Summit Day

“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”  
― Edward Whymper, Scrambles Amongst The Alps 

 

Getting focused. Gathering thoughts for the day.

For many years the above quote has been hanging in a faded plastic frame, nailed to the inside of the door of the climber’s bunkhouse at Camp Muir.

It’s a sobering reminder of what you are all getting into. More people have walked out of Camp Muir than have come back. It’s a big adventure, and it’s happening now. No matter how busy I may be before setting off, I like to consider the women and men who’ve gone before, not just on this mountain, but since the first alpinists were heading out of the valleys of the French and Swiss alps - heading skywards to peaks that had never been touched by hands or boots.

Everything we do today, every piece of equipment and all of our collective experience has come from those pioneers who looked at those high jagged peaks with curiosity and wonderment - asking if they could be climbed. They were prepared to take risks and make a committed effort, not different than each climber who has since followed the call of the mountains. Not different than the effort you will make as you set off towards the summit of Mount Rainier.    

Edward Whymper - the author of the above quote - was an early pioneer of alpinism and earned the distinction of leading the very first team to the summit of the Matterhorn on 14 July 1865.

After three days of climbing along with six team-mates, Lord Francis Douglas, Charles Hudson, Douglas Hadow, Michel Croz, and two Zermatt guides, Peter Taugwalder, father and son, they left their camp at dawn, climbing from the Swiss side of the peak and reached the summit at 1.40 p.m. They celebrated and rested on the summit before beginning their descent. Shortly afterwards tragedy struck. Hadow slipped and fell on Croz, who was in front of him. Croz, was caught unaware and unable to withstand the shock; they both fell and pulled down Hudson and Douglas.

Whymper wrote this account in a letter to the London Times:

“For two or three seconds we saw our unfortunate companions sliding downwards on their backs, and spreading out their hands endeavouring to save themselves; they then disappeared one by one and fell from precipice to precipice on to the Matterhorn glacier below, a distance of nearly 4,000 feet in height. From the moment the rope broke it was impossible to help them.”

Often, five minutes before leaving, in the black of the night, I’ll walk into the bunkhouse, suited up and ready to go - and read Whymper’s words. I’ll also ponder the fact that only five years after the first ascent of the Matterhorn,  Hazard Stevens and P. B. Van Trump received a hero's welcome in the streets of Olympia after their successful summit Mount Rainier climb in 1870.

Mountain climbing is inherently dangerous. To discount this danger is foolish, yet to overthink it is to unnecessarily burn up important energy. On a spectrum between fearless and frozen… a good sweet spot is bold and humble. It’s helpful to have enough tension to be alert, with enough confidence to be relaxed. Try to visualize this state and practice it in training. Imagine yourself stepping off onto the glacier with a sky full of stars and the dark valleys below. Your headlamp illuminating a pool of light ahead of you, crampons crunching in the ice, the sounds of gear clicking, the weight of the mountain axe in your hand and the gentle swoosh of the rope being pulled along the surface of the snow. You are trained and organized. You are walking into the night and ready for the day to come. Be deliberate, be relaxed, be in a state of flow.  

 

Practical tips on getting ready to leave

Waking up around midnight, it’s easy to let the lizard brain take over and rush to get ready. First things first, as Whymper wrote, “Do nothing in haste.”

Everyone has their own way of preparing and getting grounded. Take a few moments to get calm: a prayer, a meditation, a mental gratitude list or the thought of a loved one always seems to slow a fast-beating heart and bring a smile to my face. Relax. Conserve your energy. Feel the magnitude of what you are doing and the beauty of your surroundings. Take a minute to get in the rhythm of breathing: deep and regular and slow.

Did you sleep? Many people don’t and thousands of people have climbed to the summit of Mount Rainier with no sleep. You stayed up all night in college - you can do it on Rainier, too! You can.

Your gear is mostly packed, so what’s left is to get dressed, drink, eat, go to the toilet, put on harness, spikes and helmet, then find your rope team. It’s 45 minutes of work and you have about 90 minutes to do it. Relax. If you have a problem or are worried about something, tell your guide. She or he is there to assist.

