August 22nd – 25th, 2010
I believe that every now and then, you make a choice that makes a significant lasting impression on your life. And I believe that there are a few of those choices that you remember the exact time and place that those choices were made.
For me – the decision to climb Mount Rainier is one of those few choices that I still remember where I was and what I was doing when I reached that decision.
Back in January of 2008, I went on what I still refer to as my Escape from Life Vacation. All of the constants in my life were in upheaval because of some decisions (funny how one leads to another) that were made and I was left with the beginnings of a wandering feeling.
I was continuing the inner-questioning that I had been doing for a couple of months. The people I once knew as friends had new words for me and I started to realize and believe that I didn’t have any friends of my own. The only significant constant reliable thing that I had in my life was work.
During this time of self reflection, and a bit of self pity and loathing, one of my friends, quite possibly my sole remaining one, talked me into leaving Tacoma for San Diego and I would be able to stay as long as I wanted.
While staying in San Diego, I had no distractions from my Tacoma life. It was just me, the ocean, my running shoes, and a pile of books.
One of these books was by a local climber named Ed Viesturs. It was called No Shortcuts to the Top and documented his attempts at being the first person to climb the world’s 14 highest peaks without the use of supplemental oxygen. I first heard about him on the radio one morning and filed his story away in the back of mind. One day before my trip to San Diego, the same radio show was playing a repeat clip of that first segment, so I decided to seek out his book and bring it with me on my trip. I imagined that there was going to be plenty of time to read on this vacation.
I started the book on January 23rd, 2008. And what I remember about this book is how Viesturs got his start – by looking out his window one day and seeing Mount Rainier off in the distance.
Now, at this point in my life I had maybe went hiking once or twice, and snowshoeing about the same amount of times. I had never once thought about Mount Rainier more than just the sight of it off in the distance on a clear day. Climbing was something that I hadn’t ever dreamed of, or made a side comment about.
For a while, I felt that I didn’t do enough things in life for me. They always seemed to have been done for others. Yes, there were a few things done for me, but they were outnumbered.
The decision to run a marathon was a decision that I had made for me and me alone. I decided that I needed a goal to run towards, instead of something to run away from.
While sitting on a wooden deck in Encinitas, I made the decision that I was going to climb Mount Rainier – and be the only person I knew that I had done that. It would be a goal that would push me physically – and mentally – and one that I would be doing for me, and me alone.
Since 2008 was the year of the marathon, I had decided that the climb would happen in 2009. But for a variety of reasons – specifically time and money – the actual climb wouldn’t happen until 2010.
During the summer of 2008, I tried to get out hiking as much as possible. While almost exclusively day hikes, there was one overnight solo trip that I took. I was trying to gauge my hiking fitness level and to get a feel of what that was like. And yes, I realized that an overnight trip to Kendall Katwalk was in no ways similar to climbing the tallest glaciated peak in the US, outside of Alaska.
Oh-nine there wasn’t as much hiking as I would have liked. There was a lot of running though, and there was that crazy twenty-three mile hike in Hawaii.
During this time, I attended a few Prep for Rainier workshops that REI offers in order to get an idea about the different guide companies, the fitness preparations and of the different type of gear that you would need. I also found a few co-workers who knew various people who have done similar activities. Based on this information, I decided that I was going to climb with Rainier Mountaineering Inc.
At the beginning of oh-ten, I had paid for my summit trip. I decided that a trip in August would be best, and I scheduled the trip so that my summit day would be on my birthday.
After paying for the trip, it was now real – no backing out. No more talk. It was happening.
The goal for the time leading up to my August trip was fitness. I had developed a nagging knee issue in December that was causing me to not run as much as I would have liked. Actually, my running had almost stopped because of the pain in my knee. Two visits to my doctor – x-rays and a visit to an orthopedic surgeon and I still wasn’t better. I researched personal trainers and even joined a gym. I’m still not 100% sold on the personal trainer idea, and even though it ended up costing me quite a bit of money, I went every week and did get some good pointers, but not as much as I was expecting.
