And here we go again…
It’s 9:44 PM. Forty five minutes shy of exactly seven days ago Victor and I started hiking from the Paradise parking lot, headed for Columbia Crest, the summit of Mount Rainier, on the very popular Disappointment Cleaver route. Nine thousand vertical feet of gain and subsequent elevation loss and about sixteen miles round trip, it’s a challenge in a single push (i.e. one day climb).
Tonight it’s me and Jiri departing the White River parking lot, headed again for Columbia Crest. The Emmons/Upper Winthrop route is 10,000 feet of gain/loss and about the same distance (mostly because the upper part of the route is more direct than the DC route).
It’s our first climb together, which always makes for an interesting conversation in my head about compatibility: Will our paces match? Will one of us be more conservative with risk? Am I talking too much? But after just a few minutes on the trail we settle into a comfortable pace and all those other things sort out just as easily.
The trail to Glacier Basin, just over three miles through the forest, was partly washed away in floods several years ago. The reroute is now finished and is, thankfully, nearly as direct as the old route. At our “we have signed up for a 10,000’ single push” pace, we arrive at Glacier Basin at 11:00 and leave the trees behind.
The maintained trail ends at Glacier Basin and we continue up, under countless stars, first through fragrant fields of wildflowers, then up the crest of a dirt moraine, across the rocky flats, arriving finally at the base of the Interglacier.
In the afternoon this east-facing bowl-shaped glacier is a reflector oven. At night, when I prefer to ascend it, the snow tends to firm up and it’s not possible to look up and see that the top is (still) out of sight. We start up the 2000 vertical feet to Camp Curtis tucked inside the small sphere of light from our headlamps.
After a bit of slipping around, I stop to put on crampons. I’m not afraid of falling, but I do want to conserve energy. Even though I know this way well, in my mind our progress slows to a crawl; despite a few contours and minor slope changes, kicking up the Interglacier in the dark feels like being on a treadmill while wearing a blindfold. Both of us feeling impatient, we walk into an empty Camp Curtis and hour after starting. We’ve ascended 4600 of the 10,000 feet now and this is the part where I start getting truly excited: The route starts getting more interesting, and we’re going to take a short break at Camp Schurman, just 20-30 minutes higher.
I take off my fragile aluminum crampons to descend the loose, rocky slope down to the Emmons glacier. Despite having done this many times, I end up on the wrong faint trail (it’s the upper one for earlier season). I recognize my error and skid directly down to the lower trail. Soon enough we’ve landed on the Emmons glacier and can see headlamps at Camp Schurman.
We skip putting ‘pons back on and make haste for Schurman ; we’re both ready for a break after ascending just under a vertical mile. The route up the Emmons to Schurman is thankfully direct- it often traverses far to the left, away from Schurman, then back to the right and ultimately climbing above Schurman to avoid a moat. But not tonight. It’s 1:10 AM when we roll into the camp, which is unusually sparsely peopled. Indeed, only one other team is up and about, three of them about ready to depart for their summit attempt.
The wind is calm and temps moderate and the relative comfort leads to our planned thirty minute break stretching to fifty. We melt a little snow to refill our single bottle each, eat, stretch, and I guzzle down the Red Bull I carried up to help keep me sharp through the sleepless night.
At 2:01 AM I snap a picture as we walk away from Schurman. The other rope team is about thirty minutes ahead and their tiny shifting headlamps above us look very far away. I take a deep breath in anticipation of the hard work ahead, and follow Jiri first up from Schurman, then right, then on a descending traverse. After 20 minutes we’re only 100 vertical feet above the little camp, but perhaps ½ mile away. Now the headlamps of the other team are directly above us, but still look far away.
At about 9900’ the route dramatically changes nature from a casual stroll up a star-lit glacier, to a steep, switchbacking trail weaving between gaping crevasses. It’s getting interesting and significantly more technical than this route (often described as the least technical on the mountain) usually is. At some point in the jumble we catch the other team. They’re caught off-guard by the steepness and exposure and are waiting for our opinion. It’s their first attempt to climb Rainier and the difficulty is more than they’d expected. After a short chat both teams continue.
We’d heard talk about a short six-foot step up and across a crevasse as the technical crux of the route. When we arrive at this location, at about 11,000’, we find an 8 to 10 foot step of overhanging, bullet-hard blue glacial ice. We have aluminum crampons, walking axes, no ice screws, and no pickets: Attempting to climb this step is not in the cards.
Further left the crevasse gets larger and joins an icefall. We traverse right and up along it. Around a small corner is a jumble of glacial ice; fallen seracs and sections of the upper wall of the glacier, now fifty feet above us. I scramble up and through the blocks ice until I see a slight weakness in the upper wall; a twenty foot section of off-vertical, newer, less-dense ice. “I can climb this, Jiri, no problem.”
Except there is a problem: We have two ice axes between us and no other gear. Then I espy the other team coming around the corner below us.
“How does it look up there?”
