Climbing the Volcano

Mount Rainier rises 14,410 feet above the landscape two hours to the southeast of Seattle. It towers above its surroundings, dwarfing the smaller peaks of the nearby Tatoosh Range and creating its own weather systems.

Unlike heat or cold or wind or fatigue, which had all made themselves unpleasantly known in raw physical ways, gravity was more insidious, creeping inside my bones, my brain and deep in my belly. Though I couldn’t see the 45-degree drop over my left shoulder in the predawn blackness, it was as real as a person whispering in my ear as I picked my way through the mixed rock and ice of the Disappointment Cleaver. I could hear the forced exhales of my rope mates, pressure breathing above me, crampons scraping on bare rock with a metallic clink and the wind whistling past my hood. The sounds were sharp, somehow accented by my heightened senses and perhaps by the thinner air, yet above it all was my own voice inside my head saying “don’t slip, don’t fall”. I craned my neck up until my helmet knocked against the top of my pack. A string of headlamps stretched far above me like Christmas lights. We had a very long way to go and it was impossibly steep. It was dizzying. I looked down, deciding to focus on the quarter-inch rope and each step in front of me.

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Mount Rainier rises 14,410 feet above the landscape two hours to the southeast of Seattle. It towers above its surroundings, dwarfing the smaller peaks of the nearby Tatoosh Range and creating its own weather systems. It is the largest and most heavily glaciated peak in the lower 48 states. From the city on clear days, it is a beacon, almost a benevolent presence. Yet Rainier is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the Western Hemisphere. Should it ever erupt again, the resulting mudslides and ash would threaten not only Seattle but much of Washington state and beyond.

For climbers, Rainier presents a tantalizing challenge given its accessibility to a major urban center and the established routes that zigzag up its flanks. Its topography and numerous glaciers and crevasses make it an excellent training ground for bigger climbs in the Alps and Himalayas. Only about half those who attempt to summit it succeed each year, the other half turned away by weather, unstable conditions or fatigue. It was also the scene of one of the worst mountaineering accidents in North American climbing history when an ice fall killed 11 climbers in 1981.

After years spent diving the warm waters of the Caribbean on vacations, I was feeling the Alpine itch again. Creeping along into my forties, I felt I was growing too soft and the mountains were calling. A decade earlier, I had bagged a couple of 14ers in Colorado, but never attempted a true technical climb on a big glaciated peak. So I signed up for a summit climb with Rainier Mountaineering Inc., out of Ashford, Washington. I had read that climbing Rainier was doable for anyone with minimal mountain experience and good fitness. In retrospect, this seemed like an understatement.

To my left, the peaks of the surrounding mountains were coming alive in false warmth of the sunrise; to my right, the forbidding blue crevasse.

The welcome packet from RMI said to, “arrive in the best shape of your life”. No problem. I’m an avid Nordic skier, swimmer and cyclist, so I figured only the altitude would be a factor. Still, my previous mountain experience had proven I could handle thinner air so I just built in some longer weekend hikes with my mountaineering boots and a 35-pound backpack. I arrived in Ashford feeling fit and ready to climb, but was intimidated upon learning that the team with which I was included had been training by hiking halfway up Rainier to the high camp, a five-hour, 5,000-foot nontechnical ascent. Minnesota lacks anything resembling mountains; my vertical training had consisted of hiking up and down some paltry urban ski slopes. The first seeds of doubt were sown.

Our guide for the climb was Brent Okita, who, if he weren’t so humble, might go by the nickname “Mr. Rainier”. Brent has been a mountain guide for 27 years and has somewhere north of 450 Rainier summits under his harness. Built compactly, he oozed a quiet confidence and moved on steep ground as effortlessly as an ibex. I doubt there is anyone more qualified to lead climbers up that mountain than him. We were in good hands for the next few days.

The first day on the mountain, spent in a steady drizzle on a steep slope above Paradise Lodge, 5,400 feet up the mountain, consisted of a mountaineering skills seminar, in which we learned the finer points of crampons, avalanche transceivers, roped travel and self arrest using an ice axe. Rope travel is tricky. Tethered together with a team of two or three other climbers, pace is crucial to avoid the accordion effect or entangling cramponed boots in a drooping rope. We zigzagged up and down the hillside, stepping over the rope and switching axe hands, all the while staying vigilant for Brent’s surprise call of “Falling!”, immediately after which our axes were called into action.

The ice axe would be our most indispensable tool on the coming climb, and it was crucial that we learned how to carry it, climb with it and, most importantly, use it to arrest a fall on the snowy steeps. The trick is to bring the axe up and across the body, quickly driving the business end of it into the snow and levering up the shaft, all the while keeping the adze from getting anywhere near your face. We practiced climbing up the slope over and over again, then sliding down in every conceivable body orientation — face up or down with head uphill, feet first, and, the most disconcerting, face down with head downhill. Though I mastered the basic techniques, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have the wherewithal to perform the maneuvers on a 1,000 skid towards the maw of a crevasse. I tried to put this out of my mind.

