Mt Rainier is such an iconic mountain. The moment you cross over into Washington her presence is apparent. From the Washington license plates, Rainier Beer Company, to the small town of Rainier, she is a well known symbol not to just us climbers but to everyone who lives near her.
It doesn't matter how many times I see Rainier on the horizon, the massive mountain of snow, ice and rock never seizes to take my breath away. In the last four years, my view of the mountain has changed dramatically. From just admiring, to aspiring to climb the largest volcano in Washington.
The number one most climbed route on Rainier is the Disappointment Cleaver, with over 8,000 climbers reported in 2016. Looking at the statistics, the number dramatically drops with the Emmons Glacier coming in at just over 1,000 climbers in the same year, and the Kautz Glacier coming in with a mere 400 climbers, making it the third most climbed route on the mountain.
After some careful and methodical research (and maybe a little confidence after summiting the North Ridge of Baker) Joe and I decided that we would attempt the Kautz Glacier. With the possibility of having a pitch or two of ice climbing, a rappel and ice fall danger before entering the ice shoot, made the route sound intimidating. As if that wasn't enough, we decided that we were going to carry over. Meaning, that we would carry our heavy, 45lb packs up to the summit, and descend the Disappointment Cleaver.
We woke up as the sun was breaking the horizon on Sunday morning. After packing all of the gear the night before, we had a quick breakfast and were on the road to Mt Rainier National Park. We hoped to be first in line for our climbing permits. We arrived just as the clock hit 7:00am, walked into the Ranger's cabin only to find a line of climbers discussing they’re climbing plans and filling out permits. For the first time this season we would be sharing the route with other climbers.
Once we parked the car and finally hit the trail my pack was feeling especially heavy. The way my plastic mountaineering boots hit the pavement had me wishing for steep snow. The mountain quickly took up our entire view. We pointed out and discussed possible ways to drop down into the glacier. By the time we roped up and stepped foot onto the glacier, a group of eight were not too far behind us.
I weaved and stepped over crevasses as we crossed the Nisqually Glacier and made our way up to the ridge. The weight of my pack seemed to vanish as my body remembered the feeling of rest stepping up the mountain. The higher we got, the easier it became as our bodies started to accept their new normal.
We weren't exactly sure where camp was going to be that night, we did have a rough idea on what elevation we might start to see some camp spots but when we arrived at the top of the ridge, there wasn't much there. With the decision to keep on climbing, we made it above Castle Rock to about 9,200ft where the campsites were plentiful. We were the first to arrive and chose one close to the water source and with a good view. The perks to camping on the rocks was the ability to lay out our gear and dry everything out as we spent the rest of the afternoon napping. As the sun dipped below the horizon other climbers made their way to camp. I climbed atop the rocks above camp and watched the sun kiss Mt Adams goodnight as the warm light disappeared below the skyline.
Throughout the night our tent was lit with the moonlight. Joe stepped out multiple times to watch the climbers go for the summit as their headlamps scurried up the mountain. We woke up at 5am, and packed up our gear and trekked the 1,800 vertical feet up the Turtle Snowfield to camp two. Once again we weren't quite sure where camp was supposed to be, so when we arrived to another tent at about 11,000ft, we knew we might be in the right place. With such a short hiking day, we took the time to find the fixed line into the ice chute and sat on the rocks with our neighbors and conversed about the route. We watched as climbers descended the now warm and slushy chute. As they passed out tents, we picked their brains and even with mixed condition reports from different parties, we started to feel confident for tomorrow's summit go.
|The ice chute with climbers descending|
As the afternoon faded into evening the wind came with a vengeance. A guided group and quite a few others had made their way into camp. Even though the wind whipped across our tent, we knew that the next day's forecast was the best we had seen in weeks, but that was two days ago. After talking with the other climbers, everyone sounded like 2:00am was the time to start climbing. With so many people, the fear of bottlenecking through the ice pitches crossed all of our minds. We knew we all couldn't start at the same time. Joe and I came to the conclusion that since we planned to carry over we should try to get a head start and be the first out.
The evening passed slowly as Joe and I only got about an hours worth of sleep. The alarm went off and we quickly packed our gear and stepped out into the moonlight. We were surrounded by only the sound of our boots crunching the now hardened snow. The light streaked across the mountain, and lit up the climb like nature's headlamp.
