Back in October, Bret and I decided we were going to climb Mt Rainier. We would go with a guiding service because we definitely weren’t experienced enough to go on our own. Thankfully, Bret was more on top of this than I was and thought to look into reserving spots, which, for the most part were booked up nine months in advance!
We ended up getting two of the few remaining spots with Alpine Ascents for a July trip on the Emmons-Winthrop route. While this is one of the least technical routes on Rainier, it comes with it’s own flavor of difficulty because it’s a. long, (10,300 ft of elevation gain, 10 miles on glacier terrain) and b. sees much fewer climbers (1600 per year compared to 7600 on the DC route) and isn’t “maintained” by anyone. This results in a long climb, with a lot of route finding on a mountain with the largest glaciers in the U.S. outside of Alaska.
Still, I figured this was reasonable for our skill level since we’d both taken mountaineering courses and we’d be with a guide. Physical training would be a must because we needed to be able to carry a 65 lb pack up 3500 ft in a 2-3 hour period. But that was fine too because I was going to get so ripped!
Our training started in March and involved a mix of cardio, hiking uphill with weight, strength training, flexibility, and some brushing up on mountaineering skills. I created a spreadsheet of our training schedule because one can never have too many spreadsheets in life 😉
This was definitely the most structured training I’d ever done and it was hard. By the end of June I was hiking up Bear Peak (2600ft) with a 60lb pack in two hours. There were times I felt pretty strong and proud, and there were other times I wanted to cry (and probably did) because as Bret put it, walking uphill with that much weight on your back feels like your soul is being dragged into the ground with every step. A little dramatic? Whatever, you try it. One time I fell while carrying this much weight and just looked like a pathetic turtle that couldn’t get up, it was…..quite a sight.
We at least figured out that hiking with gallons of water in our packs was the way to go, because then we could dump it out at the top of our route and save our knees coming down. This is also a great way to get some strange looks and questions from people. One guy asked me if I was training to be a fireman (I’m pretty sure they have to do way harder stuff than that, and also, not a man).
I can’t say the ripped version of myself I had pictured came to fruition. Turns out that kind of training just makes you really hungry, so I ended up eating a lot of Chik-fil-A, and my quads got too big for my jeans. Nevertheless, this human pack mule was ready to go as our trip date came.
We arrived to blue skies and sunshine as we landed in Seattle. That however, quickly changed. The day of our gear check was rainy and cool, and the weather forecast did not look good for the next few days. I tried not to think about it too much because it’s hard to predict mountain weather, but I knew the odds of summiting were dwindling.
During gear check we met the group we’d be traveling with. This is the drawback of guided trips. You get the knowledge and experience of a guide, but you have no control over who is on your team which can be nerve racking, especially when you’re sharing tents and walking while roped to another human being who you hope won’t fall. Thankfully everyone seemed cool, and there was even another woman in the group, yay!
The night before we departed, Bret and I had a pretty epic meal at a German restaurant. I also enjoyed the luxuries of a temperature controlled room with running water and a comfy bed while I had it, knowing I’d probably be setting up camp in the wind and rain over the next few days and pooping in a plastic bag. Mountaineering is a different type of fun people.
The weather forecast didn’t improve the next day, but we set off toward the White River campground anyway. That day we met our lead guide, Stuart, who was a former Paratrooper in the British Army, and has 168+ ascents of Rainier under his belt among a bunch of other accomplishments. He drove our van like it was a tank heading into battle, and I was slightly fearing for my life while on the freeway in his hands. Luckily, he’s much better at mountain guiding than driving.
The trek up to our first camp would cover about 4000 ft of elevation gain. We’d be carrying all our gear with us, but only a short section of this stretch required traveling on the snow. Training with a 60lb pack definitely made this part of the of trip easy and I felt pretty good by the time we got to our camping spot on the Inter Glacier.
A big benefit of going with a guiding service is mealtime! They cook breakfast and dinner for you, which is luxurious while you’re on a mountain. That evening, after setting up our tents we had burritos filled with chicken, beans, cheese, and guac which were better than any burrito I’d ever made in a full kitchen.
The clouds and fog kept rolling in after dinner, and there wasn’t much to do but hang out in the tent. Luckily I was on the last Harry Potter book of the series and couldn’t wait to curl up in my sleeping bag to read it.
The next morning started with more food (the real reason I do anything outdoors). Eggs, bacon, and hash-browns, oh my. We eventually packed up our camp, roped up, and started toward Camp Schurman which sits at about 9500 ft. Walking roped with crampons, ice ax in hand, and heavy packs definitely took some work, but the trek was pretty short and we finally got a glimpse of the Emmons glacier which is scary and beautiful at the same time.