Back down at base camp in Ashford, I must have sorted gear four times before I was satisfied I had all I needed for the climb. Because we would spend the first night in a hut at the high camp, there was no need to pack along a tent, and hot water would be provided as well, so no cook kit was required. Clothing took up the bulk of the space in my pack: layers for every conceivable weather scenario, from a thin hiking shirt to an 850-fill goose down hooded parka. Crampons, helmet and axe would stay lashed to the outside for day one’s nontechnical ascent to camp. After going through the checklist one more time, I slept one last night in a bed, though sleep came reluctantly, peppered with dreams of falling.

Early Friday morning we stepped off the bus at Paradise in a drizzle, surrounded by lodge guests hurrying across the parking lot with their lattes as we turned for the mountain. There was a nervous energy in the group, brittle laughter coming a little too quickly at uneasy jokes. We had 5,000 feet of vertical to tackle, and though the climbing would be nontechnical, it would be grueling. If my fitness wasn’t up to this day’s challenge, hopes were dim for summit day.

Our goal was Camp Muir, an outcrop of crude huts at 10,100 feet. I expected a steady grade and was quickly surprised at how steep the trail was. Mid-June is still early season on Rainier, and the route was snow-covered the entire way. We ascended through the cloud layer above 7,000 feet and were soon shedding layers and enjoying bluebird skies and spectacular views of the summit above, its crown of clouds whisking askew like a bad hair day.

We took breaks every hour or so, which was about the time it took us to ascend another 1,000 feet. The sun was scorching in the thinner air, reflecting off the snow with ferocity. Brent told us at every stop to “take care of yourself first”, meaning slather on more sunscreen, get some food and water in and sit down as quickly as possible to rest our legs. My pack and pockets were filled with a variety of fuel — trail mix, hard candy, Gu packs, energy bars and sandwiches — but altitude can sap your appetite. I found myself forcing down the dry sandwich which had been smashed in my pack. Small birds and marmots eyed my crumbs from a close distance, waiting to pounce after we’d moved on.

The clouds were thin and far below and the moon illuminated the far-off peaks of Mount Adams and the Tatoosh Range. I stood there in my underwear, shivering, and smiled. No one will ever understand the magic of that moment unless they’ve been up there.

By 3 p.m., Camp Muir came into view, a welcome sight for blistered feet and screaming thighs. It wasn’t much — but it was shelter and an end to the day’s exertions. Built by RMI years ago, the camp consists of a simple plywood hut stuffed with triple-decker bunk beds that can sleep 18. The guides have their own (slightly more civilized) hut nearby, and a pair of crude and very malodorous outhouses cling to the edge of an outcrop nearby. Since our water at camp came entirely from melted snow, we were strongly advised to only pee in the outhouse. Similarly, more solid excretions were better dealt with here, lest you find yourself squatting on a steep slab of exposed ice the next day, observed by your roped teammates, and then carrying your output in a blue plastic bag to the summit and back. I carefully paid heed to these warnings.

This was no campfire and Kumbaya camping trip. Once gear was sorted, sleeping bags rolled out and a freeze-dried dinner consumed, we all turned in at 6:30 for some sleep. Tomorrow would come early — 1 a.m. early — so some shuteye was recommended. Easier said than done. Lying in close quarters with 17 other flatulent, snoring climbers does not exactly inspire slumber, nor do jitters at the prospect of climbing a further 4,000 feet in the dark. I laid in the half-light of the summer solstice night, listening to the wind outside and the tossing and turning of my fellow climbers. Diligent in my hydration, I found that I had to pee every hour, a process that required climbing down from the top bunk in long johns, a headlamp and mountaineering boots and tiptoeing to the latrine.

My final pee break was at 11 p.m., and the last sunlight of that longest day was finally gone, replaced by a brilliant full moon. The clouds were thin and far below and the moon illuminated the far-off peaks of Mount Adams and the Tatoosh Range. I stood there in my underwear, shivering, and smiled. I stayed a long time despite the cold. This is why we climb mountains, I thought. No one will ever understand the magic of that moment unless they’ve been up there. I reluctantly went back into the hut and managed to catch an hour of sleep.

At 12:30 a.m. Brent arrived with flasks of hot water and a cheerful grin. “Guys, it’s as good as it gets on Mount Rainier this morning”, he said. We had an hour to eat, pack and get our packs and crampons on. The hut sprang to life. I choked down my oatmeal and a cup of instant coffee and slapped some moleskin pads on my raw heels before lacing up my boots. Outside, it was cool and windless, perfect for an alpine start. Starting this early — in order to get to the summit before the warmth of the day rose and made snow conditions dangerous — meant most of the climb would be done by headlamp. Brent checked the knots in our rope and we set off from Camp Muir, past the tents of other climbers who were just stirring, and headed out across the Ingraham Flats.

The rope grew taut. I hustled on, the summit within reach now.

