Sunday, October 13, 2013

Mount Rainier climb with RMI

Careful readers of this blog (okay, that's probably nobody) might recall that while I did reach the summit of Mount Rainier in 2009, I did not stand at the very highest point, on Columbia Crest. I always meant to go back and remove that asterisk from my highpointing roster, but it was never a priority. Frankly, I figured I could skate by and finish the 50 state highpoints without having to revisit Rainier. However, when I was climbing Denali this summer, two other highpointers shamed me into admitting that I couldn't really say I had gotten to the highest point in the state of Washington. Since I already had a 2013 Rainier climbing permit (from when I did the winter skills seminar in February), and my climbing skills were honed after 20 days on glaciers, I figured this would be a good time to knock it off. Since I don't have a climbing partner, I once again climbed with RMI. I was kind of hoping to climb with one of the guides I had climbed with before, since I would more or less be jumping straight onto the mountain, but it was nice to get to know some new guides. Thanks to these great guides and much better weather than was forecast, I was able to stand at 14,410 feet, as high as I could have gone without leaving the ground. This completed a sort of "highpoint trifecta," climbing three of the most difficult state highpoints this summer (after Denali and Granite Peak, MT). Just based on how my legs felt afterward, Rainier was less challenging than Granite; Denali is in a whole different realm.

Saturday, September 14, I ran 8.5 miles in the morning and flew to Seattle in the afternoon. The flight was uneventful; I got into Seattle, picked up a little rental car, and drove to Ashford. Along the way, in the town of Puyallup, I stopped to get a pizza. Not so much because I was hungry at that time, but because I wanted most of it to bring with me for dinner on Rainier. As I mentioned in my post about Granite, I have had a bit of an aversion to freeze-dried meals since choking a few down at 17,000 feet on Denali. I got in to Ashford about 10pm and checked into the bunkhouse (which meant getting the key out of the envelope taped to the office door, since they had closed hours earlier). It was probably a coincidence, but I was in the same room I stayed in back in February. I spent some time sorting through my gear and packing my backpack, along with usual email and such, before getting to sleep.

I've probably mentioned I don't tend to sleep all that well, even at home. In a strange bed with a big day ahead, I'm lucky to sleep a few hours. I woke up for good around 4am Sunday morning. I played around on the Internet to kill time until the store opened. Right when it did, at 6:50, I was there to get some breakfast, and I picked up a bagel to eat on the mountain. Since I arrived late and hadn't met the guides (most of the rest of the clients had done the orientation and school the previous two days with at least some of the guides), I didn't know the plans. I knew the lead guides, Seth and Solveig Waterfall (husband and wife), a bit by reputation, but had never met them; the assistants Ben, Steve, Leah, and Andy, I knew less about. While I was wandering around killing time after eating breakfast, I was kind of hovering around the guide lounge. Some time around 7:30, after checking out of (and in to, sort of) the motel, I met Solveig. I had wanted to meet and introduce myself before the climb got underway, in case she wanted to check my "credentials," or if there was anything crucial I had missed by skipping school. She seemed more preoccupied with making sure all the gear was in order, and pretty much just said hi, and that it would be another 15 minutes or so. I had long since finished the Dr Pepper I had saved for the morning, so I ran to the store across the street for some more sugar, not realizing until I got there that I had already locked my wallet up in the car. I didn't think I had enough time to run back and forth again, so I just went and sat at the picnic tables as the group gathered. I met a few of the guys (it was all male clients on this trip) and chatted a bit about mountains. We broke up into two groups for a quick meeting- those assigned to Seth's group and those assigned to Solveig's. We got a short break before loading up the bus, and heading to the park around 9. There was some more chatter on the bus, but some people used the time for a last-minute nap. I wish I could have, but it was too uncomfortable for me. On the bus, there were 12 clients and 6 guides, which seemed like a pretty unusually high ratio. I didn't know at that point that three more guys were meeting us at Paradise. We had a few minutes to avail ourselves of flush toilets one last time until our return. We gathered up with our gear by the trailhead. The three other guys were a little delayed; they were part of Solveig's group (as was I), so we had to wait a few minutes after Seth and company had left.
The hike up to Camp Muir wasn't anything amazing, at least not for my third time doing so. We moved according to the time-tested pace and schedule of most RMI Rainier climbs. The weather was quite nice: sunny, not too warm, not too windy. We took four full rest breaks, plus a quick one just below Muir. It took us a total of 5 hours. I was up front, first or second behind whomever was leading (Solveig, Ben, and Steve rotated), pretty much the whole time, other than when I stepped out of line to chat with Geoff, one of my guides on Denali, as he was descending. The group stayed together fairly well, later in the day a few people were a few steps behind when we stopped for a break. We got to Camp Muir about 3pm. I dropped my pack quickly in order to lay claim to the bunk I wanted, hoping nobody from Seth's group (who had arrived shortly before us) had already claimed it. Fortunately, the top bunk, farthest from the door, next to the window, was mine. There were two other guys on this trip who had skipped orientation and school and were just doing the climb, like me, because they were denied a summit due to weather earlier in the season; they took that "floor" as well. Basically, anyone who's been in the hut before tends to choose the top level; to me it feels less enclosed than the lower levels. Because of the threat of rain, I had packed all my gear into a large plastic bag inside of my backpack. It took some effort to wrangle it out of there, but it made it convenient for bringing it into the hut (to reduce clutter, we left our packs outside). I set up my sleeping bag and organized my gear a bit before digging into my pizza. I was outside taking pictures when the guides came down from their shack for a talk. Seth gave a full rundown basically from that time until the time we would leave for our summit bid. Shortly after that, hot water was brought down. While everyone else was eating their freeze-dried meals I ate the rest of my pizza and bagel. Pretty much all day, I had been talking (possibly bragging) about Denali at the slightest opening. Some people seemed genuinely curious or interested, but I would bet some were not. I was definitely not trying to discourage anyone, but I don't think anybody was rushing to sign up after hearing I had spent 20 days on the mountain. After dinner, the hut started to quiet down. I did some more gear sorting before getting into my sleeping bag and falling asleep around 6:30.

