“At first an ordeal and then an accomplishment, the daily run becomes a staple, like bread, or wine, a fine marriage, or air. It is also a free pass to friendship.”
~ Benjamin Cheever, Strides

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Rainier Recap

**WARNING:  Long-winded post ahead**

For whatever reason, writing up a recap of my experiences climbing Rainier has been incredibly hard to do.  So much so, that I've avoided the blog world in general.  Time to put on my big girl panties and fill everyone in.  This may take a while.

August 22, 2013

We were supposed to meet the rest of the climb team at base camp at 8:15 am to take the shuttle to Paradise.  We were a couple minutes late because on the way there Wendy realized she'd left behind her softshell jacket.  I hoped this wasn't a sign for the trip.  We still had time to pose by the summit climb sign before loading up in the shuttle.
My Dad, Wendy, my stepmother and me at Base Camp
At Paradise, the day wasn't as clear as it had been the day before.  It was somewhat cloudy and overcast.  Nonetheless, the team posed for a team photo prior to starting the hike from Paradise.
My RMI climb team, start of climb
My pack pre-climb.  Contents:  avalanche transciever, heavy parka, hardshell pants and jacket, softshell jacket, insulating layer, expedition gloves, med-weight gloves, light weight gloves, trekking poles, ice ax, crampons, harness, food for the next 36 hours, 2 liters of water, coffee mug, trash bag, sun screen, ipod, running shoes, extra socks, blister stuff, goggles, climbing helmet, headlamp,  sleeping bag, extra batteries
For the first pitch, everyone had the option to use approach shoes.  There was mostly no snow on this pitch.  We stretched the first break a bit later to allow the rest stop timing to match when people would have to switch to climbing boots.  This was just past pebble creek.
Crossing pebble creek
I tried to get some pictures of some of the marmots we passed on the way up, but walking and picture taking with my crappy point and shoot don't go well together.  This first pitch was somewhat surreal because we were within an hour and half hike of Paradise, so there were lots of people wandering the paths.  Towards the end of the pitch, we got into the uneven rock stairs.  It sucks being short sometimes.
That's me in the red-pack
First rest stop.  You can see my Dad switching his shoes.
Just hanging out at the first rest stop
I was nervous, but felt pretty good so far.  I kept trying to figure out where it was that I turned around on the trip last year.  It was almost impossible to tell though, what with the no snow and all.  (Last year we had snow from Paradise on).  After the first rest stop, we hit the Muir snowfield.  We were all still chatty and trying to enjoy the hike.  It definitely got more tough once we hit the snow.  I tended to stay towards the front of the group with whichever guide was leading that pitch.  I think I was still afraid of failing, and wanted to make sure I wasn't at the back.

From the second rest stop, we should have had great views of Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, the Tatoosh range, etc.  The storms coming from Oregon interfered with the views though.  I later learned that the storms coming in were motivation for the lead guide to change us to 3 breaks from 4 to make a quicker ascent to Camp Muir.
Still, not a terrible view.
My Garmin was working from Paradise to Camp Muir.  In the first 3 pitches, we gained about 1000 feet an hour.  In the last pitch to Camp Muir, the section I heard one of the guides say was called the stair climber, we gained around 1500 feet.  According to Garmin, all in, the treck to Camp Muir was 4.59 miles in about 4.5 hour and 5386 feet in elevation gain (actual gains by mile, 941 feet, 987, 1250, 1501, 668. I forgot to stop my watch once we reached Camp Muir, so there is some error as it recorded my scrambling around Muir).
Camp Muir nestled on it's rocky ridge.  Larger building on left is the RMI Bunkhouse.
The RMI bunkhouse at Muir has rules about bringing in your packs or anything sharp.  So we left our packs in a line on the rocks with our trekking poles, crampons and ice axes.  We took everything else inside to claim our bunks.  The RMI bunkhouse client section has 18 bed roll spots.  Since both RMI teams had a 100% success rate for Camp Muir, all spots were taken.

