Washington

Washington

On the summit

Mount Rainier, 14,410 ft

Date climbed: August 21, 2007 9:15am

By Matthew Gilbertson

Snow?! In August? Are you kidding me? I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Our spectacular view of the heavily-crevassed Emmons glacier was now suddenly obscured by white out. The cold, 40° rain had abruptly turned into heavy, wet snow as we crossed the 8,500ft contour. We were happy to see that the precipitation was now bouncing off our clothing instead of saturating it, but it was not the time for rejoicing. It was 7pm, with the sunlight fading, and we still had a couple thousand feet to ascend over rocky talus to reach a place that might be campable. We were getting worried. The date was Saturday August 18, 2007.

We had done so much work just to get us to that point, that our determination to reach the summit was unshakeable. I had arrived in Seattle Friday afternoon, and had five hours before Bilal and Eric would show up. In the meantime I walked about ten miles through Tukwila and Seattle procuring white gas, maps, pulleys, and food for the journey ahead. When Bilal and Eric got in we rented a car and finally left Seatac airport at 11:30pm. We wouldn’t think of staying at a hotel that night. Come on, we were on vacation; we could stay inside any night of the year. So, being the cheapskates that we are, we crashed in a campsite for just long enough not to have to pay. We were on our way to Rainier by 8am Saturday.

Saturday was supposed to be a sort of glacier travel practice day, where we could practice knots, z-pulleys, and self-arrest, but we decided to hike in instead. After being advised by the Paradise ranger to change our route from the Fuhrer Finger to the Emmons Glacier instead, we headed toward the Sunrise park entrance, in the northeast. Our 3hr drive quickly took us from the lush forests of Rainier National Park to the dry desert near Yakima . We were getting a taste of the varied climates of Washington .

When we arrived at the White River trailhead we spread all our gear onto the ground and made the critical decisions about what to take and what to leave behind. Our decisions turned out to be mostly good ones, except for the white gas. Our choice to go light and take only about 8oz of fuel later nearly forced us to turn around and abandon the trip. But for now, with me and Eric carrying the tents and Bilal hauling up the rope, we started the five-mile, 4500ft climb to Curtis Camp around 4pm.

The first few miles were easy to follow, but after the Glacier Basin camp the maintained trail vanished and it was up to us to find a route. We forded the White River and began our climb up a steep scree slope of volcanic pumice. Soon we reached the ridgeline and gained our first good view of the Emmons Glacier below. It was amazing. Until that point, I had thought of glaciers as relatively well behaved pieces of snow. Really big, but pretty much a nice big layer of snow with a few cracks here and there. You know, something that you could probably sled down, but you’d just have to stop every once in a while to get around a crevasse or two. But once I saw the Emmons Glacier my rosy picture of glaciers went out the window. We were looking down at the most intimidating obstacle course we could have ever imagined. Thousands of gaping crevasses spread as far as we could see. These miniature Grand Canyons of snow could swallow a whole house, let alone a person. I think that from the right vantage point you could probably look into the throat of the crevasse and see to the center of the Earth. The glacier was made even uglier by a uniform coating of black rocks and boulders, deposited by millennia of rockfalls and avalanches. Wow. We knew that our route did not meet up with the glacier until several thousand feet higher, but we hoped that we would never have to cross anything like that.

As we continued our ascent our daunting view of the Emmons Glacier was soon obscured by clouds around 7,500ft. A steady, cold rain began to fall, but we were hopeful that we would reach soon the freezing line and the saturating rain would turn into more benign snow. And what a freezing line it was. As we were poured on by the heavier and heavier rain we could actually look a couple hundred feet above us an see snow. We continued our ascent, with me in the front, followed by Eric, and then Bilal, and our shower abruptly changed from rain to snow at 8,000ft. At last.

But now things were getting tense. Bilal was feeling some effects from the altitude, and the thinner and thinner air was holding him back. We were now aiming for a closer camp than we had originally planned, and even that was looking like a stretch. The heavy, wet snow began to blow, and turned into near white out. Our topo wasn’t much good when we could only see 100ft in front of us. We relied on Eric’s fancy camera and Bilal’s GPS to estimate our altitude. But we still had a thousand feet to go.

