June 22 - 24, 2007
TROG, by Aaron Riensche
It's just a vague, distant memory now, but I seem to recall the weather on Mt. Rainier wasn't too bad as we started the long slog up to Camp Muir from Paradise Park. I think the skies were clear, and we actually had layers of clothing that we weren't wearing.
It was the wind that kicked up first. By the time we got to our lunch spot at Pebble Creek, we were huddling under boulders for protection from the constant blast of icy air. Then the fog rolled in. Up until that point, Nate and Kirsten had felt free to wander ahead of Johanna and me. But after Pebble Creek, the whiteout was so dense human figures turned into silhouettes after a few feet and then disappeared after a few more, and at every trail marker we had to strain our eyes to recognize the next wand. Nate and Kirsten felt less comfortable leaving us behind, and were constantly having to stop and wait, freezing, while we caught up.
At the Muir Snowfield, which spans the last couple thousand feet up to Camp Muir, Johanna and I were really slowing down. I have a recollection of stumbling up toward Nate and Kirsten, seeing them huddled, shivering together, and wondering aloud how John Muir feels about having an F-ing bitch named after him.
Around this time, Nate and Kirsten suggested they go on ahead, so they could get their tent set up and be ready to help us with ours when we arrived. So they went ahead, and Johanna and I carried on, in the wind and the fog and the freezing cold, with forty-pound packs on our backs, slogging upward through the snow. At this point, one pauses to wonder why the National Park Service sees fit to suddenly stop marking the trail with wands, at the point where people are at their most exhausted and disoriented. A cruel joke, I assume. At any rate, Johanna and I reached a spot where the trail was hard to decipher, and this was complicated by the lack of markers and visibility.
But we somehow stayed on the correct path. And then, finally, several dark, rectangular shapes rose up above us in the fog. Camp Muir. The closest thing we'd seen to civilization in over six hours. As we trudged into camp, the fog broke for a few seconds, long enough for Kirsten to spot us from the outhouses and direct us to our campsite.
[Kirsten and I feel sick to our stomachs when we think back about this. Someone had apparently put in the steps during a whiteout because at a point where the trail normally does a rising traverse to the left toward Muir, they went straight up and then descended left around a rock outcropping before ascending to Muir. We debated whether we should wait for Aaron & Johanna to make sure they went the right way because someone had pushed the trail past the turnoff point and continued even further straight up. We decided they would be able to figure out which was the most well-trodden path and it was just too darned cold to sit and wait and we really wanted to be able to be able to help them get their tent up as soon as they got there. It was one of those tough decisions to make that could have turned out to be quite wrong if they had gone the wrong way and ended up prolonging their exposure to the freezing temperatures while they wandered aroud trying to find the right track. Just before they showed up I was starting to get a little worried and was planning what I would take with me to go look for them.]
Nate and Kirsten's tent was already set up, and they had saved us a spot next to them. Our friends, Eric and Brandon, found us as Nate and I were engaged in the struggle to set up our tent in the driving wind. They offered to help with the tent, but we had it pretty much under control, so instead they helped Johanna pull a few more layers out of her pack and put them on without having to take her gloves off.
By the time we were settled and cooking dinner, the altitude and dehydration were getting to me. I had a nagging headache and was feeling nauseous. When dinner was ready I renewed an argument, from earlier in the week, that the amount of couscous we had used on our Memorial Day Mt. Baker trip was one box at dinner. I thought my evidence was sound: there was too much food here and it was too dry. But Johanna insisted two boxes was the correct recipe. I couldn't finish my dinner, so we stashed my excess couscous in one of the little blue bags the park service gives you for excrement storage.
Saturday morning, we awoke to clear skies. The cloud deck was just below camp. From the Muir outhouses, we had a panoramic view that included Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood's angular peak off in the distance, and Mt. St. Helens' dome just barely pushing up through the clouds.
After breakfast, we did some crampon practice on the hill that slopes up from camp, and then donned our climbing gear and roped up for a practice hike. We did roughly the first leg of the summit attempt, crossing the Cowlitz Glacier, where boulders were falling through the trail all weekend, and then shortening our rope to ascend the Cathedral Rocks. At the top of the rocks, we stopped for lunch with a spectacular view of Little Tahoma. The skies were clear, but it was still windy and very cold. About this time, I realized my camera batteries were not reacting well to the temperature, and I never got a good picture of Little Tahoma.
Back at camp, it was time to start melting snow for dinner and our water bottles. Eric and Brandon stopped by again. They were there with the guide service, RMI, which provided hot water for them, so while all our spare minutes were spent firing up the camp stove, digging for clean snow, and waiting for water to boil, they were actually getting a little bored. Brandon wanted to climb the rock formation in front of camp that he had already climbed the night before. Once again, he wanted me to go with him, and I, despite thinking it looked pretty fun, had neither the time nor the energy for such a venture.
Groups were coming back from summit attempts all day. Generally, the professionally guided groups seemed to be making it, while the private groups were not. Kirsten talked to a guy from California who was in one of the groups that had come up short. He told Kirsten he had climbed Whitney and Shasta, and that the hike up to Muir was more difficult than summiting either of those mountains.
