Mt Rainier. Twice before Indy has attempted to gain the summit of this 14,411' peak. Twice before Indy has been forced to turn back for one reason or another. It was the summer of 2002. The time has come once again for Indy to tackle....The Mountain.
In two prior attempts at Mt Rainier, Indy, Bob, and Mark 'Aqua' Neubauer had been forced to turn back. The first time at Camp Schurman due to inclement weather, the second time at 12,560' due to Aqua succumbing to altitude sickness. Since that time, Indy and Bob had discussed going back to the mountain again. Indy's girlfriend, Bri, was also interested in testing herself against the might of Rainier. And Indy's longtime friend Chris Anderson (who is also doing the highest points of each state, much like Indy) expressed an interest in accompanying Indy up to the summit of this volcano. It was decided that the summer of 2002 would be the time to go. Plans were put into place, and the months ticked by...
Bri arrived on July 5th from Europe (specifically Garching, Germany) where she is working on her PhD program in astrophysics. The time differential from Garching to Baltimore is 6 hours. From Baltimore to Seattle it is 3 hours, so when Bri finally gets to Seattle, she will be 9 hours off kilter. Bri and Indy have tickets to leave Sunday morning, July 7th. The 6th they spend repacking for the trip. This adventure will be more of a whirlwind adventure than Indy has done before: the team has one week to get together, climb the mountain, and return again to their respective homes. One week to do Rainier is not a lot of time, especially given how unstable the weather patterns can be up there on the mountain. Indy had chosen July for the attempt as it was one of the more stable (relatively speaking) weather months, and there would still be snow on which to work up the glaciers. Indy has heard stories from others who have made their attempts (some successful, some not) in August and September, and all they had to work with was the hard ice of the glaciers: the snow had all melted off by that time.
Indy had been monitoring the status of Rainier for the past few months. Unfortunately, this seemed to be a rough year for climbers on Rainier, as there were two deadly accidents less than a month apart on the mountain, one of them just a day after the May 30th accident on Mt Hood in Oregon (where not only were a number of climbers killed, but a helicopter crashed while making the rescue effort of the survivors who had gotten swept into the large upper crevasse at the top of the Hogsback from the combined fall of three rope teams). Yeah, this was a heads-up to Indy that they would need to take care and be careful. As one always should when up on these mountains (even though sometimes shit happens).
Bri and Indy arrive in Seattle by mid-afternoon. Bob is late picking them up, but Bri and Indy entertain themselves by looking lost and wandering around the airport for a while. They end up talking with a guy named Steve who, as it turns out, is planning on climbing Rainier later in the coming week as well. Huh! Well, maybe they would see each other up there. Doubt it, but who knows - it is a small world, after all!. Bob eventually makes it (traffic north of Seattle was hellish!) and brings them back to Mountlake Terrace, where Bob and Karyn live. Bri and Indy unload their stuff and dump it in the corner Bob and Karyn typically set aside for when Indy has been there in the past. They catch up on things and hang out, but Bri, being 9 hours ahead of everyone else, soon dies. Chris finally arrives at 10:30p. For Indy, this is basically 1:30a, but he manages to stay up a little longer to chat with Chris before succumbing to sleep himself.
Indy and Bob packing gear
The next day all are awake and after a nice breakfast and an initial sorting of gear, take off to the REI flagship store. Indy has been there half a dozen times already, but for Bri and Chris, this was their first time to the fabled REI temple. Much time is spent here finishing the outfitting of the team (who are unofficially named Team Hubble: Chris used to work at the Space Telescope Science Institute in the from the late-80s to the early-mid-90s, Bri in the late-late-90s through 2001, and Indy is still there, a fixture in place for the time being; Bob's sister-in-law Christine has worked at the Institute almost as long as Indy, so Bob, by extension, gets honorable Hubble status). After they are done shopping (and spending ludicrous amounts of money!), they head off to Pike's Place Market for lunch and looking around. Once done there, several different grocery stores are hit to get bulk food, then back to Bob and Karyn's place to resort, order, then repack, gear, and do general route review/planning. It was a long day, and soon after dinner everyone retires to sleep. The Big Day is tomorrow.
Mount Rainier - The First Day
Up bright and early, the team has a quick breakfast and then pack Chris' SUV. It is full, but not bulging. The four pile in and take off for....Mt Rainier National Park. They arrive to the ranger station a little after 11:00am and go to sign in. While they are signing in Indy and Chris overheard on the radio behind the ranger that a rescue operation is in progress. The ranger is reluctant to give out many details as to what is going on, but tells the team that it was "just" a case of altitude sickness and once the climber is down to a lower altitude they will be okay. Indy listened as someone called requesting a helicopter to assist with the rescue, and hoped that the ranger wasn't trying to ease their fears about something serious that might be going on (as it turns out, it probably wasn't anything as dreadful as what had happened in the preceeding couple of months, as nothing hit the news that week about tragedies or accidents on Rainier). The group kept this in mind as they returned to Chris' SUV and drove up to the White River Trailhead/Campground.