Remind yourself, you’ve trained hard for this, your job is to be the best team member you can be right now. Your guides have a solid strategy and they know what they are doing. What’s important is to focus in the now. Make sure your clothes and boots are on comfortably, check and double check your crampons. Make sure you have your food, water and sunglasses. At 10,000 feet, the air is thin, so keep focusing on deep regular breathing, shoulder your pack, make your way to your rope and clip in. Your guide will do a final check of harness, crampons and make sure you are securely attached to the rope.

There’s a magical feel to Camp Muir before setting off. I often think of John Muir and his team getting ready to leave from here. It’s fun to consider their climb all those years ago and the many people who have gone this way since.

Here is Muir’s account of the camp now named after him:

August 23 1888

“Here we lay as best we could, waiting for another day, without fire of course, as we were now many miles beyond the timberline and without much to cover us. After eating a little hardtack, each of us leveled a spot to lie on among lava-blocks and cinders. The night was cold, and the wind coming down upon us in stormy surges drove gritty ashes and fragments of pumice about our ears while chilling to the bone. Very short and shallow was our sleep that night; but day dawned at last, early rising was easy, and there was nothing about breakfast to cause any delay. About four o'clock we were off, and climbing began in earnest.”

John Muir had just celebrated his 50th birthday a few months before the climb. Their climb took about nine hours to the summit and another six hours down.

So the climb begins!  In many sports, the last quarter is critical.  In climbing, the first leg makes all the difference. The first leg can make or break the momentum needed for a successful climb.  Keep a positive mental image of the climb as sections of 60-90 minute efforts followed by a short rest break.  After four of these sections, you will reach the crater of the mountain.  Weather, time and energy permitting, another 30 minutes across the crater will take you to the true summit of the mountain, Columbia Crest 14, 411 feet.  It is imperative that you focus on the hour that you are in: always focus and climb the section that you are in right now.

The descent generally takes about half as long as the climb.  If you can stay focused on the hour by hour approach, you'll find a way to overcome a multitude of challenges, some small, some possibly arduous, during the next few hours. While no section of the climb should be considered easy, here is a rough breakdown of what to expect on the way to the top. As a disclaimer, note that the route changes daily. The glaciers change significantly from year to year, so the following is just a suggested guide of what to expect. I’ll use the Disappointment Cleaver and Ingraham Glacier route as an example.

 

Section 1

Time: approximately 60 to 90 minutes

Destination: Ingraham Flats

Start elevation: 10000 feet

End elevation: 11100 feet

This leg starts out over the Cowlitz Glacier, which has a fairly shallow incline, before ascending the gravelly switchbacks of Cathedral Gap. Once at the top of Cathedral Gap, you'll have views of Little Tahoma and the upper mountain. From this point, you'll bear north and continue to ascend across rock and glacier to Ingraham Flats, where you'll take a break.

Again going back to energy management. The key is to relax. Maybe you needed to go to the toilet at the last minute. Maybe you have too few clothes, maybe too many (use zippers to avoid sweating), maybe your boot feels too tight or loose, maybe you have general anxiety - Relax. Breathe. Calm your mind.

For me personally, I tap into my surrounding us. My love of Nature opens me, surfacing my feelings and bringing my emotions to the surface. There are very few hazards on leg one, some rockfall potential to the north, some crevasse obstacles underfoot and some careful footwork on the loose rocks of Cathedral Gap ahead, but it’s a chance to relax into the night and feel the joy of being high on a big mountain.

I had the chance to work on Mt Rainier after my Dad died in 2003. I wanted space to honor our relationship and reflect on our friendship, so on each expedition that summer, I looked forward to the time spent walking across the Cowlitz Glacier between Camp Muir and Ingraham Flats. I had wanted to come to Mt Rainier with him and for us to climb together - a plan which didn’t materialize - so instead I’d try to imagine the way he would have seen it for the first time; the bright snow, red rocks darkened by the night,  the south face of Gibraltar Rock standing two thousand feet above my left shoulder and blocking out the summit from view. With my axe in one hand and my fingers feeling the light tension on the rope behind,  I’d think of ways to describe the starlight and storms and in the solitude at the front of the rope, I’d let tears of joy roll down my cheeks -  and as I swung one leg beside the other, sauntering up and over the ridge of Cathedral Gap, I’d feel a sense of peace that made me feel loved.

