We had no real idea what we’re getting into. Whatever it was, it was sure to be an adventure. We never technically ‘climbed’ a mountain before, we have only hiked. Climbing requires special tools and skills. The fact that we didn’t possess either didn’t stop us from deciding to climb Mount Rainier.
The idea for mountain climbing had been born from reading the John Krakauer book Into Thin Air, a personal account of the 1996 climbing tragedy on Mount Everest. The idea grew as I read more accounts of the event from other actors in the drama. I was fascinated and began to devour books and articles about climbing. I hadn’t made time for reading in years, but now I picked up climbing books like a junkie looking for his next fix. I was enamored by mountains, intrigued by the danger, and drawn to the challenge. I became my wife Vickie’s dealer and she also became hooked.
Vickie and I wanted a vacation that would be unique and memorable. Most of our friends planned a mid-winter vacation to escape the Minnesota cold. They desired beaches, margaritas, and leisure time. We desired something different. We wanted adventure. We decided to postpone our vacation plans until summer when we could head to the mountains to recharge. But rather than just go hiking, we were seeking something more challenging. Mountaineering promised to be that challenge. We just had no idea where to begin.
I started looking on-line for ideas, a fairly novel idea in 1998, to search for inspiration. I saw a picture of Mount Rainier was struck by its beauty. I investigated further and found that we could actually hire a guide to help us climb the mountain. I knew our complete absence of real mountaineering experience was a major obstacle with unacceptable risk, but with a guide, we could ‘buy’ the experience needed to attempt it. Upon researching guide services, I discovered Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI). As I read through the guide’s names on RMI’s staff, I recognized many of them from the books and climbing articles I’d read. I knew then, I found the guides to hire. I reserved climbing dates with RMI (RMIguides.com) and booked our flight to Seattle. It was set. I informed Vickie, we were going to experience ‘real’ mountaineering, and hopefully, climb Mount Rainier.
We flew out of the Hubert Humphrey Airport in Minnesota from an altitude of 833 feet and landed at SeaTac airport at 433 feet in the Pacific Northwest. We spent a couple of days in Seattle exploring the city’s tourist attractions; Pike’s place Market; the Space needle; Ferry to Bainbridge Island and, of course, coffee at Starbucks. Then, we drove to Ashford, WA, 1762 feet, to begin our adventure.
The first order of business was to visit the camp store to acquire the basic mountaineering gear we didn’t own, which meant almost everything. RMI allowed us to rent the expensive specialized gear like double plastic climbing boots, crampons, ice axes, and climbing helmets. We were even able to rent down parkas. We tried on our rented gear for fit, made any necessary adjustments, and packed it into our backpacks. We were fully equipped for the next day’s training.
Before RMI will take clients on a summit attempt, training is required to appraise experience (which was none), review basic principles (ideas we learned from books), and evaluate our physical skills (I am, and always have been, a chubby country boy). RMI loaded all the ‘potential climbers’ into a van, accompanied by our backpacks filled with borrowed mountaineering equipment, and drove us to Paradise. Paradise is a very small tourist village located on the flanks of Mount Rainier in the National Park boundary. It was also as high as the road would take us up the mountain to an elevation of 5,400 feet.
Our group of about 20 people, made up of guides and clients, hiked up the mountain from Paradise to above 7000 feet to train in the Muir Snowfield. The guides demonstrated how to walk with crampons, the ‘spikes’ on our feet that allowed us to the cling to the icy mountain.
They showed us the rest step, a technique for climbing efficiently. They taught us to ‘pressure breath’, a technique to improve oxygen exchange in your lungs. We learned how to properly hold our ice axes and walk while roped together. And in the event of a fall, we mastered the self-arrest technique. We learned, practiced, and tested on basic mountaineering skills.
During this training, the guides accessed each client’s grasp of mountaineering concepts, basic fitness levels, coordination, and attitude. At the end of the day, Vickie and I were approved to attempt the next day’s summit climb. I took this outcome as a given, but some of our fellow clients were either strongly dissuaded or denied the opportunity to participate in the next day’s attempt. Safety was their key concern. At the time I didn’t fully comprehend the importance of their evaluations. Later, during the climb, I would understand and fully appreciate the wisdom of their decisions.
Mountaineering is a serious endeavor, so I asked a bunch of questions and digested any wisdom the guides could feed us. I asked for advice on everything from what to expect, what to pack, what to eat and drink, and what to wear. When we left the next day, I prepared exactly as suggested.
