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Thursday, April 26, 2007 Last updated 1:59 p.m. PT Climbing Rainier is an enormous test but you can reach the top
By GREG JOHNSTON P-I REPORTER
Paradise, Mount Rainier National Park — For all its breathtaking beauty, Mount Rainier is a massive creature, a noisy, moving, steaming mass of rock, ice and tectonic energy, and if you want to know it as one who has climbed it, the mountain will take a little piece of you.
· Rainier Guides: Park grants access to two more companies · See more photos from the climb
You will leave the mountain sore from your toes to your temples, you will feel drained, your feet likely will be blistered and your lungs may feel congested from labored breathing of the thin air at more than 2.7 miles high. This condition might cling to you like a hangover for a day or more.
But you’ll look back on it as an epic adventure, as the day you stood on top of the Northwest.
Considered an active volcano, Mount Rainier is a dynamic mass of earth and elements that generates its own weather, kills people almost every year and swallows entire airplanes and helicopters — over the decades several have been left on its shoulders to disappear. That’s why the mountain is sprinkled with place names like Cadaver Gap and Disappointment Cleaver. Mike Kane / P-I Climbers head out from Paradise on their way to Camp Muir.
Although just the third-highest mountain in the lower 48 states at 14,411 feet, Rainier is the most burdened by ice, with 25 major glaciers covering 34 square miles of its slopes, its crater frosted with wind-sculpted forms, pocked with steam vents and undercut by caves and tunnels.
To get up there, you must travel these glaciers and — by any of its 12 main routes — gain 9,000 feet of elevation.
Simply put, scaling Rainier is one of the greatest mountaineering challenges in the contiguous U.S. states.
At the same time, it’s entirely attainable for those in good physical condition.
"As dangerous as Mount Rainier is, it’s not insane to climb it," says Mike Gauthier, the head climbing ranger for Mount Rainier National Park. "You’re not hanging out over thin air dangling from a rope. It’s an exciting, adventurous endeavor. It is an attainable goal, if you put in the training."
Certainly you feel a sense of accomplishment standing up there on the icon of everything Washington — along with fatigue and the stress of knowing you have to get back down over the same wicked, sketchy terrain. As our guide Brent Okita says: "Going up is voluntary; coming down isn’t necessarily voluntary."
As the peak Rainier climbing season commences in the next week or two, three guide companies will be leading climbers to Rainier’s summit, mostly via the two most popular routes — by way of Disappointment Cleaver on the southeast side and Emmons Glacier on the northeast. The road to Paradise is scheduled to reopen May 5, after repairs of winter storm damage. That also will reopen access to independent climbers, hundreds of whom attempt the summit each year. Mike Kane / P-I Susan Reid and Martin Schmaltz listen to a guide discuss the summit attempt in the bunk house at Camp Muir.
About half of the approximately 10,000 people who try each year reach the summit. The rest are turned back by fatigue, altitude sickness, bad weather or accidents. Over the past five years, according to the National Park Service, the guide companies have put about 60 percent of their clients on the summit. The success rate of independent climbers has been about 44 percent.
Climbing Mount Rainier is something almost every serious outdoors person in the Northwest wants to do at least once. Especially for a native who hikes and backpacks, it is a quintessential Northwest achievement.
"For some people in the region, it’s kind of a pinnacle of backpacking and climbing," says Gauthier. "They see the mountain and something about it inspires them and they realize it’s a somewhat attainable goal if they put in the training.
"There’s another class of people who are looking to climb all over the world. Rainier is accessible, they get altitude exposure, glacier experience and gain all these skills they can go on to the Himalayas with, or Alaska, McKinley. It’s a great training experience."
I put it off as long as I could, using the perpetual excuse that I needed to get in better shape before considering it. However, in 2006 my life took a stressful digression, and I responded with a steady schedule of the therapy that works best for me: running, hiking and bicycling. When Mike Kane, a young and talented photographer who was at the P-I on a fellowship, asked why I had never climbed the mountain — and if I wanted to — I had run out of excuses. The time had come.
Neither of us were trained mountaineers, so we decided to climb with a guide service, and for me there was only one option: Rainier Mountaineering Inc., or RMI. That wasn’t because the other guide services on the mountain were less skilled, but simply for the opportunity to climb with Okita, an acquaintance who happens to be my best friend’s brother-in-law and who I knew had summited Everest in 1991, had climbed Mount McKinley more than a dozen times and Rainier more than 300 times. Mike Kane / P-I Climbers inch their way toward the summit of Mount Rainier just before sunrise. A typical summit trip led by RMI leaves Camp Muir at about 1 a.m. and reaches the top around 8 a.m.
I had heard stories about Okita. If Rainier is a real mountain, then Okita is a real mountain man, and his life revolves around that volcano. In winter, he is the assistant director of the Ski Patrol at nearby Crystal Mountain ski area.
