A Look at Rainier

Persistence Pays Off for Climbing Veterans
By Bill Berg, Cool Works
  |  Gorp.com

A friend once told me that British climbers often will say they are going to "take a look" at a peak rather than say they're going to climb it. That way you preserve some dignity even if you don't make the summit, and you downplay any presumption of success.

We were a party of five. I had taken three "looks" at Washington's Mt. Rainier, each getting nowhere near the top. My wife Colette had taken two such looks, our friends Ken three and Mike one. Patrick, mathematician and mountaineer who has trudged up every notable peak in the Cascades and Olympics, was the only one of us who had put tracks on the top—five times no less!

Having been beaten back by weather on previous spring and fall attempts, we shot for an optimum late July climb with a full moon assist. It worked out beautifully!

July 26, 1996
Colette and I drove from our home in Yellowstone to Seattle on the 25th, fiddled with gear, grabbed a short night of sleep and rendezvoused with the others on the morning of the 26th. Inspired by awesome views of "The Mountain" we carpooled to the White River Ranger Station, filled out the forms, paid the $15 per person registration fee, grabbed some "poop bags," headed to the trailhead and fiddled with more gear.

It's not so far to Camp Schurman but it sure goes up. The trailhead is at about 4,200 feet, and after a pleasant and easy climb through the woods for a few miles, the trail goes through Glacier Basin to the bottom of an imposing glacier/snowfield called the InterGlacier. This year, even this late, there was still a lot of snow. We stepped onto the snow at about 7,000 feet and pretty much left dry ground behind.

In the next couple of hours, as we trudged up the 2,500 feet to Schurman, it was hard not to be envious of those happy folks who were glissading down past us, having summitted that morning, making terrific time where we were creeping and sweating like dogs.

We had to eat 300 vertical feet to get down off of Steamboat Prow onto the Emmons Glacier. It took some more fiddling with gear to prepare, but roped and rigged for glacier travel we tromped past Schurman up to Emmons flats, a designated camping area on the Emmons glacier at about 10,000 feet.

We arrived early in the evening to find one group of five campers and another group of four.

We dug in, ate and crashed before dark.

July 27, 1996
We slept late, waiting for that sweet sunshine to warm things up. I had heard the group of four leave at about 4 a.m. The snow was crunchy. Stiff legs—that was a pretty good grunt yesterday. While we enjoyed the sunshine, we took note of the thick clouds stuck on the summit.

We hung out and prepared for the climb. We rested. We made water from snow with stoves and a black garbage bag in a depression in the snow. We fiddled with gear, checking and double checking crampons, prussiks, harnesses, trail food, headlamps, and group gear to bring (a pad, sleeping bag, first aid kit, stove, crampon tools).

There are many routes on Rainier. The route from Paradise, to Camp Muir, then the summit is easiest and most popular. Our chosen route is second on the list. We roped up and marched around the glacier a bit to make sure we understood each other. When you rope together on a glacier, you're tied to one or more people who are some distance away from you so that all of you don't fall into the same crevasse. Hanging in an icy hole in the glacier, any victim should then have one or more people up top anchoring a rope that leads back up to safety. At 4 p.m., about the time the group of four came back psyched at having summitted but letdown that the visibility had been "just a few feet," we took their group picture, ate a big meal, and hit the sack.

July 28, 1996
Up at midnight. Cold. Wrestled into clothes and boots and crampons and harnesses, contemplating the hassles of changing clothes on the route should we miscalculate and over- or under-dress. Fiddled with gear in the full moonlight. Rigged up and on the route at about 1 a.m. Incredibly beautiful under that big moon. Some of us used the headlamps, some the moonlight. As we climbed we got into the moon-shadows of some huge crevasses and had to turn them on. Then the moon went behind the mountain.

Crunchy snow. Step careful, don't trip on the crampons. Don't hook your gaiters, be deliberate, pressure breathe . . . find a rhythm. Lock your knees after each step. Step-lock, step-lock, move the axe.

