Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Rainier Quest - Day 5, Part 1: The Summit Or Bust!

July 21, 2009

Midnight came all too quickly. Especially considering I had a difficult time falling asleep, and didn't really drop off until sometime around 9p. Gurgh.

The four-season, three-person tent we had was reasonably roomy - if all occupants were laying down. But all three getting up to change or don garb for the day would be elbows-in-faces action. I decided to lay there for a few minutes longer while Jody and Francesca got themselves situated. After they tumbled out of the tent, I got my clothes of the day on and was out myself, into a little buzz of activity around camp.

The Backpacking magazine crew were up and getting themselves organized for the day's climb (photo right). And the RMI group was also getting up, a little earlier than they had originally intended.

The night was cool, crisp, and clear. The stars shone brightly, sprinkled across the heavens. Jupiter was a brilliant beacon just off the left flank of Rainier, itself faintly visible in the starlit night.

We cooked ourselves some hot breakfast and redid our gear. Got some fresh water for the climb and did the bathroom thing one more time. I was feeling a little listless at the lack of sleep.

Finally we got ourselves set up by the glacier. The snow was crunchy, consolidated. This was nice. Not the soft, slush of a slurpy. We were underway by 1:40am. A bit later than I had intended, but not horribly so. The RMI group was a good half hour ahead of us at this point.

We kept the same order as yesterday: myself in front on lead, Jody in the middle, Francesca in the back as anchor. The usual route follows up the Lower and Upper Corridors, then as the season and conditions dictate, goes up to the crater rim at some point somewhere above. Our route (annotated photo right) would take us straight up(!) the Lower Corridor (9900 - ~11,000'), do the S-curve weave to the Upper Corridor, head straight up(!!) the Upper Corridor (~11,000 - 12,000'), then angle right to follow a rising traverse over to the Liberty Ridge saddle, turn hard left and head straight up(!!!) to the Columbia Crest. There were an awful lot of 'straight up' sections on this climb.

Climbing the Corridors is really and truly just an exercise in going straight uphill. It's grueling, unfun, monotonous, repetitive, exhausting. One step in front of the other. Breathe. Step again. The darkness helped mask the progress we were making. So when it did start to get lighter and we could see without the headlamps, we had actually made reasonable headway. We estimated our ascent was about 500'/hour.

Along the way up we met three separate parties - one of 3, one of 4, and one of 2 - on their way back down to Schurman. They had not summited. Each team had turned around due to various issues with one or more members of the group: altitude sickness or shin bang (where the top front of your boot was "banging" into your shins so badly it was impossible to continue any upward progress). We could still see lights of the Backpacking magazine and RMI parties on the Upper Corridor while we were on the Lower. But we soon lost sight of them as we went behind folds and ice walls in the glacier terrain.

Around 3:00am Venus rose behind us, shining bright enough to cast shadows (noticeable only when we turned off our headlamps). By 4:30am it was fairly high in the sky, and the northeast horizon was subject to a blanket of growing brightness (photo left). Jupiter had long gone behind the mountain. And in the increasing light of twilight the rest of the stars above faded from view. Their accompanying us done for the day. Sunrise came an hour later, fairly sudden through the thick layer of smoke and smog. As it rose higher and cleared that thicker layer of atmosphere debris, the glacier caught the light and reflected it all about. Time to don the glacier glasses!

The light of the new day showed our progress: we were above Little Tahoma Peak (11,138'). We were getting well into the Upper Corridor at this point. You can judge the steepness of the terrain we were climbing (straight up!) by comparing it to the horizon in the photo. You can do this in all the photos where the horizon is off to the side.

As we climbed I started feeling various altitude effects: dizzyness, tired, nausea, headache. Never more than one symptom at a time, but they were present nonetheless. I hadn't felt these since the very first time I went to altitude back in the 80s, when I had no idea of what "altitude sickness" was all about. Better learned now, I was consciously aware of them. I tried to take breaks and eat/drink as often as possible w/out going too slow, but it was still too slow for Jody and Francesca's likings. In the end I chalked these symptoms up to being a result from lack of decent sleep prior to the climb and for humping up the heavy pack as quickly as I could the day before (and for not being in as good a shape was I was in 7-10 years ago).

