——————————When you dance with the mountain, the mountain always leads——————————
On May 1-4, 2021, I participated in a 3.5-day climb of Mount Rainier with IMG (International Mountain Guides). At 14,410 feet, Mount Rainier is the tallest volcano in the Cascade Mountain Range and the most glaciated peak in the continental US. Each year, thousands of people attempt to reach the top of Mount Rainier facing a challenging vertical elevation gain of 9,000 feet over a distance of more than 8 miles. Less than half succeed. Having climbed Kilimanjaro, I was pretty sure I had the mental fortitude and physical strength to do this.
The climb was scheduled for 2020 and got postponed due to COVID. In the few months leading up to the climb, two spots opened up and my friends – who had successfully scaled Mount Shasta – were able to sign up. It was my first mountaineering experience and I was thrilled to have them with me. We flew to Seattle then drove to the IMG Headquarters in Ashford for our pre-climb orientation.
Our crew was the first team (8 climbers and 4 guides) of the climbing season. During orientation, we did a full gear check and reviewed the importance of layering systems – there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing – and eating well on the mountain. The guide service provided high-quality mountaineering tents (already set up for us at each camp), hot drinks, and group climbing gear. We were responsible for bringing our own food (2 calorically dense meals and 7-8 snacks per day). As we rented all the items we needed, our lead guide informed us that the weather would be deteriorating on Day 2. He was “cautiously optimistic” and said we would climb until we could no longer continue.
We started Day 1 in the Paradise parking lot at 5,400 feet. We were prepared to deal with the forecasted weather and set out to ascend via the DC (Disappointment Cleaver) route. We moved up the lower snowfields and reached the respite of Camp Muir at 10,080 feet 6 hours later. Camp Muir once known as “Camp Cloud” is the highest point you can go on the mountain without a climbing permit and the most-used base camp for summit expeditions. While the snow ascent to Camp Muir wasn’t technically challenging, it was a strenuous trek considering I was carrying a backpack a third of my weight! I had packed a lot of food (that would have probably lasted me a week at sea level) and snacked at every opportunity I had. Nothing was more appetizing than that leftover pizza though! We spent the rest of the day relaxing and staying well-fed and hydrated. We enjoyed a serene evening with beautiful views of Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Hood glistening through the clouds.
The first half of Day 2 was dedicated to the training necessary to climb the crevassed glaciated terrain above Camp Muir. We discussed efficient mountain travel (rest-stepping and pressure breathing) and trained in cramponing, rope travel, and ice axe technique. I also learned that mountaineering is a team sport and we needed to communicate well to keep each other safe, e.g., by shouting “anchoring” or “falling”. As we practiced techniques of self and team arrest, I couldn’t help but imagine the various ways I could fall and die. I don’t remember the last time fear caused me to cry.
Following the training, we wore our ropes, harnesses, helmets, crampons, and avalanche beacons. We left camp and ascended the upper mountain in a rising traverse across the Cowlitz Glacier. We short-roped as we climbed Cathedral Gap, a dangerous area exposed to rockfall, to avoid dislodging rocks and endangering other climbers. Once on the other side of Cathedral Gap, we followed a ridge leading to Ingraham Glacier. We reached Ingraham Flats, our second overnight spot located in a spectacular setting at 11,000 feet, at the base of the Disappointment Cleaver. What a relief! I was completely out of my comfort zone yet felt more confident climbing on technical terrain than I did 2 hours earlier.
It started snowing as soon as we arrived to camp. With a big day ahead, we ate dinner early and nestled as best as we could into our tents. Our lead guide informed us that he’ll wake us up sometime between 12 and 2am depending on the storm. I was excited to re-organize my backpack and get rid of the weight for summit day. I emptied my pack only to find out that my sleeping bag and liner were soaked from a partially open water bottle. Not the kinda thing you want to have happen when you’re trying to survive in subzero temperature! Thankfully, the guides gave me their emergency sleeping bag which kept me warm that night. Alas, the winds picked up considerably, it snowed heavily, and our tents were shaking from 4 to 9pm, which made it difficult to get any sleep.
On summit day, we geared up for our ascent, roped up in 3 teams (2 climbers decided to stay at high camp) and moved up Ingraham Glacier, our route illuminated by headlamps. We traveled steadily toward the summit under a star-filled sky. Up from the Flats, the route is significantly steeper and more difficult. I focused on maintaining my breathing rhythm and let it control my pace (thanks to my yoga practice). We crossed a crevasse ladder and some tricky sections by clipping our ropes to fixed lines for extra security. This was the most extreme challenge I’ve ever undertaken. It’s impossible to describe how tough, nerve-wracking, exhilarating, addictive, and surreal it felt all at once, especially walking so close to the edge of those crevasses.
At 12,000 feet, we entered a high-hazard area known as the Icebox with rock debris and massive seracs prone to collapse (the Icebox is the location of the single worst mountaineering accident in North American history when 11 people were swept to their death in 1981). Shortly after passing this section, we stopped for a break at the top of the cleaver (12,300 feet). We had been pushing for 90 minutes straight. Our lead guide asked us for an honest self-evaluation necessary for a safe ascent. I had regained my energy and committed to the two remaining 90-minute segments when he announced that we had to turn back due to suspected avalanche hazard.
Although we didn’t lay eyes on the crater rim of Mount Rainier, we were at the highest point in Washington State that morning. Descending Ingraham Glacier at sunrise was by far the most awe-inspiring part of the trip. The view of Little Tahoma Peak and the majestic alpine environment bathed in warm light could hardly be surpassed in sublimity and grandeur. I was totally mesmerized that my buddy had to remind me – twice – not to leave dangerous amounts of slack in the rope. We rested at Ingraham Flats, packed up, and continued our swift descent to Camp Muir. From there, we plunge-stepped our way down and had fun glissading some sections of the Muir snowfield, making it back to Paradise in just over two hours.
So that was my introduction to mountaineering. What a heck of an adventure! The disappointment of not reaching the pinnacle of the mountain was quickly replaced by sheer joy and gratitude. It’s the journey that matters, not the destination. I learned new skills for tackling big glaciated mountains, became an expert at using blue bags, shared unforgettable moments with my friends, and got to test my courage and stamina to the greatest extent possible. As Honey Badger would say: Conservative decisions in high risk terrain rarely cause regret. The summit isn’t going anywhere; “next time” is always an option.