It’s cold when I wake up at 6:45 in the morning. The September days with the cloudless blue sky may be very warm, but the national park clearly knows that it’s fall, and the nights cool off tremendously. Knowing it’s the last chance for a couple of days, I take a shower and then dress in my wind-stopper climbing pants, short sleeved merino wool T-shirt and long sleeved sport shirt. I wander to the coffee shop to get breakfast, only to realize that I’m not going to manage actually eating much, so opt for a coffee and a yogurt to take back to my room. After finishing those, drinking a liter and a half of water and going to the bathroom twice, I try to call home. It’s too early to call my son on a Saturday morning, but as my husband is in an entirely different time zone, I try to reach him. Without luck. My whatsapp message also goes unanswered. Finally, with apprehension settling solidly and deeply into my gut, I use the bathroom once more, shoulder my pack, and head out to the Summit climb meeting area.
Most of my teammates are already there, and the air has warmed considerable in the past hour – it’s much warmer than the day before when we met for training. It wouldn’t be long until I could ditch the long sleeved shirt. A couple of the guys call out a hello as I approach, and ask how I’m doing. I hello back, and admit, somewhat sheepishly, that I’m nervous. They register surprise and comment, “but you’ve climbed higher mountains than this!” Of course I’d already been thinking that to myself, but the truth of it doesn’t change anything at all. I’ve never climbed such a glaciated mountain, roped up in teams, and I’ve never carried a 35- to 40-pound pack up more than 4000 vertical feet. We chat idly as we tuck in our last minute snacks and shift things around on our packs. And then take some group photos while waiting for the guides to finish their briefing and signal us towards the bus. When they do, my stomach flops again as I load my heavy pack into the trailer and then board the bus for the ride up to Paradise.
It’s kind of a funny thing, to begin an adventure at “Paradise,” which is the name of the lodge on Mt Rainier that sits at 5400 ft (1647 m). And maybe even funnier to head out with the intent to finish our climb the next day back at “Paradise.” What a wonderful name for a destination! Hopefully all goes well and we come back safely, but if not, will we anyhow end up at paradise? All this runs through my thoughts, as we gaze out the window while driving up the winding national park road, marveling yet again at the views of the Nisqually river valley cut deeply into the earth, at the sighting of the mountain towering above us, at the cracked blue ice of the glaciers flanking it’s sides. And then 45 minutes later, we pile out of the bus, stow our final layers of clothing, and head up the first paved, then dirt and finally rocky path towards Muir snowfield.
Once we settle into an even pace, my nerves settle as well, and the day becomes a focused approach to putting one foot in front of the other. I opted to wear my approach shoes for the beginning of the hike, and it was a good decision. The ability to roll my foot and enjoy the flexibility of the shoes was a marked contrast to the stiff mountaineering boots I would soon be donning. As we walk, we talk about ourselves, swapping stories and experiences, asking questions. It was a continual building of bridges between strangers, as we learn more about from where each came, what they’ve done in their lives thus far, which experiences have been meaningful, where and what they work, and how they ended up a part of this particular group today on Rainier. We spot a couple Marmots, looking curiously at us as we tromp by with our heavy loads. A chipmunk scurries off the path ahead of us, we point out the various blooming wildflowers. And all too soon, we’re taking our first break and have to take off the comfortable shoes , putting on our boots and gaiters. We are about to enter the snowfield. Our guides remind everyone to not only change into boots, but also eat something. Drink something. Put on more sunscreen, and have another drink. Leaving the break area, we hike another 10 minutes, cross pebble creek, scramble up a last rocky outcropping and then gaze over miles of snow extending up the mountain. Climbing up this enormous snowfield to Camp Muir will command the next several hours.
As I step into the snow, I remember to scuff my boots, concentrating on ensuring a full flat-footed placement ahead of me while resting my full weight on my downhill leg. Then quickly shift my weight to the uphill leg, straightening it completely under the full weight of my body and pack, so that my skeletal structure is absorbing the load rather than requiring my muscles to do all the work. And then scuff forward again with the next foot. This rest-step would be absolutely essential to climb the mountain as efficiently as possible. And frankly, to climb the mountain at all. It is such a big climb in such a short expanse of time, efficiency is the only way to make it to the top. With the heavy load, amount of vertical and winter conditions, I wasn’t going to be able to simply muscle my way up.
The higher we climb, the less conversation there is amongst the group. There are small chats and long intervals of quiet in between; everyone focuses on rest-stepping, ensuring good placement of their steps and avoiding slips and slides in the snow. The sun beats down – it’s hot now – and reflects off the snow all around us. Every hour we take a short maintenance break, in which we eat, drink, and apply more sunscreen. On the second break of the day, the guides ask how people are doing and if anyone has hot spots. A few people admit “yes”, and are instructed to tape them. One guy proclaims that he is beyond hot spots and has full-fledged blisters. A guide goes over to look, and is shocked to see huge blisters on the backs of his heels and on multiple toes. Moleskin and duct tape are pulled out and applied in abundance. Once his boots are back on, we head off again. I’m tired but uninjured, and feel very relieved to not be one of the folks with trouble already.
