The mountain is 14,417 feet tall and is the largest in the state of Washington. It’s an active volcano that is expected to blow someday. Luckily, that didn’t happen from July 9-11, 2011. That would have been bad for my crew and I. Rainier actually ranks 17th on the list of the highest peaks in the U.S., though just second in the lower 48. Although between 8,000-13,000 people climb Rainier each year, it is still a dangerous mountain. Two to four people die annually trying to climb Mt. Rainier.
Two to four out of 8,000-13,000 are pretty good odds as far as stats go, but I had no interest in becoming one of those stats. Through a friend, I was introduced to OSAT, and my girlfriend and I both applied for and were accepted into their Glacier Climbing Course in January. Many of my other friends were also interested in doing this course, at least until they found out what a commitment it actually is.
Monthly seminars had to be attended, as well as courses like ice axe training, ropes and knots, crevasse rescue, etc.
RANDOM FUN FACT!: FOR THE “IN’S” AND “OUT’S,” MOST OF THE MEALS WE ATE ON MOUNTAIN CLIMBING WERE FREEZE DRIED MEALS, ALONG WITH MANY, MANY ENERGY BARS. YOU PACK VERY LITTLE WATER TO GO WITH YOU AS YOU MELT SNOW WITH JET BOILS, THEN TREAT THAT WATER WITH FILTERS. AND AS IT SAYS IN FREEDOM OF THE HILLS, IF YOU CAN’T DIG DOWN TO ABOUT 6″ UNDER NATIVE SOIL (ALMOST ALWAYS AS WE SNOW CAMP) THEN YOU HAVE TO PACK OUT YOUR…..”STUFF” IN BLUE BAGS.
You also had to participate in at least one group conditioner each month. If you missed one required class or commitment, you were out. No exceptions. The reason is that the instructors, who are all unpaid volunteers, don’t have time to go back through these classes with individuals, not to mention all of the other people on waiting lists who would like to be a part. So it’s very demanding, but rightfully so.
There were also tests to be passed. A midterm knot-tying exam, as well as a written test on the material taught in class and from our guide book,The Freedom of the Hills, had to be passed. And the conditioners were going to get more difficult. Eventually, you had to make it up Mt. Si (3,500′ in four miles as it stands about 4,167′ tall) in two and a half hours with 30lbs on your back. You also had to eventually make it up to Camp Muir (about 10,000′ tall with a 5,000′ elevation gain to get there) at Mt. Rainier in five hours or less. The course only costs about a tank of gas; however you have to provide all of your own gear, which can be VERY expensive.
This was no joy ride. It’s work.
However OSAT is not as militant as it might first sound. Sure, we hated (and often complained during car rides) how every event and field trip had to start at eight friggin’ o’clock on weekend mornings, but that’s just because we’re afternoon hikers and not morning people. Plus, this was mostly done for safety’s sake. And OSAT takes safety very seriously. Some folks had issues with having duct tape on their ice axes during training sessions. Others thought the safety measures were just overkill. But at the end of the day, people were happy to go home with all limbs and parts intact.
If you search around OSAT’s website enough, you’ll discover that fellowship is pretty important to OSAT, and life-long bonds are often formed within the group. Myself, I am often slow to warm up to people, but throughout these six months, I felt a real brotherhood from other students and instructors. We were in this together.
I could write tons about stories and experiences from the training, but it would take up too much space. Ultimately, after you graduate the course, first you do a two day climb of Mt. Baker, then you move on to climb Mt. Rainier during a three day trip.
From the beginning, I was seemingly doomed on this late-June trip. My girlfriend and I stayed up WAY too late the night before packing up our gear. Then I couldn’t just lie down and go to sleep like a switch being turned off. I got less than two hours of sleep. Then we woke up at about 3am because Google Maps told us it would take about three or more hours to get to Mt. Baker. So we wanted to be on the road by 4:30. We did and ended up getting there by 7am, a full hour early.
Next, our packs were WAY too heavy – I figure I was carrying about 53 pounds or so, and that’s before I helped grab group gear (ropes, wands, pickets, etc.) My girlfriend wasn’t far behind in weight even though I carried our tent and other items. So our hike up to basecamp (around 7,500’ or so, with a 3,000’ elevation gain, roughly) in the hot sun was brutal. It really wiped us both out.
The way a two-day climb works is that you basically go to sleep early on the first day, then get up in the middle of the night, hike all night while the snow is still frozen and safe, then hike back down to basecamp, pack up, then head home. I was completely exhausted by the time we got to camp, even though I had done fine in all of our conditioners the whole season. One thing you have to be able to do (other than melt and treat water) is eat food, and tons of it, to build up your energy.
For some reason I could not eat anything without feeling like I was going to vomit, and I felt rushed because we had to hurry up and get ready for bed. Then we were informed that if we couldn’t finish Mt. Baker, we would not be allowed to move on to Mt. Rainier. My girlfriend and I had made a previous commitment that if one of us got ill during any expedition, then the other would stay behind with the ill person.
When it was time to sleep (and it was still light out at 5pm or so) my mind began to go bonkers, worrying about if I would eventually be able to eat and if I was going to have to ruin this for my girlfriend and I. I could feel my heart pounding so hard at one point that I almost woke her up in our tent to go for help. But I did not. When we woke up at 12:30am to get ready for a 2am climb, I had not slept a wink again. I was already physically exhausted and we hadn’t even left camp yet. I tried to eat some breakfast, but again felt very ill. I called over our team leader who checked my pulse: 104. He said as soon as we started hiking it would jump to 120 or more, and with little nutrition in me, that might not be good.
So I had to make a choice: Either try to make the climb and if I fell ill or exhausted, then my rope team of three would have to turn around, or just stay behind in basecamp and not risk it, forfeiting our chance at Mt. Rainier. It was a very difficult choice to make but after talking it over with my girlfriend, we decided it would be best to stay behind. After the crew left, I was eventually able to sleep, and then eat well when I woke up. By the time the others arrived nine or so hours later, I felt fine and was ready to hike. But it was too late.
I took this occurrence hard and beat myself up pretty bad over it. I had no issues with any conditioners we did all season. In fact, there were people that did summit Baker that weekend who I had done better than in conditioners. It made no sense to me. All of the climb leaders from Baker suggested that we present our case to the committee to ask for a shot at Mt. Rainier. Two of those leaders stuck their necks out for us in an email. In my message I explained how from poor choices, I had sleep deprivation and an anxiety attack. I felt like we could do this.
And then the table turned: A few days later, we were approved for Mt. Rainier. My girlfriend and I gratefully celebrated and I had a burning vengeance to climb that mountain more than before. We were given a second chance. I didn’t want to waste it.
CLICK HERE FOR PART 2 OF THIS STORY, TO SEE IF MACKENZIE AND CO. ARE ABLE TO COMPLETE THEIR ATTEMPT AT CLIMBING MT. RAINIER!!