We had couscous for dinner again that afternoon. And while I was able to finish mine this time, it was Johanna's turn to finally acknowledge that the correct recipe called for one less box. This time her leftovers went into the little blue bag.
Around dinnertime, a ranger came to talk with us about climbing conditions. She said the forecast was for temperatures in the teens (Fahrenheit) at Muir, and obviously dropping the higher up we went. From those temperatures, subtract the wind chill from expected fifty mile-per-hour winds, and you start to get an idea of how cold it was. One to four inches of snow were also predicted.
Nate and Kirsten were planning to wake up at midnight. But, knowing it would take us longer to get ready, they asked us to get up at 11:30. I had brought my cell phone along because it was the smallest alarm-clock-type device we had. Unfortunately, in the early evening, as we were just trying to get to sleep, we discovered that its battery was suffering the same fate as our camera batteries. Hence, it started to ring out a pleasant little chime, informing us that the battery was dangerously low, about once an hour for the rest of the evening.
We didn't get much sleep that night. Between the anticipation, the early hour, my phone's hourly chime, the constant wind shaking the tent, and the general discomfort of sleeping on snow, circumstances weren't exactly restful.
I did eventually sleep, however. And then I awoke to the sound of the tent door zipper. Johanna announced that the skies were clear. I looked at my phone: 11:33. Why hadn't the alarm sounded? Johanna wondered. I'm not sure - I'm quite certain I set it for 11:30. I scrolled to the alarm function; I had indeed set it for 11:30… A.M. So we had been waking up every hour all evening to the low-battery warning of an alarm that was never going to go off. A few minutes later, I picked it up to check the time; the battery was dead.
1:30a.m. Bundled up in all our layers, boots and crampons on our feet, packs on our backs, ropes and prussiks clipped into our harnesses. Cold and windy, but the night was clear and it seemed we could see every star in the sky. By headlamp light, we began our ascent. Nate led the way out of camp. When his length of rope was extended, Johanna followed, then me, then Kirsten.
We soon established ourselves as the slow team. Several groups passed us as we crossed the Cowlitz Glacier and made our way up the Cathedral Rocks, including Eric and Brandon's threesome, who appeared to be the fastest team. By the time we reached our first resting point, at Ingraham Flats, there were no more groups behind us. Actually, a group in front of us, three men from North Carolina, had already turned back, intimidated by the gaping series of crevasses that crisscross the Ingraham Glacier.
We had a snack, and Johanna complained of a pain in the back of her neck. We couldn't rest long though. It was just too cold. We traversed the glacier, our trail zigzagging to avoid the crevasses-although we had to step over one that was a foot or so wide at our crossing point.
At the bottom of the Disappointment Cleaver, we clipped into a fixed line. The way up the Cleaver was painstaking. Every few steps, one of the four of us would reach a joint in the fixed line, and the whole team would have to stop while that person unclipped from one side of the joint and clipped back in on the other-not the easiest of tasks with big thick gloves on.
The sun peeked up over the horizon off to our right, but we had to focus on what was directly in front of us. The trail was steep enough that at times I shifted my ice ax from the vertical, cane-like position, to the horizontal, hammer-like position so I could dig the pick into the trailside snow that seemed to be right next to my face. The trail was narrow, and if you didn't step just right, you would catch your crampons on the pant leg or footwear on the other foot. Then there was the occasional blast of extra-strong wind, which if you weren't in a stable position when it came would blow you off balance, causing a shuddering moment of panic before you could dig your ax back into the mountainside and regain your composure. Looking at the steep slide down to yawning crevasses below, even with the rope the thought of taking a fall was unpleasant.
So we continued up the Cleaver, in a plodding, methodic rhythm-two steps crunching in the snow followed by the stabbing sound of the ice ax. About a third of the way up the Cleaver, the fixed line came to an abrupt end, and we were on our own. The sky was getting light, the glow of our headlamps on the snow overwhelmed by a general pallor all around us. Crunch-crunch-stab, crunch-crunch-stab…
We were about halfway up the Cleaver when Nate reeled in Johanna's line and asked her if she wanted to stop and evaluate. With pain still gripping the back of her neck, Johanna readily agreed. We drove our ice-axes into the snow and removed our packs.
The sunrise was in full splendor at this point-the entire sky a brilliant orange, reflecting off the clouds below, a sea of white flowing from the horizon and then billowing up around Little Tahoma's peak like waves crashing off a reef. Mt. Adams looked majestic off in the distance. As beautiful as the morning was though, we could see that the white clouds below were coming up toward us, gray clouds were already obscuring Rainier's summit, and menacing, black storm clouds were drifting our way from the southwest.
We had been on the trail for roughly four hours, and we estimated we were at about 11,800 feet, only about 1,800 up from Muir, with well over 2,000 to go. At this rate, if we kept going, summit or no summit, we would get caught in the storm and then be crossing the glaciers in the late afternoon, the most treacherous time of day. Meanwhile, Johanna's neck was hurting badly, and the fatigue of altitude, sleep deprivation, cold, and a third straight day of hiking were wearing on both of us. As we discussed the situation, another group, having given up ahead, passed us on their way down.
