Once again, I’m writing from 30,000 feet. As I type this, it’s kind of hard to believe it. In the span of just a few short days, I’ve been 6,000 miles, back and forth across the country, up and down 30,000 feet on two flights, and up and down from sea level to 11,200 feet, 3000 short of my intended goal of the summit of Mt. Rainier.
I’m disappointed, of course. I REALLY wanted to make it to the summit. On Sunday morning, we left Ashford, WA and took the shuttle back up to Paradise Valley, inside Mt. Rainier National Park. For the first time all week, we had perfect weather and were finally able to see the mountain, all the way to the top.
It was a beautiful morning, with clear skies, and I was grateful and happy to be in such an amazing place. The goal on Sunday was to hike from the parking lot of Paradise Valley, which is at about 5,000 feet, up to Camp Muir, which is at about 10,000 feet. Except for our boots, we had all of our gear in our backpacks: layers of clothing, including a parka, two fleeces, a rain jacket, long underwear, snow pants, two hats, two pairs of gloves and alpine mittens. In addition, we were carrying a sleeping bag, our crampons, a mountain harness, an ice ax, hiking poles, ski goggles, an avalanche transceiver, all of our food, a full CamelBak of water, a Nalgene liter of water, a camera, a small lamp, a head lamp, a flashlight, a helmet, spare batteries and probably one or two other things I can’t remember. We carried all of this for a 2-day trip.
At about 9:30, we started walking up. Like I said, it was a beautiful morning and for the first time, we had to deal with the sun. The clear weather gave us beautiful views during the hike up, and to our southeast, we could see Mt. St. Helens and to the south, Mt. Adams.
The views were spectacular and I was relieved it wasn’t raining or cloudy. Seeing the peak of Mt. Rainier was inspiring and it let us know how daunting the challenge was. However, the sun made me sweat more than I expected and even by our first break, one hour up, I was feeling warmer and more tired than I thought I would be.
The only real comparison I have is to the climb Carl and I did up Kilimanjaro 4 years ago and in retrospect, there are two remarkable, important and noticeable differences. First, the pace was much faster. The Rainier climb crammed a LOT more into two days than we ever did on Kili. From 9:30am Sunday morning to 4pm Monday afternoon, the goal for Rainier was 9,000 feet up AND down, with minimal rest. We did Kilimanjaro over 6 days, with 4 up and 2 down, and didn’t carry most of our gear. One of the major benefits of the Kili climb was that the porters were responsible for carrying most of our gear and food. Secondly, the incline was much steeper on Rainier. The easiest way to describe the climb up Kilimanjaro, which is over 19,000 feet, is that it is a long, slow walk up a very big hill. Summit day on Kili was very difficult; you start above 15,000 feet and are at the steepest incline of the whole climb. Before summit day, though, it was challenging but not incredibly difficult. Rainier was faster, steeper and we were carrying 50 pounds of gear and food and water on our backs.
The climb from Paradise Valley to Camp Muir was 5,000 feet and for the first hour and a half, we were on rocks and trails. As we got above the tree line, we transitioned to snow climbing and traversed several mountain snowfields, with the Nisqually Glacier off to our left. Every so often, you could hear ice falls from the glacier, an eerie echoing sound of gravity and heat taking their toll on the ice. The ice falls were often followed by rock falls, evidence of the dynamic nature of the mountain.
The 5,000-foot ascent was broken up into five segments, with four breaks during which we were to drink our water and eat a snack or two. I brought beef and turkey jerky, different kinds of Kind Bars and Clif Bars, and a few varieties of trail mix. After the first two breaks, about three hours into the ascent, I was already feeling tired. I felt refreshed after each break, but 10 minutes into climbing again, I started counting down the minutes until the next rest. By the third break, I could no longer eat anything and was feeling nauseous. Moreover, I was afraid I might throw up or have to poop on the side of the mountain. Fun, right? At the fourth break, I could see Muir and knew we were only 45 minutes or so from level ground and the civility of a toilet. At about 3:30pm, Carl, Tim and I and the rest of our group hiked up into camp, dropped our gear in the bunkhouse, and started preparing for the summit attempt. I found time to use the bathroom, which as you can imagine is, at 10,000 feet, not exactly luxurious. Think of it as an outhouse without the charming crescent moon carved into the door.
