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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Better Safe than Sorry: Adventures on Mt. Rainier

A much delayed report, but here's what I remember, about a month later....

Well, skipping right to the climax of the story, we got to about 12,400' or so, only to have to turn back due to unacceptable avalanche danger. Our outstanding guides from RMI made the right call. But it was still disappointing. Especially since my original journey in mid-August was postponed due to my broken toe, and the weather would have allowed for a summit then. It was only the second trip up of 25 or more for our head guide, Brent Okita, over the summer of 2010 that didn't result in a summit for him and at least part of his party. But them's the breaks!

Day 1: The 8 of us assembled at RMI headquarters about 20 minutes outside the park for the orientation and gear check with Brent. Turns out I'm with a group of 5 anasthesiologists from Chicago along with a friend of one of theirs from Florida. And then there is a separate group of equal size, composed of mostly women, with a different head guide. Then I went on to the Paradise Inn within the Park where I was staying. Beautiful and convenient location, right at the base where our climb would start. But oh did those mice keep me up each night! Can't believe what a casual attitude the Inn had when I finally complained!

Day 2: Climbing school on the mountain. In the rain and sleet. And wind. It's as if the stuff I learned a year and a half ago in NH had all faded. Even the self-arrest techniques seemed different somehow from what I remembered. And I don't feel so comfortable on the downhill stuff. Very tentative. A cold, strenuous day. I can see at least one guy from the Chicago group is going to have issues with the climb. Overweight, but seems determined to give it a go.

Day 3: We start out from Paradise at a little over 5,000' around 9AM. A clear day, and I can see high up the mountain for the first time since I arrived, even though I've been staying at its foot all this time!

First hour or so is strenuous hiking, as we are carrying full loads with 40 pounds or so. I notice the one Chicago guy is breathing heavy, using the compression breathing technique they taught us, but all the time. Seems ok at the first rest break, but shortly thereafter I learn he has had to turn back and walk down with one of the four guides accompanying us. I admire him for trying. I've forgotten his name, but he was a funny guy, with a racey and cynical sense of humor.

I believe we had another three breaks on the way up, the latter three all being in the snow. Today was strenuous hiking with trekking poles carrying heavy loads, and fairly substantial wind. Breaks would come about every hour for about 10 minutes, to put on layers, eat and drink, go to bathroom, and then de-layer as we resumed the climb. Barely time to do all that, remove and put back on gloves, and take the occasional photo. After getting caught a little bit back in the single file line, I managed to move up more toward the middle, and you could tell the group started to string out a little as some of the guys labored more with the growing slope. Some of these guys may have some trouble tomorrow, I thought to myself.

After I think about 5 hours, maybe a bit more, we reached Camp Muir at just over 10,000'. Beautifully situated on a rocky outcrop looking down the mountain whence we ascended on one side, and down into a crevasse field marked with flags (wands I believe they call them) and up the slopes that awaited us on the other. Gorgeous views of a variety of surrounding peaks in Washington and Oregon, like Hood, Mt. St. Helens, etc. We settled into the plywood bunkhouse, prepared our camping meals, ate, took pictures, and had a briefing on the summit attempt ahead. We were in bed by about 6:30. A couple guys were looking DOA already once we arrived at Muir, one complaining of a headache. Both almost immediately jumped into their sleeping bags to sack out. Not a good sign...

The wind was howling (gusting to maybe 30mph), guys were snoring, the anticipation was high, they were going to awaken us around 12:30-1Am.... and the Diamox was forcing me out into the cold to the outhouse a couple times. Needless to say, don't think I got even a wink of sleep! This on top of two nights of lousy sleep due to the incessant patter of little mice feet in my room at Paradise Inn. Not exactly feeling fresh for the summit push, but the excitement and nervousness are at their peak!

Day 4: They wake us at 1AM, and it's a mad rush to eat breakfast, drink coffee, take care of bathroom needs, and pack up our summit gear. Not so easy to do the latter, with the howling wind and freezing temps, as we had to leave our packs and crampons and such outside the hut. I'm paired with Eric, a lawyer from Tennessee, and guide Andy, on a rope team. From here on up we'll be roped up. Crevasses, rock fall and ice fall potential, serious hazards for novice climbers! One of the Chicago contingent stays behind at camp, so it's three rope teams, each with a guide, and six climbers. We depart aroudn 2:15, under a moonlit, starry sky. But boy is it windy!

The section up to the first rest stop skirts around crevasses on a marked route, and includes two ladder crossings. The ladders were covered by boards, and one also had a rope handrail, and in the dark it wasn't too bad to just move quickly across them, one by one of course. The grade varied, but was constantly up. It really got steep as we got to the infamous and tricky Disappointment Cleaver, which I believe came between the second and third rest stops. Footing was tricky because the route hadn't been travelled that much since the recent snows (as recently as two days ago) and because of the winds. They gusted up to maybe 40mph, and were blowing us around a little, including Andy. As we wound our way up the 15 to 30 degree slopes of the Cleaver in particular, it took all my concentration to focus on so much new stuff at once--keeping the right distance from Andy as I was second, trying to follow his tracks and kick in good steps, switching the ice axe to the uphill hand each time we switchbacked., and trying to pressure breathe with all the aerobic exertion so as to avoid breathing too fast and hard. It demanded so much concentration, and so much effort, that there was no time for smalltalk, no time to really look around and take it all in, but also no time to really get scared of how exposed we were. Survival mode. If it were daytime and I were alone or we were going slower, I would have had plenty of time to be petrified!