The best fitness direction I did get was from a local company called Body Results. I remember coming across them during some of my fitness research and actually dismissed their services because I had thought an on-line training program was not realistic. In hindsight, I wish I was researched them a little bit more because I feel that I would have gotten a lot more results from their services that I got with the personal trainer. Their book, The Outdoor Athlete provided a lot of information about very specific exercises and areas of focus for lots of different outdoor recreations.
At first, it felt like I had all of the time in the world – August was many months away, and while I was doing quite a bit of strength training, I wasn’t hiking as much as I should have been. There had been a few very short and easy hikes, but nothing challenging. About a month before my scheduled summit, I went to Mount Si and reached the top. The following weekend, I did both big and little Si – the goal for big Si was to reach the summit in two hours, thirty minutes (it seemed that a two hour summit of Si was an ideal gate check for fitness, so I gave myself an extra 30 minutes because I know that I am slow.) I managed the summit in two hours, five minutes and felt pretty darn good. I then did Little Si the following day just to see how hiking back to back days felt.
And then the weekend of August 7th and 8th, I did my first higher elevation hikes. That Saturday, I went to Camp Muir (my very first time that I had ever been to an elevation of 10,000 feet,) and then on Sunday it was only up to an elevation of 7,200 feet. I was pleasantly surprised by how good I felt. The elevation at Muir didn’t seem to bother me at all which was a good sign. But 14,411 feet would be a different story.
The only issue that came up during this trip was my knee. I was still struggling with that nagging knee pain and on Sunday, it flared up again – flared up enough where I was starting to question my ability at completing this climb.
The next weekend, it would be one more trip to Paradise with a hike to the the 7,200 foot range. And my knee didn’t bother me very much at all. Gave me some of my confidence back.
At work, one of my co-workers came over to me and told me that her granddaughter thought that the “man who is climbing the mountain” needed one of her grandfather’s pocket angels to keep me safe. The little pocket angel (about the size of a coin) will make the trip with me – safety can never be turned down.
It is now the Saturday before I leave for Ashford to begin day one of my four day expedition. I have feelings of excitement, nervousness and anxiety all battling each other out over this. And while this isn’t technically a complicated hike, I can’t underestimate Mother Nature and Mount Rainier. A handful of people have died this year doing exactly what I’m doing, but hundreds, perhaps, thousands and have made it through safely and most have reached the summit.
And while I realize that there is absolutely no guarantee that I’ll reach the summit on the 35th anniversary of my birth, I really want to look out to the southeast and tell the world that I had stood atop Mount Rainier.
[the short version]
But I wasn’t successful; I didn’t summit.
The short reason – I wasn’t prepared physically – and mentally – for this adventure.
The attempted journey to the top, reminded me quite a bit of the first time that I ran a half marathon. A good foundation was there, but I didn’t properly build on that foundation. Running 10 flat miles, wasn’t the same as running a hilly 13.1 miles; hiking a slow pace to Muir wasn’t the same thing as hiking a fast pace to Muir, and then beyond.
After my two hour summit of Mount Si, I had a false sense of confidence. And after those three different trips to Paradise, including the one time going all the way to Camp Muir, I felt I had done enough to get ready. I wasn’t prepared for the parts after Muir.
I won’t sit here and make excuses – we hiked too fast, the pack was too heavy, the air was too thin, the boots were too heavy, it was hard – the only thing that stopped me was me. I only have myself to blame. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t train long enough; I didn’t train hard enough. I truly had no idea what to expect up there. I underestimated this hike, and I overestimated my physical and mental readiness.
And there was the mental challenges. Once we got to Muir, I started playing mental games with myself. I was actually trying to talk myself out of this experience. On the hike to Muir, I got the backs of my lower legs sunburned, and they started to itch, so I tried to tell myself that I had some crazy rash, or something that I was allergic to was in my sleeping bag. To this day, I still don’t know why I was playing these mind games with myself. And once I started playing those mental games, I couldn’t stop.
