My first mountaineering adventure ever – a climb of Mount Rainier in August 2011. In the planning stages from late 2010, the attempt at the summit of this 14,411′ mountain was a fantastic goal and driver to get fit.
Mount Rainier is located about 55 miles southeast of Seattle and is an active volcano that sits on many lists as one of the most “threatening” volcanoes in the world. While it hasn’t seen an eruption since the early 1800s, an eruption similar to nearby Mt. St. Helens’ 1981 blast would cause significant damage to a highly populated area. Funny how the guide services don’t make much mention of Rainier’s “active” status in their marketing materials!
We planned our summit attempt with the guide service Rainier Mountaineering, Inc (www.rmiguides.com), the largest and most experienced of the professional guide services at Rainier. Some of the most famous American mountain climbers are affiliated and work with RMI, including Ed Viesturs, who has summitted all of the 8,000 meter peaks in the world without the use of supplemental oxygen. Maybe you’ve seen him in your magazines in Rolex ads.
We were incredibly lucky with the lead guide that was assigned to us, another mountain celebrity of immense proportions, Dave Hahn. Dave has summitted Everest more than any westerner – 13 times. Only two sherpas have reached the summit of the world’s tallest peak more times than Dave Hahn. I could list more of Dave’s amazing accomplishments, but that would be pointless. You can just read his Wikipedia page to read about his 29 summits of Vinson (Antarctica’s tallest peak) and 400+ Rainier summits (he stopped counting). Dave led only 3 trips on Rainier this summer, so our luck was exceptional. Imagine showing up for guitar class and having Carlos Santana or Eddie Van Halen as your instructor … that’s what we’re talking about here. His experience was comforting and provided confidence, and his stories about Everest, Denali and Vinson were enthralling.
The overview our 4-day summit attempt was:
- Friday night: meet the guides, rent/prepare equipment
- Saturday: mountaineering training
- Sunday: Hike from Paradise Lodge (5,400′) to Camp Muir (10,000′), 4.5 miles
- Monday: Climb from Camp Muir to summit (14,411′) and return to Paradise, approx. 10 miles.
The hike from Paradise to Camp Muir took about 6 hours as we crossed the Muir Snowfield, sometimes in white-out conditions. Although the temperature was decent. Muir Snowfield is a 3-mile long seemingly endless sea of snow.
At the top of the Muir Snowfield is Camp Muir, sitting at 10,000′. There are a couple of huts here, and RMI runs one of them, so this was our bunkhouse for the next few hours. Yes… hours. We arrived at Camp Muir at about 4pm, ate dinner (freeze-dried meals) at around 6pm and tried to go to sleep almost immediately. Why? Because our summit attempt was planned to start around 1am! By leaving Camp Muir at 1am, we could do the bulk of the ascent to the summit during the night, when the snow was still frozen and safest to walk on.
So at 1am, we roped together in teams of 4 and set off for the summit via the Disappointment Cleaver route. The route crosses glaciers and under seracs (hanging ice blocks) but in the middle of the night you don’t see any of that. As light broke at 7am, we were resting at 13,500′ with the most amazing view.
The final push to the summit was in perfect weather, although upon getting to the crater I had the realization that it was 10 degrees and there were 50 mph winds. That’s cold! The altitude didn’t affect me too much, other than a little bit of a loss of appetite. No headaches or nausea! We reached the crater around 8:30am, and spent an hour or so crossing the crater, signing the guest book(!), and taking a pic or two on the true summit. It was absolutely incredible to be on the summit … looking down on the clouds.
During the descent from the summit back to Paradise we crossed the crevasses and walked under the seracs that we couldn’t see on the way up in the middle of the night. It’s a very humbling experience to look down into the icy black abyss of a crevasse that has no bottom or to look up at the precariously perched face of a glacier that’s waiting to tumble. After more than 15 hours of climbing and descending, we finished the climb with weary legs, mental fatigue and a strong desire for Total Domination – an Oregon-brewed IPA that was on tap back at RMI’s base camp in Ashford, WA. The perfect beer to capture the feeling of reaching the summit of Rainier.
I don’t really know how to explain my feelings about this experience. When we were just about finished with the descent, my buddy Craig asked me what I thought of the whole climb and such. I couldn’t come up with anything other than that it was the “best thing I’ve ever done.” I actually said that to Craig. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.” I don’t really know what that means – nor does it short-sell any of the absolutely incredible experiences I’ve had in my lifetime. It just was that perfect combination of challenge, beauty, fear, achievement, shared experience, raw nature, and who knows what else. And as I write this almost 5 months later, I still feel that way.
A special thanks to RMI and the guides for that incredible experience. Dave Hahn, Levi Kepsel and Mike Tomlinson were fantastic professionals and if you’re thinking about climbing Rainier there is no reason to consider anyone other than RMI to lead you.
The original plan when I was signing up and training for this experience was to satisfy my mountaineering desires. But it has only fueled them. I don’t have the urge to go into the Death Zone (26,000′ and up), so Everest and some of the more famous peaks aren’t of interest. But I’d love to do more mountaineering, including Denali (Alaska – 20,320′), Aconcagua (Argentina – 22,841′) and Kilimanjaro (Africa 19,340) someday soon. Add that to the ever-growing bucket list!