Justin’s Mt. Rainier summit + ice climbing school experience
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The talk about “the next one” started on the second day of descending Mt. Kilimanjaro.
A general rule for mountaineering is to not make any decisions about “the next one” until you’ve finished “this one”. This is not based on the idea of “you need to survive this one first”, it’s based on the fact that in the middle of “this one”, you’re probably seriously questioning why you spent so much money on this and why this is your hobby. After all, as one of my friends points out frequently, there are lots of nice beaches that you could sit on for far less investment.
Before even going on the Kilimanjaro trip, I had been out to Seattle for work and went up the Crystal Mountain Gondola to get a better view of Mt. Rainier. I took the picture below knowing that I wanted to climb it one day, but not knowing that I’d find myself on it exactly 14 months later.
Several of us had our eye on Mt. Rainier as a possible “next one” since it offers many of the same things you experience on some of the higher peaks. Glacier travel, ice climbing, rope teams, fixed ropes, frigid temperatures, etc. Since it’s about an hour outside of Seattle, it’s very accessible and it provides a great opportunity to see if you want to invest in a bigger, and inevitably longer, trip to another cold weather high-altitude climb.
After a couple of weeks of texting and emailing, there were only two (Luther Dietrich and me) of us that were able to give Mt. Rainier a shot in 2016. So we decided on mid-May, when it is still very cold on the mountain to give ourselves as good of a look at cold weather climbing as we could get. Unfortunately, this would mean that I’d be on the mountain for mine and Kate’s 7th wedding anniversary. She was very gracious about this fact. Unfortunately, due to some lousy work circumstances, Luther wasn’t able to make it and had to drop out at the last minute. In the months leading up to the trip, an old classmate from college ended up signing up for the same climb, so I still knew someone that I’d be spending the week with.
Since we viewed this climb as a stepping stone we decided to do one of the climbing seminars where you learn the skills required for even bigger, more imposing mountains. We chose Rainier Mountaineering Inc. as our guide company due mostly to their fantastic reputation on the mountain and frankly, because of Ed Viesturs’ association them. I’ve really loved Ed’s books on climbing over the last couple of years and I have a tremendous amount of respect for how he has handled himself in the mountains when it comes to his accomplishments and his unwavering focus on returning home safely from his climbs. Doing the seminar meant that we’d be spending Monday-Friday on the mountain learning all the skills we would need to make our summit push towards the end of the week.
Before heading up to Camp Muir (10,000 ft on the south side of the mountain), where we would sleep every night, we had an orientation day at the RMI headquarters in Ashford, WA where we met the rest of our team, learned how to tie some knots that we’d need to know, and talked about what we would be doing all week. Unlike Kilimanjaro, each climber would be responsible for carrying all of their own stuff up to camp. This meant that each of us would have to carry a week’s worth of food/clothes/bedding/etc. Thankfully, one of the things we covered on Sunday was “how and what to pack”. This talk convinced me to leave out some of those luxury items like “clean socks and underwear almost every day”. My 80 liter pack ended up being stuffed pretty full and weighing around 40 pounds once I had settled on basically wearing the same things every day.
Now, wearing the same thing every day in the cold mountains isn’t as bad as it might seem because you don’t typically get especially sweaty throughout the day if you’ve layered your clothes in such a way that you just take off a layer when you start to get hot. But more importantly, when everyone in a group is disgusting, it’s no big deal.
On Monday morning, our 12 climbers and five guides loaded up in the bus and headed to the Paradise parking lot to start our ~5 hour journey to Camp Muir. We stepped off the parking lot into the snow that would be our home for the following 5 days in typical Pacific Northwest cloudy/misty rain. About 10 minutes into the trek I learned that Pepper Dee (one of the guides) had a degree in Theater and Dance, and we had an unexpected conversation about our favorite Broadway musicals. After about two hours of trekking in our single file line like ducks behind our main guide we finally popped through the top of the clouds and got our first good look at the mountain. This brought with it the intensity of the sun and we all started lathering up on the sunscreen at our hourly breaks along with shedding layer after layer of clothes.
The hike up to Camp Muir was tough for several reasons, there’s the physical difficulty but mostly because it’s pretty mind numbing walking uphill for hours on end without much ability to look around and take in the surrounding beauty because you really need to pay attention to where you’re putting your feet with each step. The last couple of hours is spent on the Muir Snowfield, which was deemed one of America’s 10 Most Dangerous Hikes. In beautiful weather and with a guide that knows the mountain, it’s pretty benign. Most accidents occur in this section as a result of surprise storms and unprepared hikers. Once we finally made it to the hut at Camp Muir we got settled into the bunks and just hung out the rest of the day.
