Very often, people consider getting to the summit of a big mountain success. And the adrenaline and excitement certainly feels like success! But you’ve only really done what you set out to do when you get safely back down and home again. And that second half of the trip – the descent – can sometimes be the most harrowing part.
Sitting in the center of Rainier’s crater after having celebrated and documented our summit, we have a snack and bask in the morning sun for a few more minutes. And then have to perform a very difficult task: remove several layers of clothing. We are at almost 4400m elevation, it is still early morning (we summited at 6:30, so it must now be around 7:30), the wind is blowing, and I currently have 5 layers of clothing on. My guide is urging me to strip down to 2 layers. WHAT?! I’m sure it will get warmer as we drop down the slope, but from 5 to 2 layers? Noticing my apprehension, Katie says “I know what you’re thinking and this is usually the hardest part of the climb – but believe me, it’s necessary.” So off come the warm layers, although I do allow myself to compromise and leave my medium weight gloves on, rather than switching back to lightweight ones. And I totally forget to take my hat off from underneath my helmet – a mistake that I very quickly regret.
We clip back into our ropes and head down the mountain. I focus on digging my crampons into the snow and ice of the steep slope. Not having a solid foothold could well result in losing my feet out from under me, a problem which most likely would escalate into a slide down this seemingly endless grade. I may know how to use my ice axe, but I don’t want to test it under pressure. So I dig in, and concentrate on keeping my feet apart – snagging a crampon and going into a face-first slide is also not an experience I need.
Within 30 minutes, I’m sweating and wishing I could get my hat off. A bit thereafter, I start to feel thirsty. We keep going. And then further on, my legs begin to tremble ever so slightly; my “descent” muscles are obviously not as well trained as my “ascent” muscles. Note to self – figure out how to cover that area better before the next climb. And on we go. Bathed in sweat, I’m now very thirsty and wondering if we will ever stop for a break. We keep going. Now the spaghetti legs syndrome is really setting in, and my toes hurt. Badly. On we trek. Really, really hot – and thirsty – and swearing about my hat, I finally uncontrollably blurt out, “WHEN are we taking a break?!” Our guide reassures me that we’re getting close – maybe 10 minutes more. Those 10 minutes turn into 15, then 20, the guy ahead of me on the rope is looking as shaky as I feel and has almost snagged his crampons a few times, my toes are killing me, and once again I blurt, “We really need a break!” Mike again says “only 5 minutes.” And we continue, certainly for longer than 5 minutes. Just as I’m ready to simply plop down anywhere, the rope team ahead finally does stop for a break. So we walk a few more meters and join them.
I rip off my gloves, helmet, and remove the abominable hat. And then in my hurry to grab my water bottle nearly send my gloves tumbling down the mountain. I down half a liter, and start to feel better. We are now on Disappointment Cleaver again, well off the snow and into the rock. As I start to recover ever-so-slightly, I begin to wonder how I’ll successfully climb down this piece; even coming up with crampons on stone was a challenge and down seems much more daunting. And that is when some very good news comes down the line – we should remove our crampons and strap them to our pack. They should be strapped on in such a way, that a team member can quickly retrieve them when we reach the glacier. But the important bit of info is that to get down the Cleaver, they will be on my pack and not on my feet. I almost laugh out loud, I am so relieved. Okay, then I can do this. Even my toes hurt less.
Crampons off and stowed neatly on the back of my pack, we head down the Cleaver, scrambling over rocks and around sharp corners, trying to find the way down. It’s rough going even without crampons. Short roped together, we continually strain and relax the rope as we clamber down huge boulders and then stop to think about the next step. We get to the ladder, climb down it and make a couple of switchbacks again. The group ahead loses the way – and then stops to try to find it again. We wait, guides call instructions to climbers (go left, then more to the right, climb up and over that big rock, no the other one!) and just as they seem to get back on the right “path”, we hear a crack up and to our left. My head snaps around, and I see a basketball-sized rock careening down towards us, knocking smaller stones down as it goes. We shrink back against the rocks and watch as it passes us within a couple of meters, looking frantically for more potential falling stones. The adrenaline shoots through my body, Mike jumps ahead of us and pulls us forward shouting “my team is going down this way!” as he finds and creates an alternate descent route, hopefully away from the danger. We are suddenly all moving very fast, not worrying anymore about being on the path, just trying to get down however and wherever we can.
Very soon, we duck under a huge overhanging boulder to protect us from above, so that we can rapidly put our crampons back on our feet. It’s time to move out onto the glacier, which means again crossing the crevasses.
