|Mt. Rainier, shot from out my window as we flew into Seattle.|
The pace was too fast. I couldn’t breathe. I kept putting one foot in front of the other, careful not to catch my crampons on my boots and trip into a crevasse. My heart was racing, it was still pitch black and we were a long way from the top. I wasn’t ready for this. As I felt a wave of nausea coming on I took a deep pressure breath like they taught me. It has two parts, first a deep inhale filling your lungs, and then a fast sudden exhale- as if blowing out a candle. With each breath, the fresh new oxygen that filled my lungs kept nausea and headache at bay. But how long could I keep this up? It was only a few hours into a very long night…
Three days earlier
We pulled into the RMI offices just after 2 pm on a hot sunny Monday afternoon. We collected the rental gear we had ordered and checked in at our Wellspring cabin near the tiny town of Ashford. “Is there any place to buy groceries around here?” we asked the lady cleaning our cabin (who may have also been the owner.)
“You have two options, the Country Store just down the road or the gas station. I recommend the gas station, plus my sister works there.” After grabbing some Gatorade, earplugs, and a few other necessities for the hike we headed back to RMI for our orientation.
We were welcomed by Casey, our guide. He was extremely personable and had arms that looked liked they belonged to a gymnast. If that wasn’t enough to set our minds at ease about the upcoming climb, the fact that he had summited Mt. Everest three times certainly didn’t hurt. We sat down on comfy leather couches (perhaps the last time I would be really comfortable in the next three days) and after brief introductions, he started a slideshow to explain what we could expect the next few days.
|Notice the overstuffed leather couches. Nothing like the rest of the trek.|
“Tomorrow we head up to Paradise to train on a snowfield. Bring your crampons, ice ax, helmet, and all your gear except for your sleeping bag and your cold-weather gear.” It would be a dress rehearsal for the actual hike that would begin Wednesday. The hike Wednesday, he explained, would be done with our 40-pound packs and would begin with a 2.2-mile hike on dry trails until we reached the snow and ice fields that we would trudge up for the next 2.3 miles to Camp Muir where we would spend the night. Then the real challenge would begin.
I expected the dress rehearsal to be pretty straightforward. Our packs were only 25 pounds, we were only hiking for an hour and we were still at a pretty low altitude. We got our packs together, lined up in single file with Casey in front. And then it started.
Do you know what the guide’s pace is? Have you heard that term before?
It basically means, taking slow rest steps so that each time your front foot goes forward your back leg holds the weight while your front leg can “rest” for just a moment. Casey did not start at the guide’s pace. He took off. And we had to follow him. Eight of the nine of us were breathing hard as we followed, but we were keeping up. Dave, who was 71 years old with a sturdy frame, unfortunately, couldn’t keep up.
“Shouldn’t we slow down for Dave?” I asked Casey, trying to appear as strong as possible as if the pace was no problem at all for me.
“We need to test everyone in the group, to see if they are ready for tomorrow.”
(So it’s just a test, I thought to myself. Good thing we won’t be going this fast on the real hike.)
We eventually reached the snowfields, that we would train on for the next few hours. We practiced hiking with and without crampons on, we practiced the french step, which entails climbing up sideways with one leg crossing above the other. We practiced the duck step (no explanation needed). We practice the American step (Not to be left out, the Americans came up with a step that involves putting one foot sideways and one foot straight up the mountain.)
After a surprisingly exhausting afternoon, we headed back to Ashford for one more good night of sleep before the real trek began. Natalie and I went to bed early, but neither of us slept. The mattress was lumpy, but that wasn’t the problem, there was just too much running through our minds. Finally, morning came and it was time for the real adventure to begin.
|With our packs loaded, we were ready to take on the mountain.|
|At our very first rest stop, we were told to re-apply sunblock. With bright sun and snow all around us, glacier sunglasses
and copious amounts of sunblock were a must.
Starting with the first morning, this was no walk in the park. We always walked for at least 60 minutes, then took a fifteen-minute break. The break was our only time to: drink, eat, apply sunscreen, relieve ourselves and rest. “Time to go,” Casey signaled by putting his pack on. And I hadn’t even had time to eat my Swedish Fish. Originally I had planned to bring a mixture of cliff bars and protein bars, but Casey strongly encouraged us to bring food the was easy to eat and would still be appetizing at high altitude. I can’t imaging being so sick that Swedish Fish wouldn’t sound good.
After that first rest stop, I also switched from my sneakers to my hard plastic boots. We didn’t put our crampons on yet, but we would be hiking the rest of the way through hard-packed snow. After three more 60 minutes segments and three more too-short-to-rest breaks, with sweat pouring down my forehead and stinging my eyes we hobbled into Camp Muir where we removed our packs, unloaded our clothes and sleeping bags, and headed into the bunkhouse to claim a place to sleep. Seventeen men and my wife Natalie in one small bunkhouse. Almost from the minute, the place filled up, man stench and cursing filled the air. Sorry, Natalie.
