Successfully summiting Mt. Rainier seems likes a daunting, near impossible endeavor from the flatlands and “thick air” of the Midwest. Literature, blogs and the wisdom of those we spoke to who had been on “The Mountain” suggested that if the weather cooperated there was always the clear reality of succumbing to AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) and having to turn back short of the summit. Yet there it stood. Silently waiting, enticing the adventurer to try, regardless of state of origin.
So the Midwest crew was assembled, training plans were set and executed but in the back of our minds, as we had heard so many times, we knew there was truly no adequate way to train for the difference in elevation. We could only hope our mental fortitude would make up the difference and get us up—and safely back down!
The four of us arrived in Ashford in mid-June, drank a few beers, talked a little smack but, on training day laced up the boots in all seriousness. This day was well spent time in understanding what we could expect to see on the mountain as far as slope, crevasse crossings, rope travel, etc. We also had the chance to meet the other half of our 9 person team which was of semi-concern as we would undoubtedly be “roped up” with complete strangers during the most dangerous parts of the climb. The day also served its purpose in calming the nerves. I find taking physical action is the best remedy to slowing the mind from creating all kinds of potential untruths, and this is a strategy I employed throughout our trip.
Departure for the climb itself came quickly and we found ourselves on the shuttle to Paradise (~5400 ft.). Less nervous now but still full of anticipation, I felt like a race horse at the Kentucky Derby, being held by the gate but completely focused and ready to run! I was happy to feel the weight of my pack and let the slope of the mountain and my legs be the cause of the increase in heart rate. We reached Camp Muir (~10,300 ft.) without incident, for me somewhat tired but not exhausted. This was obviously encouraging and I mentally reviewed my training plan. Maybe it wasn’t as inadequate as once thought however, I knew deep down inside the Muir Snowfield was nothing compared to the upper mountain.
Based on reading that Camp Muir had a capacity of 110 climbers I anticipated it would be highly populated. In reality it was busy but not really over crowded, especially for a beautiful weekend in June! The climber’s shelter was a trip, big enough to fit 18 climbers shoulder to shoulder in sleeping bags, little room to sit and a shelf to hold hot/cold water. It created an interesting experience the night before the summit attempt as we all, all 17 climbers, laid down to sleep at 6pm. I didn’t sleep a wink but some (of the lucky ones) managed to catch intermittent periods of shut-eye. With 17 climbers it seemed at least one was always on the move: shuffling gear, peeling off layers, drinking water, running to the head. Every time a flashlight went on I thought the guides were coming in for the “morning” wakeup call. This actually occurred at 11:30pm. Game on! We had one hour to eat, take care of business, load the packs, gear up and clip into our rope team.
We started the climb on time: 12:30am Monday, June 23rd. Everyone was pretty much silent as we left in total darkness, a result of nerves and anticipation I’m sure. We only heard the sound of our ice axes scrapping the snow, our crampons crunching on the frozen ground and the site of headlamps scanning the mountain side out in front of us. As we moved on through the night, time and spacial awareness seemed to disappear; just the focus on the placement of each foot step upon the steep grade in the glow of our headlamps seemed to matter. The best time marker was seeing the sun on the horizon and with it the summit came into view. I knew then there was enough gas in the tank to reach the top and get safely back down. I also then realized just how massive and steep the upper portions of Mt Rainier are. We continued climbing through the early morning hours, stepping over several crevasses, clipping into anchored ropes in the steepest sections and finally, after six and a half hours of climbing, at 7am, Monday, June 23rd, we were standing on the summit of Mt Rainier! The summit is amazing! One can immediately identify that Mt Rainier is in fact a volcano. The crater is unmistakable. Part of our crew elected to take a rest break near the crater rim while the rest rambled across the crater and up to the official summit, Columbia Crest (14,410 ft.).
We spent about 40 mins on the summit in total and then had to start moving down before the day heated up and the snow pack softened. The way down was much more difficult. Each step seemed to need more care and control or, maybe now that we could see our surroundings better, we stepped more carefully, fully understanding now the consequences of falling. We made it though! At noon we were back down at Camp Muir. We had one hour to eat, pack up our remaining gear (sleeping bag, etc.) and rest before starting the final leg back down to Paradise. We reached the parking lot without issue around 4pm. Our mountain experience was over, safely. The shuttle ride back to Ashford was similarly quite, now not due to nerves, just exhaustion.
Sunday 6pm: Bunked out
Sunday 11:30pm: Wakeup call
Monday 12:30am: Climb starts at Camp Muir (10,300 ft.)
Monday 7:00am: Summit reached (14,410 ft.)
Monday 12:00pm: Back at Camp Muir (10,300 ft.)
Monday 4pm: Back at Paradise (5400 ft.)
I trained for Denali to climb Rainier, that was the original plan anyway. I’d say I reached about 65% of that goal so felt I could have trained better. Training consisted of 5-6 days per week: Cardio (T-mill @ 15% grade, biking or swimming), 30-40 mins of Weights after Cardio, At work climbing 9 flights of stairs with 40 lb. pack 3 times per day, Cutting the lawn with 40 lb. pack and monthly backpacking trips in winter with 40 lb. pack and snowshoes.