We stepped away from camp at 1:00am. Just ahead of us was the most hazardous section of the entire climb. A very short section lies underneath a large ice fall zone. To get to the base of the ice pitches we had to cross it as quickly as we could. We down climbed, and like mice scurrying across the kitchen floor we hurried our way to the other side. Before we knew it we had safely made it to the base of our climb. With such an early start the ice had not yet formed into the glass that shatters when your picks hit it. Rather, you could feel the sticky ice wrap around the pick of your tool as we made our way up. With 50ft of WI2 (Water Ice) climbing behind us, the route turned into an easy upward metronome. We stepped from one frozen sun cup to the next and before we knew it we had climbed all 1000ft of the steepest section without a single piece of protection. As the grade slowly decreased, we saw the first headlight step out to the base of the ice chute now far below us.
With plenty of climbing still ahead of us, Joe did his best to find the route through massive crevasses. With little light, it became increasingly difficult to distinguish sun cupped bowls and boot tracks. Joe continually impressed me as he found the way over the next ridge with a sense of calm that was incredibly contagious.
After a couple of hours climbing, light had yet to peak across the horizon. Even in the cover of darkness, the crevasses were like sleeping giants. As we climbed higher, the trail became easy to follow but the air became distant. The closer we got to the summit, the sun finally fell onto our faces with a welcomed warmth. I tried to fill my lungs with consistent breaths that matched my slow stepping. I could feel my lungs expand but the satisfaction of a deep breath was 2000 ft below us.
|The warmth of the sun was more than welcome!|
With the hard, and technical climbing behind us, we crested the summit crater as steam rose around the edges and welcomed us with a 360 degree view of Washington. We climbed around the crater towards the 14,411ft summit. I tried to take it all in, the summit of Rainier looked so different from what I had imagined it. Joe and I swapped places and once again he let me take the lead to the top. With the sun just over the horizon and the wind whipping across my face, I smiled under my face mask realizing that I was finally standing on the mountain that I had admired for the past four years.
|The Summit Crater|
After a summit selfie with Joe, we walked down and in the protection of register rock, we took a quick break, ate some snacks, and signed the summit register. We crossed the summit crater once more towards the Disappointment Cleaver. Climbers started to pop up from both the DC and the Emmons Glacier. As we descended, we passed a long train of climbers rest stepping their way up to the summit. The sun quickly warmed the snow as we crossed some fairly large crevasses. We approached the cleaver, and climbed down the rock. I listened to my sharp crampons become dull as they scraped across the rocks and dirt. We made our way down, passed Ingraham Flats and finally after 4000ft of elevation loss we proudly stepped into camp Muir as the first climbers to summit the mountain for the day.
|14,411ft on top of the world|
After 9 hours and 25 minutes of climbing, the thought of setting up the tent for another night was exhausting, but less than the thought of hiking all the way back to the car. So after finishing the camp chores of making a water melt system and laying out gear to dry, we climbed into the tent before noon and rested the remainder of the day away.
The next morning I poked my head out of the tent to see the headlamps of other climbers slowly ascend the ridge. I watched the sun crest the horizon on my 21st birthday at 10,400ft from my sleeping bag, on the mountain we had just climbed 12 hours earlier. I don't think I will ever forget the feeling of the sun reflecting off the snow and warming my tired and aching muscles that morning. Nothing but happiness filled me up. To be at one of the most beautiful places in the world, with my best friend is completely priceless.
|Waking up in the early morning light after a climb|
is quickly becoming one of my favorite things
Later that morning we made our way back to the chaos of Paradise, as tourists filled the parking lot and alpine meadows of Mt Rainier's lower elevation. We shoved all of our gear into the car and started to drive back into town, with lasagna and cake in our future.
With the climb on Mt Rainier comes the end to our summer mountaineering season. With three mountains successfully climbed, Joe and I credit so much of our success on our fitness and ultimately a bit of luck. The weather cooperated in the end and so did our bodies. Just because it's the end of the summer season, doesn't mean we don't have a couple few more climbs on our list! But for now we will take a deep breath, rest and look forward to our next adventure.
|Summit selfies are hard in thin air and cold wind|