Wake up time is midnight, as we sleepily struggle out of our warm sleeping spots with bags under our eyes, and struggle into our layers and gear for the climb ahead. We are well aware that we have 45 minutes to get ready, have breakfast, and then get out on the ridge to strap on crampons and get roped together. 45 minutes is not a lot of time when 17 people are stumbling over each other, waiting in line to use the vile-smelling bathroom (hoping to avoid the need to blue bag later on), and packing up. So it becomes a somewhat stressful undertaking, resulting however in efficient completion of all tasks – to varying degrees of satisfaction (I end up neglecting the eating part a bit, leading to a very hungry climb through the morning) and an on-time departure from the ridge. Roped together, headlamps on, we climb down the rocks and trudge across the top of the Cowlitz glacier toward Cathedral Gap. It is a relaxed warm up, giving us some time to get used to rope travel before reaching serious challenges. As we move from the snow and onto the dirt and rock terrain that marks the beginning of Cathedral gap, our guide coils up the length of rope between us, draping the loops over our shoulders to short-rope up the cleaver. Walking with crampons over stone terrain is not my favorite form of travel, I must say. In fact, it sucks even more than my 8-inch platform high heels (which I invariably only wear on even terrain). But we make it.
Our first maintenance stop is at the top of the cleaver, before entering the Ingraham flats. Everyone adds or discards layers, eats something, has a quick drink and then we’re off again. Scuffing across the snowy top of the glacier, stepping across small occasional crevasses, soon I’m standing in front of the first ladder. I’m thankful to see that the ladder is topped with boards and has a rope fixed as a handhold. I bend my knees, grab the rope, and venture across the ladder (which was spanning a crevasse perhaps 5 feet across). Hmmm, I think, that wasn’t so bad. Just in time to get to the next ladder – this one spanning a somewhat bigger crevasse and without a handhold. Buoyed by my success on ladder 1, I confidently place my first crampon-ed foot onto the makeshift bridge, then feel a slight tug and notice my rope is caught under the end of the ladder. “Hold up! Wait” I shout to my rope team ahead as I teeter precariously to the left. I quickly rectify the rope situation, stumble a bit off- balance across the ladder as I peer down into the icy nothingness below. And just before I can breathe a sigh of relief, my rope is pulling me much too fast towards a non-bridged crevasse. Panic rising like bile, I again shout out to my rope crew to hold up as I try desperately to figure out where they had crossed. Thankfully another rope group is close on my heels, and as I hear my guide shout back, “c’mon guys, we need to move quickly here!” the guide right behind me points out the slight narrowing of the crevasse to my left. I urgently move a few paces over, take a monster step over the yawning gap, and am in the clear, rushing on after my group.
Just as we seem to settle into a nice, quick pace across the snow, we reach Disappointment Cleaver and begin another – this time much longer, and much more harrowing – climb over rocks and dirt. In one spot there is such a steep section, that we have to use another ladder – this time vertically positioned to get up and over a large rock. I’m pleasantly surprised to find that crampons on a vertical ladder actually aren’t such a big deal, and in fact it’s easier than scrambling over rocks with the contraptions on my feet. The climb seems to go on and on, with the exertion causing me to sweat even as the cold wind freezes me again, and I wonder why I hadn’t put thicker gloves on at the last stop. Or my hat under my helmet, for that matter. And clearly it is time to pull over another clothing layer, as we climb higher and the night turns colder.
A slight stumble ahead of me pulls me out of my reverie. What is happening with my rope buddy? Another stumble, a slight pause, a few steps forward and heavy breathing all the while. This is not looking good. Our guide turns back to inquire and I hear him mutter something that includes “red lining.” Oh no – really not good. Mt Rainier is notorious for the high ratio of would-be climbers who redline (push themselves to their limit and have to descend in a state of exhaustion). I’m not thrilled with being physically connected to someone in that condition. I urge him on, try to motivate him, and breath a sigh of relief when an hour and half after the cleaver-climb began, we finally reach the top. Stepping out onto snow again and moving a handful of meters forward, we join the group that is already at the maintenance stop.
First course of action is to pull on my down parka and remedy the glove-and-hat problem. Second action (to my relief) is to unclip from the rope and move to a different rope team. There is a scurry of re-arrangements as a “going down” rope is consolidated and the rest of us are re-assigned. Apparently this had also happened at the first stop; so we are now up to 6 people heading down (out of 17). The rest of us – as soon as I choke down a candy bar – are heading to the top.
I’m relieved to be on snow again. The trail is sometimes very steep, and mostly very narrow, as it winds up the side of the mountain. Many switchbacks provide ample opportunity to practice our rope management; stepping over it, flicking it out of the way of the guy behind, planting the ice axe and rounding the corner. It is long, slow going and I begin to wonder how many millions of steps it takes to climb a mountain. They are so small and insignificant in comparison to the huge mountain we are slowly working our way up. Will we ever really get there? And by the way, my stomach feels entirely empty – it is grumbling and I am starving. I should have figured out how to eat more breakfast before leaving camp. Just as I start to lose myself to the random musings and enter Zombie-trance state, I feel activity ahead and see that we’ve reached high stop. Our last break before the summit.
No one turns around here, although many people are feeling the fatigue and some also the change in altitude. We barely take time to sit down, have a drink, admire the lights of Yakima in the distance, and then we’re up again. More of the same. Step, rest, step, rest, step over rope, flick, round, continue. The group ahead seems to struggle – they have slowed down, and we frequently have to stop and allow space. Frankly I enjoy those stops for the chance to take 3 extra breaths without moving. I’m tired. And then I notice that it’s not dark anymore. I look up from the path and my feet, to see a sky coming quickly to life. As I watch, the bright red stripe along the horizon widens and an enormous, red-orange sun rises above the distant ridges. I gasp, exclaim “oh my god!” for everyone to hear, and laugh out loud as I behold the most spectacular sun rise I have ever seen. It’s beauty is beyond anything I could imagine. I think about taking a picture and decide against it, as I’m likely to drop my phone to go skittering hundreds of meters down the side of the mountain. And anyway, it probably won’t turn out – some things are meant to be seen, not captured.
We start up again. After a few minutes, our guide just keeps going when the team ahead stops again. He passes their last guy, and the second to last, and is trucking on forward towards the lead. Why is he racing? The rope behind me stretches taut and I’m fairly pulling my teammates up the mountain, breathing hard and wondering why we are doing this. I look up from my feet again – and see the cusp of the crater.
We rush over the side, trudge out to the middle of the crater, and we’ve done it! Finally, we can unclip from our ropes and give each other high-fives. Finally, I can walk a few meters away from the group and pee (I’ve had to for at least 2 hours). Another drink, quick snack, and we’re tackling the last 20 minutes to scrawl our names in the Summit Register and climb to Columbia Crest for photos at the highest point.