Mt. Rainier Climb (14,411 ft) via Disappointment Cleaver Route - June 17-19, 2006
Trip theme: "Get it Wet. Dry it Out Again" or "Don't Look Weak in Front of the RMI Guides"
The original plan was to only climb Mt. Hood on this trip. However our egos took hold, along with our desire to get our moneys worth, and we decided that we would attempt Mt. Rainier as well. I had spoken with several people who: 1) Suggested we do Hood first so as not to be blown out by doing Rainier first; 2) Said as long as we were in good shape we'd have no problem. Seems like a good idea and then we can do something more exotic sooner. OK, plan in hand. Let's do two mountains this year!
We had considered stopping by Mt. St. Helens on the way to Mt. Rainier after summiting Mt. Hood, but by the time we got to the right exit we were both tired from the days climb and just wanted to get to camp. I had selected the Cougar Rock campground as it was conveniently located between Paradise and Ashford where Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI) is located. In keeping with tradition, we wanted to climb the mountain with a guide service instead of tackling things ourselves. Even more so on Mt. Rainier as it is billed as the toughest endurance climb in the lower 48 states and is the most heavily glaciated peak in the lower 48 states. Certainly if we hired a guide for Mt. Hood we would hire one for Mt. Rainier. Here is the sticky part. If you want to climb the main route you have exactly one choice, RMI. I had heard from several people, and various sources on the Internet, that climbing with RMI could be less than a personalized experience. Or less eloquently put, it can be like a cattle call where you're one of the numbered cattle. I had also heard that they "secretly" evaluate you during snow school and the climb to Camp Muir and if they felt like you were under performing they would stop your climb. I figured the cattle call I would endure and I had no worries about my ability to perform (in fact I like the fact they will wash out the folks that can't make it any way). So Ed, George and I signed up for the RMI 3 day summit climb.
First thing though was our rest day. Quite conveniently the RMI schedule allowed us to take a complete rest day between climbing Mt. Hood and climbing Mt. Rainier. I had originally planned several aggressive day hike choices for our "rest day" but I was still very concerned about my knee (see Eagle Creek trip report) and elected to make this a rest day in the true sense of the word. Fortunately for me it was a crummy weather day. We checked out the RMI base camp compound in the morning, did some laundry (twice), and then ate lunch at the Longmire Inn. Then when it started to really rain hard we got in another full game of hearts in the game room of the Inn. Eventually the rain faded and everyone else (Ed, George and Ping) wanted to do a small day hike. We scoped out a short section of the Wonderland Trail near where we were camped that they would do. I stayed behind to attempt to dry out all of our gear yet again as it was still soaking wet from the climb the day before and the rains of today. Ed bravely left out all of his gear as well and asked me to put it all away should the rain come back. Well guess what happened, it started to rain heavily again. I scrambled around like crazy trying to get everything back into the SUV or into a tent. Unfortunately for Ed, the prioritization tended towards my stuff first and I wasn't able to get his tent/fly picked up before they were even more wet than before. I wound up taking a very short day hike to test out the knee and then we drove up to Paradise to check out the visitors center and see if we could get a view of the mountain. The weather up there was less than perfect but Ed got to shop in the various gift shops.
