This trip report is for my climb of Mt. Rainier in the US Washington State. At 14, 409 feet, it is the highest volcano in the lower 48 states of the US and the most popular way of training for higher Himalayan peaks. I summited with friends on July 8, 2015.
I rolled over in my sleeping bag at 10:30 pm on July 7, 2015, hearing voices over the sound of the wind flapping the tent against me. It was time to climb Mt. Rainier.
My close friend Barry Johnson had set this objective a year ago and trained diligently to get prepared. Fresh off my tragic experience attempting Lhotse in Nepal only two months earlier, I had committed to climb with my friend but now had serious second thoughts about getting back onto the snow slopes. I hedged my decision for weeks. Barry waited for me to decide but had already assembled a solid team.
As the aftermath of the deadly earthquake that took almost 9,000 lives in Nepal and our team doctor at Everest Base Camp quieted, I finally made the decision I needed to climb again, not only for Barry, but for myself.
This would be my third climb of Rainier, with summits back in 2004 and 2012, so I knew to sit on the left side of the airplane as we flew from Denver to Seattle. About 30 minutes before landing, the huge volcano appeared on schedule. I’m always amazed at the sight of Mt. Rainier from the air – it is large, foreboding, snow covered and well, it demands respect that seems to be waning for all mountains across the planet.
While Barry got our rental car, I retrieved our two duffel bags. We had compared gear lists for weeks along with those of our teammates. We were determined to keep the weight down as we knew it was a short trip, but long summit day in potentially difficult snow conditions.
One of Barry’s pilot friends, Terry and his partner, Lisa met us at a tiny motel in Enumclaw that night. We had a fun dinner in town and the next morning drove to the ranger station at the White River entrance. There we met up with our fifth member, Sarah, an impressive 26 year-old who was just starting her career as a guide for RMI on Rainier.
This was not a guided climb by any means but a group of friends with a common goal.
We confirmed our permit, listened carefully as the Ranger spoke of open crevasses, climbers punching through snow bridges and soft snow conditions. Oh, and bears and foxes. We left prepared but thoughtful of what was to come. Barry was his normal self, blasting out Rush songs with no warning whatsoever.
At the parking lot for the Glacier Basin trail, we spread our gear out to look for duplication but also to make sure we had the essentials: wands, rope, harness, pickets, screws – everything needed to safely attempt this 14,409’ hill of snow.
We packed up and headed up the trail. I’m always impressed with the huge vertical trees surrounding Rainier. Each one has a story to tell, their trunks strong, seemingly impervious to the winds. The small streams cross the trail with a single minded objective of joining up with a larger flow down below. But as we made the first of several switchbacks, we were greeted with a prize: Rainier with all her glory emerged from behind the forest.
The Emmons Glacier stood out, as did the Winthrop, Liberty Cap and the summit. The crevasses were visible from here, looking like a heap of jumbled ice cubes, cracks and lines that dared the brain to make sense of them, but more to the point, dared the climber to test them.
We arrived at Glacier Basin camp in a couple of hours. We had purposely set a relaxed schedule spreading the entire climb from start to finish over four days. We were not out to prove anything with speed, times or bragging rights. Our team objective was to do our , our individual objectives varied greatly.
Lisa wanted to get to Camp Schurman to relax and reflect, but not to summit. Terry wanted to make his first summit of Rainier as did Barry – test themselves for perhaps bigger climbs one day. Sarah wanted to climb with friends, not as a junior guide under the ever-present eye of clients and senior guides.
And I wanted to reconnect with the sport I love, my passion. I wanted to hear my crampons crunch in the snow, watch the sunrise, feel the cold wind against my cheeks. I wanted to climb. And I wanted to see my friend summit and then return home to tell his family of his experience with the wide eyes of a child who just did something special.
To Camp Schurman
After an uneventful night at Glacier Basin, we packed up and made our way to the base of the Inter Glacier – the gateway for this route. Only about 25% of all climbing on Rainier is done by the Winthrop-Emmons route but it accounts for half of the deaths due to the dangerous crevasses. With this in mind we began our climb with an eye to the crevices. The ranger had told us there was one large open crevasse about half way up.