We couldn’t stop now. Our sweat was mixing with the snow and by now our shorts, tennis shoes, and thin rain jackets were saturated. But we had to keep moving. If we stopped to change clothes we’d cool down fast and get our new clothes all wet. So we practiced two of the most critical MITOC Winter School techniques: moisture management and “wet clothes minimization” (i.e., minimize the number of wet layers). We continued along the ridge, buffeted by a strong southwest gale and stinging snowflakes. With the thick clouds we could no longer see the crevassed glacier below us. But we wouldn’t have noticed it anyhow. We were on a mission: to reach camp before dark.

And we did. The sharp, 20ft wide ridge finally leveled out a little bit, and we reached an area that looked like it had been camped at before. “Is this the campsite?” I asked. “I don’t know, but it’s where we’re gonna camp” said Eric. We hastily pitched our two summer tents and hoped that they wouldn’t be flattened by the strong winds and heavy snow that surely awaited us that night. We cooked a quick gourmet supper of pasta and dehydrated sauce under the vestibule and slathered it with about a half a pound of parmesan cheese. Mmm. The best seasoning they make.

Day 2

We had originally hoped to attempt a summit the next day, but in the backs of our minds we knew this was unreasonable. Indeed, we awoke the next morning to the same wall of white that restricted our view to a couple hundred feet. We would have to wait until the evening for our first good view of our mountain.

We were in pretty good spirits to start the day; we knew that the weather was supposed to clear in the evening, so we would have to push the summit attempt to Monday. But our first meeting with another climbing party soon began to erode our confidence. The six-person group said that they had arrived at camp last night, and had decided that they would go no farther. They had abandoned their bid for the summit based on the latest forecast: storms and clouds all day until Tuesday. They seemed to imply that we should do the same. We thought about it for a while and quickly dismissed the idea of turning back. We hadn’t even hiked on glaciers yet! We told them thank you, and then moved on towards Camp Schurman .

Camp Schurman is a precarious little outpost. It’s perched on a thin little wedge of rock slicing into the

Fresh snow on August 18

Emmons Glacier. It’s basically the last solid ground you can stand on before you step on glaciers and begin the actual climb. As we neared the camp we proceeded down the slope one by one and Eric and Bilal got the first view of Schurman. They immediately chuckled. “What is it?” I asked. I couldn’t see around the corner. “You’ll see in a second,” Bilal answered.

Is was quite a surprise. There was a tiny little ranger shack perched on the narrow, almost knife-edged ridge. It looked like the hull of a submarine had been cut into short sections, and the section nobody else wanted was helicoptered to this spot and declared the ranger’s hut. As luxurious as it was, I was satisfied with a tent.

As soon as we got to the camp to check it out, to our surprise we saw a couple other guys leaving to head up the mountain. “They’re crazy,” we said. You couldn’t see more than 200ft. We took a picture of them as they reached the edge of visibility, so we could have an idea of the route tomorrow morning in case their footprints disappeared.

An then of course it was time for the snowman. How many places in the lower 48 get four inches of snow in August? We didn’t have a choice. It was pretty much our civic duty to kids everywhere to erect a snow monument to commemorate this historic event. We also hoped that it would still be there to greet us during our hopefully triumphant return to camp the next day. Time would tell.

After setting up our little “advance base camp” at Camp Schurman (9510ft) we roped up and practiced some crevasse rescue techniques on the nearby glacier. Bilal and I successfully lowered Eric into a little mini crevasse and tried to get him out. As glacier travelers know, we had the most trouble getting him over the “lip.” There’s no good solution to that problem. Just practice practice practice.

Whew. What a long, arduous day. We hiked for one mile, climbed 800ft, and did a little glacier walking. It was now 5pm and time for some dinner, then bed soon after that. I like the mountaineer’s schedule.