Nate and Kirsten let us decide if we wanted to keep going. In the end, it came down to the realization (a) that we were probably not going to make the summit at this pace, and (b) that short of the summit we were not going to see anything more impressive than the view we had right there. It seemed as good a place as any to turn around. Johanna opened her pack and unfurled her Ecuadorian flag. And, after posing for a commemorative photograph, we started down.
[If the weather had been better we would have willingly pushed higher up the mountain just to see how far we could make it. But even though the weather started out clear, the forecast was bad and we could see bad things on the way and it was not going to get any easier the higher we went.]
In these freezing temperatures, the snow was icy, and we had to walk carefully, leaning back and digging all our crampons into each step. Another group, three women and a man from various parts of the country who had been our neighbors in camp, passed us heading down, proclaiming they had "a pooper and a pee-er" and had to get down urgently. They had been forced to turn back because the lone man had come down with altitude sickness. (In his defense, he was from Phoenix and had undergone a 100-degree temperature drop in the last few days.)
On the Ingraham Glacier, we each paused at the crevasse we had stepped over earlier, straddling it momentarily and peering down into its depths. By the time we descended the Cathedral Rocks and crossed the Cowlitz Glacier, the clear skies were gone, and we entered camp in a whiteout. Johanna had slipped and fallen twice, banging her knees hard on the icy ground the second time.
At 8:30 a.m., we were back at our tents and decided to take a nap until noon. At about 11:15, Brandon and Eric and their guide (a.k.a., Speedy Gonzales, Edwin Moses, and Sir Edmund Hillary) trudged into camp having reached the summit. Under their guide's stern direction, they broke camp and were on their way down before we got up.
At noon, the mountain coaxed us out of our tents with little rays of sunshine. But as soon as I stepped outside, the skies darkened. It was clear the mountain was not going to let us off without one last lesson. Soon, Camp Muir was engulfed in blizzard. The snow was assaulting us horizontally and building up a thick layer on the tent-then an extra strong gust of wind would blast through and rattle the tent so violently the snow would fly off.
Johanna and I decided to pack our backpacks inside the tent. We kept the tent door open and put a pack inside the closed vestibule. But the wind was so strong it blew snow up under the vestibule walls and into the tent, so eventually we pulled the packs all the way inside. After an hour or so of bungling around, we emerged with our packs into the blizzard. We then began the process of taking the tent down, in what Nate and Kirsten described as the most "exciting" camp-breaking experience they could remember. In winds that strong, the different pieces of the tent are more like sails than shelter. You couldn't set anything down for fear it would blow away. And the things heavy enough not to blow away (i.e., backpacks and people) were building up a thick layer of rime ice on their windward sides. At 2:30, we started down.
The whiteout lasted the whole way. But the wind calmed down somewhat as we descended, shifting the snow from horizontal to a more reasonable diagonal, and the dreary trudging was interrupted by an occasional gleeful glissade (a.k.a. sliding on your butt). The snow turned to hail for a while, but at least it was falling vertically, and this turned back to snow, then to a light snow, and then to rain by the time we reached Paradise. (In the words of Sam Elliott's cowboy character in The Big Lebowski, "I didn't find it to be that exactly.")
At the visitor's center, we checked in with the rangers and looked up our route on a scale model of the mountain. We had brought Cerveza Pilsener, smuggled from Ecuador and saved for a special occasion, as triumphant return beers. But it was far too cold for beer, so we had triumphant return hot cocoa.
It's hard to look back on a trip where you were freezing cold, dog-tired, and in pain most of the time, and think what a good time it was. But we will have great memories of this expedition. You take the bad with the good, and this is what it takes for the once-in-a-lifetime experiences of seeing Adams, Hood, and St. Helens all at once, watching the sun rise over Little Tahoma, staring into the mouth of a crevasse, or getting up in the middle of the night and feeling the adrenaline pump as you clip into a rope under the stars.
Immeasurable thanks to Nate and Kirsten for taking us along on this ride, for all their help, and for their infinite patience as we stumbled along forcing them to move all weekend at a pace much slower than they're accustomed to. And a big congratulations to Eric and Brandon for making the summit on their first try-pretty cool.
[Aaron and Johanna should be proud of where they made it. Looking at the forecast prior to the weekend I wasn't sure we would even get a chance to leave Camp Muir. And Kirsten and I would like to thank them for being such great sports, for taking this thing seriously, and for doing everything we asked of them. It was a lot of fun bringing family into our little mountain world. The added emotion of having family not just with us but also reliant on us, made decisions a little more difficult, and I'm thankful that we completed both the Baker and Rainier trips without any serious problems. And lastly I want to apologize for the weather. We just got the wrong end of the stick on both Baker and Rainier. Rest assured we don't normally intentionally subject ourselves to those kinds of conditions.]