I cannot explain how excited I was to make Camp Muir and get the monkey off my back from last year.  Since I had a Verizon cell phone, I actually had a signal at Muir to post a picture to Facebook and exchange text messages with my husband about the incoming storms.   I was SO glad that I had decided to carry the extra weight of a pair of running shoes to Camp Muir.  This allowed me to take off my mountain boots for a few hours, which was glorious.
The lovely potties.  Those barrels are full of poop.
Using these facilities without gagging required a cloth over my nose.
Still, better than a blue bag.
After we all had a chance to use the absolutely revolting potty facilities (I will never bad mouth a trail port-a-potty again), and get settled with water and snacks, the guides came in to brief us on the next portion of the climb.  We were told that guides were up ahead working on the route, and getting rained on.  We asked if this was good or bad and were told if it was raining hard we wouldn't even leave Camp Muir.  Too dangerous.
Me, Wendy, Janette and my Dad posing in our bunks.
Our fearless leaders giving us the briefing.
After the briefing, they brought in some boiling water for us to make our dinner, hot beverages, etc. and try to rest.  This was about 4:30pm.  I had brought cold pizza, but forgot to bring a hot chocolate packet.  My friend Wendy came to my aide though and let me have one of hers.  Always willing to help a friend lighten her pack!

I laid down in my sleeping back with my ipod.  I'd forgotten to charge the batteries, but somehow it lasted.  Ok.  Trying to sleep in a small wooden bunkhouse with 18 other people is ridiculous.  We also didn't know what time they were going to wake us for the summit attempt, so every time the door opened, my adrenaline kicked in thinking it was time.  (18 people using the potty means a lot of door openings).  I was telling myself it wasn't time yet at the next door opening, when I heard the lead guide saying it was go time.  It was 11:30 pm. We were told we had an hour to eat breakfast, use the potty, load our packs, put on our crampons and get into rope teams.  Even now, just thinking about it gets my blood pumping again.

Luckily, I was able to poop. This is important, because if you poop on the mountain anywhere other than the potties and Camp Muir, you have to blue bag it and carry it out with you.  It was surreal watching everyone get ready to go by headlamp.  What was in our packs for the summit bid?  All of our warm clothing, enough snacks to get to the summit and back and 2 liters of water.  We were expected to be wearing our avalanche transceivers,our climbing helmets, headlamps, harnesses and our crampons.  It was rather warm for Rainier, so must of us chose to wear a base layer and our softshell pants.  Our parkas were in easy access positions for when we got to the rest stops.  My Garmin had been beeping low battery, so I didn't even try to find satellites.
The teams getting ready to go.
I'm ready.  Let's do it.
August 23, 2013 - the climb begins at 12:30am.

The first pitch out of Muir is in the dark.  You can't see all that far in front of you, but you can see groupings of other headlamps on the upper mountain of other climb teams pushing for the summit.  I cannot even begin to describe the sense of wonder and awe that inspired as I left Camp Muir.  My camera was stored in my pocket, it was just too dark to get a good photo here.

This first pitch out of Muir is the one time during the whole climb that I would say I absolutely loved it.  It was one of the easier pitches.  We had a few crevasses to step over about the width of my desk that were awe-inspiring rather than terrifying for some reason.  I just kept saying over and over how awesome it was.  We were in a rope team of 4 people, the guide plus 3 clients.  We had 30 feet of rope (I think) between each of us.  Enough to span a crevasse.  This was all glacier travel so we were required to be wearing long sleeves and gloves in addition to everything else.  This pitch took us over Cathedral Gap and onto the Ingraham glacier.
A view of the Ingraham Glacier from the decent, taken from Disappointment Cleaver.
We'd been told in our briefings that on the upper mountain, at the end of each pitch the guides would be assessing each team member and asking if we wanted to continue.  Our rest stops were timed in some of the few safe places to stop on the upper mountain.  Thus, the deal was, if you agreed to go on, you agreed that you had enough to make it to the next rest stop.  At the end of the first pitch, we all knew that the next pitch was Disappointment Cleaver.  The cleaver is a rock ridge.  It is all volcanic rock, so loose and dangerous.  We were told that leg took about 1.5 hours of mostly upward climbing.  Two members of the other RMI team chose to turn around on the Ingraham flats and did not continue onto the Cleaver.
A picture of the cleaver from our descent, when it was light out.
Look closely, the red and blue dots are members of our other rope team descending and give you a scale of the thing.
The cleaver was nerve-racking to me because I have no experience rock climbing at all.  We are in crampons, but this time of year, the cleaver is mostly rock and the sound of crampons on rock is horrible.  We were short roped in this section.  I'm not going to lie, this section was much tougher physically.  I'll never forget Adam saying at one point, "we're a third of the way up the cleaver," and thinking "that's it???"   A little bit past that, I started hearing a buzzing noise.  I couldn't figure out what it was, but it was driving me crazy.  Not long after that, Adam had us pull to the side to let the other RMI team lead guide and his rope team pass us.  I remember thinking how strange it was that we were pausing on the cleaver and wondering if we were too slow or something.

