Guest post – Written by John Mackay
Thanks John for sharing the inside scoop on your dream to climb Mount Rainier.
Mt Rainier Climb Report, September 10-13, 2009
In December 2008 I made the decision I had been considering for some time: attempt to climb Mt. Rainier! I had gotten the mountaineering bug the previous year after climbing Mt St Helens. Standing on the crater rim of MSH, viewing the peaks of Mt Adams and Mt Rainier in the distance inspired me deeply. I knew that Mt Adams (12276’) was within my abilities as it is considered a non-technical climb, but was somewhat intimidated by Mt Rainier and its reputation.
At 14410’ Mount Rainier is the highest peak in Washington State, and is the most glaciated mountain in the Lower 48. Known as a training ground for Everest climbs, Rainier offers up a mix of glacier travel, crevasses, ice, steeps, altitude and weather which can challenge even the most experienced mountaineer. Oh, and did I mention, I’m afraid of heights? The thought of crossing over a crevasse via a ladder certainly didn’t appeal to me. I wondered if I would be able to do it if called upon.
Once I made the decision to do this I realized that the best way to maximize my chances of summiting would require me being in the best shape of my life. Fortunately I had a pretty good base to start with as I’m an avid cyclist, both road and mountain biking. I knew however I would need to turn it up a notch and decided to take up running to increase my aerobic base. I went and got a fitness test to establish baseline heart zones for both cycling and running. My first run was 2 ½ miles with a pace in the 10 minute zone. Lots of room for improvement!
I kicked off my 2009 training on New Years Day with a polar 5K dash and dip in Lake Washington. What a blast that was! I think I could get hooked on these 5K’s; not so much on jumping into a freezing lake.
I began running at lunch hour during the work week, and regular mountain bike and road rides mixed in during the weekends. Fortunately I had great training buddies Robin and Lance to run with and mentor me. Most importantly, they were very careful not to “break” me by gradually increasing the pace and intensity of our runs. I gradually improved as my pace times dropped; I also pledged to do a race every month.
I had been doing weight training at my local gym but was lacking focus. I attended a couple of REI seminars on climbing and conditioning for climbing Mt Rainier and decided to sign up for on-line training with Body Results. I was familiar with their program as I had purchased a Body Results DVD on training to climb Rainier and also had their book on outdoor performance training. I felt that a climbing specific program would be the way to go.
Ah, but now my biggest hurdle…getting my wife Kirsten on board with my dream! I explained what the risks were and the sacrifices that would be made with my training regime. Her support would be crucial to me being able to do this. I of course was concerned with her worrying about the risks involved and wanted to be sensitive to that. After explaining all this to her she simply said:
“As long as you have life insurance, go for it”
Along with running I did my usual bike rides, including STP (Seattle to Portland, 202 mile, one day) and RAMROD (Ride Around Mt Rainier One Day) along with our annual FUBAR Mt St Helens Epic MTB ride. I hiked and climbed trails including Mt. Si, Granite Peak, Mailbox Peak and Mount Pilchuck. I worked in a training hike to Camp Muir two weeks prior to the summit attempt of Rainier, but turned back at 9200’ due to crevasse danger. Better safe than sorry.
I would be doing the climb with Phil, a buddy whom I worked with in the past and his friend Jeff. Phil decided to celebrate his 40th birthday by climbing a mountain. Robin, my running buddy had planned to do the climb but was forced to cancel with a hairline stress fracture in her foot.
We had decided to go with a guide company and for me the only choice was Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI). They had a good safety record and the reputation of not dragging clients up who were not physically able. That was important to me.
We arrived at the RMI base camp in Ashford Thursday afternoon for an orientation session. We did a meet and greet with our guides and fellow clients. Right off the bat our lead guide Paul threw up a PowerPoint presentation showing the number of summit attempts vs. successful summits and things didn’t look too encouraging. Although the weather forecast was perfect for summit day a storm the previous weekend had dumped several feet of snow on the upper mountain. This in effect had covered up the crevasses and made navigating them extremely dangerous. Because of this no team had successfully reached the summit since the storm hit. Sobering news, but I figured that’s part of mountaineering; on average only 60% of summit attempts are successful, due to weather, conditioning, etc.
