearly head-to-toe in Eddie Bauer First Ascent gear, our team heads out for Camp Muir. The first few hours of the climb have us chuckling to ourselves — the trail is asphalt for the first couple miles, and while you’re wearing your mountaineering gear and carrying an axe and a big pack, you’re passing families pushing strollers, wondering what the heck you’re doing. Soon enough we hit the trail, started gaining elevation, and got our first clear view of what lay ahead.
The weather is incredible, or “splitter” in guide-speak. Our leaders on this expedition prove to be top-notch. They do all the usual boring stuff like keep us from falling in crevasses and answer the team’s 32,107 questions, but more importantly they are just super fun to hang out with. That’s a big deal, especially when you’re tired, blistered, sunburnt and carrying an axe. Solveig Waterfall leads the team, with Ben Liken and Billy Haas rounding out the squad. At one point, Solveig joins in as Justin and I belt out the theme song to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Later on Ben impresses us all with a well-crafted pickle joke (don’t ask, they’re only funny above 10,000 feet). Billy would show himself to be extremely patient and diplomatic when, early the next morning, I pestered him to stop the team so I could snap photos at a pretty, uh, inopportune time. These three are all-around rockstars and truly a pleasure to be with on the mountain.
Today is pretty much just a big slog up to Camp Muir. Nothing too technical, just one foot after the other for about 6 hours. Still, the stoke level is high.
Camp Muir is awesome. The summer sun is shining, ’90’s hiphop spills from the guide shack, and the slightly nauseous feeling of mild altitude sickness settling in…
We arrive around 6pm, with plenty of time to rehydrate, refuel and repack before getting to bed as early as possible. The affectionately-named “Tarpaper Shack” is home for the night, and while it’s nothing fancy, it’s definitely mountain 5-star compared to a tent, especially in bad weather. Usually packed with 18 climbers, tonight it’s just the six of us, so we spread out and relax as we slurp re-hydrated stroganoff and munch on smashed PBJ’s. We’ll be getting up in the middle of the night to begin our summit push. I crawl in to my sleeping bag around 9pm.
11:30 pm comes early. Ben pops his head in and tells us it’s go-time. He’s far too chipper. I’ve got the headache and nausea that I expected the elevation gain would bring, but I manage to gulp a bottle of water and get a Honey Stinger Waffle down. We all groggily rise, put on our gear, stumble around in our crampons and at about midnight-thirty we divide in to two three rope teams and head out across the Cowlitz Glacier toward Cathedral Gap.
Climbing at night is a blast. Your world only exists within the range of your headlamp. Everything beyond that is not your concern, which is nice. You fix your gaze on the person in front of you, focused on maintaining the proper rope interval with them and watching sparks shooting off their spiky feet.
Yes, sparks. Cathedral Gap and Disappointment Clever have melted out significantly this late in the season and both include lengthy sections of scree. The crampons don’t make these stretches any easier and there is an occasional sense that you’re passing through significant exposure — you can’t really see it, so you don’t worry about it. It’s just a black abyss beyond the reach of your headlamp.
Life happens in one-hour increments when you climb with RMI. We climb for an hour, rest for ten minutes, repeat. Breaks are regimented. Stop, take off your pack, put on your puffy jacket, sit on your pack. Drink, eat, then reverse the process and get moving again. While I’m walking I feel fine. I focus on breathing and making exaggeratedly deliberate steps. I keep a consistent rope interval between me and Kelsey, who is led by Solveig on our team of three. There is no wind and the mood is meditative. When we’re stopped I’m surprised how quickly the chill sets in and at how uninterested I am in eating all of the glorious junk food I brought with me. I’d been warned that I wouldn’t be hungry but I still can’t fathom a world in which I’m not eager to eat candy bars at 3am. Coffee, however, is reliably amazing. I pass around my small thermos of steaming java and observe the almost immediate bump in stoke. Then we’re moving again.
At our stop on Ingraham Glacier two of our team throw in the towel. It’s sad to see them turn back, but it’s the most responsible choice for all of us since this is the last spot to reverse course without complicating logistics. Sinister blisters and well-earned fatigue cost two of our teammates their shot at the summit.
The terrain above Ingraham Glacier turns steeper and more open, removing any context of where we are. It’s just steep white snow with a well-worn path leading you upward. I lose your sense of place and focus instead on my footwork, varying my walking technique to fit the wear patterns on the route and to try to mitigate the blisters by wearing each part of my feet evenly in my surprisingly comfy rented boots.
Climb for an hour, rest for ten minutes, repeat. Climb, rest, repeat. After a few more cycles we begin to see the vague suggestion of a horizon. The far-off glow of the city lights in Yakima, Washington, emerge to the east. The temperature continually drops to the point that we’re all wearing nearly every layer we brought with us. Then the angle of the slope relents, we pass through a narrow gap in a ridge of rock, and Solveig stops much too soon to be break time. She turns to us.
“This is the crater, guys. We’re here.”
The crater catches me by surprise. We’ve been hiking in the dark for so long and just as it begins to get light enough to see our surroundings, we’re at the top. With just a few minutes until sunrise we drop our packs, stuff some food in our mouths and put on every last stitch of clothing we have before setting out for the high point, Columbia Crest.
I write something and draw a mountain in the summit register before we head down. We’ve got to keep moving to beat the heat, and now that we’ve topped out our collective attention turns to getting back down this mountain. Descending gives me my first look at the terrain we traversed in the night. It’s jaw-dropping. The route winds through seemingly bottomless crevasses, above and below enormous cracks in the glacier. I snap as many photos as our pace allows.
Around 2pm we all arrive back in Paradise. Our RMI Expeditions crew has the world’s tastiest watermelon awaiting us, which pairs nicely with the greatest beer in recent memory. Rainier is an amazing place and the climb could not have been better. Huge thanks to Eddie Bauer, RMI Expeditions, and our guides Solveig, Ben and Billy for making this possible. High-fives to my teammates, Kelsey, Lisa, Harumi, Jason, and Justin for making the trip so memorable.
Glaciers are cool.