At the point I decided to turn back around, I truly didn’t believe that I had enough strength and stamina to not only make it to the end of the next leg, but enough to make it back to Muir. Once you commit to the next leg, you are making a guarantee to your guide that you’ll not only make it to the next point – but that you will be able to make it back to the beginning. I couldn’t make that type of guarantee.
And so I turned back.
And didn’t summit.
[the long version]
Day One – Orientation
After a false start leaving Tacoma (I had forgotten my eating utensils and headphones – obviously the former was a much more important item and justified the return trip home,) I made it to Ashford with about forty minutes to spare. Those forty minutes were sufficient time to not only pick up my rental gear, but to also get everything situated. I did need to add a few items to what I had previously reserved – specifically warm gloves (I couldn’t find mine before I had left,) and then plastic boots. Plastic boots, also called mountaineering boots, would be required for use with crampons; my backpacking boots aren’t stiff enough for crampon usage. The change in boots concerned me since I have had such a difficult time finding a pair of boots that didn’t blister me in a horrible fashion, but the design of the plastic boots might work to my advantage. (Your foot, at first goes into a glorified slipper, and then a hard outer plastic cover goes over everything.)
Once my gear was situated, it was about time to officially start the first part of my trip.
Designed to only last a few hours, the orientation segment was a way for the guides to introduce themselves, and the hikers to the guides, and the hikers to each other, as well. We also watched a short slide show about the route we would be taking, and then it was time to break apart into the two teams.
The route we would take would be along the Skyline Trail from Paradise to Pebble Creek and then up to Camp Muir. After an overnight stay at Muir (with an approximate elevation of 10,080 feet,) we would then begin the technical portion of the trip – along the Cowlitz Glacier, up over Cathedral Gap (10,640 feet,) up along the Ingraham Glacier to the Ingraham Flats (11,000 feet,) over Disappointment Cleaver (12,000 feet,) and then finally up to Columbia Crest (14,411 feet.)
The team that I was assigned to was led by Jake Beren and Carrie Parker. If I remember right, our team was originally made up of six hikers, and then we later increased in size to eight.
Jake went about inspecting each hiker’s gear – made suggestions, vetoed certain items, and ultimately decided that we all had the necessary gear for the climb. (For me, I was informed that the avalanche beacon was mandatory, so another piece of gear was added to my ever growing pile.)
After the gear inspection was complete, we were given our instructions for the second day – Mountaineering School. Handouts were provided that listed what equipment we would need for School (quite a bit less than what we would need for the actual two-day summit trip) and then we were done.
I then went and found my lodging – I would be staying in the Bunkhouse which is part of Whittaker’s Bunkhouse. The bunkhouse itself was next door to RMI’s Basecamp in Ashford, and is a little old two-storey white house. The upper storey featured four beds, and the bottom had a fold out couch, and quite possibly another room that had additional beds in it. All guests shared a bathroom which was fine. After the long days, I would have been happy to have slept outside in my sleeping bag and tent.
Day Two – Mountaineering School
Using my Good Day Sunshine ring tone, I woke up earlier than was probably necessary. After grabbing a bite to eat (an overpriced microwaved egg and cheese bagel that didn’t taste all that good,) it was time to meet up with the rest of the group.
The group got together at 8:00. At about 8:20, we left for Paradise. The ride there became a bit interesting when our bus shuttle (similar to what you ride in to the airport) broke down about two miles from Paradise. The unofficial word from other passengers is that the fuel gauge was on the big red E, but no one knows for certain . . . It was a good thing indeed that there was another shuttle a few minutes ahead of us taking a different group up to Paradise, so we waited around a bit and then we continued on with our aborted ride.
We hiked for about 90 minutes or so to a big snowfield along Paradise’s Skyline Trail – one that I hadn’t been to before. I’m still not certain as to if there was a name for it or not. The snowfield had quite a bit of an incline so we could practice falling down. It was during this initial hike we were first exposed to pressure breathing. Pressure breathing was a technique that we would need to use on the higher elevations that allowed our body to utilize the oxygen in the air in a more efficient manner.
