This was it, what I had been training for.
When this is over, I told myself, I can consider myself a novice mountaineer.
There were four of us: Andy, Jimmy, Tim and me. Andy and Jimmy were college friends, who, like me, were originally from Pennsylvania. Jim knew Tim from upstate New York, where they both lived. Tim, having previously summited Rainier, as well as Denali, Aconcagua and even Everest, was our expedition leader — in short, The Man. We were going to do whatever he said in our attempt to summit Mt. Rainier, the most dangerous volcano in the United States.
The day started early as my lovely Dorothy dropped me at the airport before her daily commute. She’d graciously done the same on several previous occasions when I was heading off for some other adventure. Saying good-bye was never fun. Carrying a heavy backpack and fully stuffed duffel bag was no picnic either, but those were my loads to bear, at least until a few minutes (and $40) later, when they were checked behind the US Air counter, hopefully on their way to Seattle’s Sea-Tac Airport. I myself was on my way to Phoenix for a two-hour layover before I rejoined my bags.
The weather in Seattle was perfect — drizzling. The four of us met at REI, picked up some fuel, a quick wrap (yes, the Seattle REI even sells food) and discussed our climbing route. The road on the northeast side of the mountain was closed, so Liberty Ridge was not possible. We decided on our southern backup, the Kautz Glacier Route, a Grade II to III climb with an elevation gain of 9,000 feet. A few hours’ drive later, we stopped at the Hobo Inn for our last meal before we began our ascent. Burgers were the grub of choice. We proceeded up the Nisqually-Longmire Road into Mount Rainier National Park, but a short time after we began driving the wind picked up and storm conditions were evident. Tim made the call to go back down to where it was more pleasant for our night’s slumber. We found a dead-end road, pitched our tents under some trees and, after a few final phone calls, turned in for the night.
Morning was cool and clear. A very good sign. We ate breakfast bars and hydrated as much as possible while packing for what might be three full nights in the snow. A short while after we set out, we arrived at Paradise, an area known for incredible views and wildflowers (although the latter were in short supply at the time) and the location of the park’s main visitor center. We registered our backcountry outing at the Guide House, paused for our final bathroom break and started up the main trail.
It wasn’t long before the snow got too deep to walk on and we had to don snowshoes to cross the Nisqually Glacier, which was basically a snowfield — it was so early in the season no crevasses had opened up. We had also roped up and I was getting a crash course in glacier travel, an exhausting but necessary way to proceed. When we reached the base of the Fan, a prominent chute on the other side, we removed our snowshoes due to the steep incline, unroped to reduce party-inflicted rockfall and turned on our avalanche beacons. Above us, we could hear the constant and unsettling sound of careening rocks, loosened from the snow and ice by the sun’s rays.
We traversed a steep, exposed slope and made it to solid ground, continued up a ridge to the top of the Wilson Glacier at 8,200 feet and dug our first camp. I was exhausted from six hours of climbing but after catching my breath I picked up a shovel and joined in, clearing and packing a flat area in the snow roomy enough for our two tents. The weather had remained pleasant and we enjoyed the clear skies while we melted snow for water to drink and cook our meals. After ingesting as much as possible, we took our final bathroom break and crawled into our sleeping bags for our first night’s sleep on the massive mountain.
Morning brought breakfast bars and oatmeal. We took our time because it was a beautiful day and our goal was the bivy spot below Camp Hazard, just up the ridge but another elevation gain of 3,000 feet. After filling our water bottles, packing our tents and installing our crampons, I actually broke trail over a rocky ice-coated cornice-type ridge until Jimmy took over. That’s my M.O. — blow my energy early and lag the rest of the hike. I stayed true to form. As we hiked, we noticed a strange saucer-shaped cloud hovering over Mt. Adams to our south. Tim identified as a lenticular cloud (often mistaken for UFOs; I could see why) and said it was not good news.
Onward and upward we continued, purposefully switch-backing to ease the gain, zig-zagging between a ridge and the Turtle, a deep glacier just below our route to the Kautz, in an attempt to remain on rock rather than posthole through the deeper snow. I was lagging badly. My three companions would stop just long enough for me to catch up and then take off again, leaving me with words of wisdom like “drink” and “eat.” I took their advice but, glancing behind us, noticed that the weather seemed to be closing in. I wondered whether the increasing clouds were due to our elevation gain or whether there was a real storm blowing in from the Pacific. Either way, visibility was definitely decreasing. Ignorance might be bliss but as the fog grew thicker and landmarks became invisible, I found it more and more difficult to determine just how far forward I was moving, if at all. My exhausted brain searched for excuses to continue at my sluggish pace. I wished for an altimeter. Or a GPS. Finally, I caught up to a conversation: We were going to ascend for another 30 minutes. I could do that.
The wind picked up steadily from the West and so did the snow. We came to a small ledge next to a rock wall just under the Kautz Ice Cliff below Camp Hazard. I was surprised that the group had broken out the shovels and started building up the single ledge into two ledges large enough for both two-man tents. Tim was grabbing large boulders and tossing them to Jimmy to stack; Andy and I built up our platform till it looked like it could at least fit us on it – hopefully, our tent as well. We set up the tents at 11,300 feet, anchoring them into the snow with ice axes, ski poles, snow shoes, ice screws and whatever else we could find while tying them to rocks and each other and filling them with gear. Tim directed us to look down the slope we had ascended and imagine an avalanche, heavy wind or icefall hitting our tent: What would that do?!? It would turn our sleeping quarters into a large closed-in vinyl toboggan. Yikes!