"It’s my home," he told me later. "I’ve spent 21 years establishing a career on that mountain. I’m rather fond of it. I think I know it pretty well and I love it."
That’s about as sentimental as the no-nonsense and soft-spoken Okita gets. He is one of the best guides on the mountain and I wanted him leading us.
We purchased RMI’s three-day summit climb program, which is actually a two-day climb preceded by a day of training in the use of an ice ax and crampons (clawlike traction devices that attach to the bottoms of boots), self-arrest, climbing in a rope team, and the techniques of rest-stepping and pressure-breathing.
That last item allegedly helps your blood better absorb oxygen at high altitude, although while climbing I suspected our guides urged us to do it just to take our minds off the fact that we were traversing damn steep slopes and gaping, yawning, fearsome crevasses.
We had already experienced a little crevasse drama earlier. Most RMI climbs are via the Disappointment Cleaver route, and on the first day of our climb, our party backpacked from Paradise to Camp Muir, a rocky outpost on Cowlitz Cleaver at 10,188 feet. Here a little collection of stone and wooden huts serves as base camp for summit attempts.
Not long after we arrived, an Austrian climber, part of an independent party, slipped and fell into a "moat," a crevasse that can form between ice and rock. This one, right at Muir, had been covered by thin ice, which the climber broke though, plunging 20 feet.
Led by Okita, a team of guides and rangers rescued the guy, dropping him a helmet and climbing harness, then setting up pickets in the ice and pulling him out with a rope.
The climber lost his ice ax but was OK, and I was impressed by the guides’ skill and efficiency. However, it was a vivid illustration of what can happen on Mount Rainier.
"That’s what distinguishes Rainier, even from the other volcanoes in Washington," says Okita. "It is quite a bit more glaciated and higher and therefore a bit more serious. You face more of the objective dangers of ice fall and rock fall, coupled with altitude and weather considerations.
"Baker and Hood are easy. You’re only going to 10,000 feet. That’s like going to Muir. Baker does have some glaciers. Hood, you have a little bit of steeps and two or three crevasses, but not two or three hundred crevasses."
Our day at Muir was short. We arrived in the early afternoon, lounged, ate dinner (RMI provided hot water), and then Okita delivered an hourlong briefing about what to pack, what to expect, the route and schedule. At 6:30 p.m. it was lights out and sleepy time in the small Muir bunkhouse, within which were crammed 24 climbers, coed.
Only those who sleep like a bear in December got more than a few winks. People were snoring, passing wind, getting up to relieve themselves, tossing and turning. Who can sleep at 6:30 p.m. anyway?
Okita returned and turned on the propane lights at 12:30 A-freaking-M. More hot water was provided, we all ate, drank, pulled on our boots, helmets and headlamps, then headed outside into the dark to put on our crampons and split into four-person rope teams.
Under a sky full of brilliant stars we set out, crossing the Cowlitz Glacier and then climbing up and over a rocky ridge, or cleaver, just below Cadaver Gap. At one point I looked back and saw several strings of rope teams snaking up the mountain, defined by their glowing headlamps. Above we could see the lights of independent climbing teams. Mike Kane / P-I Guide Stuart Robertson rest-steps his way up Mount Rainier’s east face soon after sunrise.
The spooky stuff started on Ingraham Flats, 1,000 feet above Muir, where the route hopped directly over several narrow but deep crevasses. Nearby were bigger crevasses in Ingraham Glacier — fearsome, gaping, yawning fissures. I was almost happy our vision was confined to the narrow beams of our headlamps. Off in the dark corners were things I really didn’t want to see at that point, such as the Ingraham Icefall and Disappointment Cleaver.
Later I would learn that this is the riskiest part of the climb. The route runs directly beneath the ice falls, with dozens of massive, house-size blocks of ice seemingly teetering precariously above you. One of the worst accidents in American mountaineering occurred here in 1981, when a giant ice avalanche buried an RMI guide and 10 climbers. Their bodies were never recovered.
Just beyond are two less-than-appealing stretches, an area prone to rockfall known as "the Bowling Alley," which is the approach to the appropriately named Disappointment Cleaver.
(After we were off the mountain, I joked with guide Stuart Robertson over beers about the fortuitousness of starting in the dark — maybe it’s best you don’t see that stuff on the way up. "Can you imagine coming out on the flats and someone telling you, ‘You have to go up there, and then there,’ " he said with a chuckle.)
Perhaps the hardest part of the climb was Disappointment Cleaver. This is a steep and sketchy, 1,200-vertical-foot crest of loose rock, dust and ash that divides the confluence of Ingraham and Emmons glaciers on Rainier’s east slope.
The route twists torturously up this messy ridge, with footing just a little less slippery than a greased hardwood floor covered with ball bearings — and you’re wearing crampons while roped to three other people. As soon as we got onto the cleaver, I knew a slip here could be disastrous.
In June 1998, 10 people in two RMI rope teams were descending when they were caught in an avalanche and swept down the lower part of the cleaver, with one fatality.
