Saturday, December 1, 2007

Rainier Climb: Onwards and Upwards

The morning of the climb arrived. We woke, scarfed some food, downed some coffee, and packed and unpacked and repacked, just for good measure. Our packs were transporting the lightest load that would allow our continued survival, so we stashed the excess gear in the rental car and headed to meet our guides. Below is an image of us in those precious naive moments before the climb:

Our lead guide frequently guided trips up Kilimanjaro and was pursuing his 132nd summit of Rainier. I realized immediately we were in good hands. I reaffirmed this opinion by glancing at the guide's pack, visually weighing it in at a solid 90 pounds.

Our fellow climbers were of all ages. Many had lived in the area and looked up at Rainier for most of their lives just wondering about the summit. Others had placed Rainier as the goal of a personal fitness revolution. Others of us weren't quite sure why we were there except for a general desire for adventure. I am pretty sure Gabriel and I fit in this last category.

The bus ride to the Paradise Lodge seemed interminable. I felt thankful for every small gain in elevation along the way, each foot up was one less I would need to surmount. The bus parked at Paradise Lodge, and my altimeter watch (I know, gearhead) indicated an elevation of roughly 5,000 feet. Only 9,000 feet up along 20 miles round trip awaited me. I refilled water bottles, grabbed my trekking poles, and got in line. From the parking lot, I looked up the mountain to see the view captured in this photo. The summit did not seem so far away, but I had to remind myself about the intense foreshortening that occurs in these settings. Distances are wildly deceiving to the eye. The summit seemed close, but it was very, very far away.

The hike began gradually and quickly became more vertical. We had been clearly instructed that we could only stop when the guides allowed a break, so complaining was no option. We were headed up through nature's greatest solar reflector, cooking in an icy oven. The sweat began gushing as it had the day before, and I was feeling fantastic.

A break arrived, and I munched on another Cliff bar. Each bar is dense and flavorful--three or four swallows offered over 300 calories, and I was thankful for the fuel. Each rest stop came after such a long march that the views became substantially more spectacular at each break. The rest stops allowed us to continue our education. For example, we learned an important mountaineering rule of wisdom: don't walk if you can stand still, don't stand if you can sit, don't sit if you can lay down, don't lay down awake if you can lay down and sleep, don't lay down and sleep alone if you can lay down and sleep next to a woman, . . . and it goes downhill from there. Anyway, here is a photo from one of our breaks:

The march continued at a fast pace. Gabriel and I made a point to be near the front of the line. The group generally stayed together, but as the march continued, some folks began to drag behind. By being near the front, Gabriel and I knew we would get the longer breaks, getting to enjoy a few precious extra minutes while the stragglers finally made it our way. The disadvantage of being near the front was the need to keep up with the grueling pace set by our lead guide. I kept thinking of Gabriel's label for the climb: a "tour de force." I let willpower triumph and demanded that my body follow suit. Upwards and upwards we struggled. At each break, I'd down some more calories, but I absolutely could not keep up with my body's consumption. I downed a sandwich, Cliff bars and other candies. I tried, but I felt continually behind.

When I get hungry, I tend to get really grumpy, and I found myself approaching camp in a rather foul mood. I wondered what compelled me to climb, why I didn't just enjoy a long weekend in less glaciated locations. I sat on my pack and consumed a sandwich. I wondered if I had what it took to make it the rest of the way--knowing that the five mile lug of that morning was nothing compared to the fifteen-mile task facing me the next day.

Muir Snowfield

With each bite, my mood improved. Pretty soon, I realized that I was sitting at the most beautiful place I had ever visited. I knew I could do it, but I also knew I would have to do a better job scarfing the food during the summit bid.

The stopping point for the night was the Muir Snowfield, 10,100 feet according to my altimeter watch. Climbers using the RMI guides get to stay in a cabin on bunks:

Other independent climbers choose tents. The bunkhouse was nice, but, I had to capture the cliche, outdoor magazine image of a tent perched on a rocky escarpment overlooking an abyss:


We arrived at our rest spot in mid-afternoon. We would eat a quick dinner and face lights out at 6 PM. We had to go to sleep at 6 PM, naturally, so that we could wake at midnight and then climb up and down over the next 15 to 18 hours.

I ate some sort of freeze-dried nastiness and realized my mistake. Many of my fellow climbers had simplified the food situation by ordering a pizza the night before and wrapping that to eat cold the next evening. That allowed them a very tasty, calorie-laden meal. In my effort to recreate my old backpacking days, I had purchased a freeze-dried meal that I had fondly remembered in hikes of my past. These fond memories excluded how truly salty and disgusting most of those meals are. And, for a short trip like this, how unnecessary. Remembering my utter grumpiness earlier in the day, I opted to eat the whole meal.

After dinner, we had a group meeting. We had climbed the first part of the mountain unroped, without ice axes and crampons. Tomorrow morning, the climb became much more serious. They reminded us of the basic safety measure: if someone screams "falling," you should drop to the mountain and dig in with all of your strength. If someone shouts "rock," turn your pack toward the mountain, hope your helmet is on tight, and pray that the missile either misses you or is small enough that it does not kill you. Awesome.

Then they announced rope teams. Apparently they had evaluated us on the climb up to assess our strength. They wanted to match teams evenly and then send the teams out according to ability. Despite our utter lack of training, Gabriel and I were selected for the lead rope team. The lead team can be tough since that group would potentially have to break trail for the other teams. I also knew that being on the lead meant greatest chance for success. Most importantly, I felt that I had duped the mountain. From the time I signed up for the climb to the time of the climb itself, I had exercised very little and assumed my willpower would allow success. Apparently it was working wonderfully (little did I know that the mountain would soon have its revenge).

I crawled into my bag, and tried to sleep. Unfortunately all of my fellow climbers also struggled to sleep, and the cabin filled with the sound of tossing, turning and frustrated breathing. Except, of course, for the one guy who managed to snore at epic volumes. The snowpack seemed stable, but I was certain that this snore would trigger cataclysmic avalanches. Alas, the shack survived, and after six hours of lying in a down bag terrified and wide awake, I donned my garb to climb this beast. It was "tour de force" time.
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