THE CONCLUSION IN THIS TWO PART SERIES. READ PART ONE HERE!
I had actually packed my bags three days before Rainier, but apparently I should have checked my list twice because after doing a final check on Friday night, I discovered that not only did I not have my prussic ropes (a must, in case I fall in a crevasse) but I did not have my big puffy down coat (a must, so I don’t freeze). A phone call to a climb lead secured the prussic ropes, and another call to my cousin 45 minutes away got me the coat. So once again, three hours of sleep ended up being in my pre-climb forecast.
We were climbing the Emmons route at Mt. Rainier, which meant we started from the White River parking lot. Luckily for us, we had some Sherpa volunteers to help us carry group gear and a few personal items. Because of this, my pack was down to about 51lbs total and my girlfriend’s pack was over five pounds less than that. MUCH better than how we prepared for Mt. Baker!
It seemed this trip wasn’t going to be without drama for me either. From the time we left the parking lot, the plastic boots we rented (they’re better for warmth) bugged our feet, however my left ankle was being bothered immediately. Imagine someone grinding a knuckle into your bare ankle nonstop. That’s pretty much what each step felt like. I loosened and tightened the laces; no change. My options were to either deal with the pain, or stop hiking. I dealt with it because like I said after Mt. Baker, I was determined to finish this hike. Adding a blister to the back of each heel didn’t help either.
Our Sherpa’s helped carry gear about halfway up to basecamp until the climb got nasty at the Glacier Basin. 2,500’ up, we were told. It was hot out that day so the sun was no help. It was just flat out hard, plus we had roped up together at that point.
RANDOM FUN FACT!: So what did I do to kill time while hiking as it takes all day? Well, for Mt. Baker I chose to count each step until I got to 100, not allowing myself to look up (you look at your feet almost all day while mountain hiking) to see how much closer we were until 100 steps. That began to drive me crazy though, so for Mt. Rainier I played out entire songs and albums in my head. I listened to The White Stripes, Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, etc.
Eventually our six hour journey came to an end and we camped a little further up the hill from Camp Schurman. We were on a slope, so we had to dig into the hillside to make flat areas to set up our tents. This ended up being pretty tiring and took a while. JR built himself an awesome snow cave, and made room for Dan to sleep outdoors on a front porch type shelter. The views were gorgeous as we ended up having two beautiful sunsets from our camp, and we could see almost our entire upcoming route directly in front of us. Our elevation was somewhere around 9,800’.
Unlike Mt. Baker, my stomach was fine and I was able to eat plenty of food and I got a ton of sleep on night one. Day two was spent just kind of lounging around, having meetings, making water and eating a lot of food. We were told we would have to get up at 10pm to start getting ready to leave camp by midnight. Well at 6pm, it was still hot in the tent and daylight out. My mind was wandering a bit, wondering what the hike would be like. I didn’t sleep a minute, tossing and turning all the way up until wake-up time. My girlfriend might have gotten an hour of sleep. When we got out of the tent just after 10pm, the sun was still slightly visible. It was really pretty!
You would think that two hours is plenty of time to get ready for a climb, right? Almost immediately, my head lamp died so I had to scramble to get a new battery. That took about 20 minutes, so then I had to get my harness, crampons and gaiters on. A climb lead stopped by and informed me my gaiters were on backwards and my crampons were not tied correctly. Frustrated, I had to fix that. Plus we still had to boil water so we could eat some oatmeal before taking off. Plus we were told to drink at least one liter of water before leaving camp, however I wasn’t finding the time or resources (I only had 3 total liters prepared…for the climb) to drink that much. I might have gotten ¼ liter in my gut before we took off, which had me agitated from the get go.
Bundled heavy with clothes as it was freezing out, our crew of ten (Nancy intentionally stayed back in base camp) people headed up the mountain just after midnight! Within 15 minutes, my head lamp died again. Thankfully a trip lead had another lamp on him that I could borrow, and we also then figured out that the crappy head lamp I bought at a warehouse sale was not rated for cold weather. Doh! It didn’t take too long to work up a sweat wearing all of those clothes either.