Saturday we got up early, picked up our rental gear at RMI (which for me was a down parka and a pair of over mitts), and waited for the cattle call to commence. As it turned out, this Saturday coincided with a separate snow school for an event called Climb for Clean Air which is run by the founder of RMI, Lou Whittaker. Lou is in his 70's and is one of the big names in American mountaineering so it was neat to get to meet him. I had been warned by the guides at Mt. Hood to expect a different emphasis in the RMI snow school so I was prepared to be along for the ride. I must admit I wasn't overly excited about doing another snow school again, but I figured at a minimum I would probably learn some glacier travel skills that I had not been exposed to yet. Once again as I looked at the vans we were to ride up to Paradise in, I realized I had made a critical error. This time about riding in a van for 45 minutes on a very windy road. As it turned out I had no trouble with the van ride at all. During the ride I was listening in on the conversation between the two guides who were assigned to our snow school. It was fairly apparent to me that neither of them had done many snow schools recently and neither could remember the exact program. Wonderful. Our snow school started off with an excessively long hike to where they wanted to do the school. Since I was semi-familiar with the area I knew we were taking the scenic route, ostensibly to see if any one became winded on the hike (so they could be washed out). Finally we got to the snow school location where, just like I was told, we spent very little time on proper climbing techniques and a great deal of time on self arrest training. We then spent a great deal of time on rope travel, but very little on what I would consider safe glacier travel knowledge. I later got our guide to admit that they weren't necessarily teaching a comprehensive snow school as much as they were teaching only the things they felt were necessary to climb Mt. Rainier. Final verdict: Obviously RMI does things the way they do because its successful for them, however I was very glad to have other experiences outside of the RMI snow school that I used to make my climb safer and more enjoyable. Mostly I spent the snow school practicing other skills and showing the guides that I could perform well enough to climb. I also asked what I think was a lot of annoying questions, but hey that's me. Saturday night we played our last hearts game of the trip and I spent an excessive amount of time reorganizing my gear for the umpteenth time.
Sunday morning we broke camp and headed back down to the RMI base camp. Today we would climb up to Camp Muir at 10,100 feet starting at the Paradise Visitor Center at 5,400 feet. We met the people who were to climb with us, which turned out to be a total of 9 including the 3 of us. I later found out that we were very fortunate in having a very small group size. We then met the three guides we would have on this trip: Justin, Will and Joel. One of our guides was from the snow school yesterday (Will) and two were new to us. Our head guide Justin was just back from a successful summit of Mt. Everest which was very cool. I chatted with him a bunch about the Himalaya area and the Everest climb. It turns out he was on one of the expeditions that I was following very closely via dispatches over the Internet, so it was doubly cool to gain a little insight into an expedition that I knew a lot about. Certainly we knew that our head guide was fully qualified. I had previously climbed to Camp Muir so I knew what this part of the climb should be like. The main difference being that the last time I did it I was carrying a day pack and there was significantly less snow. This time it was all snow and I was carrying 34 pounds. At the end of the day though it was still pretty much the same thing, a long slog up a moderately steep snow slope. The snow wasn't as soft as it was when I did it before so in a lot of ways the climb seemed easier. I maintained second position in line during the whole climb so as to keep the performance level up, lest I fall victim to the dreaded "secret" evaluation (yea right). We got to Camp Muir about mid afternoon where true to form it was much colder than on the Muir snowfield. One of the advantages to climbing with RMI is that you get to stay in the Muir Hut instead of having to carry up a tent. In the hut I found out why having a small group size was of considerable good fortune. We were 9 people in a hut designed to hold 30 like sardines. I can only imagine how unbearable it must be in the hut when it is filled to capacity. The rest of the afternoon consisted of organizing gear for the climb, eating dinner, and the dreaded 6PM bedtime where you lie in your sleeping bag for hours on end trying to sleep.
We awoke at 12:30AM to start our climb. Like on Mt. Hood, I popped a handful of Advil while I jammed to the climbing tunes on my mp3 player in preparation for the climb. I stepped outside and was instantly very pleased, the stars were fantastic. There was a complete cloud cover below us and nothing but stars above. The summer Milky Way was fabulous with lots of definition in the dust lanes. Our rope team consisted of Justin, George, Ed and myself (in that order). I was very pleased to be climbing with people that I know and trust and also to be with the head guide. Glacier travel is a little different on the rope in that you have a much larger space in between the climbers, the idea being that if one person falls in a crevasse the others won't. I was at the end of the rope apparently because I was deamed to be the strongest climber. As such I was subject to fun things like having to climb at double speed every now and then in order to keep up when the rest of the team crested a hill or went around a corner. Somewhere around 1:30AM we roped up and set out onto the Cowlitz glacier. After the Cowlitz glacier we climbed up Cathedral gap. The gap was already devoid of snow so it is a small rock / scree trail all the way. Walking on rocks is always an adventure when wearing crampons but even more so when its dark outside. Even so we made it to the top of the gap without any difficulty. Interestingly our pace was much quicker than I had expected. I had no problem keeping up but it seemed like we were climbing pretty fast for a guided trip. Once we got to Ingraham Flats at about 11,000 feet I found out why. They asked if anybody wanted to quit. One fellow in our group decided that he had already had enough and took them up on the offer. The guides set up a tent, pulled out a sleeping, and put the guy in it. It wouldn't be until 8 hours later that we got back and picked him up.
