Mt. Rainier Climb

by Mike Koss
July 23, 1998
(Updated 12/21/98)

 

Preparation

In mid-March I found that my friends Jim Mallahan and Jeff Lum were planning to climb Mt . Rainier. "Want to join us?", they asked me casually. After a couple seconds of thought, I said "Sure, why not." So we all signed up for a guided climb of Mount Rainier with Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI).

My primary motivation for doing this climb was to have an excuse to get into shape. For the next four months I started a regular program of twice weekly weight lifting and a weekly hike. Unfortunately, Jeff had to drop out due to a back injury, but Jim and I continued so that by July 21st, we felt well prepared for the climb.

On Monday night, we drove to Paradise Lodge for a good night's sleep before our trip. We ate a big breakfast at the Lodge dining room and walked over to the RMI guide house at 9AM. By 10:30 everyone in the group (23) had their equipment rented and we made our introductions. Our group consisted predominantly of people living out of state; we even had a honeymooning couple from California.

Climb to Muir

Mike and Jim.JPG (27728 bytes)The first day of the climb took us from Paradise (5,500’) to Camp Muir (10,000’). By this time, my pack weighed about 40 lbs. Jim and I had hiked to Muir once before in training, but my pack had been far lighter. Now, I had crammed it full of every item on the RMI checklist, including 4 pairs of gloves or mittens, headlamp, batteries, food for two days, two quarts of water as well as crampons and an ice axe hanging off the back.

The weather for the trip could not have been more ideal. Dressed in shorts and T-shirts, our group made the hike to Muir in about 5 hours. We had one person turn back on this relatively easy part of the trip (perhaps due to the heat or heavy load). And another needed to go at a slower pace than the rest of the team (tiny Hong’s pack was just about as large as she was).

Mike at Muir.JPG (15611 bytes)Jim and I both felt great at Muir. The pace was slow and steady with 4 rest stops along the way. We had time to prepare a meal of noodles. I couldn’t understand why some people told me that the altitude took away their appetite. I felt really hungry and my noodles tasted great.

Rest Period

After dinner, we were all commanded to go to bed at 6 PM. Packed like sardines in the one-room bunk house 22 people lay quietly for the next 5 hours. I doubt anyone in the group was able to get more than an hour of sleep; I wasn’t able to sleep at all.

Summit Climb

At 11:30 the lights came on. We had to get ready to go. After having a meal they euphemistically called breakfast we started out on our summit climb. Outside the bunk house the night sky was the most beautiful I’ve seen. We had no moon, the skies were crystal clear, and we were looking through 10,000’ less of the atmosphere than at sea level. The Milky Way was particularly striking. Rather than just sense a vague fuzziness in the background blackness of the sky, you could discern intricate details of the structure of the Milky Way, with a large dark band running down the middle (caused by interstellar clouds of gas, I believe).

Each of our 5 rope teams assembled on the snow outside the bunkhouse. We began by crossing the Cowlitz Glacier to Cathedral Gap (10,500’). This part of the route is visible directly from Muir. One of my most memorable sites is looking at the lights from the headlamps of the teams in front of mine. Their points of light formed their own constellations in the dark sky above me, and I could see the Big Dipper, every bit as bright as the light from the headlamps, hanging over the head of the lead team.

Once across the glacier (including our first step over a small crevasse) we scrambled through a very rocky section (no snow) up to the Ingraham Flat (11,000’). This was our first rest stop. I was working hard, but I still felt pretty good at this point. I believe, however, that one or two people turned back at this point.

The next section of the climb was the most dangerous. We had to walk across the Ingraham glacier, including two very large crevasses. There were aluminum ladders laid across the crevasses for this purpose. Even though we were roped together, it was quite thrilling to take 4 or 5 steps across the wooden planks while looking hundreds of feet down into the crevasse.

But the most dangerous part was traversing underneath the Ingraham Ice Fall. We were all told to be quiet and move as quickly as possible. If we saw falling rock we were told not to run but to "step out of the way" at the last second.

Once across, we climbed through the rocky Disappointment Cleaver up to 12,400’. It was at this rest stop than another 6 people turned around (including Jim). I had a headache, and the beginnings of nausea and I was asked if I was still able to make the climb. I had to decide not only for myself, but also if I would remain an asset to my rope team and not be a liability. I decided that I could be; I still felt strong, but just a little ill.

The next section seemed really difficult to me. It was long, and the pace was relentless. I was getting increasingly sick to my stomach and I was finding some of the spots quite scary. Much of the trail is a well worn trough. On one side, is a wall, on the other, a small ridge falling away in a steep slope. Climbing in the trough is difficult; even though I was wearing crampons my feet would sometimes slip backwards, requiring excess energy to catch myself from slipping and to regain the ground of the wasted step.

So I used a technique they called "duck walking". Instead of walking in the trough, you walk on the ridge. Each step is placed at a 45 degree angle to the right or left of the ridge peak. The ridge is made of relatively frozen packed snow so that it is easy to jam your crampon down and get a very solid footing. When done right, it feels as easy as climbing stairs. The problem for me was that this placed my footing at the edge of a sometimes very steep slope; if I misplaced a step, I could lose my balance and fall down the slope. It also placed me further from the opposite wall and made it difficult to use my ice axe as a cane on it.