We did a thorough gear and equipment check. Paul was very clear in explaining what needed to be brought in our packs, but more importantly what we didn’t need to bring. We wrapped up around 6:00 PM and went to dinner and to bed early.
Day two would be the Mountaineering Day School. We met at 8:00 AM the next morning for a shuttle ride up to Paradise. For many on our team this was their first close-up view of the mountain, and I think they were impressed by the magnitude of it all. We started off with a leisurely hike up Golden Gate trail to a snow covered chute to practice self arrest and rope techniques. We had a few simple rules from the guides: if their packs were off, ours were to be taken off. When packs were off, you needed to be either eating or drinking. And most importantly, if you were caught holding your ice axe by the shaft (also known as “the beer grip”), you were expected to buy the first round. I paid close attention to this rule.
Probably the most difficult task was self arresting while sliding head first on your back. After seeing our collective efforts at pulling off this maneuver Paul simply said “Well, the important thing is you self arrested, not how good you looked doing it”. Which brings up another larger point: the goal is to climb with style and efficiency. Minimize effort while on the mountain, keep fueled and hydrated, and look good doing it.
After a full day of playing in the snow we down hiked back to Paradise. Upon arrival we heard on the 2-way radio that a RMI team had summited that morning! Yea! This greatly improved our chances of reaching the summit. Another early night in bed, a little more tired than the evening before and a little more anticipation.
Saturday morning was day 3 and our climb to Camp Muir. We started hiking from Paradise at an elevation of 5400’ up the Skyline Trail. The weather was perfect, clear and sunny with no wind. We continued on the trail until we reached Pebble Creek (7200’). At this point the trail ends and the Muir Snowfield begins. It was at this time that we had our first client drop out due to severe blisters on his feet. Mike, the most junior guide, had the unenviable task of taking Greg back down to Paradise and the hoofing it back up to rejoin us at Camp Muir. As if that wasn’t enough, he did the summit climb the day before! No wonder these folks are in such good shape!
From here on we climbed a mixture of rocks and snow/ice all the way to Camp Muir at 10080’. Jeff suffered from severe leg cramps but managed to persevere and got into camp. Another client had his shins tore up pretty bad by a pair of rental plastic boots. He eventually decided not to attempt to summit the next day.
Phil, John and Jeff at Camp Muir
After admiring the views and snapping a few pictures we were instructed to be in bed by 5:00 PM. Paul refused to tell us what time we would be waking up, as he said it would depend on mountain conditions that evening. The freezing level was 15000’, above the summit of 14410’ so getting an early start was crucial to minimize the risk of falling rocks/ice as things thawed in the daylight.
We took up our spots in the bunkhouse and were provided hot water for a freeze dried meal and drink. We then retired for the evening. Well, I’m not sure retired is the best word to describe the next few hours. We were instructed to bring ear plugs, but they were of little use blocking out my snoring bunkmates. It was incredibly stuffy inside with little air circulation. And we had a furry little friend scurrying around. Still, despite all this, I think the bunkhouse would be a lifesaver in really nasty weather. As I lay there not sleeping I thought about what laid ahead and whether I would be able to make it to the top. It was then while looking out a window that I saw a falling star. Any guesses as to what I wished for?
Since I couldn’t sleep I was hoping the guides would soon come knocking on the door so we could be on our way. I wasn’t disappointed when at 11:00 PM I heard “So, who wants to climb a mountain?”
We had been told previously that we had one hour to eat and gear up. I wolfed down some oatmeal and pastry tarts, washed it down with hot chocolate and put my gear on. I was ready to roll by midnight. Bring it on!
Phil and I would be roped up with guide Eric, which made me confident of a good day ahead. Eric’s enthusiasm was contagious and he was a great teacher, patiently answering all our questions and imparting practical advice. We donned crampons, roped up, flicked on the headlamps and were on our way.