Okita promised that beyond the cleaver, the route was all snow — a 2,200-foot, lung-searing grunt indeed, but no more rock. It was eerie climbing that cleaver in the dark, the spookiness punctuated by heavy breathing, the clang of ice axes and the metallic scraping sound of crampons on rock.
But we made it, taking our next-to-last rest break at its top. Here, three climbers decided they could not go on. While one of the guides took the three back to Muir, our rope team took on an extra climber who wanted to push on.
I was a little uneasy about this. As Okita had said earlier, a rope team is only as strong as its weakest link. We didn’t know this guy and now our team was five, with more opportunity for human error. But he proved up to the task.
As we marched laboriously up the icy slopes, at 12,500 feet we first saw the sunrise, its faint red glow lining a 9,000-foot ceiling of clouds on the eastern horizon. It was a gorgeous sight, but difficult to appreciate while focusing on the climb ahead, and simply trying to breathe. At that altitude just standing up and taking a step saps your breath.
The rest of the way was intense but uneventful, and I was surprised when a couple of hours later Okita announced, "We’re here, you made it!" It seemed like we should have a good way still farther to climb, but we stepped into the mountain’s East Crater and that was that. Mike Kane / P-I Jonathon M. Venzie, a lawyer, rests in Rainier’s summit crater.
The crater was carpeted with thousands of pointy and peculiarly shaped white ice moguls, with a trail beaten through them to the summit register on its far side. The sun was bright above a puffy quilt of clouds, and in the distance we could see the tops of the neighboring volcanoes: St. Helens, Adams, Hood.
I sat and rested, ate a candy bar and drank some water, then walked over to check out the crater’s steaming caves before making my way across the icy bowl to the summit register.
Here we still could not breathe easily — literally or figuratively. I knew the way down could be even more perilous than the way up, since fatigue makes a slip more likely.
I was surprised later to learn from Gauthier that tunnels and caves cross beneath the crater from one side of the summit to the other. And that there’s an airplane in the ceiling of one of the tunnels. Late in 1990 a Cessna crashed on the summit, was later covered by snow and by spring had melted into the crater ice.
"This place is so full of stories," says Gauthier.
We didn’t dally, spending just an hour on the summit and then roping back up and beginning the descent.
It was warm and sweaty work, winding and twisting down the dusty, rocky cleaver, and scary even walking the route below the Ingraham Icefall in the daylight. You can see these bus-size blocks of ice above, and you know that one day they will fall. You hope it’s not while you’re there.
I was running low on water, having consumed more than I thought I would need. When we reached Ingraham Flats under the triangular stone countenance of 11,138-foot Little Tahoma, a remnant volcano, Okita asked if anyone needed water. I gulped mine down and drank some of his.
Muir was 45 minutes away and finally I let myself relax.
We spent an hour resting, eating, drinking and packing at Muir, then dropped the remaining 4,800 feet to Paradise and the waiting RMI van. There, after the 9,000-foot descent from the summit, I kicked off my boots and saw that I would be losing the big toenail on my left foot. My lungs were congested, and they remained so for a few days.
But I felt good, like I had achieved something most people never attempt, and I had seen my native state from an essential perspective. Plus, I knew some frosty, foamy beverages awaited down the road in Ashford.
"It is an awesome achievement here in the Northwest, to stand on the highest point in the region," says Gauthier. "It’s a place like nowhere else on the planet really. You can’t help but be inspired."
"Mount Rainier; A Climbing Guide" by National Park Service climbing ranger Mike Gauthier (Mountaineers, 245 pages, $18.95) is the book you need. Also see Gauthier’s climbing blog at mountrainierclimbing.blogspot.com.
Mount Rainier National Park’s climbing pages are full of information — you might want to skip the accident reports until after your climb. They’re at nps.gov/mora.
The companies that guide on Rainier have lots of good information and advice on planning and preparing: rmiguides.com, alpineascents.com, mountainguides.com.
Gain elevation — The best way to train for mountain climbing is to climb mountains. They need not be technical climbs, but take alpine hikes that gain serious elevation, and do it at least once a week for two months before your Rainier attempt. Before my climb, I hiked Mailbox Peak, Mount St. Helens, South Navarre Peak, Dog Mountain and hiked to Annette Lake, North Lake (twice), Top Lake and Malachite Lake, plus other hikes with less gain. Some recommend you wear a full pack while training; I carried a heavy day pack.
Aerobics — In his climbing guidebook, ranger Mike Gauthier recommends an hour of aerobic exercise at least four times a week, but he is called on to save lives and must be in peak condition at all times. I tried to get four days of serious exercise every week for more than two months before the climb, typically running two or three days for a minimum of 35 minutes, bicycling one day for at least an hour and alpine hiking at least once a week. If you are in poor shape, begin your training four to eight months before the climb.
P-I reporter Greg Johnston can be reached at 206-448-8014 or email@example.com.