The first set of skills we learned involved how to walk up and down a snowfield. Skills such as the rest step, duck step, how to traverse, stomping (to go down) and boot skiing. We then attached our crampons and basically repeated the same skills, but this time we used our crampons. On hard snow, the crampons were very nice, but when the snow was softer, not so much.
It was then time to learn how to team arrest and self arrest. For me, the hardest part of these skills were doing them left-handed (my non-dominant hand.) It felt quite foreign having to hold my axe the correct way in order to safely and correctly arrest.
The team arrest wasn’t too difficult, but the self arrest had its moments. Overall, it still wasn’t very hard.
The last set of skills we learned were how to safely hike while roped up to your teammates. I realized that my rental harness was too small and wouldn’t comfortably go up and around my legs, so I made a note to see if they have a bigger one to use (they did – whew!) While on the ropes, we had to practice our arresting skills (our team failed big time the first time – I claim fault with that, but others had issues too.) We were also shown the correct way to use an anchor.
It felt like a very long day once we were finished – and it was. We started at about 10:00 at Paradise, and were back at Ashford at about 5:30 (not 100% certain as to the times.)
My knee felt great during the ascent and descent, and my feet worked well in the rented plastic boots. No hot spots, no blisters, not even a red mark. I am so thankful that nothing bad happened. However, I am trying to figure out if I have room to pack my lightweight Merrell boots since they are so much more comfortable on the asphalt than descending in the plastic boots. I think there will be enough room if I can hang my helmet on the outside of my pack.
After getting back, I took a shower, and then went off to find dinner. Whittaker’s has sample menus from the local restaurants and once supposedly had homemade mac and cheese, but when I went there, they didn’t offer that dish any longer, so I got some fettuccine alfredo instead. (And have enough left over for breakfast – all about the carbs and calories at this point!) I also had these delicious Nepalese pot sticker like items call momos – yummy! Ate a ton of food, but I had to replenish and load up for tomorrow.
Overall, I’m very pleased with how the day went – tomorrow will be the smallest of the two GIANT days ahead of me.
Day Three – Camp Muir
Today started out a lot like yesterday did – waking up to Good Day Sunshine and another chewy bagel that still didn’t taste as good as the price led you to believe. The biggest difference was that I would need to pack up everything and check out of my bunk – I wouldn’t be coming back until it was time to get off of the mountain, and then I would be heading home.
After a final check of my pack (decided that I didn’t have enough room for my normal hiking boots after all,) it was time to meet up with the rest of the group at 8:00 so we could again be off by 8:20. It was at this time we learned that our group of hikers was increasing by two – two of Whittaker’s employees were accompanying us as hikers, not as guides. We also gained another guide.
Fortunately, the drive up to Paradise today would have less issues than the day before – no breakdowns on the way up. We even saw a deer walking next to the road.
After a brief orientation by the Visitors’ Center at Paradise, we were off. The route that we would take was one I had taken before – along the Skyline Trail, up to and across Pebble Creek, and then up through the Muir Snowfield before we would finally arrive at Camp Muir.
On my previous trips, I had seen quite a few of the guided groups on the trails. They were always marching single file at a fairly comfortable pace. Our group would be the same way – single file, maintaining a steady pace, and practicing our pressure breathing. The one big difference between my solo visits and this one, was the number of breaks. I definitely took more breaks when I was alone than we took as a group.
The trip up Muir to was relatively uneventful. We learned that the guides don’t eat the freeze dried foods that we all carried. While light and very convenient, eating those type of foods on the number of trips up Rainier that they take, doesn’t agree with their systems. Always good to know – that if your guides won’t eat something, maybe you shouldn’t either.
There were a couple of times where I was starting to feel a big ragged. One of the guides had commented on it a couple of times that while I was mainting a very steady pace, I wasn’t moving at quite the same speed and I would need to pick it up in order to better stay with the rest of the group. So I picked up the pace.