Making decent time ascending the glacier we soon crested the Inter near Camp Curtis. We took time for a long break and at a huge lunch – we were in absolutely no hurry and enjoyed the views and the company. Lisa was generous with her gouda cheese, naan bread and salami. We took full advantage of her generosity!
Soon we moved on and slipped a short distance down the scree filled dirt hillside to the Emmons Glacier. Terry flaked out the climbing rope and soon we were roped up as a five person team, Barry took the lead. I clipped in behind my friend, Sarah took the back. We came to our first snow bridge, Barry’s and Lisa’s first ever. With care, and smiles, we crossed over safely but soon found ourselves climbing beside a huge open crevasse as we got close to Camp Schurman.
I smiled inside as I heard the crunch in the snow, felt my ice axe in my left hand and the tug of the rope to my friends. My throat tightened; my eyes welled with tears.
Camp Schurman has a seasonal climbing ranger presence and serves as the primary rescue team for climbers on this side of Mt. Rainier. We set up camp and began the endless job of melting snow for water and cooking. I made multiple trips to the snow with the white garbage bag to scoop clean snow while others fired up the stoves. We sat on rocks watching the snow turn to water and began to rehydrate our food packets. Stories were told in between quiet moments where each of us reed to private thoughts and dreams.
As we struggled to get dinner down, other teams arrived; a few commercial teams plus some independents like ourselves. I looked at the guided clients with a deep admiration that they were beginning a journey of their own through learning from more experienced climbers. The guides softly talked them through the process of climbing, weather, risks and hard decisions of turning back if needed.
With the sun still above the summit, we crawled into our sleeping bags hoping for a few hours of rest before getting up at 11:00 pm for a midnight departure. I fell asleep to the sounds of stoves, chatter and an increasing wind. Without thought, a smile grew as I rolled onto my left side, feeling my toes against the nylon of my down sleeping bag, knowing only an inch of air separated me from the rocks and outside my tiny tent was 5,000 feet of glaciated steep volcano that culminated with a steam filled crater.
Climbing at Midnight
My internal alarm went off at 10:50 pm. I gave myself another minute to come alive and then started the same routine I have for over 20 years on these climbs. A couple of merino wool tops, then my down jacket, on with socks and then long underwear and my Patagonia climbing pants. I pulled on my old-school Kolfachs double plastic boots and crawled out of the tent. I sat on a smooth rock to put on my Black Diamond crampons and harness, I tugged hard on the harness knowing a fall into a crevasse would be life threatening and the harness was my lifeline.
I looked up at the mountain to see two lights bobbing in unison as one team had already gotten jump on the rest of us. They were climbing.
I walked over to the other tents and found Terry. His harness held ice screws, prussic loops, carabiners – some of the tools needed to safely climb a glacier. But the look on his face betrayed his gear. “Hey Terry, how you doin’?” I greeted him. “Not sure.” he said in his usual quiet voice. He was not feeling 100%, something inside was telling him this was not the night for him to climb.
Soon Barry then Sarah appeared. I boiled some water for hot chocolate and coffee. Other teams were now in full motion. The wind kissed my cheeks, I pulled my down hood up and over my helmet, careful to keep the headlamp clear.
A caucus began. With few words, Terry opted out. It was now a team of three to attempt the summit. Over dinner we had decided that Sarah would lead with me in the back and Barry in the “rocking chair”. I clipped the figure of eight to my locking carabiner and followed my teammates onto the snow for the Emmons Glacier. My smile gone, I was focused on the climb. I swung my headlamp right then left looking for cracks in the snow.
We had left camp at 12:30 am.
We were sandwiched between two commercial teams. Sarah set a steady pace as we reached the corridor. The snow turned to hard ice requiring our crampons to be placed with purpose in order to gain full . It seemed like we didn’t go far until a crevasse appeared. The snow bridges were narrow. Old, weak ones straddled each side revealing that this early July was more like September. The glacier was melting.
The route was marked by many boot tracks but which one to follow was dealer’s choice. Steadily we gained altitude, 10,000 then 11,000 to 12,000 as the eastern horizon began to show signs of the impending sunrise. Smoke from forest fires created a surreal vista. I was getting colder as the warmth from the prior day faded away. We stopped for a break, on with the puffy down jacket, take a drink of water, a bit of food, a picture or two then put the jacket away and return to the steady pace that got us this far.
