Life is full of surprises. The “path to the marathon” led me to the Mt. Rainier summit; the highest peak in Washington state and the most glaciated mountain in the contiguous US. Yes, I actually reached the top and lived to share the tale. It all began with a flight to Seattle and a man from NYC with a mission to have a mountain beneath him.
With just a few hours to sight-see before the gear check and orientation session at 2pm, I headed straight to the Space Needle. It wasn’t the clearest of days and Mt. Rainier blended in with the clouds from a distance. Nevertheless, the GoogleMaps view of Seattle is awesome.
After a long walk by the Seattle waterfront and through the madness of Pike Place Market, I grabbed some lunch nearby (Petra Mediterranean, delicious) and headed to the AAI (Alpine Ascents International) building to meet my climbing team at the orientation session. Our team consisted of 8 climbers including myself and 4 guides. After the introductions, it was revealed that I was the least experienced in the group. Some already summitted Kilimanjaro, 14-ers in Colorado, or other mountains in Washington. Every aspect of this trip would be something I’ve never done. I’ve never even camped outside before. Paradise is the name of the starting point of the climb and it would be the highest elevation I’ve ever been; about 5,420 ft. Every step I take would be one step higher than I’ve ever been. That sounds great to me.
After the gear check, the route was discussed via a GoogleEarth presentation. The best news was that the weather forecast was very good for a summit attempt. The route is called the DC (Disappointment Cleaver) route; the most popular route. The first day is a long trek with 4,600 ft elevation gain through paved trails, rocky areas, and snowfield (more than 50% snowfield) to Camp Muir (10,080 ft). The second day starts off with a 2 hour mountaineering crash course followed by a trek across Cowlitz Glacier and up Cathedral Gap (steep scree trail) to high base camp above Ingraham Glacier (11,200 ft). Starting at midnight, the final day consists of navigating across crevasses, the DC (high rockfall danger), traversing 30-45 degree slopes to the crater peak, and then walking across to the Columbia Crest summit (14,411 ft). Let’s not forget the long descent all the way back to the parking lot. In total, the final day is a 14 hour marathon of a journey. Sure, sounds doable.
Packing was so complicated and the most stressful part in my opinion. With a 65 liter pack, I struggled for 2 hours thinking about how to optimally fit everything. When it was all packed, I was finally at peace… until I realized that I forgot to pack food. Crap. I rushed outside to buy 3 cliff bars, 2 bagels with Pb, 2 sandwiches, 2 bananas, peanuts, fig bars, raisins, carrots, and 4 chocolate bars. Yea, that should do it for 2 lunches and snacks (breakfasts and dinners were taken care of by the guides). After stuffing the food in my pockets and in my backpack somehow, I was now ready to go to sleep; the last good sleep I would have for days.
The team met up at 6am and we were driven to Mt. Rainier National Park in the AAI van; the only vehicle with a big Rainier on the side.
On the road, through the trees, you could see the mountain. We all “wowed” at the first clear glimpse of the mountain up close. Once we arrived at Paradise, we made our final preparations for the journey of a lifetime. At 5,420 ft and beyond, the sun stings the flesh relentlessly so the sunscreen and lip-screen had to be applied to the exposed areas quickly and at all times. Also, glacier glasses had to be worn most of the time because it was just too bright.
And so the adventure begins. I dreamed of this moment for so long. Images of trails, snow, and ice as I marched up muggy staircases. This is the real thing! We began the journey via the Skyline trail and took our first break at Panorama Point (6,800 ft). The 40+ pound backpack had my back already soaked with sweat in the 80F temperatures.
We then hiked for another hour through Pebble Creek (7,200 ft) where the trail ends and the snowfield begins.
The snowfield was so vast. It took almost 3 hours to reach Camp Muir. It was an endless desert of snow and ice. 3 hours was more than enough time to have chit-chats with each of the guides and other climbers. You slowly go crazy as you look up every 5-10 minutes to see that the view of the mountain did not change as if no progress has been made. It was starting to feel like a marathon as I started to drag my legs toward the end.