Mountains are powerful. As you set out on this climb, use that power to lift your strength and spirit. At some point in the day, the mountain will likely lean on you and it’ll take a lot of strength to lean back… for this first section, enjoy the magic of setting out. Try to find a rhythm. Find that state of peak-flow and and let the mountain lift you higher.
Past the crest of Cathedral Gap, you’ll head sharp left to the north and while there’s still some climbing before reaching Ingraham Flats, a large compression zone beneath the Ingraham Icefall, you’ll pass Dunn’s Corner, affectionately named after Guide George Dunn who, while checking the route one night, got caught in an avalanche here and survived. At time of writing George has reached the summit of Mt Rainier more than 500 times - more than any other human!

Enjoy the views ahead and the hundreds of feet deep crevasses to the right. Ten or so more minutes and your guides will find a good rest spot. You’ve completed almost a quarter of the height of the day’s climb.  

 

Section 2

Time: approximately 75 to 120 minutes

Destination: Top of Disappointment Cleaver

Start elevation: 11100 feet

End elevation: 12300 feet

The break will afford enough time to put on a parka, eat, drink and readjust any gear. A glance towards the icefall and across to the Disappointment Cleaver (Cleaver is a Pacific Northwest term for a rocky ridge) indicates one thing: the warm up is over. For many people, this is the most arduous section of the climb. It contains significant portions of glacier travel where it is not possible to stop or rest. This is followed by some reasonably challenging rocky terrain which you will most likely navigate wearing crampons. It’s tough to lead this section, too so if you notice an uptick in focus from your guide it’s because the next hour contains enough tricky terrain that an extra pair of eyes would be handy.

The first section towards the Ingraham icefall involves a gently rising slope over the compression zone of the glacier. From there, the route traverses (right) north and under millions of tons of broken ice. Your guide will likely prompt that during this section, you must keep moving. The debris of ice and rock strewn around provides the explanation of why. This is not so much a physically demanding traverse, but one where a steady momentum is required to quickly pass through what rangers and guides refer to as the “Bowling Alley”. Make each step count, move steadily, keep your wits about you and stay alert for any instructions. The trick to accomplishing this section well is to focus on breathing and relaxation. Try not to get flustered by the awkwardness of the transition from ice to rock. Most importantly, put your faith in your team leader. As you traverse all the way to the crest of the cleaver, the hazards of the rock fall will lessen.  You’ll make a sharp turn left and UP!

The guides know that this section is challenging, and they will do everything possible to provide coaching and encouragement to reach the top of the Disappointment Cleaver without being overly fatigued. No one really wants to scramble over rock in crampons in the dark. Between the scraping noises, a spark from steel on ferrous rock and trying to not bump each other - this section could wear a person down. Again, relax, it’s not a race. The awkward rocks get people off balance - figuratively and literally. A marine explosives expert I was climbing with once said, “You know, I could bring this whole thing down to size and take out the rough sections.” The environmental steward in me balked at that statement. The pragmatist in me said, “I like that idea.”

It’s not called Disappointment Cleaver because it’s difficult. It actually got its name because when some early climbers were going for the first ascent of this route, they reached the top of the 45 degree slopes and believing they were on the summit, began to celebrate until the fog lifted and exposed the two thousand feet of ice above them. They called it a day and climbed down.

As you reach the break at 12300 feet, take a deep breath and congratulate yourself, you are now just over halfway to the summit.

This is a critical recovery break. Not everybody will feel great. It may be difficult to escape the wind and cold. Your team leader may be looking for you to tell her or him whether you have what it takes to continue for several more hours to the summit. You can be sure that they are not trying to put pressure on you, but simply making challenging assessments about how to manage resources most effectively. Staying here for more time than is necessary is not an option.  It is usually too cold.