The night before our summit attempt sleep was elusive. I reviewed the day’s training and tried to imagine the next day’s climb. We climbed out of bed early to review our gear and carefully load it into our packs. Our packs only contained the minimum amount of gear needed for a couple of days on the mountain. We carried a sleeping bag and sleeping pad, but no tent because we would be staying in the Camp Muir hut. We packed extra layers of clothing including a rented down parka. We carried sunscreen, lip balm, headlamps, extra batteries, and a climbing helmet. We only carried enough food for 3 meals and snacks. We carried enough water to get to Camp Muir. There, the guides would replenish our supply. Our guides, on the other hand, were loaded down with huge packs. They carried route wands, emergency supplies, and extra gear.
The climbers and guides met in Ashford at the RMI offices for formal introductions and to be divided into rope teams. Then, we loaded up the vans and headed for Paradise. The plan was to achieve the summit during a two-day climb. The first day we would leave the parking lot in Paradise at 5,400 feet and climb up the snowfield to the Camp Muir Hut, an altitude of 10,600 feet. On the 2nd day, sometime after midnight, we would begin our climb on the upper part of the mountain.
As we left the parking lot in the mid-day sun, the temperature was 35 degrees in the shade. The high altitude sun beat down from above and the radiation reflected up from the snow below made it feel much warmer. I wore the clothing layers suggested by the guides, long underwear, climbing pants, a layer of down and windproof shell. I immediately began to sweat. Although we were climbing on snow, the intensity of afternoon sun made it feel like a warm July day in Minnesota. I shed the top windproof layer before we even began hiking. Soon after leaving the parking lot I removed my down jacket. As we moved up, I began to sweat profusely and removed the next layer. Soon I shed all the extra top layers, continuing on in only the base layer covering my skin, a long sleeved polypropylene top. I still had three layers on the bottom half of my body because of the delay and hassle it would be to remove them.
As my body temperature rose, sweat poured from my body. I guzzled water attempting to quench my thirst and replace the lost body fluid. I was seriously overheating and began to fall behind the other climbers. Even though I carried an extra liter of water from the suggested 2 liters, I consumed it all before we were halfway to Camp Muir. I fell further behind the group. Everybody else seemed to be doing fine, but I was having serious trouble.
Doubts of my conditioning and ability crept into my head. At 210 pounds I was the largest climber on the trip. I was hauling up too much unusable upper body muscle and way too much natural insulation (ie. body fat). Most of the guides and other climbers looked like marathoners, small and wiry, with low body fat and well defined sinewy muscles. I was the last one into Camp Muir hut in the afternoon. I showed up overheated, dehydrated and on the verge of heat exhaustion. It was too late to get a seat in the cramped quarters with all of the potential mountaineers for the 30-minute orientation. We were gathered there to review the plan for that night’s summit push and ask any questions. As I stood there, dehydrated with low blood sugar, I heard ringing in my ears. I couldn’t shake the feeling. Finally, I succumbed to the inevitable. I looked at my wife, my eyes rolled back in my head, and I fainted.
When I came around, someone had given up a spot for me to sit and I had a cool drink in my hand. I sat there collecting my wits while everyone in the room tried unsuccessfully not to stare at me. My fellow climbers were trying to figure out the real reason for my collapse. Did I have some sort of dire medical condition? A heart attack? A stroke? What? I could read the looks on their faces, ‘there’s no way this guy is going to make it’. Followed by, ‘I hope this guy’s not on my rope team’. The lead guide Jeff continued with the discussion like nothing happened. I continued to rehydrate and refuel throughout the evening and by nightfall, I was feeling close to 100%. Jeff came over to talk to me privately to find out for himself what happened to me on my way up and to evaluate my current condition. I assured him I was fine and that I would be ready. I can only image what he was thinking, but I think he decided to wait until the final hour to ultimately make his decision. Was I capable? Should I be allowed to continue?
The plan was to leave just after midnight. We laid out our sleeping pads and sleeping bags to claim a spot on the community shelf in the hut and had dinner. Just after sunset, Vickie and I laid down and I fell asleep immediately. Vickie woke me up sometime after dark and whispered that she wasn’t feeling well. She sat there silently, blankly staring at me in the darkness while I waited for her to further explain the problem. She put her hand to her mouth and unexpectedly puked onto my sleeping bag. There was no forewarning, no conversation just the regurgitation sound. I quickly grabbed an extra T-shirt from my so she could finish depositing the remainder of that evening’s meal. I cleaned up the mess on the sleeping bag as best I could with my long underwear bottoms and then sealed everything in an extra plastic bag I was carrying. She assured me it was just nerves that caused the vomiting. Looking back, it was really her first bout with altitude sickness, a condition Vickie would battle with on many of our future climbs.
