Monday, August 10, 2009

Seattle/Rainier Trip: Climbing Rainier

Sunday morning, 8/2, Sean (a co-worker) and Marisa (his wife) picked Stef (another co-worker) and me up from the hotel we spent the night in by the airport. It quickly became apparent that there was a little too much stuff in the car already to add to people in any sort of comfort. Adding in that we each had a big and small bag, it became a perfect problem for a bunch of engineers to solve. After pulling a bunch of stuff out, throwing away any garbage, we managed to stuff everything back in with just enough room for everyone to sit down. It would have to to for the two-hour ride to the motel in Ashford. The car was so full, I could only see Sean directly in front of me. However, I was fortunate to be on the side of the car that did have occasional views of Mt. Rainier as we approached it. As if we didn't have enough stuff, we stopped at a grocery store for provisions. We arrived at base camp, which includes a motel, a coffee shop, a snack stand, and a climbing store in addition to the headquarters of the guide service we had hired, Rainier Mountaineering Inc. We arrived around noon and got some food from the snack stand, but their service was so slow that day that even though I ordered right after he did, Sean was finished with his burger by the time I got mine (and he was not eating particularly fast). We looked around the store for a while, and then fortunately our room was ready earlier than promised and we had a chance to unpack the car and gather our gear for orientation. At 3, we met our head guide, Billy, and one of the other parties we would be climbing with- Mark and Kyle, co-workers from Michigan. The other party- Robert, his brother Loren and his wife Juan arrived later. We started by introducing ourselves, then Billy gave us a slide show introducing us to the mountain and the route we would be taking. Then came the gear check, going over everything from head to toe and all safety gear. The only thing I was missing was a second upper insulation layer. After we went through everything, we went back to the store, where I bought a soft shell jacket that was on sale for a good price. Unfortunately, it was too good of a bargain for Stef to pass up, and they only had it in one color. Oh well. It turned out to be a pretty good purchase, I wore it the entire second day of the climb, to the exclusion of the fleece shirt I had brought. We drove to a nearby town to get some more groceries, after having re-evaluated our stocks, and Subway sandwiches for dinner/lunch the next day. I had trouble sleeping that night. The area was just coming down from a record heat wave, and we were in an attic-like space without much ventilation.

I got some breakfast from the coffee shop Monday morning. We all packed up our gear for the day and met up at 8:15 to go to the park for mountaineering class. We changed into our plastic mountaineering boots on the bus, forcing us to get used to them a little bit on the ~2 mile hike up to the training area. The class started pretty basic- to take deep breaths, how to walk on snow, how to hold the ice axe, and how to come straight down a snow slope. Then we learned arrests, what to do in case we or anyone we're tied on to falls. In the afternoon we learned about walking with crampons, and then walked to the top of a fairly steep slope roped in two teams. The last new thing was walking on rock with crampons. This proved to be the worst for me. After hiking all day in the plastic boots, my ankle was pretty tender. Any rolling that put pressure on the inside of my left ankle caused pain, and on the rock it was much worse than the snow. Having pretty much learned everything we needed to know, the last test was to hike up another steep snow bank on our way out. As a test, the assistant guide, Elias, grabbed the rope right near Marisa to simulate a team arrest. Quite unfortunately, this twisted her previously injured knee which she had spent a lot of time to rehabilitate. She made the hike back to Paradise alright, but she dropped out of doing the actual climb. Back at base camp, we iced our various painful joints, and had pizza from the snack stand for dinner.