We unpacked most of our gear, considerably lightening the load in our backpacks. For the summit, we were instructed to bring along two liters of water, 6 to 8 snacks, our parkas, ski pants, and a few other items to try to keep us as warm as possible. There isn’t much to the Camp Muir bunkhouse. 20 to 25 spots to store a sleeping bag and whatever gear you didn’t intend to bring with you up to the summit. There were 18 people in our group, which was divided into two smaller groups. The head guide for our group was named Christina; there were two assistant guides, Avery and Caleb. Our climbers were: me, Carl and Tim; two friends named Jess and Chrissy; a solo climber named Bonnie; and two sisters originally from Thailand named Ue and Poong. Unfortunately, Lauren Harris never made it to Camp Muir. Due to anxiety and a few other outstanding problems, including issues with her ankles, she turned around earlier in the day at about 7,000 feet.
After getting settled in at Muir, our guides told us we would be roped together in groups of 3 and the climb up the summit would begin around midnight. Carl and Tim and I were to be roped in with Caleb as our guide. We were then instructed to grab a bite to eat, drink plenty of water, and to try to get some rest in the bunkhouse. In the middle of the night, the guides would wake us up to begin the 4,000-foot climb from Muir to the summit.
I was already incredibly nervous. The climb from Paradise to Muir had been much more difficult than I had expected; I was sore and tired and unsure of myself. I was feeling sick to my stomach and had started to get a headache. Perhaps it was altitude sickness and fatigue and maybe a combination of several other variables. Perhaps I hadn’t trained hard enough. Perhaps I hadn’t eaten the right foods. Whatever the reasons, I felt something on Rainier that I never once felt on Kilimanjaro: I might not make it to the top.
As a result, I didn’t really sleep from lights out, at 6pm, until around 12:30, when the guides came in to the bunkhouse to tell us it was time to go.
I “woke up” a tiny bit refreshed and with more energy than I expected. I actually felt good. When I walked outside and looked up, I was exhilarated. I can’t remember the last time I saw a night sky like that; too many stars to count and the Milky Way directly above our heads. It wasn’t even THAT cold. I could see much of the mountain in the starlight and even though I was still nervous, I had a renewed sense that I would make it to the summit.
It took us about an hour to get organized. We assembled our gear and put our boots and crampons on, and I was further energized by two factors: our packs were MUCH lighter and we wouldn’t have the sun beating down on us on the way up. Climbing at night is a bit scary, but it has its advantages, too.
I admitted I was probably the slowest of the three of us, so Caleb told me I would be right behind him, with Carl behind me and Tim behind him. In mountaineering school the day before, we learned how to rope ourselves in, using a carabineer and the harness. And so at about 1:30 in the morning, with our packs on our backs, our helmets and headlamps on our heads, and our ice axes in gloved hands, the four of us started out of camp and across the snow covered Cowlitz Glacier.
The summit climb is divided into four parts: Cowlitz Glacier to Cathedral Rock and up to Ingraham Flats; the Flats up to Disappointment Cleaver; the Cleaver to High Break; and then to Columbia Crest and the summit itself. There were scheduled breaks in between each segment of the climb and again, these were the times when you were supposed to drink and eat. The breaks were not to last longer than 10 or 15 minutes.
Crossing Cowlitz Glacier was not particularly difficult, but as soon as we began the ascent up Cathedral Rock, I could tell I was in trouble. The higher up we went, the colder it became, but despite the plunging temperature and increasing wind, I began sweating profusely. I had several layers on and I sweat through all of them. My heart was pounding, I began to feel sick to my stomach again and my headache got worse and worse.
To get to the top of Cathedral Rock, you have to “short rope it”, meaning the space in between you and the person in front of you and behind you goes from five or six yards to a few feet. This is a safety precaution. At this point, the path up is now a mixture of rock and snow and is only a few inches wide. You’re climbing at night with limited visibility, and there are crevasses and other hazards, including precipitous falls, on either side of the path.
After we made it to the top of Cathedral Rock, we went back to regular rope lengths and hiked up across the snow on Ingraham Glacier. This part of the climb lasted another 15 or 20 minutes until our first break at Ingraham Flats, which is at about 11,200 feet. The Flats are to the east of a large space in the rocks called “Cadaver Gap”. I wish I were kidding.
I was exhausted. I felt like shit. Caleb, who had been periodically checking on me and Carl and Tim, asked the other guys how they were and they said they were ok. He asked me and I said, “I’m not so great.” We dropped our packs, put on some layers to protect us from the cold, and sat down to eat a snack and drink some water, although I couldn’t eat anything.