Impossible to sleep anymore, we quietly laid wide awake staring into the darkness, waiting for the signal to rise and prepare. Feeling anxious and sleep deprived we rose at midnight, packed everything into our backpacks, and tried to mentally prepare for the summit attempt.
We stepped out into an eerily calm and perfectly clear moonless night. The temperature was in the low teens. We had our climbing boots on and everyone was dressed warmly except for me. I was only wearing a thin pair of hiking pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and a windproof rain jacket. No long underwear, no fleece, and no down. I was cold. We strapped on our crampons, tied in with our prearranged rope team, and prepared to head up. Vickie was tied into a different rope team than I was. We looked up and could see groups who left earlier above us on the trail. We could trace the route leading across the Cowlitz Glacier by the strings of evenly spaced lights. A string of 5 lights defined a rope team. Gaps between the rope teams pointed the way to the top. Each team would be moving at the pace of the slowest climber on their rope team.
We stood there in the cold midnight air waiting for our turn to follow the path. I asked Vickie as her group’s turn came to leave if she was feeling okay. She lied to me and said that she felt fine. After a few more minutes it was my team’s opportunity to begin the ascent. I was shivering from under dressing. My plan to prevent overheating didn’t include the standing and waiting time while teams took turns leaving. But, within 20 minutes of leaving I had warmed up enough to stop shivering. The feeling was returning to my fingers and toes and I was beginning to feel familiar with the cold. My Minnesota metabolism had kicked in. I was working hard but moving well. The key for me was to move without overheating and sweating. As long as we were moving, I was warm.
My headlight only illuminated the 6-foot diameter piece of the mountain where I existed. I stared at the ground putting one foot in front of the other, only concerned with negotiating the four steps I could see in my cone of light. The bright headlights essential to illuminating the path also wrecked peripheral night vision. I had no idea where I was on the mountain or what the surrounding terrain looked like. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees, or in my case, I couldn’t see the mountain for the rocks. I knew it would be hours before daylight broke to reveal our progress, so I was following…just following.
As we moved in the darkness, it felt like I was climbing alone, just me and my cone of light. No one was talking. There was just the rhythmic ‘thuck’ of each step into the ice, the squeak of double plastic boots and the grinding of crampons on loose rock. I followed the rope leading me up and into the darkness and the bootprints, the mountaineers in front of me kicked into the ice. Vickie was on the rope team in front of me. So as long as the rope I followed moved up, I knew that she was ahead of me. I shifted my mind into automatic, only thinking about making the solid placement of my next step and keeping up with the rope leading me. There was something hypnotic and oddly soothing about the exertion. I slipped into a meditative state, separating myself from any extraneous thoughts. I only was concerned about my body position and the climbing at hand. The hours passed quickly.
My rope team caught up with Vickie’s rope team and we joined them for a rest just before dawn. The impending dawn revealed the high the altitude terrain from a brand new perspective. It felt like we were on a different mountain. In the darkness, we climbed on the Cowlitz Glacier; passed through Cathedral Gap; crossed the Ingraham Glacier to the Ingraham Flat; and finally, ascended Disappointment Cleaver. It was here that we stopped for a long rest to drink, eat, and for the guides to assess everyone’s condition. Clients coiled the excess rope between us and sat huddled in a silent bunch on the ice, still tied together. The guides pushed water and tried initiated an investigative conversation with each climber. Our assistant guide Ward noticed Vickie didn’t pull out her water bottle and came to check on her. She had been climbing hard for hours without a single drink. In fact, she hadn’t kept anything down since losing her dinner late in the evening before. Ward called the lead guide Jeff over to see her. Vickie assured them that she was fine. They asked if she had been eating and drinking, she said yes. Then, I betrayed her by relaying the story of puking after dinner. I suspect Jeff knew she had a full blown case of altitude sickness. He asked her to prove that she was okay by having a drink of water. She obliged. Moments later she leaned over and puked. What came up was liquid as clear as it was when she originally drank it down. The bottom line for Vickie, keep down some water or her climb would be over. She tentatively tried again. She sipped her water from the old-school white Nalgene bottle, and again, threw it right back up. Even though she though she wanted to, Jeff the lead guide, wouldn’t let her continue. She was done.
As the guides from different places on the mountain checked with each other via walkie-talkie, they formulated a plan to rearrange rope teams and send a guide down to collect clients who had abandoned their summit aspirations. That guide was on the way down from higher on the mountain to begin the retrieval of the retreating climbers. Vickie was would be the 1st to be picked up and was highest on the mountain. She would be joining with others clients already waiting lower on the mountain.