I slept better Monday night, but still woke up at 6. I went and sat outside for a while, and because I got a little chilly in the 52 degree air, I made the regrettable decision to hike in my fleece pants instead of my shorts. We started out of Paradise around 9:30 and it wasn't long before I was sweating profusely. I didn't let that slow me down, though, and after the first break I was hiking immediately behind our third guide, Gabriel, an Argentinian whom Sean and Stef had climbed Aconcagua with. I talked with him about climbing and various other things. Our second stop was on the Muir Snowfield. By that point, we had gained enough elevation that the breeze was pretty cool, so I put on my base layer shirt over my t-shirt. It was at that stop that we changed from our casual footwear (flip-flops in Billy's case) into our mountaineering boots. I was pretty quickly sweating profusely again. The next two stops I put on my jacket while we were stopped, but put it away before we started hiking again, which was much better as far as regulating my body temperature. The fourth and final "maintenance break" of the day was within sight of Camp Muir. Being sweaty and a bit tired, it was tantalizingly close, but agonizingly still a half hour away. It was good, then, that I was behind several people for the last leg, and I couldn't really see it when I looked up from the footsteps of the person in front of me. It was about 2:30 when we arrived at our night's accommodations, RMI's private hut. It was not much to look at, 2x4s and plywood, and consisted mainly of the closest thing to a rack I've ever seen outside of a ship. We were actually quite fortunate, in that we didn't have to bring tents or sleeping mats, and that we were their only summit team that day. Normally there would have been twice as many people that time of year, but what would have been the B summit team went a different route. We had some room to spread out our stuff on the three-level wooden bunk. I took the middle of the middle bunk laid my stuff out to prepare for the summit. Billy came in to give us a talk around 3:30, then we had time for dinner before we our appointed 6pm rest time. I barely slept the whole night. My ipod as a noise suppressor maybe wasn't the ideal choice, as it seemed there were several times where I was just about to drift off and the music woke me up again. Also not helping matters was that everything seemed to be very connected. So, while I couldn't hear people moving around or whatever, I could feel the bunk moving. I did get some sleep, but at 11 o'clock, the start of the window in which Billy said he would wake us up, I was awake. I stayed in my sleeping bag, but there was a parade of people going to the bathroom or whatever. It was about 12:15am when Billy did come in to wake us up. They brought hot water for breakfast, which I used for some oatmeal.