We picked a great evening to climb, a clear starry night with the moon barely illuminating the mountain. We began with an easy traverse of the Cowlitz Glacier to our first major hurdle, Cathedral Gap. The gap was a rocky slog through loose rock and scree but Eric set a comfortable pace and we ascended with little difficulty through to the Ingraham Glacier. We continued on to a rest break on the Ingram Flats. After a 15 minute break we continued on the flats to perhaps the most dangerous section of the climb beneath the Ingraham Icefall. We were told to keep quiet and move swiftly through this section as it was prone to falling rock and ice. We made it through without major incident.
I say without major incident as another rope team member in our party slipped and fell into a small crevasse. His rope team did a textbook anchor position and he self arrested. Everyone was OK and we continued on to the Disappointment Cleaver of which our chosen approach was named.
Disappointment Cleaver, or DC as it’s commonly called, is a rock spine heading straight up the upper mountain. It’s a tough climb up very loose rock and is probably the most difficult part of the route. Climbing loose rock in crampons is not easy! Despite this Eric kept a reasonable pace and we made it to the top of the cleaver and our next rest stop back on the Ingraham Glacier at 12250’. Unfortunately Jeff was suffering from stomach problems and muscle cramps and decided to turn back to Camp Muir with faithful Mike leading him down. Once again Mike did yeoman duty and round tripped to camp and back up again. These guys are tough!
From this point on we would remain on the glacier to the crater rim. We navigated around large crevasses and crossed the smaller ones with no problems as we made our way to the summit. I focused on pressure breathing and rest stepping. I felt like all my training was paying off as I felt good and strong with no apparent effects from the altitude except for a mild headache at rest stops.
One more rest stop and we made the final push to the summit rim. We made it!
Once we got to the summit rim we went into the crater to be better sheltered from the wind. We dropped our packs and unclipped from the ropes. Our guides asked if we wanted to continue on to the true summit at 14410’, a 40 minute round trip. Of course! I told them I felt real good and was up for it. I think Eric took this as a personal challenge as he led 5 of us at a blazing pace across the crater. Perhaps the pace was too much as one of our guys started throwing up! Note to self: do NOT challenge the guides!
We made the true summit just as the sun was beginning to rise. We snapped a few group photos, signed the summit register and made our way back to the rest of the team.
Phil & John at the summit
It’s true what they say: the easy part is getting to the top; the hardest part is getting back down. Most accidents happen on the way down; different muscles are worked as fatigue sets in. One must be very careful descending. On the positive side the rising sun provided spectacular views. We could finally see the true extent of crevasses we had navigated on the way up. Perhaps it was best that it was dark when we climbed!
We weaved our way down the mountain taking in the incredible views. I took a tumble on a loose rock on the DC, thankfully with no injuries. I dusted myself off and continued downwards no worse for wear. We continued on to Camp Muir without further incident.
We took about an hour to pack up our gear and start the hike down to Paradise. I say hike but it was more like a trail run with a heavy pack on. We think our guide Paul had a hot date that evening as he was flying down the trail back to Paradise. We all had a few less than graceful slips and slides on the way down but all made it back in one piece.
Base Camp: Let the stories begin!
We all met up at the RMI base camp for beers and to swap experiences. Amazing how much bigger that crevasse in which Derek fell became once we got back down off the mountain! We were presented with achievement certificates and went on our way, tired but elated.
So what have I taken away from this experience? First, you simply can not over-train for this. Doing climbing specific training made this a pleasant experience rather than a miserable one. I highly recommend working with Body Results, they kept me focused and motivated.
Cross training with friends helps keep things fun. Good training buddies lift you up on those days when you don’t fell like running or riding.
Most importantly, support from my wife Kirsten was essential with me training up to six days a week. I couldn’t have done it without her (or my life insurance policy!). Thanks Kirsten!
So to summarize, don’t let apprehension or fear stop you from achieving your goals. Meet the challenge head on.
Oh, and did I mention, I’m afraid of heights?
Thanks to following folks: Robin, Lance, Courtenay of Body Results, Jeff D, Michael K, Lawrence, Jeff S, Phillip, Jeff H , Katherine, Michael P and most of all, my wife Kirsten.