Interestingly, the headache came on around 11,000', started out dull, then became somewhat piercing. This wasn't good. I was having serious doubts about the climb, and letting my team down. :-( But then by the time we got to 11,900' it had subsided quite a bit, and once above 12,000', was completely gone. Jody and Francesca, however, didn't believe me on this. Still we pushed on.

The day before we had been warned/cautioned by various people, including the ranger, David, about a technical section on the route that many were referring to as "the Catwalk" (the feature did not otherwise have an official name). All anyone told us for location is that it was somewhere at, around, or above 12,000'. Somewhere. And depending on with whom one spoke, the traverse went from "not too bad" to "terrifying, glad we did it at night!". In David's opinion, given the current melt and snow conditions, he did not expect the Catwalk to survive another 4-5 days. Glad we were here now! In another week the route will have to be changed again.

As we neared the top of the Upper Corridor, I noticed two climbers scrambling over a hump on the glacier. Well, they easily trotted across, so that couldn't be the Catwalk...could it? There was a huge horizontal cleft at the top of the hump, looked for all intents and purposes like a sidewalk. Not to scary.

As we got a more side-on view, we could see the large crevasse directly below the hump (photo upper left). Didn't want to fall in there!

As we continued up the final 100' or so of the Upper Corridor, our perspective changed. The cleft I thought was the traverse was actually - another crevasse! Geez-o-flip, how many crevasses were there here?!? It was clear now that this was The Catwalk.

From the image right you can see the foot trail leads above the crevasse cleft, and the steep drop below to the larger crevasse (outside the view of the photo). When this thing melts out, the first thing that will happen is that the foot trail will collapse into the cleft crevasse. Then ultimately the wall below will drop into the larger crevasse. Could be fairly dramatic to watch - from the side. But hopefully this wouldn't happen today.

In the photo left you can see just how narrow the foot ledge is.

I noticed when the other two climbers scampered over they had clipped to a red cord in the snow (visible in the same photo up left). Turned out this was a buried snow picket, left by the RMI group. Sweet. We would do the same.

As I got up to the first snow picket, I looked over the back side of this uplifted wall of snow (photo right). Urp! There was yet another crevasse! Not super deep, but jumbled with ice and snow blocks. Would hurt to fall into. And man, when this Catwalk goes, it is going to go big.

After I passed the first snow picket I spotted a second one lower down on the far end of the traverse. 10' after that second picket the crevasse from behind the Catwalk came around front - the final part of this little airy traverse was to delicately s-t-e-p across the void onto the "solid snow" on the other side.

Overall the traverse wasn't as scary as some had made it out to be (photo left of Jody at the first snow picket; you can see how narrow the footledge became). But it was not trivial, either. On the way back down the snow conditions would be softer, making the proposition of dancing across this a little more....well, daunting (photo right of Francesca at the second picket, working her way down the Catwalk; you can see the crevasse behind the Catwalk shadowed in the foreground).

A few minutes after we started the traverse, we were safely across. We were right about 12,000'. We started at 9,500'. It was now 6:30am. We had been going for 5 hours at this point. (photo left you can see Camp Schurman as the little blurb of rock just fully in the sun below the Steamboat Prow, 2500' below us). We pushed on...

The "rising traverse" zigzagged through additional (large) crevasses, sometimes going up left, sometimes going straight up (ugh!), but usually trending up right. But always going up. It was slow. It was painful. But looking back over Little Tahoma (photo right), yep, we were steadily rising!

Steadily upwards we went, still averaging 500' vertical per hour. At times the trail just seemed to go on (photo left) and on, and on, then it would switch up and head a different direction. No matter how high we got on the glacier, crevasses were an ever-present danger. For the most part any crevasses we crossed over were still covered up. But occasionally the trail would skirt the edges of one (or two) whose snow cover had melted away, revealing the yawning chasm below. Occasionally a trail would lead to a dead snow bridge, and a new trail would swing further around the exposing crevasse. An ever changing evironment up here.

