At the beginning of July, I wandered up to the Pacific Northwest to accomplish two goals. Goal one, drop my girlfriend Kat, off on the Pacific Crest Trail in Ashland, Oregon to finish the last 900 miles of the journey we started in 2021. Goal two, to summit Mt. Rainier, a dream that I’ve had since 2019 (at least). This would actually be my second time to the mountain with an intent to climb it, the first being back in 2019 when COVID and poor conditions made us scrap our plans. It’d been over half a year since I had gone on a major trip, the last being Kilimanjaro, so I was very ready to hit the road.
Kat and I left Colorado Springs the weekend of the 4th of July and started a very long drive out to Oregon. We drove through the Alvord Desert and stayed at some hot springs I had visited on another trip in 2017, met some characters along the way, as one does on a road trip. We spent time talking, Kat spent time sleeping and I relaxed because as much work as driving can be, there’s something peaceful about being on the road, out of your status quo.
After two days and 1,400 miles of driving we arrived in Ashland. Kat was somewhat hesitant to get on trail I think. Uncertainty of what lied ahead of her, fears of another injury and potential hike unfinished were heavy on her head, and honestly, they were on mine too because I wanted nothing more than to see her succeed. After some morning errands in town, I got her up to the trail at Callahan’s Lodge and we said our goodbyes. I drove some smelly hikers, a nice group of Brits, to town so they could zero, and found a nice spot for some trail magic. I was happy to be out wandering around on the PCT, not as a hiker this time, but as a friendly face to folks who I understood. Someone who traded stories, handed out snacks and cold drinks and encouraged them to continue onwards.
Eventually I had to pack-up my little trailside lunch spot and drive north to Seattle to rendezvous with my climbing partners, Emily and Lizzie. Over the next 24 hours, we all got into Seattle, stocked up on supplies and headed out to Mt. Rainier National Park. We’d been planning the climb for months but had no climbing permit. I’d managed to secure a camping permit for lower on the mountain but we still needed the climbing permits and hoped to get a camping permit for camp Muir, higher up at 10,500’ to reduce the summit day length.
As we neared the park, we got trapped in some bad entry gate traffic for almost an hour and a half. We were lucky to get ahold of the Wilderness Permit Office, they informed us that there were plenty of permits left and to get to Longmire Ranger Station before close in order to get ours’ that day. Once we got through the gate traffic, we rushed to Longmire, I’ll admit, I drove a little faster than I should’ve but I was excited... The last barrier to our attempt was about to fall down.
We got in, got our permit and were incredibility excited, three days and two nights on the mountain ahead of us, a perfect weather window and nothing but thrill. For the rest of that evening we’d rearrange gear, chat about our summit plan and eat some veggie tacos before nervously laying down for our last good sleep before the summit. The next morning was a short drive up to the Paradise Trailhead for a final gear check and then the start of our climb, a 5,000’ hike up to Camp Muir through tourist infested alpine day hiking trails and the Muir Snowfield.
We hit trail around 10am and made good time on that first day, excited, fresh and happy to be there. Obviously, there was some nervousness but we chatted with folks who were on their way down and just about everyone told us we were in for a good time ahead. As the day went on, we got tired, it was hotter than expected and the sun beat down. By 3:30pm we had made it to Camp Muir and were setting up, melting water and starting to flush out gear for summit day. The plan was to wake up around midnight and cruise through the 4,000’ of vertical ascent between us and the summit by around 8-9am before hopefully returning quickly to camp to avoid slushy snow and changing mountain conditions in the heat of the day.
The NPS climbing ranger came around at dinner time and chatted with us. He gave us some pointers on what to expect, made sure we had the right gear to go up on the upper mountain and suggested that we start heading down by 10am if we were still on the upper mountain. After he walked away, we chatted for a bit. It was already almost 6pm, by the time we’d get to bed it would be atleast 7. There was a thought to take the next day off, stay in camp to relax, practice snow skills as a group and then head up the next day. I wasn’t sure that we’d have enough fuel to melt water for two more days and on top of that I’d likely have to ration food since none of us had really planned for two full days up there. We decided that we’d see how it felt at midnight and go from there.
After about 4 hours of restless sleep, my watch buzzed, it was time to get moving. It was still warm, only down in the 40s, and the full moon was so bright you barely needed a headlamp. We checked in with each other one last time to make sure we all felt good with such little sleep and decided to go for it. By 12:45am we were off with the last of the teams to leave camp.
Emily, Lizzie and I made good pace to Cathedral Gap, short roping a small rocky climb before entering onto the Ingraham Glacier and crossing to Disappointment Cleaver. There were a few crevasses we crossed via snow bridge and one ladder crossing you’ll get a picture of later but nothing was above our skill level. As we entered onto the Cleaver and short roped again our pace slowed, it was almost 3:30am and the darkness was starting to take its toll. Sleepy eyes wandering through the night with nothing more than a headlamp tends to make you drowsy after a bit.
Short Roping: A mountaineering technique where you coil the rope and travel closer together to reduce rope drag on rocky surfaces.
It took us just under two hours to climb 2,000’ up the Cleaver to Emmons Glacier. As we prepared to rope back up for the next section Lizzie told Emily and I that she wasn’t feeling well, tired and an upset stomach. As we sat, I said I wouldn’t be surprised if one of us threw up before the day was over from exhaustion and, sure enough, about two minutes later Lizzie lost her breakfast. She got some water down and another bar or two before we started talking about moving again. Lizzie said she felt good after she threw up but she needed to get some liquids back in her. So, after about a 45-minute break we roped up and continued the climb.