When we arrived at Muir at around 4:00 in the afternoon, we were shown to our sleeping quarters. I’m not sure if there is an appopriate word for describing the building that we would be spending the night in. Basically, it was rectangular, and featured three leavels of bunks. And that’s it. I’m pretty sure that the building was made entirely out of particle board. But it was a place to stretch out and sleep. The guides were staying in their own structure which looked like a four-star hotel in comparison.
Before dinner, we had one more little orientation – a brief discussion about what was going to happen the following morning was had. After going to bed, we would be woken up at around 11:30, and given about 45 minutes to get up, eat breakfast, get dressed, and pack up for the second half of our trip. Dinner was had, and I elected to get some sleep – I was pretty exhausted by this point.
Based on the advice of a co-worker that had done this very same trip about two months before, I had selected a bunk away from any windows (the windows looked out to the west, which meant that the sun was shining in them when you were trying to get some sleep.) I had also brought along ear plugs to block out most of the conversations and noises that were happening around you. They also helped block out a side effect that I hadn’t ever heard about during any of my research. It seems that higher elevations – plus adding all of those freeze dried meals – are a perfect storm for gas. Yes, farts. Loud, stinky, unrelentless Mount Rainier Farts.
But somehow, I fell asleep. It was during this time though that I started to experience some discomfort on my legs. Before I climbed into my sleeping bag, I had put on my thermal underwear and my legs started to burn. It really started to concern me. This was where I first started to have doubts about my chances of continuing on in the morning. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with my legs – was there was serious rash? Were there biting bugs in my clothes or sleeping bag? I would only find out the next day that the irritation that I was experiencing was due to getting sunburned.
Day Four – Ingraham Flats
At precisely 11:30 the same night, the guides came in and woke us all up. They brought hot and cold water for breakfast, and to replenish our water supplies for today’s travels. This part of the trip would be the technical portion – we would all be roped up to a guide and walking along some fairly dangerous stretches. We had the fortunate option of leaving any unnecessary gear in the cabin, which would lessen our load.
The weather was perfect – no wind, full moon. Exactly the way that I had dreamed it wouild go.
I was roped up to Carrie (one of our guides,) and xxxxx and xxxxx.
We crossed the rope dividing technical from the non-technical – we were then walking on the Cowlitz Glacier. I had my ice axe in my left hand, and the team’s rope in my right. And we hiked in the middle of the night.
My sense of time was lost during this part of the trip. I was concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, maintaining a constant speed, not stepping on the rope with my crampons, and breathing. Every now and then, we had to stop for a few seconds to wait for the team in front of us to navigate a tricky portion of the trail, and I would look out and see a countless number of stars in the sky, and the shadows of mountains off in the distance. Since it was a full moon, we were able to see quite a bit around us. It’s too bad that we were always moving because we weren’t allowed to take any pictures until we came to the end of each predetermined leg. Plus it was the middle of the night.
After reaching the end of Cowlitz, we would start climbing up a pretty tricky stretch of loose rock and sand, all the while still wearing our crampons and carrying rope. Due to all of the rock, we would coil up the excess rope to avoid having it get snagged on sharp rocks (or us tripping or stepping on the rope.)
It was at this part of the climb where I was beginning to have doubts about how well I had trained for the the physical needs of the hike. The air was definitely thinner, it was still very early, it was warm and I was sweating, I was beginning to talk to myself (the same thing that I tend to do on my long runs, and my legs were burning. Plus I was starting to get this weird pain in one of my hips.
We eventually reached the Ingraham Flats, and we would be able to have our first break. The first leg was complete. Jake came over to me and asked how I was doing. I answered honestly – I wasn’t sure how I was doing. He gave me the opportunity to rest awhile longer before making a decision. If I decided that I would continue on – I would be starting the toughest part of the route – up to Disappointment Cleaver.
When Jake returned, he again asked how I was doing and also mentioned that a team was heading back to Muir. It was here – on the Ingraham Flats at an elevation of xxxx (according to the GPS that I was carrying) that I decided that I had gone as far as I would be able to go.
