A Novice Climbs the Mountain (July, 1989)
We arrived yesterday at Rainier in pouring rain. Going to bed the night before settled down for sleep as the thunder slammed the windowpanes in Seattle. Awoke at 5:00 to hear the rain coming down hard and sullen. Not really a summer storm at all…it was much more wintry and determined. I called Ken at 5:30 and told him that Ipsut would be drenched if we went to the west (wet) side of the Mountain. Instead, we decided to meet at White River. Ken arrived in the early afternoon with Dave and Scott, and we headed on towards the campground, where we made camp and stayed the night. Cold and gray, I am happy still to be here for this Chautauqua under the stars, where friends gather in the wilderness and share the fire, but I bring with me a cold that is just gathering a full head of steam. Morning breaks slowly, and soft sunlight falls on the vine maple, leaving a trace of optimism over a cup of instant coffee.
Yesterday we loaded the packs and headed for Glacier Basin. Ken, Scott, Dave and I form the hiking group this year. Dave and Scott are close friends and all of us seem to be having a great time, except for this nagging cold of mine which scratches my throat, turns my nose into a faucet, and generally leaves me feeling a bit fatigued. Still, it’s a good hike today. We made it up to Glacier Basin early yesterday evening and set camp, got water fro the river, and made a reconstituted freeze-dried dinner. Later we played poker with gorp (M&Ms worth 2 peanuts or 10 raisins). This morning the rain and clouds passed and we headed for Camp Schurman, up the steep Inter Glacier. My cold was bothering me, but the sun and Starburst candy helped. We made it to Camp Curtis by 3:00 and headed back by a much quicker form of locomotion. I threw on the rain pants, mittens, and tucked everything in as best I could for a rapid glissade on my butt. Very exhilarating – may be too much so – Ken and Dave were following close behind and told me that I punched open a crevasse during one of my human bobsled descents. Incredible how much ground we covered doing down in a matter of seconds that took the better part of an afternoon to ascend.
Returned back to Glacier Basin to camp overnight, occasionally passing marmots sunning on the rocks or running around. Lots of deer up here – all are does who don’t mind us a bit. Came back with a total feeling of spent exertion and exhaustion accented by the cold. It’s a beautiful evening, and I lie here in my sleeping bag in the tent relishing a full recline on something soft after a day of pounding up and down over rock, snow and ice.
Like last year, I’m fighting ghosts in my dreams. The night before last it was a work dream that came to visit. Last night it was a dream about a brother. So clear and memorable, I spend the next day trying to re-piece them together, or reprieve my soul through a process of anger, denial, frustration, acceptance, or a simple apology in my own heart. So much of this trip is tied up in future direction and purpose, in a way clearing myself for newness and direction, when last year was caught up in trying to preserve what had been. So saying, I continue an almost penitential purpose on this trip, and welcome it. Scott and Dave return with boots and water sack full from filling up down at the river. Time to clean up and prepare for dinner and evening.
Back to White River. Woke up this morning, grateful that my cold was departing, if slowly. We ate a Sierra cup of oatmeal and packed for the descent. Two-thirds of the way down my left toe began crying – a large blister had formed and then broken. Back at our new site (A-3; old site was A-6) there was a lot of blood on the sock, but I think it will be OK. Ken, Dave, and Scott got fresh sunburns on the snow. Only my nose and ears reddened because I used sunscreen so I look a bit funny but no damage done.
That afternoon we headed into Randall for lunch at the Mt. Adams cafe. A meal to remember: onion rings, salad, Mt. Adams Burger, and chocolate mile shake. Stopped by the store in Packwood later for beer, burger, and the necessities, including zinc oxide for the climb. Returned with a beautiful clear sky and music on Ken’s car stereo enveloping us in energy, pure and simple. Stopped just a couple miles west of the 410/123 junction to take pictures. Now it’s time to begin preparing for the climb. Only two days to go and I am simply daunted by the prospect. It will be tough no other way to look at it. More on that later…hopefully before the climb.
Awoke next day to a semi-overcast day that progressively worsened. No rain, only a cold chill and high overcast that shrouds the upper ridges of the White River Valley. We drove up to Sunrise and took a walk up to Frozen Lake, where we turned back as the fog descended below 6,400 feet (Sunrise elevation), funneling through ridge openings and sweeping down over Yakima Park.
Ken caught my cold, and is trying to battle it quietly. Dave and Scott are doing great, and I’m feeling better, but the weather has, like everything else, dampened our enthusiasm. There is a lot to do to get ready for tomorrow: food to pack, gear to sort. I hope Ken’s cold gets better fast; it would be foolish to push for the summit without having everybody and everything in top order. It’s going on for 4:00 and everything is still pretty much in limbo. After these thoughts I’ll make an attempt to do some packing.