For many people who decide to not continue to the summit, this is the turning point. It is a harsh fact of mountaineering that you could have done everything possible to prepare and trained meticulously for this day, yet somehow today is not going your way. If today is not your day, then it is probably not the last day you will have a chance to try. Do the right thing, don't feel defeated and know that the mountain will still be here next time.  

 

Section 3

Time: approximately 60 to 90 minutes

Destination: High Break

Start elevation: 12300 feet

End elevation: Range from 13000 to 13500 feet.

 

The challenging part of this section is that you are now on the upper part of the mountain, exposed to all that the weather can throw at you. As you go higher, the air is becoming colder and it's getting harder to breathe. Depending on the timing of the climb, it may still be dark and therefore you will not yet have had the warming benefit of the sun. The good news is that you are completely climbing on snow now, so you can get into a good rhythm and continue this all the way to the top.

As you climb higher, many people experience physical and emotional feelings ranging from hope to doubt, confidence to fear, too cold to too hot. You’ve come a long way and you still have hours to go. This is where all of your training matters most. You may not be able to change any of these circumstances. However, with each step and each minute that you dig deep and find your reserves of strength and endurance, you can know that you're steadily getting towards your goal. It's not easy; if it was there'd be a thousand other people up here. If there is one thing that will be memorable about this section, it might be one of the most spectacular sunrises imaginable. Along with the sunrise, may come a small but noticeable increase in warmth. Many a climber has watched the horizon, a ribbon of crimson, pink, then orange, before the sun shows itself and takes the edge off the bitter cold of the night.

The route on this section changes weekly or daily. Seracs tumble, snow bridges give way, crevasses open and everything morphs continuously all the way from spring to autumn.

Ladders, fixed lines and route information passed between guides make it possible for rope teams to thread their way around seracs the size of apartment buildings and around crevasses big and deep enough to swallow a freight train. It’s my experience that fatigue becomes a constant companion on this leg. You’ve been going for four or more hours and from time to time it really is an uphill battle. The rest point on this leg is, ‘High break’. The dirty secret is that there is no feature called ‘High Break’. It’s just a narrow shelf dug with shovels, at an arbitrarily chosen spot around 13,200 feet. It’s not much of a picnic spot and if you drop your pack or water-bottle, you’ll likely never see it again.

It’s normal to feel very tired here. The hypoxic environment degrades cognitive functions too, so rely on habits - put on clothes, eat, drink, breathe, focus on your needs and steel yourself for the final push. Getting a wrapper of a candy bar with big gloves can seem extraordinarily difficult (use your teeth). Do whatever it is that you need to recompose yourself. I find that a quick meditation can help me get centered and focused here.

 

Section 4

Time: approximately 60 minutes

Destination: Summit Crater

Start elevation: Range from 13000 to 13500 feet

End elevation: 14100 feet

There is nothing easy about this section. With less than a thousand feet to reach the crater rim, most of your team is experiencing fatigue. You have been climbing all night and with the convex shape of the volcano whose top you are almost touching, it is very difficult to see just how far you have to go.

At sea level, I'm a big fan of enjoying exercise. I don’t not think you need to enjoy every minute of this hour for it to be a significant memory. You might not enjoy it very much at all, yet you can feel proud of where you have climbed to. If you doubt your accomplishment, look for passenger jets flying south from Seattle Airport and notice that some of them are below your altitude. Think about that... you are two and a half vertical miles above sea level and you climbed up here under your own steam!

A technique that will help to get through this section is to break the total time into manageable parts. This could be the distance to the next marker wand; it could be to simply put one foot in front of the other for another five minutes before counting another five. What's important to remember is that however slow your progress, very few people start this section and do not go all the way. You are getting very close to the summit.