I was actually asleep when Solveig came in to wake us up at midnight, technically Monday morning. I actually slept pretty well, other than waking up every so often to get circulation back to my arm after it had fallen asleep because I was sleeping on my side on top of plywood and two thin foam mats. From what I heard from the other guys, I may have been the only one to sleep all evening. The wind was howling, and I was concerned we might have to wait it out, but Solveig said we were still on schedule, that it wasn't as bad as it seemed. I was the first out of bed to get hot water for breakfast. I had brought a slightly fancier version of oatmeal, with actual fruit in it, so it wasn't nearly as hard to eat as regular oatmeal in packets can be. Seth came in while we were eating and getting ready to climb with a layer recommendation. I went with my light long johns, climbing pants, t-shirt, base layer, and fleece hoody. Solveig came back with rope team assignments, and I was very happy to be on hers, along with a guy named Justin. I utilized the vault toilet before fully gearing up. It would have been comical if it wasn't kind of gross- it was so windy the toilet paper didn't want to stay under the lid. I finished getting geared up- harness, avalanche beacon, and gaiters on; then outside to put on spikes. There was a bit of standing around while everybody got ready; it was cold enough I was wearing my parka, but not cold enough that I wanted another layer for once we actually got moving. I tried to help the less experienced folks a bit by checking gaiters and crampons of those around me. About 1:30am, we set out from camp; again Seth's group (3 rope teams) was first, then the rope I was on, then two other ropes of Solveig's group, led by Ben and Steve. Once again, the pace and schedule were standard- first stop was on the Ingraham Flats, second at the top of the Disappointment Cleaver, third at High Break at 13,500, then the summit crater.
At the top of the DC, three guys turned back with Ben. One other guy was on the fence, but it was more a mental thing than physical, so he was encouraged to continue, and he did fine. It was colder at that elevation, so I added my soft shell jacket. Dawn was breaking as we neared high break; it was good timing, my headlamp battery was dying. As we climbed above 14,000, I was starting to feel tired, or at least it felt like a bit of a slog. Just as I was thinking we still had a couple hundred vertical feet to cover, and I was trying to mentally psyche myself up to keep moving, we were at the crater rim. It was such a great feeling. We got into the crater, dropped packs, unclipped, and got some water and food. There wasn't much of a break before Seth started to lead a group to Columbia Crest. I jumped up and fell in with a few other climbers. We signed the register, which was a little below the actual summit, then went up to stand at the very highest point. Solveig came up a little behind with a few more people. There was a guy in Seth's group that if he had summited, he would have finished the 48 contiguous state highpoints (he went to Denali years ago, didn't get very far, and never plans to go back); I didn't know until we were at the summit that he didn't even leave Camp Muir because he wasn't feeling well; I was hoping to celebrate with him.
The route was quite different from the route I took in 2009, at least above the Cleaver- where we went right years ago to the Emmons Glacier, we had to go left this time due to a massive ice fall a couple years back. When I signed up for this trip, Joe Horiskey, one of the original RMI guides, said the route can be "interesting" in September, and boy was he not kidding. While the avalanche danger was almost nil (compared with it being extreme in February), there were so many crevasses. Solveig remarked that it was more melted out than she'd ever seen (in her many years of guiding on Rainier). There was one ladder (well two, actually, but the first was really short), but fortunately it was vertical up a rock face, and not horizontal across a crevasse. I had no trouble with climbing a vertical ladder (although getting off and on at the top was tricky); I'm pretty sure I would have been freaked out by crossing a crevasse so large it required a ladder. I don't have a phobia about crevasses, but I do have a healthy respect for anything that could literally swallow a person whole. I try not to step too close to the edge, and I don't like to linger near the lip of a crevasse. When I did step into one up to my knee on Denali, I didn't panic though. In terms of protection, there wasn't much needed beyond the rope, just near the ladder. Solveig had us on some sort of belay I didn't get a good look at, and there was sort of a "hand rail" fixed rope above the top. On the ascent I don't think we clipped to it at all (it was nothing like the fixed lines on Denali, it was not there to climb up); descending, I was clipped to it with one of the non-locking carabiners I threw on my rack for no real reason. It gave me a chance to use the "anchor" and "climbing" calls honed on the Autobahn above 17,000 on Denali.