The vision was terrifying and educational, a reminder of why it was a good idea to trek with an experienced climber. Still, we never did take his advice to fill bags with snow, tie them to the tents and bury them. It seemed like a great idea but at the time it also seemed like it would take too long and we were cold. I think we were all convinced that the storm was going to blow over. The forecast for the next day had indicated that it would be the best day to summit. Andrew and Tim, still not content, continued to excavate.
After fixing some ropes over the upper ledge, we headed inside for soup and tea. The wind was ridiculous, gusting at random intervals and maintaining a strength and consistency that Tim later admitted he’d never experienced. None of us got any sleep, periodically digging the snow buildup off the top and sides of our tents but eventually giving up and leaning into the walls to maintain the tents’ integrity. The wind howled at 70 to 80 mph, gusting at times to over 100 mph, while the temperature dropped to 14 degrees Fahrenheit. When we attempted to eat our dinner around 9 p.m., so much snow blew into the tent we realized we had lost control of the outer perimeter and it was time to move anything we cared about inside, including the stove to heat our water. The resulting heat melted the snow and soon most everything in the tent was wet and then frozen. The tent walls had become covered with frost and every time the wind shook our shelter it literally snowed all over everything. By 1 a.m. the snow was constant.
We could hear our neighbors yelling. The wind was so extreme that they were being slapped in the face by flattened tent poles. It was miserable but exhilarating. I kept thinking of all the books I’d read in which hikers found themselves in similar circumstances, thankful for our proximity to rescue and civilization. Beyond that, Tim had proven his experience and gained our trust so subtly that it was hard to conceive something could go fatally wrong. Regardless, we remained constantly vigilant and, around 8 a.m., Tim shouted over the still-crazy wind that we were breaking camp and leaving in one hour to go back down the mountain to Paradise.
Since we never really slept, that night seemed like a dream. But it wasn’t lack of sleep that slowed us down in breaking camp, it was the white-out conditions. Finally packed, I ran through our essentials. Water, check. Helmut, harness, beacon, crampons and axes, check. Secured backpack, check. Goggles, check. Visibility… none. Down we went. Every 30 seconds a gust would pick up, forcing us to anchor ourselves as Tim had instructed — crouching near the ground and shoving our axes into the snow as deep as possible. It was nuts.
Every step was against the wind. I took my time because I was still fairly new to crampons but I kept losing sight of my team and their tracks were filling up with snow. Soon we were wading through a waist-deep powder field, facing gale-force winds with 40-pound packs on our backs. I never imagined going down could be so draining. My friends were there for me at every turn, however, making sure I was okay before moving on. Nobody lost their temper and everyone was as helpful as possible when we could see and communicate with each other. I was the weakest link but I knew that a successful descent depended on continuing, for both getting down and for maintaining my core body temperature. One of my crampons came apart and I had to stop for repairs. The Velcro on my gaiters was no longer sticking so they kept falling apart. At one point, a trekking pole split in two, although I was able to fix it with an on-the-fly repair. Nobody could see through their goggles due to frozen condensation and the storm. My own had turned into a face warmer.
We made it to our first night’s camp where I discovered that one of my water bottles was frozen solid and I started eating anything my freezing hands could open. The surroundings were familiar, however, and, overall, things were looking up. We just needed to get off the ridge and out of the insane weather. Tim lead us to a rocky outcrop and we started climbing down by walking backwards, kicking steps into the snow wall and relying on our axes to keep us upright. Once we got to the exposed area I remembered from two days prior, Tim started down again. I watched, awestruck, as his second kick started a snow slide that quickly turned into an actual avalanche. I froze — literally, this time — as a stupendous and escalating wave of snow and ice hurtled down the Wilson Glacier below us. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and it wasn’t until I turned to Tim and saw a smile on his face that I realized the avalanche was the best thing that could have happened. Twenty inches of newly fallen soft snow had just slid down the mountain, exposing the snow beneath it that had frozen before the storm. We were on solid ground.
We continued down the slope to a sheltered spot beneath a cliff and sent Andrew to scout our final descent. It was still quite foggy and after some discussion, we decided to bring him back up and hope for the weather to clear a bit. When it did, we found our path, tied our two 200-foot ropes together and evenly spaced ourselves. I learned a lot in a very small amount of time about snow climbing in avalanche conditions. Pickets, boot-ax belays, prussics, screws and all possible forms of snow protection — all the tools I’d read about — were being utilized.
We lowered each other down the steep parts and moved in a line down the Fan until we reached the Nisqually Glacier and then kept on going. Tim was on a mission. The weather had lifted and the end was in sight so he broke trail till I cried for a water stop. Across the glacier, the route climbed 500 feet, pretty much straight up. We were still roped together and Tim was not letting up on the pace. When we finally crested a ridge and arrived in Paradise Valley, I thought I was going to throw up. But there it was — our initial path through the gap. Once Tim gave the go ahead, I broke trail for a good 15 minutes. Everyone passed me, however, and I eventually caught up with them on a hill overlooking the parking lot. Noticing that ours were the only two cars in the lot, we realized that we had literally broken trail the entire way, because nobody else had descended the regular or any other route that day. Elated, we headed for our cars.
I was now a novice mountaineer and it was time to get off this mountain.