I think our last rest stop was at 13,500’. At this point were were switching back and forth on the very steep upper slopes of the Ingraham Glacier. Here the snow lies at an angle of up to 40 degrees. It feels damn near vertical. Just to lay my pack down, I have to place it above my planted ice axe to keep it from sliding away. At this point I feel pretty crappy and I throw up my breakfast and trail mix. My head feels like I have a permanent ice-cream headache.

But at this point there is no turning back. We are going to make the summit, sick or not. My sickness is taking it’s toll on my energy level and I start to really feel exhausted. Most of the time, the rope in front of me is being pulled taut as I fight to go a little bit slower than the guide of my rope team; the guy in front of me is in some measure pulling me up the mountain.

About an hour later I saw what looked like the crater rim. But Jim had warned me, that as you approach the summit you will see what you think is the top, but in actuality you will have to continue on much further. So I am steeled to expect that we have quite a ways to go. In fact, for the last hour, I’ve felt that I couldn’t possibly go on another minute, and yet I had many hours of climbing and descending to go.

Mike at Summit.JPG (21275 bytes)To my surprise and happiness, we actually were at the crater rim. I had made it! It was now 7:30 AM, 14,400’. The rim was barely 20 feet above the floor of the crater and we all walked down and unhooked ourselves from our rope. We will spend a 1-hour break period here at the summit. I puke again – this time relieving my self of yesterday’s dinner and more trail mix. After bundling up with every piece of warm clothing I had, I spent some time taking pictures, and calling family and friends using a cellular phone. I’m afraid I scared my mother into thinking I was actually dying with all the pressure breathing I was doing (it’s better to breath with loud puffs of air at altitude in order to pressurize the air in your lungs to absorb oxygen).

While other members of the party explored the crater, or sat around talking, I lay on my pack feeling exhausted, sick, and shivering uncontrollably. All too soon we had to begin our descent.

The Descent

At the end of each rest period we have to decide how much clothing to wear for the next hiking interval. Once the team is under way, there is no stopping for anything short of an emergency. That initial decision can mean the difference between discomfort and extreme discomfort.

I had chosen to wear a polar fleece shirt on top of my long underwear for the initial descent. This was a big mistake. The sun was now up and I was baking. At least the level of exertion required to walk down is much less than going up. The main problem is balance. We were trained to use a "plunge step". Each step is a little crouch into the snow while driving your ice axe into the snow at your side to help you stabilize your step. It’s very easy to slip and loose your footing, so it makes it a bit more tiring than simply walking down a flight of stairs.

The view from the top coming down was amazing. Looking down the 40 degree slope you could see the vast landscape of glacially carved valleys surrounding Mt. Rainier. Because of the pitch, it felt almost as if you were looking strait down as if hanging from a balloon. The view was absolutely unobstructed by intervening trees or ground.

Now in the light, we can really see all the terrifying spots we have just climbed in the dark. The most exposed heights have permanent ropes attached to the glacier so we can clip into them as we pass. The ice fall area is also more hazardous now that the sun is out, warming and melting the glacier. We again move quickly and quietly past this area.

One interesting thing we got to witness on the way down was the intentional dislodging of a boulder. The team behind us found a wobbly boulder hanging right over a part of the Disappointment Cleaver trail. We all stood back as they pushed it off it’s perch. This large stone, some 3 feet across came crashing down the trail. Each bounce was accompanied by a loud "whap". I could just imaging the amount of energy of each impact as the boulder of many hundreds of pounds fell 20 to 30 feet between caroms.

We were also passed in this same area by a team of two unroped climbers. Apparently they had spent the night in the crater, and had done all their climbing unroped and unprotected. This really drew criticism from our guides. Simon then told us some 150 climbers in France are killed each year due to this attitude. The European tradition of climbing places more emphasis on climbing freely and without safety devices.

We reach Camp Muir by noon. This feels like the end for me, but in fact I have to repack my pack with all 40 pounds of gear, and we have another 2 hours to go to Paradise. We made a good time of it by running down (almost skiing on the slippery snow), and sliding down on our butts. There are actually "slides" in the snow built up by all the people that have been doing this already.

I think I got more blisters from our mad dash to the guide house than I did on the whole previous part of the trip. It is especially jarring once we reach the bare dirt trail and paved walkways of the lower park.

Conclusion

I feel proud to have accomplished this climb; it feels like the hardest and most intense thing I’ve ever done. In a 30 hour period, I climbed 9000’ of Mt. Rainier and back again under my own power and without sleep. But it was a painful and exhausting experience as well. I couldn’t really recommend it to anyone unless you're in really excellent condition – it’s something you have to decide for yourself to do. I don’t think I’ll ever attempt it again.

Questions and Answers ()

How'd you lose your camera?

My camera stayed in the crater, I think.  I was feeling so crappy I must have left in on the ground and it never made it into my backpack for the return.

Update: It turns out I did NOT lose the camera - it was in a pocket of my jacket...I only found it when it next rained and I had to use it; "what is this buldge in my pocket?".

Did the honeymoon couple make it?

The husband made it - the wife had to turn back.  She was pretty scared of the exposed nature of the climb.  Hong did not make the summit as well.

How many of the original 23 actually made it to the top?

Only 14 clients of the 23 that started the trip made it to the summit.  This is a lower than normal percentage, especially taking the great weather into account.