Sunday, November 18, 2007

Rainier Climb: Preparations

"This is crazy, just crazy. Utter insanity. Absolutely crazy." I kept muttering this to myself, fortunately unheard by my cabin mates. It was roughly one a.m., and I was shivering as I stuffed my sleeping bag. The plywood bed had offered little rest, but I doubt a feather bed would have allowed me to sleep given my nerves. I choked down a couple doses of oatmeal and a Cliff bar, chugged a load of water, and re-laced my boots. My hands were shaking out of a perfect mixture of adrenaline and frigid air. In what seemed like moments, it was time to head out onto the Muir Snowfield and rope up. The summit bid was on.

Getting Ready

Six months earlier I had made the initial decision to climb Rainier. Having read about mountaineering adventures for years, I decided it was time to actually have an adventure of my own. I had visited Everest Base Camp and handled the altitude with ease, so I needed to find a good test. More importantly, this test would have to fit within a five-day vacation window at the end of June. My objective would have to require ice ax and crampons, and this pretty much left me with Rainier. Coincidentally, the last week of June tends to offer the best climbing conditions on the mountain, so all signs pointed to go.

I was reluctant to head off on this feat alone, so I began searching for a climbing partner. I had to find a person whose idea of a great vacation also included hauling a heavy pack up a massive glacier. Gabriel Rainisch was just the person. He and I had not-so-gracefully gone swimming in a class four rapid named "Tablesaw" just the summer before. Although we both swallowed our fair share of the Ocoee River in the process, we had survived--so surely our good karma would carry us up and down Rainier.

So, we booked the trip, reserved some rental equipment, and spent the next months intending to train. Instead of training, I studied, ate lots of food, and began a clerkship at a law firm. Gabriel got married, bought a house, and worked long hours. It quickly became clear to us that victory on the mountain would have to be a result of willpower and determination. As Gabriel put it, our climb would be a "tour de force" in every sense of the term.

Lift Off

Departure day arrived quite suddenly. Gabriel and I had been chatting often that week trying to figure out gear, meals, and generally venting our nervousness. I spent an edgy day at the firm before leaving a bit early and heading to DFW. Somewhere in the midst of trading my wool suit for climbing pants, I realized that I was really going to have to climb this thing.

The flight passed slowly. My nerves built as I reread Jim Wickwire's excellent climbing memoir Addicted to Danger. Wickwire accomplished amazing achievements in mountaineering while also practicing law. I sat on the plane wondering whether I would follow in his footsteps or find my own climbing career end on my first three-day "expedition" up the easiest route on the mountain.

As the plane descended, I spotted a peak in the distance, and I felt really confident. It didn't look so bad. I really couldn't see what the fuss was about. Even adjusting for the distance, the peak really didn't seem like a big deal. Rainier ray-schmeer. Apparently the money I had spent hiring the best mountain guides on the planet was unnecessary.

And then the plane landed and turned around. I'm not sure what peak I had spotted earlier, but Rainier was now in my window--and I lost my breath. It's enormous. Absolutely enormous. I knew the mountain was 60 miles away from me, but it still loomed over everything. Tour de force.

I waited for my baggage as Gabriel reserved a rental car. I noticed that my baggage was different that most. Almost every other person from the Dallas flight picked up a rolling bag and a cooler. These people, the sane ones, were up in the Northwest to go fishing for salmon. This is a healthy activity with little chance of plummeting into a crevasse or losing fingers and toes. I picked up my Mountainsmith pack and wondered why this was going to be better than fishing.

I found Gabriel and we headed to his cousin's house on Bainbridge Island. The scenery was beautiful, but the mountain was always right there in the distance. Gabriel's cousins were skeptical that we would make it up, and I was wondering if I would find any confidence myself. We sat in the backyard, sipping coffee, watching a bald eagle in flight, and I wondered if it would be a smarter decision to just enjoy Bainbridge for a few and head home rested.

Fortunately, we had spent a substantial sum reserving our spot on this climb, so we had to climb, out of fiscal responsibility if for no other reason. The time on Bainbridge rocketed by, and it was time to head to Ashford . . . climbing school was a day away.

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