The stair training paid off though. We finally reached Camp Muir! At 10,080 ft, I felt a bit light-headed and had some difficulty breathing. It eventually went away after a few hours but still, it freaked me out a bit. And the strangest thing, I had a signal on my phone and actually had a conversation with my wife for a few minutes. The views were amazing and were about to get better. The real climb starts tomorrow.
The AAI guides were not only pro mountaineers but also great cooks. They served burritos that night. We all had to help out and carry some of the cooking ingredients from Paradise but I had no idea that it would be transformed into something this tasty.
And then I had the worst sleep of my life in the upper section of the shelter hut. I just couldn’t get comfortable enough to sleep. Perhaps I slept 3-4 hours tops. I’m a spoiled city guy, meh.
The real climb begins. But first, eggs and pancakes followed by a mountaineering crash course. These guides are awesome.
At a nearby hill, we were taught how to ascend a glacier wearing crampons and using ice axes using various techniques. Rule #1: Don’t fall. The most important thing about mountaineering is footwork. You have to be aware and focused regardless if you are sleepy or exhausted. We were then taught to self-arrest which is a maneuver to prevent yourself from sliding down after a slip. Rule #2: If you slip and start sliding, self arrest. We were then taught to put on harnesses and rope-up in 3-person teams. If someone slips, the remaining 2 can assist. Rule #3: Don’t climb alone.
Ok, that should be enough instruction to climb a mountain. So we grabbed our backpacks, roped-up, marched across the Cowlitz glacier and up Cathedral Gap. The crevasses began to appear everywhere and we even had to step over a few. These cracks had no bottom I swear. We all quickly found out that walking through loose and broken rock kinda sucks when wearing crampons. Also, you have to be careful not to accidentally kick rocks since they could tumble down to the rope team below you. After a lot of crampon scraping and ice axe clanging, we eventually reached high base camp in the Ingraham flats (11,200 ft) above the Ingraham Glacier.
With crevasses everywhere, we were advised not to roam around. At the tents, we prepared for the summit day by taking out anything unnecessary like a sleeping bag for example. It felt good to have the backpack weight decrease by 50%.
The guides cooked up chicken noodle soup and briefed us on our midnight mission. They built the dinner tent from scratch, holy!
Midnight! Yep, it was already 6pm which meant we get 6 hours sleep max. I Excalibur-ed my ice axe in front of the tent and hooked my climbing equipment to it such that everything was ready to go at midnight. Ugh, I couldn’t sleep. Maybe I slept for 2 hours or something. It’s not that comfy sleeping on a glacier. The night brought the freezing temperatures. At 11:59, headlamps were illuminating the tents, it’s time…
It took 30 minutes or so for each of us sleep-deprived mountaineers to prepare for battle with the mountain. There was enough time for oatmeal and a cup of tea under the midnight sky while gazing at the stars (they are never so clear back home). Once we rope-up, there will be no turning back. Here we go…
The next 90 minutes had to be non-stop until we reach the top of the DC (Disappointment Cleaver) at 12,300 ft. The DC is 1,000+ vertical feet with 45 degree slopes of rock and ice. Crevasse after crevasse, nothing makes you feel more alive than being roped-up to other people in the dark and stepping over scary looking cracks in the ice while being half asleep with a short circle of vision from your headlamp. Within 15 minutes, we approached this 10 foot wooden crevasse bridge with a width equal to the length of my boot. As I was side-stepping it, I asked our rope-team leader to “tell my wife that I love her and that I died a satisfied man”. He responded “tell her yourself when you get back”, haha.
Even with half of the backpack weight, the steepness was tiring me out. In the heart of the DC, crampons were scraping rocks as we all held onto our ice axes without ice to sink them in. There was never a dull moment as you slip every few minutes on the endless pile of loose and broken rocks. I tried to glance at the surroundings around me and tripped every time. I kept repeating “Pay attention Jon, pay attention Jon”. The ice axe did very little to aid in my balance and I had to rely on my ability to scramble (thank you upstate NY day hikes). Not for one second did I think about going back down. After all that, I couldn’t even imagine.