We traveled in two rope teams. Patrick took the lead on a rope with Mike in the middle and Colette on the end. I followed on a second rope with Ken behind me.

We could see a wide swath of lights down to the west, probably the I-5 corridor from Tacoma to Seattle. At about 4:30 a.m. we could see the sky start to lighten in the east. By sunrise we were pulling in some great views to the North of Mt. Baker, Shuksan and Glacier Peak.

Pushing 13,000 feet, starting to huff and puff and it was getting steeper.

The route was pretty direct. Patrick was following the unmistakable highway left by the weekend hordes. The route will get much trickier later in the season. As the snow melts back, snow bridges across the crevasses collapse, forcing climbers to zig-zag more in order to find a way through the maze to the top.

The climbing is not technically difficult—it's just a steep walk with crampons. The thing that makes it interesting is that the places one would slide to if you tripped and fell look pretty nasty. Hard snow can be pretty unforgiving. Stopping a fall with an ice axe in soft snow is pretty easy. There's a fair chance you can even catch and hold one or two sliding folks on your rope team on steep soft snow.

On hard snow and ice . . . in the wee hours high up on Rainier . . . with crampons on, it's best not to fall. I had the bad fortune to be on a rope team in the Cascades years ago when one climber took a slide and pulled off two more before the first hit a serac, breaking a leg, and we were able to auger into a moraine to put an end to the excitement. Once you get moving on a hard icy surface, attempts to dig in sharp points such as ice axe and crampons can result in unwelcome and dangerous acrobatics.

It's a dangerous mix—such a visible and compelling high altitude peak so close to so many people living at sea level. Hundreds make it to the top every year. Many would say it's no big deal. But people die on this mountain.

It's possible to set up running belays, shuttling and placing anchors as you go, but not real practical on a day that takes you up and down over 4,000 vertical feet. In the mountains, speed can also be safety. As in much of snow and low angle ice climbing, climbers here often rely on their skills, their three points of contact, and one simple rule—don't fall.

We started sucking a lot of air somewhere above 13,000 feet. Colette and I live at 7,000 feet. That helped. But all of us were suffering the milder effects of altitude sickness: nausea, shortness of breath, dizziness, headache. I'm a big fan of a slow pace. I climbed Mt. McKinley in the late 70's and I continue to find one piece of advice from that trip useful on days like this: "Adopt a cow-like attitude."

It happens one step at a time. If you're moving, it's fast enough. Avoid the jack rabbit, stop-and-go impulse and settle in to a slow, steady rhythm. Even if it's real slow. Traveling on a rope with others has its challenges as well. Mike would get an occasional tug from Patrick, ahead of him as well as Colette, from behind. It takes sensitivity and teamwork. You don't want to yank anyone over or continually harass them by jerking—that puts folks in a bad mood. Keep the rope snug, but don't pull, watch the slack, focus on your foot and axe placements, breathe, be a cow.

Glorious day, sun cream and sun glasses on. A clothes break, a few drink and eat breaks. We're still not there. It's gotta be that hump up there.

Nope, it must be that next one. Why is it that the first thing you think is the top never is?

At 9:30 a.m. we were looking at Mt. St. Helens, Adams, Hood and Jefferson from 14,410 feet. The summit. We did it! What a terrific place to be. No one else in sight. A flawless 360 degree view. We later learned that there are only about 12 days a year as clear as this.

We found our way back to camp by 1:30 p.m., packed, and had a great slide down the Inter Glacier. Well before sunset, we were admiring The Mountain from the car, having that "Can you believe we were up there today?" feeling.


Bill Berg is the founder of Cool Works, a Web site devoted to helping people find jobs in great places. He grew up in the flatlands of rural Minnesota, started working summers in Yellowstone in 1972, spent 9 winters in the interior of Yellowstone as a "Winterkeeper," sort of a winter caretaker of the old hotels, spent a few seasons working for the National Outdoor Leadership School and worked as a backcountry ranger for the National Park Service in Alaska and Yellowstone.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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