Mt. Rainier 2012 Summit Report
Washington State US
14,411 feet 4392 meters
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Alan Arnette is an Alzheimer's advocate for individuals, their families and anyone impacted by this disease through his professional speaking, climbing and website.

His objectives for the Memories are Everything® climbs are:
  • Educate the public, especially youth, on the early warning signs and how to prepare
  • Increase awareness that Alzheimer's Disease has no cure
  • Raise research money for Alzheimer's non-profits
He has completed two major projects:
Donate to Alzheimer's • NO CURE, always Fatal
• No easy, inexpensive method of early detection
• 3rd leading cause of death in the US
• New case every 68 seconds, 4 seconds worldwide
• Impacts more than 5+m in US, 25m+ worldwide
• Devastating financial burden on families
• Depression higher for caregivers
• Issues are increasing rapidly as population ages

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My July 2012 climb of Mt. Rainier was a unique and complex climb that represented the best of the human spirit and a mountaineer's courage. I know - that is quite the setup.

Rainier, located in Washington State just outside of Seattle, is a jewel for US mountaineering. It has more glaciers, around 26, than any other US peak and one of the largest vertical gains on earth rising from near sea level to 14,411 feet.

A volcano, over 10,000 people attempt it each year with about half reaching the summit. Poor weather is usually the reason for stopping a climb. By my experience, many US guides started their careers guiding on Rainier and some continue well after moving up to the big Himalayan peaks.

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A History with Rainier

I had climbed Rainier in 2004 via the Disappointment Cleaver route with eight friends. We all reached the summit and it was a milestone in my climbing progression that I always look back on for inspiration and motivation. So when my climbing buddy, Jim Davidson, asked if I was interested in returning to attempt the other side of the mountain, the Emmons-Winthrop route, I was in - but not for pure climbing reasons.

click to enlargeJim had climbed the very difficult Liberty Ridge route in 1992 with his close partner, Mike Price. As told in his book, The Ledge, Jim came home but Mike did not. They both fell into a crevasse on the Emmons Glacier. Now, 20 years later, Jim wanted to return to the route with a group of close friends.

Glaciers and Crevasses

Glaciers and crevasses are not part of most people's daily conversation. But if you climb, especially high alpine climbs, they become part of your life. Glaciers eat climbers, they lie in wait disguised under fresh, soft snow waiting for that innocent step. Without warning, the deadly snow bridge collapses and the climber falls.

My first encounter with a crevasse was in 2002 in the Western Cwm on Everest. I fell into a very deep crevasse just outside of Camp 1 when a snow bridge collapsed under my feet. I was roped up between two teammates and without that safety line, I would not have survived. When I got out, I sat on my pack and heaved with tears, fear and emotion. It was all I could do to continue my climb after coming so close to death.

Each year, climbers fall into, or are swept into these deep gaps in the moving ice - some survive, many do not. Earlier this year, 2012, four Japanese climbers on Mt. McKinley died after an avalanche swept then into a crevasse. Earlier in 2012, a friend of mine climbing the same route we planned on Rainier, the Emmons Glacier, suffered serious injuries when they fell into a crevasse. A Park Ranger, Nick Hall, was killed by a fall during the rescue effort.

With Mike and Jim, they were doing everything right but on an unseasonably warm late June day in 1992, Jim slipped in, and then Mike. They didn't do anything wrong, it just happened. Once you fall in, hopefully your teammates can pull you out, that is why you carry rope, slings, pulleys and other devices to aid in an extraction. With Mike and Jim, Mike died leaving Jim alone 80 feet deep with only a few climbing tools. His solo climb out with minimal gear was be termed impossible by almost every expert then and would be now.

The Teamclick to enlarge

Rodney Ley and Jim had climbed together for years, leading international expeditions to Alaska, Nepal and South America for students of Colorado State University. Jim had also summited Cho Oyu, 26,907 feet, a few years ago and was an accomplished alpinist, rock and ice climber, as was Rodney. Rodney had also known Mike well.