“Passable. And I have a proposition for you. Come up and let’s talk.”
What I want is one of their pickets to establish and anchor above and to rappel from on the way down, because while I can climb up this spot, I cannot climb down; a rappel will be required. In return, I offer to lead the short pitch and help them the rest of the way up and down.
One of them is clearly in favor of continuing. One seems to be on the fence. The other is, well, done. And I mean done-done, not that mountainesque “I’m tired and a bit scared and going back to camp and to sleep sounds really good to me right now so please encourage me to keep going because I know I’ll be glad for it later even if I hate on you right now” sort of done. Done-done. And when you’re on a rope team with someone who’s done-done, you’re done, too.
They wisely agree to be done. When one of them offers to leave us one of their three pickets, the done-done person interjects that they should not leave us with something that they might need on the descent. As much as I want a picket, Done-done is correct; we’re not properly equipped and it’s contrary to my climbing ethics to endanger another team (even slightly as in this case) in a non-emergency situation to make up for my lack of gear. I verbally appreciate Done-done for honoring her position and let them all know I support their choices to descend and keep their gear. Then I turn around and climb the fucking pitch.
At the top I find some softer snow, use Jiri’s ice axe to pound mine in as far as it will go, girth a sling around, and tie off. “Off belay, Jiri!”
I pull up some rope, tie Jiri’s axe and my ascender to it, and lower them down. Quick as can be, Jiri jugs up the line and joins me. “Nice lead, Loren.”
“Thanks for the belay and being patient.”
That turns out to be the end of the technical monkey-business. From here, at 11,000’, to the summit, at 14,411’, is a long, generally leftward ascent accented with a smattering of crevasse crossings and my favorite mountain event: On the east side of Rainier, especially on the Emmons route, there comes each clear morning a fleeting few seconds where the entire mountain turns electric pink with the sunrise. It’s an intoxicatingly beautiful experience, perhaps akin to being inside a neon bulb. Suddenly it’s there, my breath leaves me, and then it’s gone. Pictures never do it justice, but here are a few to give you an idea.
At one point we reach a slightly flat area and the route takes a sharp right, as if it had been rerouted. Right at the corner is a pile of human turd. I’d have felt sorry for the climber who carried this enormous load so high up the mountain if I hadn’t been so irritated with them for leaving it there, and practically on the trail. Twenty yards beyond Mr. Hanky, off the current route, I spot two objects that could be slings on the snow, as if the route had gone that way and someone left fixed pickets with slings to protect the area. AHA! We note the location (as “Turd Corner”) and agree to go collect the objects, hopefully pickets on our descent. Now I’m hopeful of having a way down that steep pitch we’d climbed hours before in the dark.
The upper slopes of the easier routes on Rainier are a series of undulations forming false summits, and false and then dashed hopes. ‘I bet that’s the top’ isn’t, until a climber comes over a rise and in the distance, further above yet, sees the rocks rising out of the glacial ice. These rocks are the rim of the tilted crater atop Rainier. The highest point on this rim is called Columbia Crest; the one and only summit of Rainier. For my part, I rarely allow myself a “we’re going to make it” moment until the crater rim is in sight. So this moment is significant and enjoyable and brings a bigger smile to my already smiling face. On the most popular Disappointment Cleaver (or DC for short) route, climbers enter the crater at its lowest spot, then hike ¼ mile across it and ascend 200 final vertical feet to Columbia Crest. But on the Emmons route, the crater rim is reached within 100 yards of and just a few feet below Columbia Crest. At sea level this is an insignificant difference. For a sea-level dweller at 14,400’, it’s substantial.
We come around that corner and the crater rim comes into view. Slowly onward and then the snow of the summit ice caps gives way to the perpetually warm rock and soil of the crater rim; we’re now walking on a dirt trail surrounded by many of the biggest glaciers in the lower 48 states.
At the foot of the last snowy mound below the summit, I catch another climber. I stop and wait for him to reach the top. I have a tradition here, and it requires him out of the way. As he celebrates his arrival at the top, I draw a deep breath and jog up the last hill to the top of my favorite mountain.
A cloud that had formed just above the summit has now dissipated and the winds are calm, perhaps 10MPH. It’s the second-nicest weather I’ve experienced here at Columbia Crest, where even on days where it’s calm everywhere there is a stiff breeze.
We celebrate and take pictures, including a few as a favor for an old friend, then walk down to Register Rock to relax for a few minutes and sign the summit register.
What we discover is that the summit register, there seven days and one hour earlier, is nowhere to be found, despite a rather thorough search of the immediate area. We sit and eat and drink and chat with other climbers. In a remarkable couple of coincidences we discover that, as I was descending from Muir the previous week, I’d passed Jiri and his girlfriend on a dayhike to Muir. I’d even noted the strange sight of a person with a bag of potato chips lashed to his pack. This week a similar stash of chips seems less strange and more like a gift from the mountain gods. And while speaking to another climber, I learn that he’d just climbed the DC route in a single push for the second weekend in a row, which of course meant that Victor and I had seen him at the summit during our single-push climb of the DC the week before.