Bri on the White River Canyon Trail; Rainier in the background
Once they got fully geared up (the temps were quite warm, the weather quite sunny, so most of the winter clothing stuff was left in the packs), the team was on the trail by 11:50am. The hike up was quite nice and pleasant (if a bit on the warm side), and they took it slow, not in a rush to get anywhere, as they had all day and there was no sense in stressing themselves out early. Indy lagged behind most everyone pretty much the entire way at this point. Indy has learned over the years that early on in these trips he is slower than most everyone else, but as the team gets higher in altitude, and the days wear on, Indy tends to move faster. Probably has something to do with the fact that there is less air to push through at 11,000' than at 4,000'. But that's just a theory; still yet to undergo rigorous testing.
The team arrived at the Glacier Basin Campground at 2:40pm. Being the only ones there, they set up camp in the open spot near the trail, at the mountain-end of the camping area. It did mean it was a longer walk back to the solar compost "toilets", but it was a closer walk to get fresh glacier-melt water from the White River.
View from the solar compost toilets at Glacier Basin Campground
After setting up camp the group rested and boiled water for food (dinner) and water bottle refills. Chris and Bob entertained themselves before and during dinner in attempting to keep the local chipmunks away from our camp (said chipmunks were eyeing our food greedily), by bombarding them with twigs and small stones. 99% of the hail of bullets they fired from their hands missed completely (some so bad that the chipmunk looked back as if to say "Hello! There's no one over there; I'm 5 feet over here!"). At one point the chipmunks called in air support in the form of a blackhooded chickadee. However, the chickadee decided this was not a profitable camp to raid, and after buzzing the group hard once, took off for other pursuits. Shortly after dinner Bri and Bob retired to their tents while Indy and Chris stayed up a while longer, talking about various things (and killing mosquito after mosquito that had come out to feed - "oh, look, fresh meat from sea level - ATTACK!!"). Then they, too, turned in. The weather stayed warm, and the night it really did not get very cold. Indy should have realized this was a sign, but...
Up The Interglacier! July 10th, 2002. The worst part of the trip that Indy has ever experienced was now before them. Twice before Indy has been up the Interglacier (much fun to butt-glissade down; royal bitch to hike up). Twice before he has vowed he won't climb that bitch again. Here he was, preparing for a third run up the thing. He decidedly wasn't looking forward to today's travails.
Looking back down the valley; Bri in front, Chris next, Bob coming up in back
The team was up by 6am, and after breakfast, broke camp, on the trail by 8:30am, quickly out-distancing the mosquitos from hell. An hour and a half later of intense upward hiking, the group reached the base of the Interglacier. Indy looked up. There were teams of people in front of them. Some going up. Others coming down. The day was marvelously clear and unusually warm. The team puts on their crampons and starts the torturous, arduous slog up the steep glacier, made worse by the warm weather turning the snow into a mush that is just grueling to climb up. It is pretty mind-numbing for Indy, even if he does look around every once in a while to take his mind off of the slow upward progress and see the Cascade Range slowly open up behind him.
Starting up the Interglacier
About 3/4 of the way up the Interglacier the first open crevasse presents itself. Only a few feet wide, one could easily step right across it. However, with a 60+ lbs pack on one's back, and the unstable snow conditions around the crevasse, even the small footbridge offers no comfort to get past the crevasse, so the team stops to have lunch for an hour, then by 1:30p they rope up and...one by one...leap-step over the crevasse. The snow bridge holds, but snow around the lip of the crevasse tumbles in with each passing person. After that they continue up the endless Interglacier, finally reaching the Curtis Ridge two hours later. They take a much-needed 15 minute break, then continue to Camp Schurman (9,450'), arriving there just under an hour later. From there it is a 300' altitude gain to reach the upper camp of Emmons Flats. It takes the team 30 minutes to get from Camp Schurman to Emmons Flats. 5pm is rather late (Indy would have really liked to have been here by 3p, but for that damned Interglacier). Everyone is tired, exhausted; Bob is really not feeling well. The team preps two areas to set up their tents on, boil up some snow/water for dinner, then are in bed by 8pm. Indy sets his alarm for 11:50pm.