After resting for five minutes, I could feel some strength returning to my legs, but I was still sweating and knew I had a serious decision to make. Over and over, throughout training and during all the time we spent with our guides at RMI, it had been repeated to us that we needed to make sure we had enough energy and strength to make it to the top of the mountain, but perhaps even more importantly, to make it back DOWN the mountain. Climbing up a mountain is incredibly hard, but climbing down is almost as hard, especially on your legs. Your knees and ankles and thighs and feet and toes all take a serious pounding.
I knew that I could probably dig down and make it up to the top of Disappointment Cleaver, but I didn’t know if I would have the energy to get past there and even if I did, I was terrified of what it would take to get back down to Camp Muir after that. I also knew that the next three segments of the climb were reportedly the most difficult treks on the way to the top. Therefore, I knew it was time to consider abandoning the summit attempt. Caleb came back over to ask me how I was and when I told him I was having doubts, he noted how much I was sweating and asked if I had a headache. When I told him yes, he asked Christina to come over to where I was sitting. Sometime around 2:30 in the morning, the three of us had a very frank, open and honest conversation and concluded that the conservative and safe decision would be for me to head back to Camp Muir.
I hated it. I was upset and disappointed in myself and felt like I was letting Carl and Tim down. I felt like I was letting myself down. I had made it to the top of Kilimanjaro, but I couldn’t make it to 12,000 feet on Rainier? And those are all true. The flip side to that coin is that I was doing the smart and safe thing and I was allowing Tim and Carl to climb on successfully, without me. Undoubtedly, I would have slowed them down and would have made their ascent much less safe.
Two other climbers were also having difficulty: Bonnie from our group and Dave from the other group. They both decided they would turn around, too. A guide from the other group, Hannah, roped us in and in a matter of a few moments, I went from trying to make it to the summit of Mt. Rainier to turning around and heading back down. I was embarrassed and frustrated and more than a little sad. I REALLY wanted to get to the top. But as we all know, we don’t always get what we want.
The descent to Camp Muir was not easy. On Cathedral Rock, I tripped on a rock and fell down into Bonnie. Fortunately, she was ok. As we worked our way down and crossed back over Cowlitz Glacier, my heartbeat slowed, but my headache was still bad and I still felt sick to my stomach. At about 4:30am, Hannah led me and Bonnie and Dave back into Muir.
I dropped my pack and took off some of my gear and stayed outside for a few extra minutes. I then found a nice rocky outcropping where I proceeded to vomit. I never once experienced altitude sickness on Kilimanjaro, but I’m fairly certain this contributed to my inability to summit Rainier.
I drank some water, re-organized all of my gear, went back inside the bunkhouse, and climbed into my sleeping bag, where I slept until 6:30 or so.
At that point in the morning, Chrissy and Ue also returned to Muir, having to abandon their summit attempt after making it to Disappointment Cleaver. Of the 18 climbers in our two groups, 12 made it to the summit.
Later in the morning, I put on some clothes and went back outside, where it was beautiful and sunny. I met up with Caleb, who had brought Chrissy and Ue down in the middle of the night, and Hannah, who brought me and Dave and Bonnie down, and the two guides informed me that the rest of the crew had made it to the top. I was simultaneously incredibly proud of Carl and Tim (and the rest of our group), but also sad that I couldn’t have been there with them.
I was able to walk around Camp Muir for a few hours and enjoy the views. At 10,000 feet, we were above the clouds. You could easily see Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens and much further south, you could see Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson, both in Oregon. I took some great photos and videos of Mt. Rainier and could see the ascent up Cathedral Rock. To its left, I could see Disappointment Cleaver and to the left and behind that, the summit. I could look to the south and see all the way down to Paradise. I was (and am) still a bit depressed about what I was unable to accomplish, but the views and the weather and the small amount of sleep certainly made me feel better.
At around noon, the groups that made it to the summit all worked their way back into Camp Muir and I was so happy to see them. Tim and Carl looked exhausted but joyful. The guides gave them all an hour to rest, gather up their gear and as a group, we worked our way back down from Muir to Paradise.
I’ll conclude with this sentiment: I AM quite proud of my efforts and the fact that I made it as far as I did is no small feat. Moreover, I’m incredibly proud of Carl and Tim and am so glad they made it to the summit. Most importantly, we raised a lot of awareness and a lot of money for Team Sanfilippo and to that end, this expedition was a success.