One of the great things about being on a snow-covered mountain is that there is an endless supply of water. Thankfully, in the morning and night the guides would bring hot water to make our coffee/tea/oatmeal/MRE’s. It is so nice to have something hot to eat and drink at the beginning and end of a cold day full of work and cold water.
Our main guides, Seth Waterfall (~150 Mt. Rainier summits, 3 Everest summits, and countless others) and Walter Hailes (Multiple Denali and Aconcagua summits and ~50 Mt. Rainier summits), would come hang out in the hut after dinner and share stories and answer all of our questions about their experiences on other mountains. This was probably one of my favorite parts of the trip.
Tuesday morning after we had our breakfast and coffee/tea we headed out for some training on how to walk in crampons (big spikes you strap to your boots for better traction on snow and ice), how to walk as part of a rope team, and how to self-arrest with your ice axe if you find yourself or a roped-in teammate sliding down the face of the mountain. These are pretty much the basic skills you need to be competent in to not be a liability on a rope team.
In the afternoon we completed the first leg of what would be our summit attempt route. This trek involved being on small rope teams and traversing the Cowlitz Glacier and the Cathedral Rocks before stopping at Ingraham Flats and surveying the surroundings. Little Tahoma was down the mountain from this position, Gibraltar Ledges behind us and Disappointment Cleaver ahead. The guides explained that this was the place we’d take our first break on the summit push. The next 1.5-2 hours climbing Disappointment Cleaver (the name isn’t ironic, it’s tough) would be significantly more difficult that what we’d just done and that if we felt we couldn’t make it we should considering staying back. You see, when you’re tied into a rope with a 2-3 other people and you decide you can’t go any further, it’s not trivial. It can create a very dangerous situation.
At this point, three people in the group decided to not make an attempt at the summit and decided they would hang back at camp when the time came. I believe there has never been a bad decision to *not* go for it. When asking yourself if you can make it, you need to keep in mind that when you get to the top, you’re only halfway. Remember, as Ed Viesturs says repeatedly, “getting to the top is optional, but getting back down is mandatory”.
The guides are continually keeping an eye on the weather to make the decision about which day we should make the summit attempt. Given a storm that was going to blow in mid-week they decided that we’d make our summit push on Wednesday beginning around 2:00am. You almost always start a summit attempt in the early morning to ensure you can make it there and back to camp before dark and hopefully avoid afternoon storms. You also want to get back before any of those snow bridges over crevasses start to weaken in the “heat” of the day. I doubt many of us got much sleep before the guides woke us up around 1:30am to gear up and get ready to go.
Once everyone was ready, we set up 3-person rope teams with our guides. In front of me on my rope was Glenn Teubner, a 21-year old from Missouri who ran a 2:47 Boston qualifying time in his first and only marathon (for those unaware, that is an insane time). Katrina Bloemsma guided Glenn and me at the front of our rope. *Fun fact, Katrina’s boyfriend, Billy Nugent, was on Everest and safely summited the week we were on Mt. Rainier.*
After an uneventful trek through the first leg, we climbed Disappointment Cleaver without incident and took our second break at the top of the cleaver after about 3 hours of climbing. It was at this point that Seth huddled the group up and said, “bad news gang, someone from a group ahead of us just fell through some snow into a crevasse… we might need to go back” (it wasn’t a bad fall and everyone was ok). Before throwing in the towel, he gave us the option of waiting there while he scouted an alternate route. We decided that we’d wait. We pulled out our parkas and huge mittens from our bags and hunkered down in the ripping wind to give them some time to scout a route. The weather was clear and very cold with high winds whipping over the peak and blasting us on the southeast face.
While waiting, we got to watch the sun rise and after about 45 minutes, they came back with news that we were all very happy to hear, they had found a relatively safe route. At this point, I think most of our fingers and toes were starting to get very cold and getting moving again sounded like a great option.
What followed was a very windy, cold, steep, switch-back filled hour-or-so climb to our next break, which was about 45 minutes short of the summit. We took our final break and tried to eat and drink something to keep up the necessary calories for the final push. Truthfully, I remember very little about this break.
Finally, around 9:00am, we reached the top.