The Summit Run
Indy's alarm went off at the proscribed time. But it was difficult to get up; Indy was still pretty drained from the slog up the Interglacier from yesterday. Still, he eventually rolled over, got dressed (although while still chilly, it seemed relatively warm out), woke Bri up, then crawled out of the tent. During his entire "get up" procedure, he heard a fair number of people trudge by from Camp Schurman on their way to the summit. When he poked his head out of the tent (clear skies, bright stars, no moon), he saw about 15-20 headlights heading up the mountain, most of them 1/3-1/2 of the way up The Corridor (the relatively crevasse-free "alley" up the upper portion of the Emmons Glacier from ~9,900 to ~12,800'). Chris and Bob stirred as well, but Bob was still feeling quite out of it, and didn't think he'd have the energy to make a summit bid. Bob opted to stay behind in camp and await the return of the other three. A disappointing decision, but a realistic one, given how he was feeling. More than one team of mountaineers has encountered difficulty in the mountains (here and elsewhere, it's a universal thing) when one or more team members refused to admit they were not ready for the climb and went anyway. At least Bob had a good book to read during the day.
After a quick breakfast, Indy, Bri, and Chris roped up and started the climb. It was quite dark, and warmer than Indy had ever imagined. Middle of the night, and the temperatures were in the upper-30s to lower-40s. The freezing point was over 15,000' at that time. This meant going up the mountain was going to be a serious pain in the @$$ (climbing a glacier of slush instead of firm snow), and that negotiating crevasses was going to be a little more tricky than need be (as snow bridges that should have hardened overnight would be weaker, and crevasse edges would be softer). Indy, being the more experienced mountaineer of the team, led the way, with Chris, being the largest member of the team, playing "anchor" in the back. Indy bent his head forward and led the way, following the horde of people who had already gone up the mountain (before daybreak Indy would have counted over 33 people ahead of them on the mountain).
As Indy feared, the going was slow. Granted, the altitude played a role in this (especially as the team had not fully acclimatized to the altitude), but the snow, the sloggingly slushy snow, was no fun to climb up. Imagine trying to climb up a steep sand dune: for every two or three steps you took up, you slid back down almost as many. It was a thankless, arduous climb up through The Corridor.
Daybreak found them around 12,000', still in The Corridor, but nearing the end. They were going slower than Indy had hoped, but not so slow they would not make it to the top of the mountain before midday. About 800 feet or so up and they would peel off to the right and leave The Corridor, paralleling the bergschrund (the very large upper crevasse separating the ice cap on top of the mountain from the ice sheet glaciers on the mountain flanks). The wind began picking up noticeably at this point. It was still relatively warm, but the wind kept the wind chill temps pretty cool, so the team stayed bundled up. After a quick break for some food and water, and to watch the sun rise, the team pushed on.
Now, a few time during the climb up to Emmons Flats yesterday, and occassionally this morning, Bri's crampons kept coming undone. This happened more and more frequently as the team climbed higher up. Altitude related?? Unlikely, but oddly coincidental. The team stopped a number of times so they would attempt to fix the crampons in order to stop them from falling off of Bri's feet, but alas, without much success. It made for a miserable time for poor Bri, with half of her concentration on the climb, and half on her crampons, wondering when they were going to pop off again.
By the time the team reached 13,300', the winds lept from "picking up" to "seriously hard", blowing ice crystals in their faces and taking their breath away with stronger gusts. At this point the team was paralleling the bergschrund. They finally came to a "hollow" where they were somewhat sheltered from the wind, right next to a spur crevasse that ran off from the bergschrund. They paused while Bri once again worked on her crampons before stepping across this crevasse (my, it was deep!). Almost immediately they were beset by winds again, and shortly after this step-across they encountered the bergschrund step-across (more like 3 climbing steps over a ramp snowbridge that was deteriorating from the warm temperatures). Once they were above this, it was less than 1,000' to the rim of the cinder cone, a shade more than 1,000' to the highest point (the ultimate goal of Indy and Chris, as these two nuts are doing the highest points in all the states). However, the climb wasn't done yet, and the Weather God cranked up the wind with each step upwards that the trio made.
Above the bergschrund Indy noticed that the soft, smushy snow they had been wallowing in since Emmons Flats camp had all but disappeared. Now they were crunching up hard pack, dense snow, almost ice-dense. It was difficult to dig the ice axes or crampons in (and Bri was really loving life with her crampons as they kept popping off now semi-regularly). Upward progress was slow at best. And on top of this, they were going straight into the 40mph wind, with gusts upwards of 60mph. Indy, being in the front, could sometimes look up and actually see the gusts coming, as the wind picked up small ice crystals and dust from the cinder cone rim. He would stop, brace himself for the onslaught, and put his head down. Bri and Chris behind were buffeted hard by the gusts, being knocked off their feet a couple of times.
Slogging, slogging, Indy dragged himself up the final section of the mountain, bit by bit, Bri and Chris behind him, desperately trying to stay on the mountain. The cinder cone rim loomed ahead. Not the true summit (which would be the highest point of the rim), but the next-to-last section. Indy pushed on, feeling the summit calling...