We knew tomorrow would be a big day. Because the snow gets really soft under the blazing afternoon sun and the snow bridges over the crevasses weaken with the heat, the best time to cross glaciers is in the morning. So we set our alarms for 1am, hoping to leave at 2am and get back to camp by noon. As we ate dinner we caught a few quick glimpses of Rainier through the clouds, and hoped that this meant the clouds were clearing. Finally, right before we went to bed, two holes in the two cloud layers lined up and we could finally see the frosty top of the mountain. For a brief couple of minutes we stood in awe and snapped picture after picture of the glacier in front of us. Soon the clouds closed up. We hoped that we wouldn’t have to rely on our pictures the next day to find the route. We went to bed around 7pm with a feeling of excitement mixed with a little bit of nervous anticipation.

Day 3

Beep beep! Monday August 20th , 2007. Ouch. 1 am came really early. It felt like we just went to bed. But we quickly perked up and the pumping adrenaline soon erased any sleepiness. It was showtime. Our big moment had come. This was it.

My hands were already twitching with excitement as I ripped open the zipper on the rainfly to assess the weather. It revealed a cloudless sky with phenomenal visibility. You could see the distant lights of Seattle to the northwest, almost 60 miles away! Yes! Perfect weather at last! We rapidly scarfed down a quick meal of cereal and powdered milk—the perfect hiker-in-a-hurry, no-fail energy breakfast. Now it was time to rope up. Done. “Everybody doubled back and locked?” Yep. Even with a couple hours of sleep our minds were as clear as day and with a quick check of everyone’s knots we were on underway. “Let’s do it!” I yelled.

The whistle had blown and the game had started. So far it was Rainier 0 and us 0. Rainier was going to be a tough adversary, but we hoped our attack would fall on a vulnerable day. With Eric as the forward, Bilal at midfield, and me taking up the defense, we began our assault on Mount Rainier .

Even in the moonless, starlit sky we could still see the tracks of our predecessors easily with our headlamps. With Eric as lead tracker, we slowly inched our way like a caterpillar around the crevasses and up the glacier. Thankfully, this part of the Emmons Glacier was much more well behaved that the part we had seen down below. The crevasses were numerous, but not insurmountable, and smooth snow actually made up a majority of the glacier’s surface. But crevasses are crevasses. We knew not to stray too close.

Despite the need for great attention and caution when traveling over a glacier, I paused a couple of times to steal a glance up at the brilliant sky. Without the moon, you could clearly see the Milky Way stretching like a cloud across the sky. There were so many faint stars in the sky that would easily be drowned out by the slightest light pollution: The Pleiades, Andromeda Galaxy, Orion Nebula. It was actually difficult to recognize familiar constellations because there were so many other stars to confuse you. Our distance from city lights helped, and so did the altitude. The starlight had to travel through half as much air to reach us as at sea level.

But soon the spectacular light show began to fade. A strong west wind had begun to pick up the fresh snow and throw it with a stinging speed into our faces. I was quickly brought back to reality by a jerk in the rope caused by my falling behind. Now we had to concentrate. Our awesome visibility was gone and we could only see about a hundred feet. Our headlamps reflected off the snow like the high beams of a car in the fog. And now the tracks that we were following began to disappear as they were buried by the blowing snow.

Communication was getting harder in harder. Actually now the communication was only one-way. The howling wind blew from Eric to Bilal and then to me and thus the sound of everyone’s voice was thrown to my ears. At first I couldn’t understand why nobody in front could hear me. I heard Eric and Bilal deliberating on the direction of the route, but even when I voiced my opinion at the top of my lungs nobody could hear it. You see, we had to keep tension in the rope, and all three of us had to remain as collinear as possible, so I had to maintain my 50ft distance from Bilal, who had to be 50ft behind Eric. Whenever I spoke the sound was torn from my mouth and pushed uselessly down the mountain. As a result, I was pretty much in my own isolated little world. Sometimes they would be just out of sight, apparently deciding on the route but I could only move when the rope started pulling again. I got a couple nice pictures in the meantime, but I couldn’t wait for the wind to die down so we could all start talking again.