On a positive note. We were able to get the top corner two bunks, which Natalie was able to choose as the token woman in the group. It had the most privacy and a small window. It was cool peering out above the clouds, but we didn’t really have time to relax. We got out of our boots, prepared our sleeping bags, used hot water to prepare a quick re-hydrated dinner, got all of our gear in order, and threw on eye masks and earplugs to try and grab a few hours of sleep. The goal: fall asleep before others started snoring.
I took a few ibuprofens for my aches and pains and pretty quickly fell into a restless sleep. When I finally stirred enough to become completely awake, I took off my eye mask and couldn’t see anything. It must have been 10pm or so. I tried to get back to sleep, not knowing for sure what time it was, but I couldn’t keep my mind from racing with questions. How would my body respond to the altitude? What if I got nervous crossing a huge crevasse? What if I had to go to the bathroom during the hike and had to pack out my human waste in a blue bag? (That’s a real thing) What if I stumbled and fell to my death, taking my entire group with me into an icy grave? You know, the usual stuff people think about when they can’t sleep before climbing mountains.
Suddenly, the light flashed on in the bunkhouse.
“Time to get up, have breakfast and get ready. You have one hour,” Casey explained.
To be honest, I was a little relieved. I was getting pretty anxious, so it was time to start hiking. Walking out of the bunkhouse under a clear sky, no moon, and billions of stars is a moment I won’t forget. I clicked on my headlamp and could see the reflection of tiny particles of snow in the air.
“My group at the bottom of the stairs,” Casey requested. Natalie, Phil, and I would be in the lead group. At first, I thought this meant that he trusted us to be first, then I realized it may have been because he was most worried about the three of us making it to the top.
We set off on the first section, which was pretty straightforward. We traversed the mountain on a long flat section that worked its way up the mountain until we reached a point where the trail turned to rocks and dirt. We coiled up the ropes ahead of us and walked through this section close together so that the ropes wouldn’t catch on the medium-sized boulders that ran across the trail. As we came around the corner at Cathedral Gap we hit the snow again and saw three hikers from another group sitting down taking a break to the right of us. To the left of us, massive car-sized blocks of ice hung off the Ingraham Glacier about 200 yards away from us.
“You guys may want to get moving,” Casey mentioned to the three strangers taking a break, “11 people died at this spot in 1981.” We moved quickly past. At one point we hiked up the crest of a hill, and on the left and right side were gaping crevasses. It was really dark though, probably a blessing, because it might have been terrifying to cross this area in the day light. Finally we reached our first break just after sixty minutes of hiking. A trail of light on the heads of hikers followed behind us. “We may have a longer break here,” Casey explained. “Dave is turning back, so Stoney (one of the other guides) will have to return with him. We will have to rope one more person onto our group.
Now I know originally I had complained about breaks being too short, but this break took almost 30 minutes, and by the time we took off I was freezing. During the rest breaks we pulled out our heavy parkas, but I only had a medium-sized parka and hadn’t put on any other layers, so I was shivering when we pulled out of that rest stop. This worried me a little because it was only 2 am and we were going to go much higher and the temperature was going to get much lower. The upcoming stretch was the most dangerous of the entire climb. Disappointment Cleaver. It was very steep, mostly over rocks and scaling small sections of cliff. Although we only hiked 60 minutes at a time for the rest of the trek, this section would be 90 minutes long without a break. They explained that taking a break anywhere along the Cleaver would be too dangerous. So, no rest breaks, in total darkness, scaling loose rocks in freezing weather. Awesome. In the orientation the day earlier I had asked Casey, “it this the crux (or the hardest part) of the hike?” He told us the hike with heavy packs we had just completed was the crux. (Turns out he just didn’t want to scare us, the Cleaver was very challenging.)
“We need to shorten the ropes,” Casey called out. Disappointment Cleaver is so much more dangerous than it required us to shorten the rope, which means we shortened the length of the rope between climbers. This decreased the momentum someone could pick up if they slipped and fell, but it also kept us hiking almost in unison as we picked our way up through the Cleaver. The guides kept referring to it as simply “The Cleaver,” I guess they didn’t want to psyche us out by using the word disappointment over and over. With my ice ax in my uphill hand and my right hand reaching up for handholds I matched the pace of Natalie in front of me. I had probably done ten thousand squats and mountain climbers at CrossFit over the six months before. Suddenly they didn’t seem so pointless.
Eventually, we reached the top of the Cleaver. Time for another break. I immediately pulled out another layer, putting on my Gore-Tex jacket, then my down coat next. As I took a large gulp of gatorade and choked down a peanut butter sandwich I had Phil and Natalie huddle in close to me for warmth. It was literally freezing, and I had been sweating for the last 90 minutes. The next group below us caught up in a few minutes but hiked right past us to find a good rest spot. “See you at high break,” the other guide said.