For now, it’s nice to sit here sipping hot coffee and staring at the familiar grays and greens of the old familiar forest. A few more minutes to collect my thoughts. I’m not sure what tomorrow will bring – it’s a challenge that depends on three factors: myself, the group, and the weather. Full of hope, I wish for more energy on this cold day; I hope that the group works well individually and together, and I hope the weather turns to our favor. If not, we’ll have to figure out alternatives and go on from there. Tomorrow begins the big day and according to plan…can we do it? I don’t know. Let’s give it a go. As I once wrote to a friend when I was living in Australia, wherever you find yourself, well, there you are.
Woke up at 5:00 am on the 21st. Ken was very sick. In the midst of packing we went in turns to talk to Ken in his tent, trying to figure a way that would enable him to join us. It was obvious that Ken was too sick to go, and the sheer disappointment was hard for us to bear. It was very sad for me, after so many years of beholding the beauty of the summit, the planning, the cups of coffee and the dreams, to come so close, and not to have my hiking companion on the climb, not able to bear our loads together, holding the rope in the team, setting that final crampon step on the summit together.
We packed and finished breakfast hurriedly. Rick had joined us the night before; his cousin Mick was going to lead the climb. Rick took off in his Impala to meet Mick, a seasoned climber who had made 30-odd summit climbs on Rainier and three ascents on Denali. Later, Dave, Scott and I drove up in the pickup and we arrived at Paradise a little after 9:00. About 10:30 we hit the trail, feeling the weight of the pack and the long summit climb ahead. It was cloudy and cool, perfect for hiking. Later we saw some climbers descending, who told us that the cloud cover broke at 8,000 feet, and that it was clear from there.
Higher we ascended in smooth, even steps over the soft summer snow. Mick was slow and consistent, not pushing hard, but not wasting any time. We had a total of four water breaks. When we broke through the clouds I was feeling the weight of the pack, and was having difficulty keeping pace. Dave and Scott were holding up well, and Rick was glued to Mick’s heels. After a short rest stop prior to the last push to Muir, I was counting steps and saying Hail Marys and Our Fathers intermittently, one step (“Our Father”), another step (“Who art in Heaven”), a third step (“Hallowed”), another step (“Be thy Name”), and on in prayer, step after step, until I must have said an entire Rosary on the Muir Snowfield.
When almost there, the steps became excruciating, not enough oxygen in the leg muscles. I was counting 100 steps between red wand trail markers, and there were only six to go! but the stone shelters on the island of Muir, a harbor of rest and water, was still far away.
Time and distance were so mutated at that point, and stayed that way for the rest of the climb. I stopped to take a picture – more of an excuse for a quick rest, and let Rick, Dave and Scott pass. When we landed at Muir, I stared past over a sea of clouds below, where Adams, Hood, St. Helens and the steel gray pyramids of the higher Cascades rose above. Climbers were descending from the summit while we rested on the rocks and the light breeze cooled my sweat-soaked shirt. I drank deeply from my bota. Everyone around me seemed to move as light as air, and I felt like lead.
A group of Rainier Mountaineering Incorporated (RMI) climbers were packing their belongings for the descent to Paradise, and I thought, will I be able to go where they just came from? At that point I was full of fatigue and anticipation of what was to come. Mick wanted to push on to the Ingraham Flats to camp for the night, but I said I was tapped, and wanted to camp at Muir. The Ingraham Flats is about 1,800 feet higher in elevation from where we were on the ascent, and we would have had to ascend a scree slope with full packs. Rather than gain the distance now and be ahead of the other climbing groups, I opted for setting camp and getting some food and rest. Everyone else went along with my suggestion, and it made me happy that the group was supportive. Mick was pleased by the decision and told me so as all of us sat resting, because I was honest to tell the group I was tapped, rather than killing myself and possibly blowing the climb in the morning due to sheer fatigue.
We then set our tents in the snow. Mick told us that he had climbed Rainier 33 times (!) prior to this ascent. It was obvious. He and Rick had their tent set, stove set, snow for water, and dinner ready while Dave, Scott and I were still setting our tent. I had brought the MSR stove and a 22 ounce fuel bottle. It took us four hours to boil approximately two gallons of water for drinking and cooking. Mick made sure that we were drinking water because dehydration can cause acute altitude sickness. We spent hours digging snow and squatting over the jet engine of the warm stove flame there in the harsh sunlight that swept over the cold ice and rock. My thoughts wandered and concentration on simple tasks became difficult. I bridled the urge to run back to Paradise before dusk.