The below three images are of one of the crevasses we had to negotiate around. The left image shows most of the length of it. The middle shows where the trail was going up until a couple days before, when the snow bridge started melting out. The right image is peering down (at an angle) into the crevasse (it maybe went down 30-40' - deep enough!)

As we broke 13,000', we had one final technically difficult crevasse to deal with. This crevasse was reasonably deep (20-30'), but the opposite side where we needed to get to was a good 8' higher than the side we were on. So, one at a time, we had to step across the 3' wide gap, and then climb up three or four moves until we were standing on "solid snow" again. Having longer arms/legs, this did not prove to be overly difficult for me, but the danger of a slip while climbing up was still quite real. Once over I set up a short belay for Jody to make her run. She deftly danced over, up, and onto the trail with no difficulties. Then Francesca.

It should be pointed out that during the entire climb, we were each using an ice ax in one hand (usually the uphill hand) and a hiking pole in the other (but not strapped to our wrist, lest we slip and fall and need to use both hands on the ice ax for self-arresting). The pole proved cumbersome to hold onto while doing the climb up. But I managed, as did Jody.

Francesca...dropped hers. (oops!) Right down onto a ledge in the crevasse it slid. Fortunately, she was able to downclimb and retrieve it (whew).

We moved up a bit higher to get away from the crevasse, and onto a relatively non-crevassed area, before taking a much-needed break (photo right). We were maybe 13,100' or 13,200'. Looking ahead I could see the saddle where the Liberty Ridge and the final slopes of Mt Rainier met. Then I saw movement: the first group of people were on their way down. Within a few minutes they were on us, tired-looking but all smiles (they had summited), then were gone (photo left, looking up towards the saddle; dots are people). Two more groups of people followed them within 10 minutes as we continued up. That took care of all the Backpacking magazine and RMI groups. We pushed on, still having over 1000' (vertical) to go...

Shortly before hitting the saddle we stopped for a second break. This time to put on some warmer clothes under our shells. The wind was a little stiffer than before, and who knew how strong it would get once we got onto the saddle. We each opted to not put on our down parkas at this point, but were wearing pretty much everything else.

Finally the saddle was immediately before us. And look...another crevasse to surmount! (photo right; the line leading up is the trail to the top) Fortunately while this one was long (spanned most of the saddle), the snow bridge was solidly intact.

We were quickly above it, but we were also now above 13,500' (photo left; crevasse is arc behind us). The air was thin up here. Rest breaks were more necessary for me (and as I later learned, for Francesca; true to her name, Jody "Diesel" Powell had no such need for so many rest breaks and wanted to keep chugging away).

Looking ahead, the trail to the summit went straight fricking up! (photo right) {sigh} I plodded on. Step, inhale, step, exhale, step, inhale, step, exhale, step, stop, inhale, exhale, gasp, hyperventilate, inhale, exhale, step, repeat. 900' doesn't seem like a lot, but up took quite a while to get through. And while it seemed we were going slower than before, our upward progress remained about the same: 500'/hour. And actually, it was a little quicker than that, as we would ultimately cover that 900' in and hour and a half, despite taking more rest breaks than before.

Oh, and there were 2 or 3 small crevasses we had to step over on the way up. Sheesh, they were just everywhere...

As we neared the crater rim, I could feel it somewhere deep inside me. Even with high altitude climber extraordinaire Ed Viesturs' mantra echoing in the back of my mind ("Getting to the top is optional ... Getting down is mandatory."), I knew we were going to make it to the summit! The skies were totally clear, the sun bright, and the winds no stronger than 20-25 mph. There was very very little that could actually stop us at this point. And the only thing I could think of was altitude sickness completely and overwhelmingly taking over one of our team. But that was not to happen.

At 14,100', we saw more people coming down. Where'd they come from?? The Backpacking magazine and RMI groups were already past us. Who were these and where did they come from? Turned out to be a bunch of independent parties. One trip of climbers turned out to be a father-daughter-daughter team. One of the daughter's was celebrating her 40th birthday by doing this climb. Very cool. Dad was a little unhappy, however, as he said it took them 12 hours to make it to the summit. They were going abysmally slow. Looking at my watch we were just shy of making this climb in 10 hours. Woo!! Most people do it in 6-10 hours, though I think today most of the people who climbed did it in 8-10 hours. We pushed on...