The rest of us carried on and started up Disappointment Cleaver (the crux of the route). Climbing the Cleaver is suppose to be the preferred route as you don't have to worry as much about crevasses but it is steeper than just going up the Ingraham glacier. I found climbing it to be as difficult as advertised. There was a short rocky section near the bottom which we moved through quickly as it is prone to rock fall. Then we started up a steep snow slope. As we were climbing I looked down to my right and noticed that if we were to fall in this section we wouldn't stop until we crashed into a huge pile of rocks several hundred feet below. I was still a little on edge after our Hogsback experience a few days earlier so this wigged me out a little bit. Further up the Cleaver we reached a steeper section where RMI had put in a few hundred feet of fixed lines. I think we were suppose to clip into the fixed line but I never had time. I was at the end of a long rope in the dark, so I couldn't see the guide to tell what was going in. We seemed to suddenly surge ahead up the rope at a much faster pace, never seeming to stop at any of the intermediate points where we would have needed to move the carabiner. I found it very difficult to judge my pace as I couldn't even see Ed in front of me so I wound up climbing at a very erratic pace. Either somewhat slowly or at double time speed. By the time we got to the top of the Cleaver my legs were burning from the effort. We reached the spot for our next break at about 12,000 feet and sat down. Suddenly the wind had picked up and it was very much colder than it had been only moments before. I threw on the down parka and started searching through my bag for another jacket, a hat, neck gaiter and gloves. Between the dark, my fatigue, and the rush that accompanies the breaks, I couldn't find my neck gaiter and I just about lost one of my water bottles down the slope. I am prone to having minor meltdowns when I can't find something in my pack, and I went ahead and had one now. Justin was kind enough to find my neck gaiter in one of my trash bags thus solving that problem. At this point I was a little tired, cold, and a little wigged out from climbing the Cleaver. If they had asked if anyone wanted to quit I may have taken them up on the offer. However they never asked and we kept on going. I never wound up getting anything to eat at this stop as I was too rushed with other things.
The climbing above the Cleaver became much more straight forward and the sky started to lighten with the impending dawn. Once things got lighter I was able to see what was going on in front of me and I had a much easier time maintaining a constant pace instead of the erratic pace I was doing in the dark. At this point I really settled into the climb. All of my earlier problems disappeared and I was glad they had not asked if anyone wanted to quit at the last rest stop. The pace we maintained was just about right for me. We then settled into a rhythm and wound our way up the upper slopes of the Ingraham glacier. It was in this section and the next one that I really put to use some of the climbing techniques that I had gained from 3 different snow schools. Whereas most people in our group were either climbing straight up or duck walking, I was using a variety of different steps that allowed my legs to stay fresher along with rest stepping and pressure breathing. I also made sure I was always climbing in balance as you could still slide a very long way before you stopped. Here we had another experience I have never had on a guided trip, we passed other non-guided groups. We didn't just slowly pass them either, we blew past. Justin led us off the beaten path and we blazed a new trail around several groups that were holding us up. Pretty quickly we reached "High Break" at around 13,000 feet. I was feeling strong, confident and really having a lot of fun at this point. Outside of being a little cold, we had good snow and beautiful clear skies with amazing views. I was able to lounge a little at this break as I didn't need any adjustments. Another one of our group was having a tough time and was thinking about quitting. The guides were essentially trying to talk him out of quitting, instead they suggested that he really focus on proper breathing and rest stepping. He changed his mind and decided to press on. I offered some words of wisdom as we started back up, something to the effect of "You can do it. If it doesn't hurt a little you're not having fun!"