Adam explained that the buzzing I was hearing was the electricity from the nearby storms causing his metal shovel to buzz.  The two lead guides were discussing whether this was the high point of our climb and whether or not the weather was going to require us to turn around.  It's hard to describe my feelings at this point.  Fear over the electricity and storms, disappointment that this might be it....

After discussion and checking in with teams further up the mountain, the lead guides decided we would go for 15 more minutes and see.  Luckily for us, the buzzing stopped and we continued to the top of the Cleaver.

I'm not going to lie.  I was ready for a break at the top of the cleaver.  Our lead guide told us we were taking a longer break than normal because there was a bottleneck at the ladder section.  (It was better to be stopped at a rest stop with our parkas on).  When we first stopped at the Cleaver, Wendy threw a fit to have her position in the rope team switched.  Then, Adam went through the group one by one to see where we were all at.  I said I was okay and good to go on.   Inside though, I had major doubts.  I had been ready for a break when we stopped.  I was nervous about the ladders section.  The longer we sat at the rest stop, the more I doubted.  I expressed my mental doubts to Wendy.  (Pre-climb I'd told her she had to help me be mentally strong).  She told me that if I needed to turn around, I should.  I doubted myself even more.  Enough so, that I called Adam over to talk about being nervous.

He asked what I was nervous about, I said the ladders.  He asked how I felt physically.  I was honest.  I felt good, but I had been tired towards the end of the pitch.  By now, one of the other guides, Thomas, had also come over.  They asked for a percentage of where I felt.  I said when we first got to the break, I felt 75%.  Now, I felt 85%.   Adam told me he thought I could do it.  He told me I could still turn around if I wanted to though.  My stepmother wasn't turning around, and I really didn't want to go back down the Cleaver yet, so I said I would go on.
The team at the top of the cleaver rest stop
Why did I debate so much?  In our pre-upper mountain briefing we'd been told that from the Cleaver, if we agreed to going forward, we were committing to the summit and down.  Because of the slope at high break, changing up rope teams was very dangerous and they didn't want to do it.

I was getting rather cold before we got moving again, but we did get moving.  It was still dark and the bottleneck still wasn't clear.  When we had to wait at the ladders, I asked if I could try to take a picture anyway.  The guide had to tell the teams that it was camera flash and not lightening afterwards.  That made me glad I'd asked first!
Waiting in the path waiting for teams to clear the ladders section
I'm not going to lie.  The ladders were scary.  These pictures do not do them justice.  First up was a vertical ladder that ended in the middle of the ice fall.  From that point, you had to climb the wall with kicked in steps and your ice ax and a guide rope.  At the top of that, you had the 8 foot horizontal ladder.
During the day and the descent looking back up.  Better view of the icefall climb above the first vertical ladder
The start of the climb over the icefall and the first ladder, a vertical ladder.
Me.  Crossing the 8 foot horizontal ladder, after the vertical ladder and free climb section
We were in a rope belay too.  So, we had to switch the belay at the anchor points.  Each time any rope team member was at an anchor, the whole team had to stop for their safety.  There was an anchor in the middle of the free climb up the icefall.  This meant switching there, and it meant most of us had to stop while in the middle of the horizontal ladder.  While I was stopped there, I heard ice caving down in the crevasse.  I couldn't SEE it, but I could hear it.  I believe my exact words were "oh shit, oh shit, oh shit."  The guide assured me I was okay until I reached the other side of the ladder though.