Stan Hoffman and Scott Yetman lived in the Seattle area and regularly climbed in the Cascades going for week long outings annually for over a decade. They had climbed Rainier over five times between them.

Even with all my experience of over 30 serious climbs, Everest and the 7 Summits; deep down I felt nervous climbing with this team as they epitomized skill, and wisdom plus had a long history climbing together. Also, I had just turned 56 a few days earlier and the thought of carrying a 60 pound pack up 10,000 feet was daunting.


The Plan

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I was honored to fly out of Denver with Jim and Rodney. In Seattle we met up with Scott and Stan. Our plan was to drive to the White River Ranger Station, hike to the InterGlacier and then on to Camp Schurman. From there we would climb the Emmons Glacier passing the spot where Jim and Mike fell into a hidden crevasse and continue to the summit.

We were in no hurry and had an extra weather day built into a four day schedule. This was designed to be an experience, not a race. We wanted to move safely, and purposefully, with no need or desire to brag about times or records. I knew going in this would be a climb of a lifetime with such experienced teammates and such a meaningful purpose.

The Lower Mountain

On July 29, we checked in at the Ranger Station at 4,300’ and secured an intermediate camp site at the lower Glacier Basin Campground at 6,300’. This allowed us to hike only about 3.5 miles before camping for the night - a welcome break given we were carrying heavy packs.

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The trail was magnificent winding through the dense pacific northwest pine forest. The weather had turned perfectly clear after several weeks of rain, snow and high winds. Seattle had been experiencing one of it’s coldest summers.

We found an open campsite and set up two tents, cooked dinner, swatted hundreds of pesky mosquitoes and went to bed. The following morning we packed up and continued to the terminal of the InterGlacier, the first of three glaciers we expected to cross. The route started with a low to moderate angle (15-30 degrees) snow climb from 7,000’ to the top at 9,400’. We did not rope up during this section. At this point we reached Camp Curtis which is actually just a patch of loose gravel on the ridge line. But it offered the first full view of the Emmons and Winthrop Glaciers and the famous rock tower aptly named Little Tahoma.

A New Route

For the first time in 20 years, Jim was able to see the exact position of the fall. I stood by quietly as Jim examined the route, describe the precise spot and brought us all into his living memory. I continue to be inspired by the strength and courage of this man. My sincere hope is that Jim will tell his story of his return in detail on day with another book or as part of a movie.

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We descended a short rocky scree section to the edge of the Emmons Glacier where we roped up and made the climb back up to Camp Schurman at 9,460’. For the first time we started to experience the crevasses of Rainier as we stepped over several on this short trip. But off to both sides huge, wide open gaps in the slow moving ice really caught our attention.

We had been told that the “normal” route from Camp Schurman to the summit was considered dangerous and once there we could see why. The section called the Corridor had huge ice walls looming above it and appeared ready to release at any moment. Other teams had stopped using that route deeming it simply too dangerous.

At Camp Schurman, the Rangers had a seasonal presence located in a large stone hut. They were friendly and open with information and pointed out the alternate route everyone was using following the Winthrop Glacier on a straight line to the summit. However, it did require navigating through a labyrinth of broken ice, aka the Winthrop Icefall with a few short sections of 60 degree ice. It was also advised to take pickets to provide protection for the rope team on the exposed sections. Unlike the more traveled Disappointment Cleaver, this route was not marked.


A Short Nightclick to enlarge

We set up our tents, one on snow and one on dirt, just outside the ranger’s hut, cooked dinner and went to bed around 7:00 PM. Knowing it would be a long climb to the summit, estimated between 6 and 8 hours, we wanted to reach the top around sunrise meaning a departure before midnight. Jim awoke us without alarm at 10:15 and we started our preparations.

The wind had picked up at sunrise and a steady breeze with a few attention getting gusts kept us fresh. We layered up but not too much as the air temperature was only in the 30’s at this elevation and we knew we would be moving soon generating a reasonable amount of heat. Helmets and crampons on, with the rope flaked out, we attached the “figure of eight” knots to our harnesses. Ice axes in hand, Jim led our team of five from camp at 11:30PM on Monday July 30.