With 30 or 20 minutes remaining before reaching the summit crater, many people have told me that what kept them moving was to ask themselves how proud their loved ones would be if they could see them now. You’ll be tired and you’re burning through fuel at a significant rate. It’s hard to tough-it-out here and each step requires a solid effort. As fatigued as you may be in this section, take time to remember the fundamentals, the rest step, pressure breathing, good posture and energy management. Keep your head up. Smile. You're almost there.

 

Section 5

Time: Ranging from 5 to 60 minutes

Destination: Summit Crater or Columbia Crest

Start elevation: 14100 feet

End elevation: Same or 14411 feet

Few people have ever seen the inside of the summit crater of Mount Rainier. It’s a wonderful geological formation - approximately three quarters of a mile across, filled with glacial ice and surrounded by a rocky crest that sits slightly higher than the crater floor. This route arrives in the crater directly opposite Columbia Crest, which is the true summit of the mountain at 14411 feet. From the perspective of the national park and the guide services, and for purposes of record keeping, to reach the crater is to reach the summit of the mountain. Get to here and your accomplishment will be noted in the National Park records forever.

You'll have two choices here, to rest and call this the summit, or to take the next 45 minutes to walk across the crater and ascend the short ridge to Columbia Crest. The way to make this decision is to consider how much is left in the tank. For many people, it's best to call this the summit, to rest and to conserve energy for the climb down. In some cases, the mountain will make that decision for the entire team, because weather will be so inclement that it is unsafe to venture further. If conditions are good, and you have reserves in store, drop your pack, put on a down jacket and pick up your ice axe for the celebratory hike to Columbia Crest.

There is a rock called Register Rock on the opposite side of the crater. Beside this rock is a metal box chained to the ground containing a visitor book. Two hundred meters further is the highest point of the mountain and a 360 degree view of Washington state, the Cascades, Puget Sound and to the north, Canada. Congratulations, you've met your goal.

 

Section 6

Time: 60 to 90 minutes

Destination: Disappointment Cleaver

Start elevation: 14100 feet

End elevation: 12300 feet

For now, your well deserved celebration can be held in store for your arrival back at Base Camp or when you reach town. The task now is to  focus on the descent. After a quick safety briefing and a refresher on skills, you'll be headed down. The descent happens quickly and your training will pay off here, especially your endurance, leg strength, balance and coordination skills. Don't fight momentum as you descend and try to enjoy the flow of the rope team. The views are spectacular and the air is getting thicker with every step you take. Not long after the first hour has passed you'll be sitting on top of Disappointment Cleaver again and probably taking off layers as the air begins to warm.

 

Section 7

Time: 60- 90 Minutes

Destination: Ingraham Flats

Start Elevation: 12300 feet

End elevation: 11,100

This is a tricky section, you'll be paying close attention to footwork and your team will maintain a steady momentum all the way to the break. Nearly everyone will be feeling tired now. It's important to eat and drink at the last break, not because you feel like it but to prepare your body for the next few hours to come.

 

Section 8

Time: 45 minutes

Destination: Camp Muir

Start Elevation: 11,100 feet.

End Elevation: 10,000 feet.

There are potential hazards during this section so you'll be maintaining your awareness as you descend over and down Cathedral Gap and across the Cowlitz Glacier. However, the most treacherous terrain of the mountain is now behind you. You can start to relax and know that you are almost home.

 

Section 9

Time: 2 - 4 hours

Destination: Paradise

Start Elevation: 10,000 feet

End Elevation: 5600 feet

After a break at Camp Muir to reorganise gear and pack for the final section, you'll soon head off as a team down on the final leg of your adventure.

The break at Camp Muir is a transition. The climbing gear can be taken off and packed; no need for helmet, harness, ice axe, crampons, ropes and carabiners anymore. You’ll be replacing insulating layers with lighter clothes, helmet for sunhat and you’ll be replenishing electrolytes, fluids and energy that was expended on the slopes above.

It’s a transition in terrain, too. Above is the austere, alpine desert landscape where nothing lives or grows. Below are the alpine meadows, the sound of waterfalls, birds, bears, marmots and as John Muir so eloquently shared in An Ascent of Mount Rainier, “A garden filled knee-deep with fresh, lovely flowers of every hue, the most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I ever beheld in all my mountain-top wanderings”.   