From here on it was just one foot in front of the other until I couldn't see any more mountain ahead of us. As we crossed over the lip of the crater rim at around 8AM I saw that the actual high point seemed fairly far away and higher than I expected. There was no one else on the summit. We had apparently passed everyone who was ahead of us and were the first ones on the summit today, not too shabby. The wind really picked up in the crater rim and thankfully instead of stopping right at the edge we continued all the way over to the far side out of the wind closest to the last hill to the high point. Here you have a choice, take a long rest break or continue on to the actual high point. The guides claim that the rim counts as a summit on a volcano but for me there was no choice. A mountain has only one true summit and that's the highest point. Justin told us we could go on to the highest point but that we were making a deal with him that we'd have enough energy left to safely descend. I was a little tired at this point and conserved energy on the way to the high point. I found out later that Ed was racing me to the top but he neglected to tell me first. I wondered why he and George took off like a bat out of hell. We all signed the register which is in a steel box about halfway up and then continued on to the actual high point. Holy cow was it windy up there! I'll never understand why 10 feet from a summit is fine but on the actual summit its always windy as hell. The wind made it really cold so I got some pictures snapped and then beat feet back down to where we were in the crater. The view from the top was really spectacular with the crystal clear skies and cloud cover all down below us. I had some slight concerns about how tired I would be on the 9,000 foot descent, but then I remembered that the guides would have lots of experience in this regard. They know that if you can get to the top within a certain period of time that you almost always have enough juice left to make it down. As soon as I started down from the summit my legs felt fresh and strong and I knew that those 2 months I spent training for this climb were put to good use.
The way down wasn't too bad. It wasn't too terribly steep and the snow was good enough to where I could get solid grip with the crampons. I was still very careful with my foot placement and staying in balance as falling didn't look to be a fun option. Once we got down to just above the Cleaver I was pleased to hear that we were going to go down the Ingraham glacier direct route instead of down the Cleaver. Excellent, I didn't have to face whatever had wigged me out in the dark. The Ingraham glacier was fun and interesting because we were traveling in a heavily crevassed area with ice seracs overhead. We had to wind our way through the crevasses and in a few places carefully step over some snow bridges that looked to be less than in optimal condition (i.e. we could fall in). Once down at the bottom of the Ingraham glacier I looked back up and was amazed at what we had climbed through, pretty cool. It was interesting to note that I felt more comfortable on the glacier because the steepness of the slope was less, but the guides felt more comfortable on the steeper Cleaver because there was less exposure to crevasses and falling ice seracs. Justin mentioned at this point that a huge ice serac had fallen over the glacier just a couple of days ago. We also learned at this point that we were looking at the site of one of the biggest mountaineering accidents in American history. Apparently a bunch of people got avalanched starting up the Cleaver, coincidently right where we had passed through very quickly that morning. I guess that's why they leave out these little details until after you have passed through on the way down. We finally reunited here with our climber that we had left here 8 hours earlier in the tent. Having made it back to Ingraham Flats we were through the tricky sections of the descent. From here down we had to negotiate our way back down Cathedral Gap, over the Cowlitz glacier and then all the way back down the Muir snowfield to Paradise. Getting back down to Camp Muir was uneventful. We had a good time kicking rocks off the path and watching them careen down the glacier. Once at Camp Muir we took about an hour break to rest a little and to pack up all of our gear for the last half of the descent. Boy did that pack feel heavy when I put it back on!
The climb down the snowfield was long and tedious like expected. The first part was hot and mostly on top of the snow with the occasional post hole. Then we got into the clouds and most people started glissading in spots. I'm not a huge fan of glissading so I chose to boot glissade where I could. We met up with the next RMI group coming up the mountain. It was 3 groups strong with 27 people. Boy am I glad our group was small. We got to a spot near Pebble Creek where we took a break. Justin was telling me that we could order pizza from the mountain and it would be ready for us when we got back to RMI, how cool is that! George, Ed and I are all standing there instead of sitting when it occurred to the guides that maybe we were anxious to finish the climb. The only other item of interest on the way down was a steep glissade where we had massive wipe outs and collisions. I collected 3 trekking poles during my boot glissade. Of course the weather was crummy back at Paradise. Back down at RMI base camp George, Ed, Ping and I all had pizza. And for the first time I was able to buy the guides a round of beer for stepping on the rope.