“Just one more break after this, and then we reach the top?” I thought to myself. “I might just make it.” I was exhausted, but I could make it to one more break, couldn’t I? I had underestimated the effect of the altitude on me though. It was time to get moving. “Everybody leave your parkas on,” Casey warned us.
As we started hiking again, I was immediately exhausted. It felt like I hadn’t taken a break at all. I was dizzy and as we walked along a flat section and I was having trouble walking straight. Phil was behind me, and I’m sure he noticed. My head started to throb, and then I took a big pressure breath. That helped a little. A few steps later, I did another pressure breath, then another. Pretty soon I was taking a pressure breath every other step, and then once the trail got even steeper I was taking a pressure breath every step. It was slow and exhausting, but it was the only way for me to get enough oxygen for my body to keep moving. I looked up to the top of the mountain, and it seemed like we weren’t even close. It had only been ten minutes since our last stop, I didn’t know how I was going to keep this up for another 50 minutes. Then suddenly the sky turned a deep red across the horizon. The sun wasn’t rising, but it would be soon. I’m not sure if it was psychological or the pressure breaths, but to know that I wouldn’t be this cold and tired forever gave me hope. After another twenty minutes, the sun began to peek out from behind the horizon, and I’m not sure if I was driven by the beauty or the exhaustion, but I asked Casey if we could stop to take a quick picture.
|Natalie up ahead of me, rocking the hike like it was no big deal.|
|Sunrise from Rainier|
|Sunrise selfie? I’ll allow it.|
|Phil is smiling way too much. He never complained or asked for a break. Kind of humbling to have your 50+ year old Father-in-law out-hiking you.|
Thirty minutes later, under a bright morning sun, we arrived at High Break. Our last rest before reaching the top. We only had 45 minutes of hiking left to reach the top of Rainier. The last 45 minutes weren’t the hardest, but they were definitely the longest. Our progress just seemed so slow as we inched ahead. Pressure breaths every step now. We finally inched our way over the ridge of the crater and we had made it. I let out a whoop and once we reached the middle of the crater Casey had us sit down and take a well-deserved rest. I wanted to lay down. I wanted to take a nap, but my next nap was still over 16 hours away. We had reached the summit, but not the “tippy-top” as Casey called it. After a short rest, eating and drinking, and applying sunscreen, we took a fifteen-minute hike that wrapped around to the top of the crater. We had made it to the top. My eyes started to water, and it wasn’t the altitude. I felt a wave of emotion and warmth that I had only experienced a few times before. Completing a marathon, reaching the top of Kilimanjaro, and witnessing the birth of my first and second child. It was a completely unforgettable moment that made it all worth it.
“It isn’t the people that are in the best shape that make it to the top of Mt. Rainier,” Casey had explained the day before, “it’s the people that want it the most. You’ve got to really want it.”
I’m sure there is a metaphor in there somewhere for life. But due to the altitude at 14,410 feet, I’m not sure what it is.
The sad part of the story is that in reality we were only halfway done. We had completed the mentally challenging part, but the real physical test was only 50% over. Our legs were done, but we still had a long way to go. For the next four hours we had an exhausting but breathtaking descent over glaciers and crevasses that were only shadows on the way up.
|As you can see the snow was very soft on the descent, Casey really pushed us to hurry because as the snow melts the conditions can become perilous very quickly. He kept telling us to stop talking and listen for snow and ice falls.|
I’m not going to go into a ton of details on the rest of the descent, but it was exhausting. After we got back to camp Muir we loaded up our sleeping bags and gear in our bags, took off our crampons, and switched to our trekking poles for the final three-hour hike back down to civilization. There was a lot of sledding and stand-up skiing down for the last stretch until we got back to the dirt trail. We were dirty, smelly, and sunburned and as we got down to the main trail we eventually started passing little kids and elderly folks out for a short day hike. “Did you guys make it all the way to the top?” A kid in Hawaiian shorts asked us. “All the way to the tippy-top,” we responded proudly. With over 150 summits of Rainier and 3 of Mt. Everest, I’m sure Casey was just shaking his head. We may not be professional mountain climbers, but we sure felt like it today.
|These shots were snapped in our last mile as we reached the end of our journey.|
A cooler full of lemonade welcomed us to the trailhead where the RMI shuttle was waiting to drive us home. I had three glasses. Char’ was waiting for us back at the RMI offices, and as we loaded into the van she was nice enough to pretend we didn’t stink.
We took one final shot of Rainier as Charlotte drove us back to our hotel in Seattle. It was a great adventure, but I’m glad to finally have it in my rearview mirror.