Once we were through the ladders section, we had to traverse over to the Edmunds glacier to climb the shoulder.  The slope was very steep, but we had a dug out path traversing the middle of it  (Thank you guides!)  The guide short roped us and walked slightly above us.  This inspired me to ask "I take it, a fall here would be very bad."  He admitted that the slope was steep enough that we would be unlikely to be able to arrest our fall with the ice ax.  Yeah, let's not fall.  I believe this is where it was lightly snowing as well.
RMI climb teams on this portion of the route
Headed to high break

Once we turned the corner, we started switchbacks up to High Break.  The last rest stop before the summit.  I was kind of unreasonably pissed off here.  In a rope team, you are supposed to allow the rope to just graze the glacier in front of you.  This keeps you from tripping on it if it's too loose, and it keeps you from free-loading off the person in front of you.  The rope behind me was tight for most of the climb on the shoulder.  It made things much more difficult for me. I think my Dad could tell I was ticked as I came into high break as he tried to tell me how to use my ice ax to dig out a ledge to sit in.  (It was too steep to just sit down).  Luckily, the lead guide noticed too and dug it for me.   When my guide asked me how I was doing, I think my answer was "I'm over this."  He asked if I wanted to turn around and I said no, of course.   The sun was out now and we could see the sky.  A cloud cap was settling in below us though, so the view was some what limited.
High break
Gearing up at high break
From high break, it was about an hour of straight up to the summit.
It's steeper than it looks!
After a while, I worried that the pulling was going to keep me from making it and increased the distance between me and the guide in front of me so that he had to help pull us up.  He started hollering encouragement, and even told the guy behind me to stop "waterskiing".   He also took this fabulous picture of me as I entered the summit crater.
I admit, I was ticked about pulling the guy behind me, and let that make my decision about walking over to the summit registry.  This is probably my main regret of the climb.  We rested for about an hour on the summit for beginning the climb down.
The view from inside the summit crater
My Dad, stepmother and I huddled at the summit
For me, the descent was way harder than the ascent.  We are traveling much faster on the decent, we can see the fall that lies before us if we screw up, the snow was terrible and bunching up under our crampons. It is also very counter-intuitive to lean forward when you are slipping instead of backwards.  I admit it. I panicked.  A lot.  The guide had to slow our team down for me.

Then we got to down climb the chutes and ladders section.  If you want to see my Dad's video of this (it's about 10 minutes long), go HERE.  This was beyond terrifying.  Plus, the bottleneck at this section meant that I was freezing while I stood in the middle of the horizontal bridge.  Shivering.  Nothing scarier.
From above, the start of the chutes and ladders section.
I had to kick in my own steps on the ice fall, and missed the anchor point.  I had to climb back up to switch the anchor.  My guide had to catch me on the belay several times.  I made it though.  The harder part for me actually, was plunge stepping from there to the break above the cleaver. I panicked.  The guide had to slow us down.  For me.  Again.  He wound up short-roping me to try to improve my confidence.  All pulling or anything else from earlier in the climb was completely forgiven as my team slowed for me.

We took our first of only two upper mountain breaks on the way to Muir at the top of the Cleaver.  By now, I was a bit distraught thinking of that down climb.  My team went slow and steady and we made it back to the Ingraham glacier and the section known as the bowling alley because of the danger of rocks sweeping people off the mountain.  During the Cleaver section, I killed both of my big toes because I'd neglected to tighten my mountain boots enough before the descent.  Stupid!
Rest stop just above the Cleaver.
We continued to our second break.  From here, Wendy needed to go to the bathroom and really didn't want to blue bag it.  Our guides were awesome. They were able to shuffle rope teams so that Wendy and a guide could quick-time it to Camp Muir and the rest of us could go at the normal pace.  The crevasses we had to step over were scarier than they'd been in the dark, but not as bad as trying to do that stupid plunge step!
Almost back to Camp Muir. Notice crevasse on my right.
I cannot describe my frustration at struggling with the plunge step so much.  Something that I felt should have been the easiest thing on the climb, and it was the one thing I REALLY struggled with.  And I cry when I'm frustrated.