Then just after 11:30am, there we were. On the crater rim of Mt Rainier! Yes, not yet the Columbia Crest, but that was a mere 500' "over there", with barely 20-30' altitude gain. I chose to remove my crampons and the rope, as 1) it was a rock and gravel walk to the Crest and I didn't want to dent up or dull my crampons any more than necessary, and 2) the sides of the crater were not sheer, but gentle sloped - any fall would not amount to anything significant. Francesca and Jody also removed the rope, but kept their crampons on.

Looking around the crater rim I spied 1/4 of the way around the crater to the left, and down easily 100' or more, the rocks where I had topped out in my 2002 climb. Yeah, we had a fair bit of ground to still cover back then when we bailed due to the winds. I was extremely happy to be here now, with low winds blowing about.

I marched on over to the Columbia Crest. Francesca and Jody looked pretty exhausted, and I didn't want to drag them over there if they did not want to go. But the Crest was what I came here for. And finally, after 10 years and 4 attempts, I stood at the very top of Mt Rainier.

Once I got there, I snapped a few photos and did a 360 video pan scan. The two photos right, the first is looking back from where I walked along the crater rim to the Columbia Crest, looking northward. The dots in the distance are Jody, Francesca, and our packs. You can see a glimpse of Mt Baker on the horizon. The second photo is looking southeast at Mt Adams, from the same location as the first, at 3x. Mt Adams is the second highest peak in the state of Washington, at 12,281', and is a non-technical snow climb (crampons and ice ax recommended, but no glaciers to contend with) to get to the top. I'll get to that one another trip. :-)

The video below is the pan-scan from the Columbia Crest. As it pans around, the noise you hear is the wind. I briefly zoom in on Adams, but pull back out again (I would later learn the resolution gets pretty crappy when I zoom in doing video). As the pan continues, at 25 seconds into the video, there is a f-a-i-n-t bump on the horizon a bit right of Mt Adams. I believe this is Mt Hood. Hard to see but it is there. As the scan progresses, you might see in the distance another fair-sized mountain, non-snow covered (though the resolution of the posted video isn't the greatest, you may well miss it as a jumping shadow along the horizon). I don't remember what it is called. Next the video takes you past the rocky point of Liberty Ridge (usually done in the winter time due to the rotten rock), then back to whence it started. The person you see moving is Francesca marching across the crater rim to join me at the summit.

Once Jody and Francesca joined me we did the obligatory summit photo session. We even found the summit marker! We marvelled in the views, and in the knowledge that at this moment, on a mountain that is extremely popular to climb, we were the only three human beings at the top.

But, after fiddling around for half an hour at the summit, it was time to head down. We still had a long way to go ahead of us. It had taken us 10 hours to climb the mountain. Spent an hour up top. Hopefully we could get down in 5 hours or less. The snow conditions were only going to get worse as the day wore on. Back to our packs we went, geared up, then with one last view of the summit, we headed down...

Would we make it? Would we even get down before sunset, or would we be forced to bivy overnight with minimal survival gear in a crevasse somewhere? To be continued in Day 5, Part 2!


  1. Okay. Cruel joke of the year.

    It seems we did not actually truly hit the very tippy tippy top of Mt Rainier. The snow mound next to where we came up to the crater rim, next to where we dropped our packs, THAT apparently is the Columbia Crest! :-(


    We apparently visited the highest rocky point on the crater, but not the Columbia Crest itself.

    Dammit, dammit, dammit.

    Well...for all intents and purposes, close enough!! :-P If the snow mound ever melts...

  2. Close enough! That's what I say :)

  3. Good! I'm glad you're calling this one good enough. My rule is, if you can't tell which point is technically the summit, it doesn't matter.

    Congrats on bagging Rainier after all this time.

  4. Yes!! I second Charles.

    We didn't walk around to the crest when I climbed it, and that was still summit enough for me.

    Congrats, Indy! You sure deserved it!

  5. Awesome accomplishment Indy, Francesca, and Jody! There were some pretty sweet views and crazy crevasses in those pictures. Very cool.