As with most of the things on my bucket list, I don't know why I wanted to climb Mount Rainier, other than the fact that its majestic (if you've ever been to seattle, you know what I'm talking about) and there's the challenge of it: I've done a few 14ers, but Mt. Rainier is the most glaciated peak in the lower 48, and it starts at sea level.
And so it goes: with nothing better to do, I assembled some friends and planned a trip. To climb, you need a team (Four is ideal) in good shape and a variety of skill sets. Jeff, from seattle, seemed like a natural choice. He is an experienced mountaineer and climber, and a really solid guy. His climbing buddy and childhood friend, Jake, would join us, and had summited Rainier once before. Last, Shane jumped on because his party, scheduled to climb the extremely challenging Liberty Ridge, fell through. Shane is an all around man's man, and someone I have a lot of respect for, so I was excited to have him aboard.
Because Jeff was headed to Peru to study toilets with Engineers Without Borders, we had to set our trip date in mid May. May is an early time to climb, but if successful, we'd be able to traverse the normally perilous Ingram direct route, because the most dangerous crevasses and ice formations would still be buried deep in snow.
I flew out a bit early to see some friends and hang out in Seattle. The night I flew out we talked to the team about possibly canceling our attempt. The avalanche conditions looked horrible, and the mountain was getting pounded with bad weather. As soon as I landed in seattle, the sun came out and the snow stabilized, and we decided to go for it. After a party at Jake's parent's house, we double checked our gear and tucked in for bed. We should have triple checked, because halfway to the trailhead jeff realized he forgot his thermarest and had to buy perhaps the world's worst sleeping pad at K-mart. It's ok. We didn't get much sleep.
Upon arrival at the trailhead, the parking lot was pretty much empty, save a few cars and a few people who were training by hiking to base camp and back. We took note that the coolant in Jeff's grandma's Buick was boiling, and hoped that when we got off the mountain, the car would get us home.
We opted to leave our snowshoes in the car, as the trail seemed well packed enough to get us to Camp Muir. The hike up to base-camp was pretty un-eventful. The sky was sunny and the views were good. There was plenty of talking and joking around as we hiked.
The cabin at Camp Muir was crowded with a few people training, and a youth group, none of which were attempting to summit (so much for an early bedtime). The cabin settled down about 10 pm and I managed to get some sleep, untill around 11:30 when a lost hiker noisily arrived, and started making his dinner. I maybe got another 30 mins of sleep before my alarm went off at 1 AM, signaling it was time to push for the summit. We groggily awoke, ate some oatmeal, put on our crampons, and roped up.
The climb up remains mostly a fog. We were roped together, and made good time. The sky was clear, and the moon was out, illuminating our hike like some creepy other world. The whole time I fought hunger and sleepiness, and in retrospect, should have eaten more while we hiked.
We summited shortly after sunrise, exhausted. The summit was pretty windy and cold, and I at a power-gel which made me feel a bit better. The view was incredible, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. In the crater the wind was much calmer, and the sun felt amazing. Nobody else was at the top, and it truly felt like we had hiked to the top of the world.
Jake and I decided to rest in the crater while Shane and Jeff went to look over the opposite rim. Then we regrouped, and re-roped, and began our decent. The decent was the sketchiest part of the climb. Dangers that were hidden by sleepiness and dark were now illuminated in bright daylight. Menacing towers of ice and dark blue seemingly bottomless crevasses were all around. On top of that, the slope was a lot steeper looking going down than going up, and one wrong step could send the whole team sliding thousands of feet, or worse: trigger a deadly avalanche. We carefully made our way down to base-camp, where we took a nap and made some coffee. We only saw one other group making a bid for the summit that day.
From there on out, the hike was a different world. Hundreds of weekend warriors were skiing and sledding between the parking lot and camp Muir. The snow was a lot softer and we all kept post-holing on the way down. But we made it, and felt quite accomplished. We headed back to Seattle, and spent the next day sitting on a dock on the bay, talking about life and future goals. All and all, a glorious trip.
I'm glad we summited, but I have a new respect for serious mountains and don't think I'll be attempting any others soon. I've done some pretty hard things, but climbing Rainier was hands down the hardest thing I've ever done. A combination of hunger and lack of sleep probably did me in, and if I was to give one peice of advise in retrospect it would be: bring a tent, and don't sleep in the cabin at camp Muir. (Or: Bring earplugs)
It's also humbling to realize how quickly things can change on that mountain. A week after our summit with seemly perfect weather, 11 climbers got buried on the same route by a massive avalanche. It's important to always watch the weather, and be aware of the risks. If you're interested in mountaineering, I'd highly recommend the book MOUNTAINEERING: FREEDOM OF THE HILLS, commonly referred to the climbers bible. The internet isn't short on route info and climbing tips for Rainier, a good place to start is summitpost.org