Life took on stark stark reality at Muir, sharp as the rock, the sky, the snow, the sun; the simple chores of making water, packing the daypacks for the climb, cooking a very simple freeze-dried dinner, and getting ready for sleep required as much stamina and strength of will, of purpose, of being, as the day’s climb to Muir. At 8:00 pm it was time for some sleep. I crawled into my bag for a few hours of sleep, an eternity and all too short. Outside was warm (relatively, just above freezing) and a very light breeze – perfect weather for an ascent. Next to us were some people who built an amphitheater in the snow to watch the stars come out and drink brandy. I fell asleep quickly but lightly, occasionally waking to hear the breeze push against the tent or other climbers settle for the night.
At 11:45 pm Rick came by and we arose to a clear night of stars and a stunning half moon that was brighter than many full moons seen down below. We hastily boiled water for oatmeal to which I added gorp. Then on with the crampons in the moonlight, gaiters, gloves, hat, and daypack. We threw the gear in the tent, and I took a long sip on the bota of hard-earned water. Then we roped up: Mick, Rick, myself, Dave and Scott.
The ascent was a dreamscape, climbers in long lines behind us with headlamps that blinked and bobbed like an arctic parade in the moonscape. Mick pushed us hard to get us over the scree slope and ahead of RMI’s group so that we wouldn’t kick rock going over them getting over the scree slope on the Cowlitz Cleaver that separates the Cowlitz Glacier from the Ingraham Glacier. It was a steep pitch, but nothing compared to what was ahead. After working our way down onto the Ingraham and on towards Disappointment Cleaver, we were going strong. We started the ascent up over the rocks. Later Mick told us it was a 70-80 degree pitch in places. My only difficulty was a rope harness that kept loosening, aside from the interminable steps that never leveled. Several times I swayed with a giddy sense of vertigo, and balanced myself by focusing on the snow.
At about 13,000 feet Dave got cold and began to falter. Mick said push on we can’t stop now it’s tool cold we’re too exposed on the glacier. Dave yelled out again later. He didn’t look good and a distant glaze had settled on his eyes. At this point we were close but didn’t realize it. Mick had told us that a good estimate for reaching the summit from Muir was 8-10 hours. Dave began to freeze just before dawn, a dawn that went on forever, a band of color to the east that grew slowly and became fixed in my mind as a permanent feature of the vertical landscape, with a brilliant half moon falling to the west.
We stopped for a minute. I coughed up a little blood – more shocking than anything to see the crimson in the snow in the dawning light. Since we had left Muir at 1:30 am, it was about four hours since we’d been ascending. I think we all figured that with only four hours down and four hours to go to reach the summit that we were in bad shape. But Mick shouted back to us as we faltered, “C’mon! There’s the false summit right there. We are only ONE HALF the distance from where we were since our last break!” So we pushed on, heads down. I was worried about Dave, but if we stopped we would freeze. A 20 mile per hour wind with a still temperature below freezing can freeze a body fast. The water in my bota was turning into ice. We were on a steep slope and it was either move upward or lose it all and go down. Counting steps between wands, we pushed on, and again, like the climb on Mt. Adams, I found myself by surprise on the (false) summit.
The sun had risen in a brilliant pulsing red in the middle of the spectrum of light to the east that had seemed so permanent and enduring. The slope leveled out from the false summit on around the crater rim, and we hiked up the edge of the crater, past the steam vent, and onto that number that held me for nine years: 14,410 feet (in the October edition of National Geographic I now find that the elevation is actually 14, 411.1 feet – oh well). At the summit Dave threw up, kind of poetic justice for his exertion. We walked around the crater then down across the crater back to the false summit, where we stopped for a short rest. I felt a bit nauseous but overcame it by pressure breathing. We then started down. Dave threw up one more time but made it down no problem – a strong person.
The descent was in some ways more harrowing than the ascent. Sheer giddiness came over me several times looking down on Little Tahoma, further down to Glacier Basin, where we’d been only days before (light years away), below us to Gibraltar Rock, Camp Muir, and galaxies away, Paradise. We stopped often on the way down, but Mick didn’t mind, in fact, he seemed amused by our water breaks, our putting on or taking off clothes, adjusting crampons, anything to relish the view, or more to the point, a stationary platform, if only for a moment. Mick may have been somewhat at a disadvantage as well – one of his crampons broke and he had to rely on one foot for the descent. The guy was incredible – we still went down at a fast pace.
As we descended past Disappointment Cleaver I was stunned at the ascent we had made in the moonlight and the glaciers around us, seracs and twisted crevasses contorted into natural sculptures like Michelangelo’s prisoners wrenching out of the stone to be free. And the sheer pitch!