It was about 1:15 when we were geared up and roped together in teams ready to leave camp. In the night, Loren had gotten an upset stomach and decided not to join us, as did his wife. This required re-balancing the rope teams, and I moved from Stef and Sean's team with Gabriel to what was then Robert and Elias's team. Billy, Kyle and Mark led us out of camp onto the Cowlitz Glacier. It was a beautiful night, the moon was almost full, and really not that cold. I was wearing long johns and fleece on my legs; and my t-shirt, base layer, and soft shell jacket on top. Of course we were wearing our full phalanx of safety gear: helmet, climbing harness, avalanche transceiver, crampons, ice axe, and all. We crossed the Cowlitz, and then went up the Cumberland Gap, a loose rocky lump leading to the Ingraham Glacier. Our first stop was on the Ingraham, just past what daylight would later reveal to be an active rock fall area. I had left my iPhone on in my parka pocket, and when I put it on, it got phone service for the first time since Sunday and informed me I had a voicemail. I thought about it, but did not retrieve it nor post to facebook. The second stretch was definitely the most physically grueling. We had to cross the glacier quickly to avoid ice fall hazard, while snaking around gigantic crevasses. It was fortunate that it was dark the first time across the Ingraham. In the dark, we only knew that we were stepping over crevasses, the largest step being a full long stride. Coming back through in the light, it was clear the potential danger from seemingly infinitely deep crevasses, the giant seracs looming above, and a few narrow ledges- one which dropped off the mountain on one side, the other side dropping into a crevasse. And that was, physically, the easy part of that stretch. Then we had to climb up the Disappointment Cleaver. It was a mix of loose rock and hard rock requiring big steps up. It was not very kind to my ankle, but it hurt less than I had feared it might. Robert and I started lagging behind the other teams on the Cleaver, which actually turned out to be to our benefit. Because the route wasn't marked properly, the first two teams had to turn around and downclimb to where we were, then take a different route up. By the time we got to the top of the Cleaver, I was beyond ready for a break. I was tired, but was confident a little break would rejuvenate me. Robert, however, wasn't feeling as confident and felt like he was slowing us down. It must have been disappointing to have to turn around, but he made it a lot further than most people on Earth ever will. He and Elias climbed down to Muir while I joined Stef, Sean and Gabriel on the way up. Climbing the Emmons Glacier was not easy, it was quite steep, even following switchbacks dug into the snow, but it was definitely easier, physically. That was when the mental aspect started to become more prominent. I was feeling tired, and had to push myself for almost every step, especially after almost an hour of climbing. I was definitely feeling the effects of altitude, as well. It wasn't anything severe, I didn't even have a headache at that point, but it felt like I got less out of each breath, and I had a major loss of appetite. They all but forced us to eat and drink at each stop. At the first stop on the Emmons, I was still able to eat a Clif bar and drink water, but it just seemed to sit there in my stomach. At the next stop, the last before the summit, I all but had to force a granola bar down my throat. At the summit I only had half of a Clif bar. The Emmons was solid snow most of the way, until we got near the top and there were a few crevasses. I was pretty exhausted when we finally made it to the summit crater around 7:15. I had already scrapped my plan to continue up to the very tippy-top, about 100 feet vertically above where we came in and dropped our bags. Sean and Gabriel were the only ones who went up, while the rest of us laid down on our packs. I actually started dozing off. We were quite fortunate to have really good weather, so it afforded us some time to relax. It was pretty cold and windy, but there were only wisps of clouds blowing around. When we went to leave we had been sitting in the cold long enough that even with our down parkas on, most of us were shivering. Billy kindly allowed for a quick stop on the descent so we could keep our parkas on for a few more minutes. Very shortly into the descent, Stef's knees started giving him serious trouble. We distributed the gear he was carrying among the other three of us, which seemed to help him. We still had to go more slowly, and there were a few times that since I was in front of him, I almost pulled him over. I, on the other hand, started feeling much better on the descent. The air was getting thicker and my energy and appetite were returning. My problem then was hydration. I had, as recommended, only brought two liters of water for the summit push. I was really thirsty coming down and I had to ration what water I did have. After our first maintenance break of the descent, I was down to less than half a liter. As we kept going, I was thirsty enough that a couple of times I chipped off and ate a bit of snow. The trip down the Disappointment Cleaver was not really any easier than the trip up. It was actually kind of nice that Billy was marking a different route, because it meant we had to pause several times, long enough to catch my breath. Traversing the Ingraham Glacier again was not physically particularly difficult, it was just, as mentioned, really being able to see the man-eating hazards, plus seeing and hearing rock falls. Fortunately I'm not particularly afraid of heights, so it was actually really cool to look down into the crevasses. They really are quite beautiful. I certainly didn't dawdle while crossing them, however. Even the narrow crevasses with a good snow bridge can be dangerous, so I hurried across all of them. Our final stop before returning to Muir was the same as our first on the way out of Muir. I downed the last of my water and a little of Gabriel's. When we got back to the Gap, we had the luxury of taking off our crampons for the rest of the way. When we got back into camp around noon, it was quite a relief. But it wasn't long before the reality that we still had to hike down to Paradise set in. I rested a bit and drank lots of water before packing everything up, somewhat haphazardly. Trying to dress lightly, and really regretting not bringing shorts, I wore just my long johns for the rest of the way down, thinking it would be cooler than the fleece pants. And who cares what the tourists think. The Snowfield was really soft and loose in the afternoon sun, and we pretty much boot skied our way down. It was hardly effortless, but it was a lot easier than going up. Stef was lagging pretty far behind, even with help from Gabriel and Elias, so it offered several opportunities for me to catch my breath and take a little drink of water. We took a break at Pebble Creek and changed into everyday footwear. I barely managed to shove all my gear into my bag for the rest of the way down to the bus. Near Paradise we encountered one of the worst surfaces: asphalt. My knees weren't hurting at all until we got to the asphalt. Fortunately, that meant we were really close to the bus at that point. I drank about a liter of water between the time we got to the bus and got back to base camp. Most of us gathered for pizza, beer, and wine at the snack shop as something of a celebration. After some much-needed showers we were all asleep by 10.

Thursday morning we got up and started packing up to leave. I ate my leftover cheese and salami for breakfast. I would have drank the beers I had left in the fridge, but they had frozen. Somehow Sean managed to pack the car a bit more compactly, and although I still couldn't see Stef, at least neither of us had anything in our laps. Sean and Marisa dropped us off at the Greyhound station in Yakima and started their long drive back to Austin. We killed the time until our bus having lunch and drinking beer.

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