From what I later learned, Eric and Bilal were faced with some tough decisions. The tracks had totally disappeared and it was now just a matter of choosing the route that looked best. It was tough work. We came to several dead ends that ended up in sheer ice walls or gaping crevasses, and had to turn back and try another way. We traversed all around the glacier well into the morning and the frustration was building.

A little after sunrise we spotted a couple of other climbing parties way off in the distance on what we figured was the Disappointment-Cleaver (DC) route. Now, the DC route is basically a superhighway to the summit. It’s the route that all the rich people pay to have guides hold their hands all the way to the top. No thank you. I’d rather not even hike than pay a guide to lead us like a bunch of elementary students to the top of a mountain. From what we heard the DC route was marked with a bunch of wands, and had a deep trench cut in places by the hundreds of people that are led up each climbing season. You can tell, we didn’t have to much respect for the DC route. When we were in the Paradise Ranger Station, Bilal asked the ranger to suggest a good route, as long as it was “anything but DC.” It felt like more of a challenge, more thrilling to pick our own way up the glacier and not have to wait in line for other groups to get out of the way. So from our vantage point on the Emmons Glacier we looked at the DC people off in the distance, gave them a nod, and continued on our own way. We refused to let our route ever intersect with theirs.

But route after route always ended up in a dead end. We were still determined to get to the top, but we were concerned that we were seriously off the correct route. Slowly that agonizing feeling began to emerge that we had deviated from the true route early on, when it was still dark. We groaned at the prospect of having to backtrack any more thousand feet down the mountain. We stopped around 9am to assess our situation. As we munched on some “breakfast” we couldn’t help but notice the DC people marching steadily up the mountain. We gradually began to realize that this late in the game our last option might be to actually meet up with the DC route. As hard as it was to accept, we were desperate. We had to get to the top, and we were willing to swallow a little bit of pride to do it.

Even meeting up with the DC route proved much more difficult than we had expected. We backtracked a little bit, trying to find not just the best route, we were looking for any route that could bring us over to DC. After five tries or so Eric came upon a path with some promise. But it was going to be tricky. Eric and Bilal were taking a long time in front of me to get down, and I couldn’t figure out why. After ten minutes of waiting there, the rope finally tugged again and it was my turn to go. I immediately understood their trepidation. I gazed into a vast icefield full of crevasses and massive house-sized blue ice chunks. We christened it the “Khumbu Icefall place,” after the famous Everest obstacle.

Pretty soon we knew that this wasn’t going to work either. Although we could see a reasonably feasible route across, we had no sense of scale and couldn’t see how far it actually was. We also knew that if we made it across, we still had a couple thousand feet to go up to the top, then we’d have to traverse over this same route later on in the afternoon, when all the snow and ice were much weaker. Dang it. We would have to turn back again.

We made it back to a safe place and considered our options. It was getting “late” in the day (10am) and we knew that our chances for summitting were waning. The clouds were rolling in now and the entire landscape was almost a uniform white. The sky blended in with the glacier and without sunglasses you would probably be blind. In the end we decided to backtrack a little bit and give ourselves one last chance to find the true route. So we reluctantly headed down the mountain—dejected, but still holding out one small sliver of hope that we could summit.

Just out of chance Eric tried a promising-looking path to the left on our way down, and sure enough, there were footprints! And it looked like a decent path continued for quite a distance. All right! We found it! We decided to check it out. Soon we actually found a lone flag sticking up in the snow and knew for sure that we were on the money. The path to the treasures of the top lay in front of us. We were at 11,600ft, with 2,800 still left to go.

But it was not to be. I could only see about two ropelengths from my perspective in the back. We knew that with time we would be able to make it to the top, but we’d get there late in the afternoon and the way down would be sketchy at best with the melting snow and fading visibility. Plus, some of us were feeling the fatigue from the altitude. Bilal didn’t think he had enough strength to try again the next day. I wasn’t sure I’d hold up much longer. We thought about our options.