As we were coming around and down Disappointment Cleaver, we stopped as Mick pointed out the Ingraham Glacier. I took a picture and we went on. Seconds later Scott and Dave cried out, “Rock!” I looked up. Straight above me two boulders had broken loose from the cliff above and were coming down fast. Slow motion – a squared off boulder on my left twisting and revolving upon itself as it bounced down the snow; on the right, a round boulder picking up steam fast and showering snow. Being roped up, I couldn’t move far in either direction without pulling Dave or Scott into the oncoming path of either boulder. Besides, the boulders – each about the size of a cabinet speaker – were coming too quickly, only thirty feet above. So I gauged the direction of the boulders. I remember the two large boulders coming for me in that strangeness of time expanding; there wasn’t much room to move forward or backward without pulling Dave or Scott into the oncoming boulders, or much slack in the rope to do other than scrunch down and hope for the best. I moved backward a couple paces so they would pass by my, one on each side. Amazed, they did just that, missing me by a few feet on either side. Snow showered my sunglasses as they tumbled past and one of the boulders glanced over the rope, stretching and plucking it for an instant. Dave and Scott shouted Yes! We looked at each other with surprise and relief.
Then they were gone over the edge of the trail and down the cliff below and into the crevasses. Mick said quietly, “You would have been gone if you’d been hit.” The sheer impact of any of those two boulders would have killed me, let alone bowling me over the cliff. Thank you Jesus, thank you Lord. We were safe. Then Mick said, “Let’s get out of here.” It was dangerous to be descending so close to the rocks with the sun loosening the ice, the cement that held the rock and snow together. Mick thought it was dangerous for any party of climbers to be on the slopes then.
We returned to Camp Muir at 9:45 am; five hours up, a little over three hours down. It was a very quick ascent, even with everything going for us – an experienced guide, perfect weather, and no physical mishaps. The gods smiled us on that day.
After a short rest we packed the gear and the tents we had left behind at Muir for the climb. It was a difficult descent to Paradise. I was overdressed, and as a consequence, started to overheat. I was also very thirsty, and aside from one packet of oatmeal, some gorp, and a breakfast bar, had not eaten anything substantial. Yet after pounding down at midday in wet snow, sweating with zinc oxide over a week-old beard, I felt a strange sense of exhilaration and exhaustion passing the day hikers, as if I could take anything.
We finally hit the Skyline trail. My body clock was out of whack; it was 1:00 pm and it had seemed like 6:00 pm for the past six hours. Pounding my feet into oblivion on the asphalt paved trails, my head started to roll thinking only of water and rest out of the noonday sun. But it was nothing! We had climbed the Mountain! In fact, on July 22, 1989, we were the first ones up and the first ones down. My greatest disappointment was not sharing the joy with Ken, the person who is a great hiking companion and friend, and who in large measure made the climb possible. So this climb, this success, is dedicated to Ken.
Later that evening I feel the sore muscles and blisters and simple fatigue and welcome all of it. I am alive, and that is good. I feel the wondrous pleasure of having achieved a goal, one that can be shared and cherished. In all of life’s vagueries and confusion, the Mountain calls me to a stark and clear and honest reality – and that is good.
On Sunday evening we were joined by Dave’s mom Maita, and two other people, Susan and Gloria, who work with Ken in Spokane. Out of their car came the food: 10 cooked chickens, baked beans, potato salad, and on and on. On Monday we awoke to clear sky and alive forest green, and went for a long walk to Silver Fall, the Grove of the Patriarchs, and back to the campground.
On the way back I felt the exertion after effects of the summit climb; sore muscles, blisters, and a light-headed feeling that washed over me in waves of recollection and immediate perceptions. After the walk we drove to Paradise. While the others wandered, I took a shower from a coin operated machine (five minutes for a quarter). This removed any and all the energy left in me, topped with a gin and tonic in the bar at Paradise Lodge.
Afterwards we drove to the Wild Berry in Ashford, just outside of the Longmire/Nisqually entrance. Wonderful dinner to top the day. Lise’s lasagna and blueberry bombardiers beat oatmeal with gorp hands down anytime. We headed back to camp. The truck gas tank was riding on empty and we were 30 miles from Ohanapecosh. We drove to Elbe but the station was closed. Ken, Maita, Susan and Gloria were following in the Prelude. Scott and Dave were with me. If we ran out of gas we could always go back for the truck in the morning, although thinking about it now, it would would have been a real feat to get seven people in Ken’s Prelude. So we drove on. Ken thought the gate to Ohanapecosh closed at 11:00; it was 11 by that time anyway so we were in no hurry to get back and walk the last half mile from the gate to the campsite.
It was a clear, starlit evening, full of shooters and satellites. We pulled over at Reflection Lakes for pictures, and saw lights go on and off at Muir – I felt a wry sense of satisfaction watching comfortably below. We returned to camp at 1:30 (the gate was open after all), and stayed up until 3:00 am, talking around the fire, joking, laughing, enjoying each other’s company.