I thought about heading down also but Vickie said I should continue up even though she couldn’t. I was feeling strong and really wanted to summit. The summit cone was only 700 vertical feet up the Emmons Glacier. Vickie pulled her sleeping bag out of her pack to wrap up and wait for the guide who was on the way down. I still feel guilty to this day because I ultimately left her there alone, staked to the mountain, wrapped in her sleeping bag, to wait for a guide to come down and lead her down.
I know what you are thinking. Wow, that seems kind of cold to just leave her there. I think the same thing in retrospect. The guides assured me that they did this all the time and it was no problem. It just meant that I wouldn’t be there for her in the event that something did become a problem. We reasoned that we spent the money and vacation time to get here, at least one of us should summit. In the slightly hypoxic state of high altitude and burning ambition, climbers are prone to make dubious decisions. It’s like being drunk. We know the reasons and possible results, we just don’t evaluate their significance appropriately. I should have gone down with Vickie.
Don’t worry. Nothing bad happened. A shelf was cut into the glacial ice to make a level platform for her to rest. Vickie was tucked warmly and comfortably into her sleeping bag.and tethered to a safety strap secured in the ice. She fell asleep while waiting for the guide who would ultimately lead her down. On the way down, they picked up 3 other climbers one by one as they followed the trail back to Camp Muir. Only about 50% of the climbers actually made it to the summit. Some quit because of fatigue, some because of the exposure, and a few like Vickie, because of altitude sickness. One climber on her rope team who was picked up was so wiped out from the effort that he lost control of his bowels. Yes, he actually shit his pants. Her journey down was a slow and tenuous process because of the fatigued climbers that she was joined with.
I uneventfully climbed up the steep section of the Emmons Glacier to reach the summit cone of Mount Rainier. I spent 30 minutes meandering on the summit. All of the time was spent battling a high altitude headache from the 13,000 foot vertical gain in only two days. It was not enough time to acclimatize. I could ‘check off’ the summit, but I didn’t have my partner to share it. I didn’t appreciate the beauty or feel the exhilaration of accomplishment. I just wanted to go down and breathe thick moist air.
One the way down I started to feel better. The sun was shining and the view was stunning. We descended the same trail we climbed in the dark. The daylight revealed the terrain hidden on the ascent.
Vickie waited for me at Camp Muir for an hour and a half before I rejoined her. I sat down to rest and she attempted to drink a little water. We were both successful. When our original group was reunited and adequately rested we headed down to Paradise to catch our return ride to Ashford. As she descended, Vickie felt better with each foot of altitude she gave up. She was able to drink more water and even eat some Pizzalicious Pringles our guide Ward shared. To this day, when we find them, we buy these Pringles and think fondly of that return trip. Also, to this day Vickie can’t drink from a white Nalgene bottle without getting sick to her stomach. We arrived in Paradise in the intense afternoon sun, exhausted from battling the altitude and our 14 hour day. Our 1st mountaineering experience was more of an adventure than we ever imagined it would be. That trip only reinforced our addition. On the plane back to Minnesota we vowed to return and hopefully, both of us would summit Mt. Rainier.
Tips and recommendations.
Be in stellar physical shape – Climbing is a physically demanding endeavor. The better shape you are in the better chance you will have to summit and the more you will enjoy the experience.
Climb cold – overheating and sweating loses precious moisture from your body and once you start to get dehydrated it is tough to replenish. Dehydration is a precursor to altitude sickness and impaired physical performance.
Carry food you love to eat – High altitude suppresses your appetite. We brought power bars, smashed bagels, and peanut butter. They didn’t go down well. Our guides had cold fried chicken, potato chips (Pringles Pizza-licious), pizza, oranges, and bananas. All of their food was packed in containers that prevented the food from being smashed.
Plan Ahead – Be self-reliant. Mitigate risk and exposure. Keep an eye on the weather. Keep your ego in check. Be aware of you physical abilities and climbing stamina. Always remember the most important aspect of climbing is to come back safely.
Climb with people you trust. You literally tie your destiny with your ropemates. I highly recommend Rainier Mountaineering Inc (rmiguides.com) for their experience and professionalism. Their highly trained guides were helpful, knowledgeable, and safety conscious. They made the climb safe, enjoyable, and rewarding experience.
We returned in 2001 for a 7-day climbing seminar with RMI. During that climb, we became more proficient with our current abilities and learned new skills. We also were afforded extra time to acclimatize and both successfully reached the summit. And, more importantly, we felt good doing it. Today RMI doesn’t even offer the 2-day summit climb, headache trudge, we did in 1999. The shortest currently available is 4 days.