The hike was steep. Every hour we stopped to take a five minute break, so that became my focus point: “Just make it to the next break,” I repeatedly told myself. The interesting thing about the breaks was that no matter how hot I was upon stopping, it took about 30 seconds to get cold, so I had to throw the big puffy down coat on immediately upon stopping, no matter how hot I was. This was a crucial move. A fun trick was to turn off the head lamp and sit on the ground, watching the seemingly millions of stars in the sky. When that light went out, all was dark and quiet. It was like winter, temporarily. You could see Seattle, Wenatchee and even Yakima from up there. It was pretty amazing. That was about all that I liked about night hiking though. We had to cross over several crevasses and literally jump over a few, which didn’t do my fear of heights much good. My head lamp wasn’t overly bright and I just didn’t like not being able to see that well.
This was a strenuous hike, but like we were told earlier that day, if we made it that far in the course, then we were in good enough shape physically to do it. From here it was all mental. I can’t count how many times the thought of “What the hell am I doing?” went through my head during the hike. Many times I wondered if I could finish because I kept feeling like I wanted to quit as the climbing was miserable at times. It was REALLY hard work. But again, I just blocked that all out as much as possible; “get to the next break.” It takes quite a bit on you mentally too. You MUST be on full alert at all times. If you hear the words “FALLING!!” at any time (luckily we never did) then you have to stop that song in your head, bite of food you might be eating or whatever you are doing and drop to the ground instantly. It could mean your partner’s life and again, we were a team.
Sometime after 4am we were going up a really steep slope, doing the duck walk technique as walking with your feet facing forward is extremely difficult and hard for your balance on these slopes. Doing the duck, you reach and plunge your ice axe down in front of you, like you’re an old villain in a cartoon trying to use dynamite to blow up a railroad. Then left foot step, right foot step. Repeat. There is also encouragement to walk up the slope sideways at times.
Anyway, around this time Rick (in front of me on the rope) suggested that I turn around and check out the sky that was being lit up by the sun again. This was a difficult slope and I was breathing heavy. I didn’t say it, but in my mind I pretty much said “Fuck the sun!” as I was getting tired. Not long after that though we all did sit and take a long break to eat and hydrate, and watch the gorgeous sunrise that was crawling up and over the clouds. I might never forget that view. I was reminded again that if I still didn’t have to pee (as I had not) then I was not drinking enough water. I shrugged this off because I felt fine. Also at this time, the energy bars I had were so solid that I felt like I chipped a tooth when biting into one, plus the hose for my water bladder froze, like we were told they would. I had a spare bottle though.
I think this was at about 13,500’, so we only had around 1,000’ or so to go. My girlfriend had been doing fine up until this point, but not long after, a nasty wind storm came in from the southwest, bringing winds likely in the 40-50mph range. I could feel her tugging on my rope more and more from moving slow, so I knew she was starting to struggle. During one of the times that I looked back, JR (the first climb lead on the next rope, right behind her) was stopped with her and he yelled saying she would be okay, but that she was having some nausea, which can be a sign of altitude sickness.
We carried on a little further and they had to stop again so he could take her backpack (although light this time) off of her and put it onto his back. Now I began to worry. The rest of my crew was roped to me and in front of me and the wind was too hard so I couldn’t communicate to her by voice. Eventually (as I later learned we were out of crevasse danger) JR untied her and he from their ropes and he demanded that all of us keep moving and leave them behind. I really began to panic as the last thing I wanted to do was leave her behind, not knowing her condition. Later he explained that he didn’t want everyone on the crew to get too cold from waiting on them, but it didn’t make sense to me at the time. When we finally made it to the summit, my only concern was getting untied off of my rope and going back down to help them the rest of the way up the hill, which I was given permission to do.
When we finally got her up on the summit, we figured out fast that she was extremely cold and she began to shiver. At first JR wanted to start sending her back down the mountain to get out of the wind storm, but Bill, our trip leader, discovered that there was less wind on the other side of the crater, and the sulfur steam vents provided much needed heat. We decided to get her there to recover.
This is really where the crew became a close brotherhood. Everyone on the crew pitched in somehow to either take items out of her pack to carry, lend her more clothes or huddle around to create body heat. It was remarkable. The problem is that two more members of our crew became terribly cold too, so they needed treatment. It was slowly becoming a situation. Up on the summit there is no shack like at Camp Muir or Schurman. There are no rangers up there. There is no way to call for help. If something really bad happens, it’s up to your personal skills to react. There are no other options.