We were very concerned about the fuel. We had heard that there would probably be a trickle of water at camp, so we figured we probably wouldn’t need the extra fuel to melt snow for water; we could just treat the water we found with iodine, and the only reason for fuel would be for cooking. But alas, the trickle at camp was frozen up by the recent cold temperatures, and the only way we had to get water was to melt snow. So our fuel was running dangerously low, and we were worried that if we stayed to summit another day we might not be able to make enough water for tomorrow. We saw three options:

Option 1: Push for the top and get back to camp late.

Option 2: All turn back and go home.

Option 3: All turn back and return to Camp Schurman . Bilal heads back to the car that night. Eric and I push for the summit tomorrow and return via DC to meet Bilal who’s driven two hours to Paradise Ranger Station.

We soon chose Door #3. Everybody seemed happy. On our way down we recorded a few waypoints with the GPS and made a mental note of some of the features for mine and Eric’s trip the next day. We hoped that we could just follow our footprints in the morning, but we weren’t so sure. It was going to be a challenge, but we figured that with our experience finding the route this day, we would have impeccable routefinding in the morning.

Our little snowman was still there to greet us as we arrived back at camp. Its pleasant rocky grin now seemed to be more of a victorious smirk. It was as if the face of Mt Rainier was looking at us, smiling at our defeat today, and ready to dish out more trouble tomorrow. Maybe it was just our imagination.

We took a quick nap for a while as Bilal got ready for the trip back to the trailhead. Four factors had been beating us down the past couple of days and Bilal was starting to feel the effects: altitude sickness, sleep deprivation, dehydration due to lack of fuel to make water, and hunger because we were starting to stretch our food thin. He decided that he’d conquer Rainier some other time, and tomorrow just wasn’t the day. We said goodbye to him around 3pm, and wished him safe travels back to the White River Trailhead.

Meanwhile, I was also having some doubts about tomorrow. The altitude and sheer physical stress were catching up to me too. I laid down to rest with an upset stomach and one mean headache. Eric and I planned to wake up at 2am, and then we’d see what kind of shape I was in. If I was better then we’d start the climb.

Rainier 1, us 0.

Day 4

“Matthew, Matthew…time to wake up,” Eric said.

“Arghhh.” I nervously opened the tent door to check out the weather, and sure enough it was perfectly clear. I immediately felt 100% better. “Let’s do it!”

Sunrise on the Emmons

We could feel it. This was going to be the day. Yesterday we had tried to find our way up the mountain and lost. Today we knew our enemy. Yesterday morning we had hesitantly tip-toed onto the glacier, nervous about crevasses and what lay ahead of us. Today we were a confident two-man army. We knew what we were up against and what to look out for. Rainier was going down.

Sunrise today found us a thousand feet higher than the previous morning. The incredible undercast sky made for some of the most spectacular scenery we’ve ever seen. It was satisfying to see the low clouds rise up ridges and drift in between mountains far below us. We felt like we were in a different world up there, like an airplane above the weather. Like a satellite above the atmosphere. Today was definitely the day.

We kept climbing and the adrenaline kept pumping. We were wearing down fast, but it didn’t matter. The top was starting to come into sight and we could taste victory. We took one last look behind us at the Emmons Glacier and stepped onto the rim of the crater. We were on the summit!

On the summit

Wow. The view was absolutely incredible. With the clouds a mile below us, we really felt like we were in an airplane, flying high over southwestern Washington. We had 100 miles of visibility in every direction. Off to the south, we saw two tall peaks rising like islands out of a sea of clouds. The closest was Adams, and the farthest was Oregon ‘s Mt. Hood , both of which we would conquer over the next week. But we weren’t thinking of Hood and Adams, we were thinking of our island, our volcano, Mt. Rainier . It was almost like a different kind of Hawaii. Instead of a tropical volcano rising out of the middle of the Pacific, ours was like an icy Olympus Mons towering above the state of Washington . If it wasn’t for Mt. Whitney , we’d be the highest in the lower 48 states. All we’d need to do is throw a snowball 80 ft in the air to match California ‘s 14,494ft peak.