Conversation was minimal as our safety rope kept us apart. My mind drifted to climbing on Everest, K2 and other peaks. I thought of this past Spring and all those lost. What purpose did this sport serve if it took lives with the ease of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I considered my life path, former, current and future. I was lost in my own private world.
The sun was now above the horizon. The team ahead was out of sight, the team behind was moving well. The first of multiple false summits appeared. We had no choice but to continue, focusing on the goal. We were moving well. I had full confidence we would make the summit.
Then my intestines started to gurgle. Ugh, I knew something was not right down there but this was not the time to stop. The sun was now adding warmth back to my body. We paused for a quick clothing adjustment, off with a layer.
As we crested one snow slope, the upper horizon changed from white to black – the summit crater. As we approached it the view transitioned from snow to rocks and ash, I took advantage of the moment to use the infamous blue bags supplied by the park service. Feeling better, I re-joined Barry and Sarah as Barry took the lead to the top most point on Mt. Rainier, Columbia Crest, one of three “summits” on this West Coast volcano.
We arrived in solidarity and solitude. The clouds shrouded the summit, obscuring the view but we didn’t care. Hugs all around plus a few selfies, we celebrated the summit. I was so happy for my friends, and for me.
It didn’t take long for others to join us on the top. Our solitude was replaced with bedlam as pictures, hugs, jokes and celebration took over. All well deserved.
We left the tippy top to sign the register slightly above the true crater. Steam exited the vents further hiding the view. After all, we were on a volcano! The sun broke through for a moment shining on Barry. I gave him a hug telling him how happy I was for him. He simply smiled.
We roped back up as we left the summit, Barry in the lead.
The climb to the summit had taken seven hours. The snow was soft, the snow bridges scary. I was apprehensive as we began our descent. I was in the back and in theory would stop my teammates from falling into a crevasse if it happened. My old knees were hurting; I was feeling the climb. The view was amazing with huge crevasses now in full reveal as the sun was bright. The temperature was rising, the winds were nonexistent. I was climbing. It felt good deep inside.
We navigated the crevasses we crossed in the dark. Some required a short leap of faith, others were an unceremonious butt scoot. The trash talk resumed but I was still quiet knowing that a short section ahead had taken lives before in similar conditions – warm temperatures, soft snow and hidden crevasses.
With sore knees and tired bodies, we approached hour 10 of our climb. We were tired. It was approaching noon and the sun was hot. As we approached Camp Schurman, Terry and Lisa awaited us with big waves. We got back to camp and enjoyed a warm welcome from our friends feeling like rock stars.
Climbing Over the Top
The next morning, Sarah suggested we climb down by climbing up and over the Steamboat Prow – a 600 foot rock outcropping that protects Camp Schurman. For Lisa this would be her highlight – doing some serious rock scrambling at 10,000 feet. For everyone else it was just downright fun.
Surmounting this alternative route, we arrived at the top of the Inter Glacier. We decided to glissade the entire 2,500 foot glacier! I welcomed this move as my knees were seriously aching now.
Few start from this high, and we had a ball. Screaming and laughing like kids in winter we made our way down pausing at times to make sure our path was safe from crevasses. A commercial guide stopped us halfway down to give us a stern warning that what we were doing was dangerous. In all sincerely we thanked him for his concern and continued with a new eye for caution.
Once down to the base of the Inter Glacier, we hiked back to the cars where we had a celebratory beer or three and shared our highs and lows of the climb.
For me, climbing Rainier for the third time was like my first. It is clear that my passion is climbing. But to see a close friend make his goal, is better than any of my personal goals. Rainer is such a worthy goal. And a mountain to be respected.
We saw two young climbers in camo, heading up at 10:00 am – in soft and dangerous snow conditions. Sarah gently gave them some advice as to the dangers. I told them to turn back. But they continued, summited and returned to cheers at Schurman then back to their cars because they had to work the next day. While they proved they were strong, I think they were foolhardy.
If you ever have a chance to climb Rainier by any route, guided or independent – take it. You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to travel to Nepal, Peru or even Alaska – Rainier has it all.
Memories are Everything