The meadows of Paradise are aptly named. After a cold night on the mountain, with aches and fatigue, sore spots, skin tightened and burned by the wind - and feet ready to be free of boots the meadows are simply rejuvenating and healing. In writing these words, I can almost smell the scent of beargrass, lupines and firs. It’s a lot to look forward to and the hike from Camp Muir to Paradise will take roughly 3 hours for most parties.

Close as it is though… steel yourself for whatever conditions you’ll encounter. Perhaps you’ll have a still hot day where the guides can look to the horizon, pick the mid-point between Mt St Helens, 182 degrees south, and Mt Adams and make a beeline for Paradise. Other days, visibility might make it impossible to distinguish between the ground and the sky, the wind may be blowing and a wrong turn would be disastrous…. The Muir Snowfield is a relatively straightforward climb or descent, but it is flanked by the Nisqually Glacier to the west and the Paradise Glacier to the east. A navigational mishap either way has led to numerous tragedies, so while the end of the adventure is near and the biggest challenge is behind you, it’s important to stay alert and be ready for whatever the mountain still wants to conjure up in terms of weather.

Be ready for a variety of underfoot conditions, too. I’ve heard that Inuit people have over a hundred words for different types of ice and snow. I’m not sure if ‘Mashed potatoes’ is one of them, but the Muir Snowfield at 2 p.m. on a hot day it’ll feel like you are walking in mashed potatoes, which would be fine, but the surface might be covered in hard crusty ice. On some steps you’ll crunch right through, other times it’ll give way and you’ll stumble. Sometimes you might end up, flat-out on the snow trying after stepping on a hidden icy spot. It’s the last stretch and your long day is almost at an end, but be sure to dig deep into your physical and mental reserves for whatever those last five miles deliver. It may well be that you’ll end up using all of the skills that helped you on the upper mountain, just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Remember that what lies ahead are food, refreshments, a hot shower and a soft bed.

 

Getting Down

At the parking area and visitor center, turn around and look where you just came from. Kids eating ice-cream and tourists are genuinely amazed at climbers coming off the peak. So high and far away it looks, that it seems impossible.

After every climb I find it hard to fathom that just hours before, our team was standing on top of the mountain. I once had the chance to climb to the summit with a professor of literature. When I asked the question on arriving at Paradise, "What is the correct literary description that applies to this experience?", he did not hesitate in replying and said, "Surreal".

The Merriam Webster definition of surreal is: "marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream". Also: "unbelievable, fantastic". I cannot think of another situation in my life experience where a single word has been so closely able to convey an experience.

Something I’ve heard from many climbers, “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

It’s truly a remarkable accomplishment to climb a mountain and this is a jewel of a mountain. Nowhere in the world is there such a high peak so close to an ocean. No mountain in the lower 48 states is anywhere near as glaciated. I’ve had the chance to climb in many ranges, often on peaks higher than Mount Rainier. Yet, in three decades of climbing around the world, I’ve had some of my hardest days and beautiful moments on this peak.

I think that Mount Rainier - she can take us to the very edge of our mental and physical capabilities. I listened to Lou Whittaker say once, “You can respect the mountain, but remember this - she doesn’t respect you”. I’ve been bold, frightened, humbled, filled with joy and happiness, excited, subdued, driven, beaten down, fierce, worried, confident, strong and weak on that mountain - sometimes all in the same climb. Mount Rainier has made me a stronger human and a more grateful one, too.

Phil Ershler of International Mountain Guides often says to climbers, “You’ll never again look at it again and not feel like you came off it a little different than before you went up.” That has been true for me and I hope it’s true for everyone who goes.     

Congratulate yourself. It doesn’t matter whether you turned around at the top, or somewhere before that. You made a full effort and took on a major challenge. Feel good about that and ask yourself, “What better thing could I have done with this day?”

Well done.