Nonetheless, we climbed over Cathedral gap and returned to Camp Muir.  The normal plan is for an hour break at Camp Muir.  Our lead rope team beat us to Camp Muir by 30-40 minutes though, so we didn't really have an hour.  I had time to pack all my stuff and refill my water bottle, but not time to actually eat or drink really before we left for the Muir Snowfield.   Here, we were back to trekking poles and no rope team though.  No crampons or ice axes either.  Although I still fell a lot trying to glide down the snow, I was able to keep a quicker pace and halt the panicking. We took one break on the descent from Muir to Paradise to allow people to switch to approach shoes just past the Muir snowfield.  I actually switched to my shoes as well because of the beating my toes had taken from my boots.  From that point, off the snow, I was able to match the pace of the rest.  In fact, when we reached Paradise, we still waited 40 minutes for the other climb team.

In all, including breaks, summit day was 17.5 hours.  (This does not include the 4.5 hours to Camp Muir).  On the shuttle back to base camp, one of the guides asked me what was harder, running marathons or climbing Rainier.  I laughed and said - "Put it this way, I ran my last marathon in 4 hours and 15 minutes.  There is no comparison."
Wendy and I on the Summit.
I cannot say enough wonderful things about the amazing RMI guides on my trip.  I would recommend Mike, Thomas and Adam to ANYONE looking to climb any mountain.  They were fabulous.   I also cannot say enough nice things about the people I climbed with.  You never know what you will get when thrown into a highly physical and dangerous activity with strangers.  They were nice, friendly, funny and willing to help each other out when needed.  Together, the guides and the team made this climb something I will enjoy telling stories about for quite a while.

Special photo thanks.  In addition to my own photos, I used photos from my guide Adam, my Dad and another member of my climb team, Heidi.


  1. I can see why it took you awhile to write. How do you capture such a remarkable feat in a post? What a great lesson in team work for sure....you pulling someone else; others pulling you. But you made it and that's why :)

    But oh my god, those ladders......I got dizzy reading about'em!

  2. This was awesome! I enjoyed reading about your experience, Mandy!

  3. Wow, scary, scary stuff - and you rocked it!!! Congratulations again - what a huge accomplishment!

  4. That was an amazing account, Mandy! I had no idea what went into a climb. I am so impressed and so proud of you!

  5. Just amazing. And so inspiring! Huge congrats again- you did it!!

  6. Oh my goodness, this is amazing. What an incredible journey. Those ladders do look scary. You should be so proud of your accomplishment!

  7. I really really enjoyed reading this. I know lots of it was harrowing, but it makes me want to do this climb someday. Congratulations again! What a triumph, Mandy--definitely makes marathons seems easy. :^)

    1. You let me know if you ever decide to go climbing Terzah, I could probably be convinced to go with you!

  8. OH MY WORD!!! How exciting, scary, thrilling, What a victory!! I loved your dads video! I didnt realize the crevices were SO BIG and DEEP!! And that horizontal ladder, MADE my feet tingle!!! In the video, right after the ladder, the snow looked dirty. Was it dirt or was that ice?
    Thank you so much for sharing!! And Congratulations on an amazing climb!!

    1. Glaciers are definitely dirty, especially when traveling around on top of Volcanic rock. There were sections that were dirty, and sections that were just multi-hued from the varying ice gradations as well. More than likely though, that section (if it was snow) was dirty. :)

  9. Wow! What an experience! I overheard some of it during dinner but this really helps fill in the gaps I missed. Congratulations on summitting!! Do I get dibs on predicting when you'll do this again?

    1. Hahaha! I think we both know I'm considering some other climbs out there. Any interest in coming with me? :D

  10. Did blogger eat my comment?

    I just wanted to say that you are amazing!!! I really love reading mountaineering books but I'm terrified of the idea of climbing. I really enjoyed reading your account. Congratulations on making the summit!

    I'm also pretty terrified of hiking down. I'm quite slow and not very sure of my footing.

    So are you all done with climbing now or have you changed your mind?


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