But the beauty wasn’t just on the horizon, it was right in front of us. From the peak we gazed down into the vast crater of Mt. Rainier . You could probably fit a couple football fields—make that a few hockey rinks—in the circular bowl of snow that made up the top. Immediately in front of us there were a few exposed areas of ground with no snow cover, and we saw the reason why: several columns of steam rose timidly out of the rocks and quickly disappeared in the wind. We had found the perfect place for our picnic.

As soon as we ducked a few feet below the peak the brisk 20 degree breeze vanished and we immediately plunged into a 70 degree oasis of warmth. The quick temperature change wasn’t from the geothermal heat, however, it was probably because the air was so thin, that the temperature could swing rapidly, depending on the wind. We collapsed with exhaustion on our pads at our little perch below the summit. We were really feeling the effects of altitude now. We had no desire to eat or drink and had to force our body to accept any nourishment. This was now day three of vicious altitude-induced cycle, and we were happy we wouldn’t have to hike another day. All we had to do was get down the mountain. 10,000 ft…but it’s all downhill—should be easy, right?

As we munched on some granola and sipped some slushwater from our vantage point we could see a few guided teams that had just made it to the top. A couple of super well-dressed, clean-cut clients trundled up to the summit to meet us. It looked like it was probably their first time walking on snow. With their fancy trekking poles, shiny new crampons and plastic boots we weren’t surprised that these were the kind of people who would shell out 800 bucks to have someone escort them to the top. I felt sorry for their guides. These kids needed a little bit of MITOC Winter School to show them the difference between ice and snow, not a guiding service. Eric and I thought back to our Winter School experience. Yeah, we were probably like those guys a couple of years ago, but with a few years of Winter School by now we knew our way around snowy mountains.

Pretty soon we had mustered enough energy for the most important picture of all. We quickly raced up to the summit, set up the camera, stripped off all our upper layers, and posed for the requisite shirts-off summit photo. Not too bad compared to Mt. Washington, we thought, the windchill here was a balmy 10 degrees. We bolted back down to our packs and spent the next half an hour warming back up to normal.

Descending the Disappointment Cleaver route into the undercast

10:30 am: Time to start heading down. The sun was absolutely baking in our sheltered oasis, and we knew it was time to head down before the snow got too slushy. We took a few last pictures from the top, and marched over the southern rim of the crater, onto the DC route. We had two vertical miles to go to get down to Paradise Ranger Station and meet Bilal, and figured it wouldn’t be too tough. Hey, maybe we’d get to do some glissading along the way and shave off some time.

We were immediately glad that we hadn’t taken the DC route up. It was just way too easy. With our route, up the Emmons Glacier, there had been a couple of footprints, and one single flag to let us know we were going the right way. In comparison, the DC route was basically a highway. There was a huge trench to follow, with flags all over the place, and even a couple fixed ropes in places that were a little sketchy. The guided teams we had seen on top were cautiously, slowly marching down and eventually let us pass.

By noon the sun was blazing down on us will full fury and we needed a break. It was like we were in a vast white desert. We searched around for any kind of shade or shelter, but all we could see was white. Each little particle of ice was like a separate tiny mirror, and together they reflected all of the sun’s rays straight at us. The icy breeze at the top had become an apparent 80 degree oven and we needed to stop for a second to cool down and reenergize. I took my shirt off for a while; maybe skin would reflect the radiation better than a red shirt.

Despite the burning heat, we somehow still couldn’t muster any thirst. The altitude was really starting to mess with us, and we knew we had to keep forcing water down to stay hydrated. While we were resting, I found a small trickle of water dripping from a nearby icicle and put a couple Nalgenes under it. 100% pure glacier melt water! People pay for this stuff back in the city. But after waiting five minutes for the trickle to fill a mere quarter of a Nalgene, I soon gave up my entrepreneurial dreams and chugged what I had.

Time to keep moving. “Argh I don’t want to get up,” I said.

“We’ve still got 6,000 ft to go,” Eric replied, “we can’t camp here.” We struggled to shoulder on our monster packs and continued the hot slushy slog down the mountain.