The true summit is Columbia Crest on the Northwest side of the crater rim so there was another 15 minutes or so of trekking directly across the crater to sign the summit logbook and take our group summit picture (I’m the second orange jacket from the left holding the yellow ice axe in the air… And if I would have been thinking more clearly, I wouldn’t have surrounded myself with giants, so I’d look taller.)
After spending about half an hour at the top and taking a couple of pictures with Tuff (the stuffed dog, and unofficial mascot of the EHE Foundation) we got all loaded up and started the uneventful journey back to camp. It typically takes about half as long to descend as it does to climb, so we were back at camp around 2:00pm. One of the folks that stayed back at camp took the picture below of my rope team coming back over the Cathedral Rocks.
For the rest of Wednesday afternoon, we just crashed and recovered from the summit climb. I decided to not sleep during the day to ensure that I wouldn’t be up all night. I finally turned in for the night around 7:00pm and found out the next day that Seth and Walter ended up coming back in the hut and hanging out for a while, but I slept through it completely despite them sitting a few feet from me.
Thursday morning we learned about how to place anchors in the snow which can provide added safety by attaching yourself to in areas where a fall would be disastrous. It is also the first step in rescuing someone who has fallen into crevasse. The very best part of this training was getting to be the person who “fell” in and dangling while the rest of your rope team prepares for the rescue attempt. Hanging in the crevasse during a driving snow was probably my favorite part of the entire trip. This sentiment was not universally shared by our entire team.
When we got up Friday we got most of our gear packed away with the exception of what we needed for the fixed rope training we had lined up for the morning. If you’ve seen the movie “Everest” (which, I watched again on the flight home), you saw people climbing a fixed rope, which simply means they are attached to a rope that’s attached to the mountain for safety. In the movie there are at least two times where people slip and lose their grip on the fixed ropes and slide down and knock all the people behind them down. As I learned on Friday morning, this is completely unrealistic unless you’ve done something really stupid like remove your mechanical ascender (or prusik) from the rope which exists solely to keep that very thing from happening if you were to slip.
We also learned some ice climbing techniques needed to climb more serious alpine slopes before eventually packing up all of our gear and heading back down the mountain. Before we left, the guides told us to keep a trash bag handy in case we do some glissading, which is the equivalent of sledding down the mountain – without a sled. This was more fun that I can describe in words. It is also crazy fast and on the verge of total chaos. There were several wipeouts – and that is only speaking of mine. You have about 40 pounds on your back, sliding down the hill on your backside with snow flying up in your face from the makeshift sled (trashbag). After a particularly hilarious wipeout from Rusty, one of the guides made a joke that glissading is French for “scattering all of your stuff all over the mountain”.
With the exception of having to stop to put our crampons back on at one particularly steep part, we pretty much cruised back to the parking lot where the RMI bus was waiting to take us back to the compound. Going into the bathroom at the visitor center provided the first opportunity to see my own face in a mirror since Monday and was sufficiently shocking. The ride back to RMI was a lot more relaxed than when we were on that same bus five days earlier full of anticipation and eager to get the journey underway.
Once back at RMI, we gathered for a final meal together as a team at the great little short order grill they have on-site. No Coke has ever tasted as good as that one. The bacon double cheeseburger was pretty amazing too. Oh, and ice cream… ok, you get the idea – it was nice to be back in civilization and as nice as the food was, there was nothing that compared to lying down on a proper mattress for a good night’s sleep!
Following the last supper, we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways wondering to ourselves “what’s next?” …
If you’d like to see more photos, you can find Justin on Instagram at @k8shusband
Seth Waterfall – Mountain surfer. Spend 5 minutes around him and you’ll see why I think of him this way. Intense and laid back, both at the same time.
Walter Hailes – The guy who’s climbing record is so free of accidents that he wasn’t selected to the mountain rescue team he applied for because he didn’t have enough emergency experience (no kidding)
Katrina Bloemsma – My rope team leader and cheerleader. Such a fun person to be around.
Pepper Dee – All-round excellent guy. He flossed every night on the mountain and reminded us to (we didn’t)
JJ Justman – JJ couldn’t stay on the mountain all week so we didn’t get much time with him. However I was surprised to see him in full cowboy swag during our last supper.
Ian Edelmann, Matthew Deschner, Julie Facer, Sam Firoozi, Robert Jones, Ryan King, Bradley Lawler, Rusty Lowder, Glenn Teubner, Zug Yang, Doug Zeiger