On the way down the mountain, the ladder was more of a bottleneck than it was on the way up. We wound up waiting above it for a while for Seth's teams to get down, then I was the first down the ladder on Solveig's rope, once she had rigged some protection. We took another break not long after, at the top of the Disappointment Cleaver. We took one more break on the Ingraham Flats before getting back to Camp Muir. On the way down the cleaver, however, I took a tumble. We were short-roped going down the rocky cleaver. Near the bottom, I lost my footing and face planted. Justin was apologetic, thinking he may have been pulling on the rope, but I wouldn't have gone down if I hadn't tripped. I probably wouldn't have tripped if I didn't have my crampons on. I had been having such a nice day up to that point. I was stunned at first; I took a minute before I even tried to get up. There weren't any outward signs of trauma, my pants weren't ripped or anything. I had some grit in my mouth. At some point later, I could feel that my clothes were sticking to my knee and knew that it had been bleeding. I was still in a bit of a daze as we crossed the Flats to the break. After sitting for a minute the bad mood set in. I would have taken a helicopter back to Ashford from there if I could have.
Camp Muir was in the clouds as we came down to it, so I wasn't entirely sure how much further we had to go. As we got closer, I saw the strangest sight. Another guide company had a really big tent set up, but it looked like a barn at first. I was so confused. I was still trying to work it all out in my head when the huts of camp came into view. I made short work of getting my spikes off, dropping my pack, and getting my boots off. I got into my rack, really hoping to take a quick nap. I didn't manage to sleep, even for a minute, but at least I got to rest and relax for a few before starting to get my gear together. When I got my climbing pants off, my long johns were torn and both knees had been bleeding, the right more than the left. I put bandaids on my knees, as well as tape on the hotspots on my feet. Reports from another group coming up were that it was raining below Muir, so the clothing recommendation was to wear hard shells. I was pretty sure it would be relatively warm, so I wore shorts and a t-shirt under my hard shell pants and jacket. I was not quite the last one out of the hut, but it was close. We wore crampons out of camp down the snowfield. The snow was inconsistent, from slushy to icy; there were also a number of cracks to step across. It was raining, but really lightly. It didn't exactly help my mood. Running into JJ and Pete on their way up, guides from February and Denali respectively, was at least a nice distraction. We stopped briefly low on the snowfield, where the snow was more consistently slushy and we were below the cracks, to take off our crampons. Normally we would have taken a break after crossing Pebble Creek, with the option of changing into whatever other footwear we might have brought. With the crappy weather, we decided to just stop for a minute for some water and not change out of climbing boots. We got back to the parking lot, where the bus was waiting for us (with Joe Horiskey as driver), around 4:30pm. By the time I realized the cafeteria might still be open, it had just closed, denying me a sugar fix. Once everyone was back down and loaded up, it was back down to Ashford. I was cold, now that I wasn't moving and was still wet. Everyone was quiet on the ride back; I tried to nap but couldn't.
Back at base camp, I retrieved my car key from the office and threw everything into the car. I didn't attempt a full change of clothes, but did take off my t-shirt and put on a dry fleece. I got a soda and snack from the grill and killed a bit of time until we reconvened to hand out certificates. Most folks hung out for a little while longer; I got some more substantial food and joined in. Even with a caffeine infusion, I was feeling tired driving back to Seattle once the group broke up. I got in to my hotel downtown around 9:30. I had intentions of going out after a shower, but I was exhausted and my eyes were bloodshot. I fell asleep trying to get caught up with Facebook. After the initial few hours, I did not sleep well. My nose was stuffed up, and that always gives me problems. It was before 7am when I got up and got some breakfast at a deli across the street. I did get a little nap in before checking out. I went to the REI mega-store, getting there just as it was opening at 9. I wasn't looking for anything, I just figured I'd go in as long as I was nearby. I got a big burrito across the street for second breakfast. I would have gone into the Feathered Friends store, but it still wasn't open as my free hour of parking was running out. Once I was able to get on the interstate (it was not easy), I drove to Olympia to tour the capitol, since I didn't actually go inside when I was there in 2008. I joined a tour already in progress. After looking around inside and out, I drove back to the Seattle airport. I had a very delicious "celebratory" lunch of salmon with huckleberries. Apparently I wasn't paying that close of attention to the time, because my plane was mostly boarded by the time I got there. I had a layover in Denver, then it was back on the same aircraft to go home to Austin.
The rest of the week was pretty much in recovery mode. My legs really weren't that bad, but they were definitely feeling heavy. I kind of surprised myself on Sunday, running a nearly 7-minute pace in a ~4-mile foot race.

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