Overall Mt. Rainier was a tough climb, but not as hard as I thought it would be. Many people had told me it was the hardest thing they had ever done in their life. It was hard but I was in good shape from 2 months of training. Honestly I think the relatively short climb up the Western Breach on Kili, where I was also sick, was physically more demanding for me even though it was only for a few hours. Our experience climbing with RMI was great. We kept a good pace and the guides did a good job. Two things in particular made me enjoy the climb more than I otherwise would have: 1) I had previous climbing experience; 2) Our group was much smaller than the average size that RMI guides up. In summary I would recommend that people not make this their first alpine climb, but rather warm up to it the way we did. And if possible, climb on holidays like Father's Day. Also in case you're curious, two days later my legs were sore almost as bad as they were after Kili.
|Drying out stuff out yet again at the Cougar Rock campground in Mt. Rainier National Park||Ed in front of the run off from the Nisqually glacier|
|A scale model of Mt. Rainier. You can clearly see our route although it isn't marked||Ed, Ping and George waiting at RMI base camp prior to our snow school|
|The fox who magically appeared at lunch time during our snow school||Will ponders who he is going to wash out during a break at snow school|
|Ready to leave RMI base camp for our summit attempt||Ed at Paradise preparing to climb|
|George at Paradise preparing to climb||Finally a clear look at Mt. Rainier. We had to climb above the clouds to get it|
|This is where we had the crash filled glissade on the way down||Taking a rest break just above the clouds on the Muir snowfield|
|Is it just me or is that a long way still to go?||Our route takes us to the right of that big rocky area near the right center|
|Justin answers one of my myriad of questions||Further up the snow field. You can see Mt. Adams in the background|
|Looking stylish further up the Muir snowfield||Camp Muir is just up there in what looks like a saddle|
|Looks a little closer now||Mark at Camp Muir (10,100 ft) looking back down the Muir snowfield. Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood in the background|
|Mark at Camp Muir (10,100 ft) looking up towards Cathedral Gap||The RMI huts at Camp Muir|
|Where you have to stay if you're not with RMI||Cathedral Gap. We climb up the scree slope in the middle of the picture in between the rocks and the snow|
|Ed using hot water to make dinner inside the hut||My spacious accommodations inside the hut. I got to use 3 sleeping pads|
|Ed and George ready to start our summit push at 1AM||I'm done jamming to tunes. Let's climb|
|Finally its light outside. We've climbed a long way. We came from the bottom right||Looking up at the upper mountain. It's just like eating an elephant. One bite at a time.|
|"High Break" at 13,000 ft. The guides were trying to talk the guy sitting down into not quitting. Think it was cold?||Inside the summit crater|
|Mark at the almost high point||Ed and George overlooking the last obstacle between us and the true summit|
|George, Ed and Mark on the true summit of Mt. Rainier (14,411 ft) on 6/19/06. A 9,000 foot climb from the trailhead.||Looking back at the summit crater from the summit|
|Looking to the west from the summit||Looking to the north from the summit as more of our group comes up|
|Looking to the south from the summit||Coming down the upper mountain|
|Further down the mountain. This is just above the Disappointment Cleaver||Looking to the northeast from the top of the Cleaver|
|Looking back up at some precariously balance seracs||Ditto. Why are we sitting here?|
|Starting down the Ingraham glacier||Justin checks to make sure a snow bridge over a crevasse is safe|
|Tell me again why I think this crevasse filled glacier is safer?||Looking back up the Ingraham glacier we had just descended|
|Looking up at Disappointment Cleaver. This is what we had climbed in the morning||The tent our climber stayed in started to blow away|
|We traverse around the right side of that crevasse and then go down Cathedral Gap||Mark in front of the Ingraham glacier|
|Don't I look silly with a rope connect while standing on a big flat plateau?||Well at least compared to this guy I look studly|
|Looking down towards Camp Muir from the top of Cathedral Gap||Mt. Rainier from the airplane. The kid next to me was duly impressed that we had stood higher than the plane was flying|
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