At the next maintenance stop, we do the usual eat, drink, sunscreen routine, and talk about how much further to go. Plan is to walk another hour, have one last stop, and then within 30 minutes thereafter reach Camp Muir. We are making progress, step by step and slowly, but nearing our goal for the day. Entering a conversation about how long it takes to summit this mountain, Mike drops the comment that our guide Katie holds the female summit speed record. And then asks us to guess what it is: from paradise to the summit and back (the same route we are taking), what do we think her record time is? There are shout-outs of “10 hours!” and then “8,” “13,” “7” and I guess “5”. Sure enough, she actually had done it is 4hours and 58 minutes. For this tour that was planned to take us in total between 18 and 23 hours (not including rest time/ sleeping in camp). We inundate her with questions and find out she did it in running shoes, carrying an ice axe, a bottle of water, and aluminum crampons for the top half of the mountain. And someone gave her Gatorade to drink at Camp Muir. While still somewhat reeling from all of that, we shoulder our packs and again plod rest-step by rest-step up the snowfield.
In the last two sections, we come upon the first crevasses of the trip. Stepping carefully over them, using a plug on a wider one to get across and simply stepping over the smaller ones, it is merely a slight indication of what we will see the next morning on the glacier. We also start to get into more icy terrain – not yet severe enough to warrant putting crampons on, but enough to warrant extra caution and concentration in foot placement, making every step count. A couple of team members question why we weren’t using crampons at this point; I’ve read enough to know the conventional wisdom is that every pound on your feet is worth 5 in your pack, so am glad to not have them on.
At around 14:30, we arrive at Camp Muir. Feeling better than I ever would have imagined when I first hoisted my pack this morning. We drop off our packs, then pile into the hut to choose a bunk. With some surprise, when we realize that not one but TWO groups would be sleeping in one room – all 17 of us, on 3 levels of platforms. I quickly grab a spot on the lowest level (basically on the floor) between two teammates, take off my boots (magic!), roll out my sleeping bag and unpack – piling all my belongings down at my feet at the end of my spot. Feeling like a whole new person in my approach shoes and with the adrenaline of finishing stage one, I head back outside to enjoy the afternoon sun and the incredible panorama while eating a sandwich.
Sitting on the ridge at Camp Muir looking south, I have the Cowlitz glacier and the summit (which isn’t visible from here) behind me, the impressive Nisqually glacier to the right and the massive Muir snowfield stretching out directly below. Beyond the snowfield are the lower hiking trails and a barely visible, miniature Paradise lodge amid a sea of green, and off in the distance Mt Adams, Mt Hood and Mt St. Helens. There certainly are places of less beauty in the world! We feel so good, that we talk about wishing we could just continue “on up to the top” rather than stay here until sometime in the middle of night.
When our guides come down and summon us inside for a briefing, I’m a bit disappointed to give up my spot and the warm sun. Back in our room, I feel the tension almost like a tangible connection between all the climbers. It reverberates between the platforms, is visible on every face, and audible in the nervous laughs at each joke. It’s a relief when the meeting concludes, and we can become active again. We make our freeze-dried dinners, eat, change clothes, organize our packs to be ready for a nighttime departure; all of this a thousand times more enjoyable than sitting and pondering what lay before us. At the late hour of 17:42, I crawl into my sleeping bag, stick in ear plugs, and hope for sleep. Which surprisingly comes quite quickly; apparently the day had taken more out of me than I’d thought.
Waking up again also comes quickly: in fact it is still light out. Frustrated, I check my clock only to find that I’d slept an entire 25 minutes and now, refreshed by a power nap, have no chance of getting back to sleep. Even more frustrating is the developing ache in my right ear. I remove the ear plug, which seems to exacerbate the pain, take an ibuprofen and then cover my ear with a corner of my down sleeping bag. Recalling my experience in Kamchatka last year (where an intense ear ache one evening threatened cancelling a day of heli-skiing), I try to repeat the same steps that saved me last time. Unfortunately not having the same pharmaceuticals at hand, since I’d taken everything non-essential out of my pack.
Laying there, unable to sleep, I hear people coming and going. Some go outside to watch the sky for a bit. Others just to use the toilets. People shift around, turning from side to side. Opening and closing sleeping bag zippers. Some burp, others fart, and still others snore. I turn, and turn, and toss about, stretch my legs, cover my ear, and pray. Quite a lot of praying, actually.