And myself, one other hiker, and one guide, started the trek back to Muir, while the rest of our fellow hikers continued on.
Day Four – Camp Muir
During the morning, the Forest Service flew a helicopter into Camp a few times to exchange out these giant propane tanks. I heard that they were going to be doing that, and for some reason, I expected a more substantial powerful looking helicopter. What they sent up was by no means what I was imagining.
Still not having any reliable sense of time, I don’t know when we got back to Muir. All I know is that I wanted to climb back into my sleeping bag and just sleep. And that’s exactly what I did. Well, actually, I didn’t. My sleeping bag was already returned to its compression sack, so I just slept in my big down parka and warm pants. I must of been warm enough because I eventually fell asleep and didn’t wake up until the sun was showing off.
The worst part with being the first to leave is all of the time spent at Muir waiting. And doing nothing. For hours.
A few hours later, another team returned to Muir. Four hikers, along with their guide, had made it to the top of the Cleaver, and decided that they couldn’t go any further. We all talked for a bit, before they went off and got some sleep as well.
We all started to get restless and kept wondering when the rest of our team was going to be returning from their summit. If you decided to go past the Cleaver, you were going to get to the summit. Everyone kept watching the top of Cathedral Rock trying to be the first person to see a member of our group.
Eventually they all started to return – victorious – Mount Rainier was summited by everyone but the six of us that turned back.
Another ninety minutes or so would go by, and then we all packed up our gear, and began the trek back to Paradise.
The trip down is where I wished that I had brought my normal hiking boots with me. By this time, I was sick and tired of having the heavier plastic boots on my feet, and those heavier boots made walking down rock ledges and on the asphalt once you got closer to Paradise, so much more difficult than it would have normally been. But I made it – as one of the last members of our group to get back to the bus, but I made it.
Day Four – RMI Basecamp
Everyone was exhausted – physically and mentally – the time that our bus left Paradise. The drive down was by far, the quietest of all our trips. And it definitely wasn’t the freshest smelling either.
As is the custom, we all met at the Basecamp Bar and Grill for ice cold beer and food. Since I was driving back to Tacoma, I had to pass on the beer. As exhausted as I was (even though I got a ton of sleep,) I still had to drive, and having a beer wouldn’t have been wise.
We were all presented with certificates documenting our accomplishments. Yes, even those who didn’t make it to the top got one.
After some handshakes and kind words, I parted, and returned home for a nice warm shower, and a bed that didn’t require zippers, and a bathroom that wasn’t outside.
That’s how I described this adventure. Bitter sweet.
I would be kidding and fooling myself if I didn’t say that I am disappointed. I’m disappointed that I wasn’t as successful with something that I had been thinking about for almost three years as I would have liked.. I’ve said it before – I only have myself to blame. Nothing limited me except for me. That’s the bitter part.
The sweet part – I made the effort to try something that I had never dreamed of doing. And I made that effort for me. I learned a lot about myself on this trip. I went further than I had ever gone before; I learned to bring my own toilet paper; I learned about the types of gear you have; I learned about the types of food that I should bring; and what food I shouldn’t. There wasn’t any way that I would have been able to learn this until I tried it for myself. No amount of reading or talking was going to teach me what I learned while sitting in the snow at 11,000 feet with full moon lighting up a volcano.
I had to experience it for myself.
There was only one regret during all of this – I wish I had trained harder.
Make that two regrets. I wish I had brought some Dots along.
Once my life had returned to normal – work, home – and I had a week to process all that had happened over the last four days, I came to the conclusion that once I paid for my Safari in Tanzania, I would plan another Rainier Climb.
Even under-prepared, I made it to the Ingraham Flats. The next part is the most difficult and once you’re past that, you’re practically at the top. And it’s downhill once you make it to the top. Yes, I realize that I’m still not guaranteed a successful summit, but I know a lot more about everything involved this time around. Like with the half marathons that I’ve ran, I know what worked, and what didn’t work.
And the pocket angel will again accompany me. Along with my San Diego Rock.
One day – I will say that I was on the top.