As we step out onto the snow, our guide says, “so guys, this is where we want to move quickly again, right? Don’t run, but keep a quick pace.” To my questioning look (my legs are bloody TIRED and my toes are MANGLED), he points uphill. My gaze follows his gesture and there, towering above us, is the Ingraham Ice Fall. Half beautiful, with the sun reflecting off the blue ice of the enormous pillars and pylons; and half terrible, imaging one of those formations breaking off and toppling down on us. Yes, we should move quickly.
Now that I see what we’re crossing beneath, the crevasses overall seem less scary to get across. The one without a ladder has gotten trickier, with the sun beating down and beginning to melt the snow along the sides. And another crevasse has a plug that we stepped on going up; now in the heat of the day, we can’t risk using the plug and have to step across the entire expanse. I venture a look down and marvel at the depth (I can’t see a bottom) and the color of the ice. What a cold, lonely place to land if things should go wrong.
Safely across Ingraham flats, we take another break at Cathedral Gap. From here, I can see Camp Muir, which still looks farther away than it is. I drink the remainder of my water and once again remove my crampons – we can get the rest of the way to camp without them. It takes all of 10 minutes to get down the rocks, which surprises me. I thought it was for sure another 20 or 30 minutes. We head out across the last obstacle before camp: the Cowlitz glacier. As there are only very small crevasses here and it is easy going, I begin to relax and look forward to lunch. And just then, in my moment of serenity, the mountain above and to our right seems to explode. This time, not with a basketball-sized rock, but with a huge volley of hundreds of stones, crashing down towards the glacier we’re crossing, dust rising into the air. We freeze mid-stride and simply stare. A couple of stones land near the group in front of us, we’re still far enough back to be in the clear. We continue to watch the rockslide, when Mike gently says, “Guys, we’re clear on this one, but who knows where the next one comes down. So let’s get moving again, not running, but quickly.” I did not need any more urging – despite my tired legs and injured toes, at that point, I could have run.
Back at Camp Muir, there are high-fives all around, hugs and stories to tell. We meet up again with the group members who didn’t summit, and reinforce their decision. An hour break to pack, eat, and get off our aching feet sounds long but is fleetingly over. We still have the entire snow field to descend, and the trails back down to Paradise. I’m not sure how to do it – my toes hurt and I’m pretty sure I’ll lose some toenails. Our groups discusses and comes to the conclusion that oh well, won’t be the first and certainly not the last. Toenails are a commodity, I guess.
The guides meet us and one of them asks, “is there anyone here who has hurting toes, a turned ankle, wobbly legs, or any other kind of pain?” I raise my hand, then look around to see that everyone has their hand in the air. He smiles and says, “you know what, me too. I’m feeling it, just like you are. But we have to get down, and there are only two ways to do it. You can do it slow and painfully or fast and painfully. Believe me, the slow version is worse. So let’s move!”
A lot has melted in the past 24 hours. The top part of the snowfield has turned to ice (we’re back in crampons) and there are crevasses now that we didn’t even see yesterday. I grit my teeth against the pain in my toes and try to keep up. Try to focus on noticing how the landscape has changed, rather than on how each step feels. I think about what a beautiful day it is – I’m now down to just a T-shirt and the sky is a deep blue. About halfway down, we take a break. Now safely on pure snow, the crampons come off for the final time. The rest of the trip down the snowfield, I try to perfect the art of glissading down the snow, skiing in my boots. The weight in my pack is difficult to compensate, I go deep in my knees and think about skiing. And barefoot water-skiing. This is somewhere between those two sports.
When we are finally off the snowfield, we take a break and the fateful moment has arrived: swapping out my mountaineering boots for my approach shoes! Anyone who has ever taken off downhill ski boots at the end of a day has a slight inkling of how amazing this act is, but only very slight. I am tired, everything hurts, and all I want is to now be done. As I stand up again in my comfy shoes, however, I get a new lease on life. And while the trek down is still performed with a tired body, it’s buoyed by a huge increase in comfort, a handful of chocolate-laden trail mix, and the associated serotonin boost. I feel good.
Today, I don’t sleep in the bus heading back to base camp. I am too keyed up, and in fact even hyper. What an incredible experience! Such amazing beauty and power we’ve seen! And what a feeling of success! I made it to the summit, and safely back down, and in a few hours I will see my family again. 20 years ago while studying in Tacoma, I gazed daily up at Mt. Rainier and always wanted to someday climb it; now I have. And during that climb, in the space of a few short days, a group of absolute strangers has turned into a group of comrades, Mitstreiter, and friends. Seriously – could I ask for more?