By this point it was about 5:30am, we’d already been moving for 5 hours and there was still 1,800’ of mountain above us. The upper mountain was different than what we had gone through already, gradual switchbacks in the snow at first but then sections of steep terrain mixed in, quickly gaining elevation. Around 7am we came across a slightly technical crevasse that Emily and I maneuvered over with some big, almost ice climbing, moves but Lizzie got stuck. She couldn’t figure out how to get good purchase on her ice axe strike to pull herself up. The more the axe slipped, the more nervous I could tell she was getting about taking the two big steps needed. Eventually after some adrenaline and anxiety and loud encoragement between all three of us she got up and over.
8:30am eventually arrived and groups were consistently passing us on their way down. They’d give us words of encouragement and let us know it wasn’t that much further. In my mind the fear of not summiting was starting to set in, we were moving slow, taking a break on every other switchback. Emily and I absolutely did not want to be the last ones on the upper mountain coming down incase of a fall. We decided to set a hard turnaround for 9:30am, if we weren’t looking at the summit by then, we were heading down.
As we continued to climb higher, the terrain gave way a bit. Steep climbs turned to minor hills around big crevasses and rolling sections, each easier than the last. By around 9am we were standing in the summit crater, with two other teams, the small pinnacle of the summit 100 yards in front of and about 100’ above us. We dropped our packs, un-roped and raced across the cone to the summit. At 9:20am we were standing on the summit, 14,409’, taking photos and basking in the feeling of accomplishment with the other three teams up there with us. It had been an incredibly long morning, over 8 and a half hours moving to reach the summit and we had to do it all over again on the way down.
There wasn’t much time for a break, it was late in the day now and the snow conditions were deteriorating rapidly, turning to slush right below our feet. As we got ready to head down Lizzie told me that she felt the worse she’s ever felt on a climb and alarms went off in my head. Suddenly we needed to get down quickly and with extra care, she was likely dehydrated from throwing up and us not being able to take many long breaks on the way up with the altitude on top of that. We flipped Lizzie into the middle of the rope team and started our way down moving as fast but also as carefully as we could.
After about an hour we had already descended down over 1,000’ and Lizzie was feeling better. We were able to bypass some crevasses that had opened up across our ascent trail and make it back to the top of the Cleaver by 12:30pm or so. With a long break and some scrambling to wake us up, we got to the base of the Cleaver around 2pm. It had been a long day and we still had about a mile and a half to go back to the safety of Camp Muir. Back on rope, we crossed the bergschrund back onto the Ingraham Glacier for the final quarter mile of technical terrain before it was just a snow walk back to camp.
We gingerly crossed a few snow bridges that, as I write this three weeks later, are most definitely melted out, making our way to the final crux, the only metal ladder of our climb. On the way up, the ladder wasn’t intimidating, the snow was solid, the deep void into the crevasse was dark so you couldn’t see your potential icy fate, we had fresh legs. On the way down, every time we crossed hazards, we’d been letting out slack to cross and having the other members of the team plant their ice axes in a snow seat or self-arrest position for safety. We assumed our positions and I was the first to cross, one rung step, two steps on the wooden plank, one more rung step, I was stuck…. Teetering on the last rung of the ladder bridge, I couldn’t move.
My harness was holding me back, tugging me in the wrong direction. I dared not to move and fall backwards into the void, but I couldn’t go forwards. I yelled at my teammates to step forward thinking I’d run out of slack and a second later I plunged off the ladder, face first, into the wet snow. A knot I had tied into the rope for crevasse safety (it will catch on edges to stop you from sliding) had caught on the ladder and was holding me back. As soon as Lizzie got it unstuck, I was free to move to safety.
Lizzie and Emily quickly crossed, being very careful with the rope as they did. We passed Ingraham Flats Camp as clouds began to gather on the upper mountain, I was happy to be down where we were…. After another hour or so of walking we descended from Cathedral Gap, Camp Muir in sight the whole time, crossed the Bowling Alley with the sound of rockfall above us and collapsed in camp. It was past 3:30pm, we had taken almost 15 hours to complete the 8 mile, 4,000' round-trip journey.
That night we’d sleep well, waking up to the other teams leaving for the summit and basking in the pleasant thoughts and dreams that we had already done that and would be back at the car the following morning. Around 7AM we hit the trail and headed down to Paradise. I enjoyed the mountain and being in the alpine before arriving back to Panorama Point and tourist hell. I essentially sprinted the remainder of the way back to the car to be done with it. By the afternoon we were off and heading to Aberdeen, WA for hot showers, beers, a delicious dinner and a night in a bed.
Lizzie, Emily and myself all came to the agreement that Mt. Rainier taught us more than almost any other climb any of us had done. The mountain was challenging, unforgiving and varied. There was more rock on Disappointment Cleaver than we’d expected, the day took longer than I’d expected and the mountain didn’t give itself up easily. I learned that heat truly is your worst enemy on a mountain like Rainier and that you absolutely need to keep a cool head up there (I lost mine a few times, and to my teammates, sorry for that if you read this!).
I accomplished a goal, to lead a rope team on Rainier. Would I go up again? Had you asked me two weeks ago, no, now I’d have to think about it. For me, the biggest lesson learned was where my limit is. There are other climbs and dream trips I’d now be comfortable with doing and there’s now climbs and dreams that I don’t think I could ever do on my own without a lot of continued growth. The mountains are a place of beauty and a place of learning, I’m always honored when they present me a lesson.
More about the rest of my two weeks in the Pacific Northwest in Part 2 – “The Road Trip” …
The Hopeless Wanderer