Pretty soon we could see a camp off in the distance, and assumed it was Camp Muir , the end of the glacier travel. Awesome. We were really looking forward to some untethered hiking action after spending two days roped up. The rope was really getting on my nerves; in order to maintain constant tension in the rope we were both constantly speeding up or slowing down. Sometimes, while I was on a smooth, flat slope, the rope would suddenly fall slack. The first few times I looked with confusion ahead of me, only to see Eric struggling up a small hill or cautiously proceeding over a crevasse. And of course, once I got to the tricky spot and had to slow down the rope would yank as Eric continued at a steady pace. Pretty soon we learned the key behind rope dynamics: communication. It was still tough, though, and we were anxious that we would finally have the chance to unhitch.

But the mountain still had one last curveball to throw at us. We rounded a corner and were suddenly faced with a 200ft uphill climb.

“Nooooooooooooo! I thought the uphill was over!” I yelled.

“Dang it!” Eric said.

After climbing 5,000 ft that morning, we couldn’t handle one last climb. It’s one thing to psyche yourself for a big climb and do it. But when you’ve already patted yourself on the back for reaching the top and you’ve settled in to a nice downhill rhythm, an unexpected hill can feel like it’s taller than Rainier itself. Plus, we were absolutely exhausted from the past few days of hiking. We were being taxed on multiple fronts:

1. The altitude was making our bodies reject food and water, and no matter how much we forced down, we were still basically relying exclusively on our reserves.
2. We had only gotten five hours of sleep last night, for less than 12 total hours for the past three days.
3. We were carrying fifty-pound overnight packs.
4. The air was probably 60% the density of sea-level air, so we basically had half the oxygen to work with.

We were running on fumes. And we still had a long way to go. We sat there in the snow, at the base of the climb, contemplating our destiny. Finally, after about half an hour our mental determination finally overcame our physical exhaustion. We took one slow step, then two, then three. We were going at 1/3 our normal pace. It was only a gradual slope, but it might as well have been vertical. At last, after draining about half our remaining energy it leveled out and we could finally breathe again.

We actually still had farther than we thought before we reached Camp Muir , but we didn’t care. It was all downhill from here. We cruised into the camp in style around 1:30pm and now we could finally cramp-off and unhitch for the first time in days.

Now it was payback time. We had climbed ten thousand feet up Mount Rainier , and already burned 4000ft of that on the descent. Now it was about to get a lot easier. We whipped out our trekking poles and summoned our balance, then began our glissade down the Muir Snowfield. The slope wasn’t really steep enough, but we were still able to get a few nice runs down the snow. We only had one mishap: Matthew slipped (on camera) near the very end and broke his perfect record.

Now it was really time to celebrate. The end of the snow! In the 90 degree heat of Maryland I had been looking forward to snow all summer. Now we were sick of it. We donned our tennis shoes with relish and started prancing down the rocks towards the trailhead.

We knew we getting close. Pretty soon we saw some little kids walking around, and few Seattle city slickers asked us how far to the snowline. Now there were actual plants. Genuine 100% real trees and weeds. Wow. It was an oddity that we had forgotten about for the last three days. Now we were snapping pictures of stuff that was green, instead of white. Before long we made it to the trailhead and staggered into the Paradise Ranger Station to meet Bilal.

It was an awesome trip. We were thrilled to make it to the top, but disappointed that Bilal couldn’t be there with us. I know he’ll conquer it someday. We knew we had caught Rainier on a good day. We had won today, but many days of the year the Mountain would be unbeatable. By waiting out the weather, we had found the perfect window of opportunity and exploited it. We were lucky.

Equipped with better knowledge of the route and the mountain itself, the next time would definitely be much easier. But that would take all the fun out of it. The whole appeal behind mountaineering is being able to step up to a mountain with limited knowledge, not fully knowing what to expect, and to take your own way up, without someone else telling you what to do. You feel a sense of pride, a sense of ownership knowing that you climbed the mountain with your own power and your own skills. You feel that the mountain’s more wild. The mountain beckons, and dares you to climb it. And that’s why we climbed it. Because it was there.

Rainier 1, us 2.

More pictures on the MITOC Gallery: http://mitoc.mit.edu/gallery/main.php?g2_itemId=103720

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