The most common route up Mount Rainier takes climbers across a snowfield above the Ingraham Glacier, passing unnervingly below an icefall made up of tilting slabs the size of ten-story buildings. This was the scene in 1981 of the accident that swept eleven climbers to their deaths, and to this day, guides hustle their teams past the spot. From there, we ascended up through a notch in the rock and climbed above the trickiest, steepest part of the route, the Disappointment Cleaver. While crampons are great on frozen snow, on rock, they do not inspire confidence, as the sharp points scrabble for purchase and send mini-rockfalls of gravel down the slope. Negotiated in the small cone of light from a headlamp in swirling spindrift, it made for a harrowing passage; I was glad to reach our rest stop at 12,700 feet. Despite starting the climb in a mere wool base layer, I was quick to pull on my big parka here, and before we set off, I layered up with fleece and a softshell jacket, cinching the hood over my helmet.

The rest of the way to the summit was more straightforward but no less difficult. Switchbacks took some of the bite out of the steepness, but it was slow going, and with a third less oxygen in the air than at sea level, every step was an effort. I remembered that packet’s advice, “arrive in the best shape of your life”, and wondered if I could have trained a little bit harder. I suspect no one ever complained of training too hard for Rainier.

One more break came at 13,500 feet. It was only 5 a.m., but the first light of dawn was breaking in the east and I was able to finally switch off my headlamp. The summit ridge was just above us but was still like looking up the side of a building. It was now bitterly cold; even removing my glove to tear open a gel package caused my fingers to burn. We moved on, at one point passing across a narrow ridge of snow as wide as a city sidewalk, with steep drop-offs into crevasses on either side. A brow of overhanging ice and snow shone a deep blue in the morning glow. This was the most beautiful place in the world at that one moment, and I wanted to linger here. To my left, the peaks of the surrounding mountains were coming alive in false warmth of the sunrise; to my right, the forbidding blue crevasse. I paused. The rope grew taut. I hustled on, the summit within reach now.

Seemingly straight up we went. I was acutely aware of why this is called mountain climbing. We weren’t hiking. We were clawing our way up the side of this immense volcano, always with three points of contact — two feet and an axe. With the light of day upon us, I was able to see where we had come from, an awesome and terrifying sight: sheer drops down thousands of feet to the glaciers below. I recalled our self arrest training from two days before and had my doubts that I could really stop myself from skidding off the edge of the earth here if my trembling legs gave way. The way down would be worse than the way up — I knew that now — but I quickly refocused on the summit just ahead.

And then we were there, on top of Mount Rainier. Being a volcano meant a crater, and so we crested the ridge and dropped into the inside, now a vast moonscape of crusty, wind-whipped snow. It was anticlimactic, not the pointy peak of storybook mountains where one plants a flag. But a sense of relief flooded over me as I collapsed on my pack and huddled in my parka, my only thought to get warm as quickly as possible. While others hiked around the crater, I stayed put, choking down the turkey sandwich I hauled all that way, a rather inglorious celebration. I managed to fire off some ceremonial glory shots with my iPhone and pocket camera and then it was time to go. The rising sun was already throwing its heat and the snow was getting soft. We had 9,000 feet to descend before we could say we had truly summited Rainier — mountain climbing being a round-trip experience. The group clipped in and stepped over the crater rim, aiming for the world below.

The way down was a beautiful and terrifying mix of stumbling, sliding, and spectacular views. We passed rope teams still headed up in the snow, which was getting slushier by the minute. By the time we got to the Disappointment Cleaver, I was bordering on out of control. My thighs were aching and gelatinous, barely allowing me to hold my weight, and I teetered from one leg to the other, using my ice axe as a cane. Brent was at the front of the group kicking switchbacks into the slush, never missing a step. By the time we got to the icefall, I was sweating profusely and had stripped down to a thin base layer. The sun was brilliant and the ice fall looked ominous in the heat, tilting over us, the sound of rushing meltwater all around. We moved quickly and quietly past this last obstacle and triumphantly made our way into Camp Muir, sun-baked and tired but halfway home and past the worst of it.

After an hour’s rest, some food and a contraband prescription pain pill, I shouldered my pack for the slog down to Paradise, 5,000 feet below. We covered the descent in two hours, in a drunken mix of boot skiing, glissading and stumbling. Back at Paradise it was a brilliant Saturday, tourists out in droves, slipping and sliding up on the snow in their sneakers, throwing snowballs and snapping photos. Our ragged group boarded the bus for the trip back to Ashford, all smiles and stories. Brent slipped out of his boots and into a pair of worn flip-flops and fell asleep in the front seat. He would be doing this climb again next week.

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My ice axe now hangs on the wall of my office in Minneapolis, the altitude and date of the Rainier climb written on its shaft as a reminder. When I got home, I swore I was done with mountains for a while. A dive trip on the horizon looked like just the weightless antidote for sore shoulders and knees. But despite the pain, the fear and the effort of climbing, mountains change a person in ways those who don’t climb will never understand. I’ve already started looking for the next peak to climb, maybe next summer. Perhaps the Grand Teton. Or Denali. Whichever one it is, I’ll be sure to arrive in the best shape of my life.

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