All this time I was trying my best not to freak out as I knew I had to stay strong mentally and not break down and become part of the problem. On the inside I was a mess, full of panic, but on the outside I just took orders on how to help the others and did anything my girlfriend asked me to do. Slowly she regained heat and strength and the time came where they felt we could walk her back down the mountain safely. It was decided that she would be in the middle of a rope, with two other crew members on the rope too, but not me. I was not happy with this decision but it was quickly explained to me that I was too weak compared to them as I didn’t have enough food and hydration in my system, something I again ignored at the summit while helping the others. As much as I didn’t like this decision, I agreed. Later my girlfriend would tell me that the situation was not life threatening, but at the time up on the summit, it seemed like it could be headed in that direction at times. She was just too weak to communicate that to me at the time as worrying about how I was doing wasn’t at the top of her concern list, and rightfully so!
So the summit did not happen how I thought it would. I didn’t take pictures of the scenery, or of us or my crew members. No pictures of us kissing at the top. Even when someone asked me if I had signed the book that everyone signs up there, I said no, although in my mind I thought “Fuck the book!” as my only concern was the well-being for my girlfriend. Anyone who had a loved one in that situation would have felt the same way.
We left basecamp just after midnight and we arrived up on the summit just before 8am. Everyone was finally warmed just enough so we all began the slow decent back down, hoping the wind would stop at around that 13,000’ mark again or so. Sadly, it did not and it stayed with us most of the way back down, but luckily my girlfriend rebounded very quickly on the descent and was no longer in a condition of concern.
We got back to basecamp around 2pm, and we all took a much needed physical and emotional break and sat around in the warm sun for a little bit (the wind was finally gone). We all took a long break, ate some more food, and drank some more water, then packed up our full gear and headed back down the mountain around 4pm, headed for the cars. Around the bend past Camp Schurman we were finally allowed to unrope and then the giant glissade of 2,500’ vertical began! If you don’t know what glissading is, picture sled riding, but without a sled!
This was a much needed relief from hiking and the glissading really made me feel like a kid again. For the first time all day, I had fun! Even better was that when the glissade ended, we had a team of Sherpa’s waiting for us at the bottom with homemade cookies, banana bread, watermelon and other treats. “Can we take some of your gear?” they asked. “Why yes you can!” was the response from many of us. My ankle was still hanging in there, as long as we were in snow. It’s when the scenic path through the woods eventually became a dirt trail that each step was pretty bad pain. The views were wonderful along the creek though, so that helped.
Finally, right about 7:30pm, we made it back to our car! So if you count from when we “woke up” at 10pm the night before, this push was about a 19.5hr push. And by the time I finally got to sleep that night, I figure I had been awake about 38 straight hours. I was pretty dumb by that point. Although we were exhausted down in the parking lot, I think the adrenalin was still running high and certainly the gratitude for our other climbers was there. I think that’s when, at least for me, it all began to sink in: WE DID IT!!! Sure, the summit experience wasn’t how I thought it would be, but I know we were there and the most important thing was that we all got down safe.
I had never climbed mountains like this before. Even though the course was cheap, I figure I spent $700-$1,000 on gear as I had next to no gear to start with…not even gloves. Plus, I was even leant a ton of gear from gracious friends in the course. I strongly suggest someone going through OSAT if they want to have a safe and productive “I did it myself” climb. Even though you provide your own gear and haul it though, make no mistake that this is a group effort and I’m forever grateful for this wonderful crew that helped my girlfriend and I to stay safe for a once in a lifetime opportunity that I will never forget. Thank you to JR, Bill, Nancy, Tom, Matt, Breven, Dan, Rick, and Jacob for all the help that weekend in climbing Rainier. Thanks especially to Brian for introducing me to OSAT and encouraging me that we could do this all season long, and to Anna, Bobby, Mike, Tom Tom, Kevin and everyone else in OSAT that helped us to succeed. You all helped me to complete a life goal. I’m forever in debt to you all.
Thank You to my wonderful girlfriend Cori for the love, support, companionship and motivation to help me get through this course. Thanks for agreeing to do this course with me and I won’t blame you if you think twice next time about joining me on a crazy adventure.
Oh, and to the guy at Second Ascent that probably laughed his ass off when I left the store, after suggesting for me to buy the Chili Mac flavored freeze dried meal. I hope you step in dog poop every day for the next month. Twice.