We eventually reached the top of the DC at 12,300 ft where you could see the Seattle lights. It was getting quite cold and like a fool, I forgot my coat in the tent (used it as a pillow). One of the guides had a spare green one and lent it to me. Like I said, these guides are the best. Even after resting for 10 minutes, I couldn’t catch my breath. It was the altitude. There was one more thing to learn; pressure breathing. It’s quite different than the type of breathing when running fast. There is more emphasis on breathing out. As much as I just wanted to take a nap, we had to continue zig-zagging upward.
It seemed like an eternity as we continued to kick our crampons into the ice. After a while, the 12 headlamp dots in the night became 9. 2 of our 8 climbers had to turn back after the DC. They were the strongest 70+ year-olds I’ve ever met. Whenever I looked upward, I kept seeing the same image; more mountain and headlamp dots slowly moving above me, like I was going nowhere fast. A runny nose had me wiping with my gloves and sleeves, I really didn’t care. Left step, right step, sink ice axe, repeat. Breath in, breath out, repeat. It was becoming mental. I can’t keep up, but I can’t stop. Push!
Finally, we reached the 13,400 point for the last 15 minute break. By this point, all I could do was focus on breathing. With less than 1,000 ft until the summit crater, there was some light at the end of the tunnel. Another hour of ice marching, just one more. The darkness started to transform into a dark blue as we ascended to the sky. I had spaghetti legs but somehow kept marching up, one step at a time. After looking down at my feet for so long, I looked upward to see something different; not much mountain left. From that moment on, my eyes were fixed upward. This somehow brought tears to my eyes. Was I getting emotional or was it the altitude, wind, and the pain? In my head, “Jon, hang on, you can do this, show the world what you’re made of, you have to, for those who believe in you, for those who said you can’t, to make your parents proud, to make your wife proud, to be more than you are, to make your dream come true, TO FEEL ALIVE”! As the sun rose above the horizon, I took my last steps and tossed my backpack onto the Mt. Rainier summit crater. No words can express what I felt right here.
But it ain’t over yet. There was a quarter-mile of crater to walk across and a few more feet to ascend to reach the true summit; the Columbia Crest at 14,411 ft. Using my ice axe as a crutch and stepping passed the steam vents (it is a volcano after all), victory was mine. I CLIMBED MT. RAINIER!
It was the clearest of days with hardly any clouds. You could see all of the nearby Cascade peaks such as Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and even Mt. Hood in Oregon. After writing my name in the summit register and celebrating with everyone, we all realized one small detail. We have to get back down. “Going up is voluntary; coming down isn’t“. After 30 minutes of descending, I just collapsed. Oh crap, I’ve hit the wall. I didn’t know this could happen when going down. I just wanted to sleep. But you cannot linger since the rising temperatures in the morning increases avalanche and crevasse danger. Also, I couldn’t let my rope mates down. Just like a marathon at mile 20, I had to just keep going. It was quite interesting to finally see the views of the Cascade Range which we couldn’t see earlier. But then again, I was too exhausted, blistered, and sleep deprived to fully appreciate it. This was truly the toughest part. And then going back down the DC, oh my God. After 4-5 hours or so, we reached high base camp, stuffed everything into our backpacks, refueled with food and water, and then reached Camp Muir.
Just when things became unbearable, the fun part begins. Throughout the 3,000 ft of the snowfield (from Day 1), there were plenty of glissading slopes. Glissading is a fancy name for sliding on your ass in the snow. The biggest water park has nothing on Mt. Rainier. The intense climb was worth it! I put my legs through a trash bag and glissaded my way to the Paradise trails!
After a final long walk though the trails into the Paradise parking lot, I took one last look at the Mt. Rainier and could not believe that we were on top of it just a few hours ago. After 14 crazy hours, we returned to civilization. We said our goodbyes and headed back to Seattle to embark on our own adventures.
The Mt. Rainier climb was an experience incomparable to anything I’ve ever done. Thank you AAI for making this an enjoyable experience. I have to admit, the feeling of reaching the summit surpassed the feeling of a marathon finish line or a graduation ceremony by far. Would I climb a bigger mountain? Most likely not. But something similar, hmm, maybe. Marathoners reading this should give this a shot. Speaking of marathons, I should get back to work on that.
From the mountain tops to the city streets, seek adventure wherever you go, enjoy the journey, and never be idle.