It was very hard to say goodbye this morning. My 14 year old son held me for minutes in a hug, my mom stayed strong as I teared up, and I virtually ran to the car to get away before I couldn’t bring myself to go. Only to see my son, standing at the front door in his pyjamas to wave me off. Choke! Swallow it down. And drive.
It’s been a tough season on Rainier, with a group of climbers perishing in May (albeit on a different route than I’ll take) and a hiker recently dying of hypothermia. When asked about these accidents from family and friends, my standard answer is that given an average of 4.5 deaths per year on Rainier, statistics are in my favor. Despite my nonchalant-seeming answer, I’m well aware of the tragedy and danger. And I’m currently working through longer term plans for an even bigger climb. Combine those elements with the personal goodbyes and direct transition from family to the mountain today, and maybe it’s not surprising that I struggled. During the drive, I pondered my reaction and also realized that previous climbs saw me on my own for a few days, not having to actually bid adieu from anyone in person. Maybe that needs to be part of my planning for future climbs.
Luckily, I had 4 hours in the car to progress beyond feeling sad and apprehensive. Singing to the radio, driving across desert plains, along churning rivers, into deep pine forest and finally rounding a corner to the view of Mt. Rainier towering over the lush green Washington landscape: my excitement and joy steadily growing. And at 13:30, I pulled into Rainier Base Camp.
The afternoon was busy, but not difficult. I pulled out all my gear in my room, arranged it into piles and then filled my backpack with what I intend to take up the mountain. Then I dropped by the rental office to pick up the items I hadn’t wanted to pack all the way from home in Germany (ice axe, crampons), and promptly reported to the briefing area. After initial introductions, our guides walked us through the program, stressing things like “leave no trace,” how many snacks we will need to bring for each day, which equipment is essential and what to expect on our route. Mostly it was expected information, with one surprise being the fact that we will actually have to cross a few ladders which have been placed to bridge a crevasse. Apparently there are currently 3 ladders in use, and a 4th may be added before we reach the glacier. That’s a new challenge for me, and frankly, one I’ve always hoped to avoid; the idea of walking across a ladder in crampons while peering into an icy void simply doesn’t seem enticing.
And then we did gear check. I had already discovered that during one of my re-packings in the past 2 weeks of travel, one of the snow brackets for my poles went missing. So I alerted the guides to this and found a couple of group members with extra brackets. We all emptied our packs and went through the contents. One guy is missing gore-tex rain pants with side zippers – off to the rental counter. Another guy is missing proper (warm enough) boots – off to rentals. I find that I’m missing my midweight gloves and a garbage bag to line my pack (I meant to secure that last item from my mother’s kitchen this morning). So I joined the line. As briefing wrapped up and I began stuffing my pack again, the missing snow bracket magically appeared – yay! Followed immediately by the decision to ditch my glacier glasses case to avoid the extra weight, and the consequent discovery that the case in my pack has no glasses inside. What?! How’d that happen? Back once again to the rental counter, and the musing that no matter how much gear I accumulate and how meticulously I think I’ve packed it up, I still manage to spend money renting things.
The sun is now down and the mountain night air turning cold, and I’m happy to sit in my room, bundled up in powerfleece and with a chai tea in hand. Everything is packed for tomorrow (mountaineering skills training), and I’m feeling nervous despite having more experience than most of the people in the group. Because I’m the only woman? Due to the mishaps of the day? Or just because that’s part of why I do this – to feel the nerves, the adrenaline, and to use them all to accomplish something big? Will I make it over crevasses and ladders, over snowfields and rocks, and up 2600 vertical meters in 2 days to the summit? And most importantly, will Sunday night see me home safely again, hugging my family and celebrating?