Time behaves oddly for me at the top of Rainier. After about 15 minutes I look at my watch and discover that in non-distorted time we’ve been sitting for 75 minutes. It’s time to pack up and head down.
Descending Rainier is tiring, for certain, but without the lung-busting work required to elevate mass against gravity at 14,000 feet, where the oxygen density is only 57% of what it is at sea level. By contrast, going down is a party- I have excess energy to look around, enjoy the views, contemplate life, etc. I’m rarely in a hurry, and even so the descent time from summit to camp is less than half the ascent time.
So down we go, smiling and chatting and unroped, as we were for most of the ascent. We take pictures and keep an eye out for Turd Corner (not that there was much chance of missing it). When we arrive I volunteer to hike upslope and collect the pickets we need to avoid rappelling from a bollard (a raised circle of ice made by chopping out an “O”). The first picket is a cap from a Nalgene bottle. Handy, because I broke one on Mt. Baker last month, but not NEARLY as handy as a picket. The second picket is a glove. Not nearly as handy (no pun intended) for me as it would have been for the person who undoubtedly dropped up higher while ascending in the cold night. So we’re oh-for-two in the area of finding much-needed pickets. Rats. I don’t much like rapping off bollards, and as the heavier of the two of us, Jiri will rappel first with an axe backing up the bollard, then I will remove the axe and rap from just the bollard. Oh joy.
I keep an eye on the altimeter, watching it creep toward 11,000 feet, where we re-enter the more technical section of the route. At 11,100 I see a fresh set of steps off to our left. “Steps!” I announce to Jiri, perspicaciously.
We walk over and inspect. They are fresh, certainly from today. More importantly, they are going in both directions: Up and down. The most likely explanation for this is that someone came up from below, then went back down the same way. This seems promising, so we follow them. They traverse to our left a hundred yards, away from Camp Schurman under frighteningly leaning seracs, then down, then back right under more seracs. And then we are looking up at the AI3 pitch we’d climbed in the dark. It was a walkable route around the technical climbing, but dreadfully exposed to icefall. Nonetheless, we have avoided the undesireable bollard-rappel.
Now roped up in the crevasse field under warm summer sun, we continue down the steep slopes, several of which have large crevasses at their bases waiting to swallow up falling climbers. And then we are back at 9700’, with only the slightly rising traverse back to Schurman left.
I’m down to a thin shirt with my sleeves pulled up and have my pant legs rolled up when we walk back into camp. Jiri fires up the stove and we make coffee while answering questions from other climbers about the route. In a continuation of the coincidences, I meet JR, who remembered me from a solo climb many years ago, and a person who works at Marmot and had recently sold me the very pants I was wearing. It was JR who, after hearing about the climbing difficulties we’d encountered from the other team, had hiked out and found the alternate route that saved us the rappel. We heap thanks on him and chat up the team that had turned around, encouraging them to try again the next day.
I walk over and ask the ranger if my friend and former climbing ranger Mike is there. I get a surly, unfriendly half-response that leaves me scratching my head about why someone who apparently doesn’t like interacting with people would seek out a job where the primary function is interacting with people. Whatever.
Eventually we run out of excuses to stay, and the call of the cold beer in the car gets louder. Packs go back on and we start jogging back down the lower Emmons toward the loose dirt slope. It is the last significant uphill in a day that, when we top it and arrive back at Camp Curtis, has totaled around 10,500 vertical feet; nearly two vertical miles.
From Camp Curtis we traverse out across the Interglacier where we set down our packs and ‘rig for glissade’. The plan is to sit on the steep, snowy, soft glacier and slide down in five minutes what had taken us an hour to ascend in the dark of the previous night. In great conditions this can be done in one slide, or glissade. Most often the snow is too hard or too soft or to icy and some walking and down-hiking is required. Today is good: We have to get up once and walk fifty feet to our left to avoid an icy patch, and in little over five minutes we’re at the end of the snow, smiling, and taking off wet pants.
In daylight we can take in the beauty of the basin. Fragrant wildflowers abound amid snow-fed creeks, and a mountain goat roams high above as we descend the moraine and down into the Glacier Basin camp.
“I’m going barefoot from here,” announces Jiri.
“I am continuing to wear my boots from here,” I retort, “though I admire you for your commitment to barefootedness.”
The 3.1 mile trail from Glacier Basin camp to the parking lot is a mixed bag of old, fir-needle covered softness, sand, and, on the new sections, crushed rock. During the latter sections I hear a good number of ows and ughs from behind me, but he perseveres. I relate to him the story of my friend Paul who likes to describe pain as ‘weakness leaving the body’. Jiri admits to having lost a good bit of weakness as we walk up to the car at 2:25 PM. Sixteen hours, 40 minutes round trip, two the summit and two down safe. A great climb. Thanks, Jiri!