Summit Push

It didn't take long to reach the Winthrop Icefall. Jim placed several pickets along the boot path and we made steady progress higher. In the glow of our headlamps the route didn't appear that bad but upon the descent we saw fresh avalanche debris to enlarge

Leaving the Icefall area, the route moved onto the higher Emmons Glacier where we began a seemingly never ending slow climb at a steady 40 degree angle. The snow was somewhat firm creating a pulsing crunch with every step sometimes masked by the wind. Scott was now in the lead setting a good pace higher.

It was a good feeling being on the rope with this team, knowing we shared a common objective and a common trust. Our pace was coordinated, steady and productive. We had all agreed that our goal was to summit and return safely within a reasonable time limit. Our collective experience would guide us through the night and over the multiple crevasses.

Around 2:30AM, Rodney was in the lead when he called out “Stop.” The rope came to a halt. I could see his headlamp bobbing ahead as he started to inspect a crevasse crossing. It was not clear if it was a simple step across, a quick leap or something with soft edges - a waiting trap door. The rangers had warned us of a tricky crossing at some point with the advice to cross low. But this advice was a bit difficult to interpret in the dark with the wind blowing on a steep snow slope.

Rodney placed a picket and called for the rope to be pulled taught but to feed enough slack as he made his move. We all positioned ourselves to protect our lead. In one move he made the crossing, placed another picket for more protection and soon we followed. I remember this moment as an example of teamwork and trust. Climbing in a pure team form.

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Now Stan took the lead as we began to climb the upper mountain, Anxious to see what was really ahead, we welcomed the creeping sunrise, enjoying the morning alpineglow on the snow white slopes of the huge volcano. The wind picked up more.

However, it seemed as the sun rose the summit got further away. But one step at a time in steady rhythm, we made progress now following a series of switchbacks toward the skyline mirage. Finally a line of dirt, yes dirt, appeared and I knew we were approaching the edge of the summit crater. After all Rainier is a volcano with steam vents in the crater so the snow is often melted revealing a dirt rim around a snow covered crater bottom.

One by one our team of five arrived with the previous climber pulling the rope in slowly. I think we were all a bit stunned by the length of time it had taken us, our continuous climb from midnight, the lack of sleep the previous “night” and the reason we were there.

We gathered on the dirt rim and then took the final several hundred foot walk to the true summit to Columbia Crest. There pictures were taken, videos made and new and old memories sealed.

The Down Climb

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The wind had picked up considerably causing the windchill to drop into the single digits. But we were in no hurry. I took the lead as we left following the wide boot track steadily back down the Winthrop. Thankfully the mountain itself provided some relief for the wind as we descended plus the sun was now shining brightly.

Jim took over the lead as we neared the Ice Fall and after about four hours we returned to Camp Schurman.

We had a lazy afternoon catching up on food, water and sleep continuing throughout the night before roping up the last time to cross the Emmons back towards Camp Curtis. From there some of us glissaded down the 2500’ InterGlacier while others, more sensibly, plodded down. My torn up calf and arm indicted which group I was in!

Back at the ranger station they informed us we were a day late but then found it was a computer entry error! We were glad they had not sent out a search party!


As I flew back to Denver from Seattle, I looked out the window and was rewarded with another perfect view of Rainier and the face we had climbed. My eyes traced each step, the three distinct glaciers and the camps we had used. Without thought, my mind went back to the darkness of the night watching the rope snake slowly at my feet and my ice axe steadying my gate as I pushed higher.

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I thought of my friends - new and old - and the experience. While I thought of the summit, it was a fleeting thought as the large scale of what we had accomplished occupied my mind. No, Rainier is not K2 or Everest. No, we had not climbed on harsh winter conditions or even taken the most difficult route.

But that is why mountaineering is so special. Often it is not the magazine metrics that define a great climb. It is the company, the reason, the experience. And for that I am grateful.

As the sight of Mt. Rainier dimmed with the fading sun from my airplane window seat, a smile crept across my face. Yes, it was done.

Climb On!
Memories are Everything




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