Once we got to Camp Schurman it was a race against the weather to get our tents set up. The wind was picking up and it had been raining on and off. By the time we finished setting up, my “gortex” outer layers were soaked, and we once again had to retreat inside our tents. The rangers stationed at Camp Schurman had left because of the crappy weather, along with another group who turned around on their ascent, so it was just us. We were supposed to do a mini snow school that afternoon and practice self-arrest but, we only got about 10 minutes in before we were all wet and freezing.
At dinner that night, which consisted of mac n cheese with leftover breakfast bacon and sundried tomatoes (my most vivid memories are usually of meals in case you haven’t noticed) our guide told us there was a good chance we couldn’t summit the next day. It was supposed to keep raining/snowing and winds were supposed to pick up. He was going to start checking conditions at 4am and go from there. He also took it upon himself to get into our heads that this was dangerous, and if conditions weren’t right, a fall could mean death. Gulp.
It was a restless night, like nights before an early climb often are. I was more anxious than normal though. I kept wondering if I should have come on this trip, whether I was fit enough, skilled enough….on and on. Also, maybe I should have eaten more mac n cheese because somehow I was hungry.
I remember waking up and hearing the wind ripping through our camp, with sleet pounding our tent. I thought, “ya, no way is this happening.” Then I woke up and heard nothing. The weather seemed to have moved out and I thought “crap, we might really being doing this.”
Our guide yelled out at around 5am to get moving. I was still anxious but I tried to turn my mind off and just focus on one task at a time. Before long we were moving up the mountain, and I did this thing I always do on a climb that has some risk. I told the mountain I respected it and asked it to be kind to us. I know, that’s some real hippy dippy weirdo nonsense, but it always makes me feel better.
The first stretch of our climb was up what’s called The Corridor. It’s a fairly smooth snow field with not many obstacles. Though it was significantly steeper than what we’d been on, and there were now crevasses to navigate around.
While I like the slow, deliberateness of mountaineering, it’s a pretty exhausting activity both physically and mentally. You really can’t ever zone out as you need to be aware of the rope you’re attached to, your ice ax position, along with the changing terrain and all the obstacles and potential dangers around you. A guide helps you tremendously, but you still need to be aware, take care of yourself and contribute to the team.
When we took our first break, I heard our lead guide telling someone on the team that his footwork wasn’t looking good and he may need to turn around. Overall I could tell he wasn’t confident in the technical skills of the group as a whole, especially as the surface got icier.
As we got up a little past 11,000 ft, our guide turned us around. He said it was too icy, and we were headed toward an area with exposure where a fall would not end well. I was happy he made the decision for us because I definitely didn’t want to fall to my death, but the defeat washed over me at the same time. We had planned and trained for so long, took a week off, and flew halfway across the country. But as the signs in Rocky Mountain National Park like to you remind you, “Mountains Just Don’t Care.”
As we got closer to camp, I realized I was relieved, and that the mountain did indeed care. I felt like it was giving me a chance to improve and come back when I felt more confident. I knew physically I could have done it, but mentally and technically I had some things to work on.
That afternoon still ended up being a good time; we got to practice snow anchors and crevasse rescue (I set up a rope system and pulled Bret out of a crevasse), and had one last epic mountain meal of ramen complete with Oreos for dessert. All in all I was proud of myself. I’d learned quite a bit, made some new friends including my tent-mate Connie, and developed a greater respect for the mountain and the sport of mountaineering.
Don’t get me wrong though, not getting to the top of something or completing what you set out to do still sucks. For me, it was another failure to add to my already growing list since quitting my job earlier in the summer. Turns out finding a new job is kind of hard, harder than I thought it would be, and I had not anticipated how much rejection I’d have to deal with. In fact, I had this very unrealistic fantasy of summiting Rainier, happy crying with Bret, then coming back out only to check my phone and have a job offer waiting. After which I would have another epic dinner at the German restaurant to celebrate.
The reality? I told Bret I wasn’t signing up again for Rainier until I had at least another season of winter climbs and snow school under my belt. I checked my phone in the car on the way back and saw a few “thanks but no thanks” emails for jobs I applied to, and that night I ate the rest of the Oreos in our hotel room.
But you know what? Climbing mountains, leaving a job that isn’t serving you, being kind of scared and not knowing what the outcome will be but doing said thing anyway…….THESE ARE ALL HARD THINGS. And while there are varying levels of hard things, it’s these hard things that shape us, change us, humble us, and eventually help us trust ourselves to make it through.
So my friends, I leave you with some Fitzgerald wisdom:
Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Here’s to reality exceeding our expectations every now and then.