In the steeper and more dangerous sections, we were short roped. We hadn't really practiced that much, and I didn't realize that you're supposed to also keep the same "smiley-faced" slack with the rope between you and your team leader barely touching the ground and not taut, just like with normal rope travel. When Andy expressed some concern if I was lagging, I explained I didn't know how I was supposed to handle short roping pacing. I also said something cheeky when he inquired if I was up for continuing like, "If I can run 100 miles, I can do this! I'm fine!" That was around the point where they said, "if you have any second thoughts, this is the spot where you turn around, as you're now committed." That was the second or maybe third rest stop. I forgot to note also that well before even the first rest stop, two of the Chicago guys turned back, meaning there were just two of the original six contingent left, plus me and Eric. So just two rope teams led by the two guides with other guides ahead breaking trail and testing for avalanche conditions.

Somewhere around here the radio chatter between guides became more frequent, and it became clear it was focused on avalanche conditions. I couldn't hear both sides of the conversation, but I could tell Andy was concerned. He kept asking questions of the other two guides, who were ahead of us and trying to break trail. At what turned out to be our last upward rest stop, he said he was letting Brent and his team go ahead a ways, as he wanted to see what conditions they encountered, and didn't want us too close together. As we started up, and did a traverse where we were basically on the side of the mountain with a solid snow field above and below, he would stop periodically to do snow testing. He noted his experience with ski patrol at Taos, NM, and showed us how it was forming dangerous slabs from his tests. He also became concerned that Brent was underplaying the danger, and determined to press on.

Andy's nervousness made me nervous, and I told him something like, "Look, if you don't think it's safe, you can tell Brent it was our idea and that we thought it better to turn back. I don't want to jeopardize your job." I sensed he was reluctant to break ranks with his boss, who owns the record for most individual summits of Rainier at over 400. But around then, as we were still standing there trying to figure out if we should continue, he said based on the latest radio call that Brent's team was turning around too. In fact, IMG, the other guide service on the mountain that day, was also turning around. So nobody, at least nobody from any guide service, would summit that day. But before realizing that Brent was turning around, Eric asked if there was anyway he could join Brent's group. Clearly, he had summit fever, and as it turned out, he had been on an abortive climb only three weeks before, and had been allowed to come back at a discount and without repeating climbing school in an effort to summit.

There was really a lot of irony to it all. The sky was clear, and just maybe a half hour after we started back down, it was a glorious dawn. We could finally admire some of the spectacular terrain we had just climbed. But the winds were nasty, and most of all the snow was dangerous. Apparently, it hadn't really consolidated and settled from the storms of the previous 2 weeks or so, and was quite unstable. Ripe for a slab avalanche, which is the most dangerous kind. Andy asked at various times that we remain quiet in areas where we could trigger an avalanche or an ice fall. The other irony was that we had already really climbed perhaps the most technically difficult section, the Cleaver. So while we had another 2-3 hours of climbing left till the summit, we were well on schedule and in shape to make the summit and descend in a timely fashion. We had tackled what was under our control, but the mountain had other plans that day!

As it became light, and Andy shared some other experiences, and pointed out some dangerous areas on the way down he hadn't noted on the way up, the full picture began to come together...one that I was happily oblivious to on the ascent. The places where the biggest mountaineering accident had occurred in the 1980s and taken like 30 lives, including RMI guides. And where a dozen climbers had been buried in an avalanche just in June (turns out only one of them perished, I would learn later from a web search). And you could see the ice cornices in the sections where he asked us to move quickly and stay quiet to avoid icefall. And see a few stray pebbles sliding down in front of us in the area known for rockfall danger. Though those dangers are ever-present on this and I guess all Rainier routes. All of that added to my sense of just how fraught with danger this mountain was even on a normal day, and how sensible the guides' decision to abort the summit attempt on this abnormally dangerous day had been . This is what I pay guides for, and why I put my life in the hands of experts! They know the dangers, and are not willing to take unnecessary risks just to get you to the top. Consummate professionals!

The one scary moment on the 2 hour or so descent down into Camp Muir was re-crossing the crevasses, now in daylight! One had a rope as a sort of handrail, but like the other it was a steep step down to place your lead foot on the wooden plank over the the ladder, and that was where you couldn't help but notice "the void" below. I just tried not to look too closely, so I didn't get a sense of the depth. We were of course roped together for safety, but still! The one without a handrail (which I believe came first) was the worst, as I stook there frozen for a couple of seconds, trying to get up the nerve, and breathing very hard! Andy urged me on, and finally I got myself to focus just on each step, and on stepping with purpose but not too quickly. On the second, I didn't let myself hesitate as long before starting, which went better. The longer you think about it, the worse it gets! My hands still sweat just thinking about it.

On the way back down to Camp Muir, we took more leisurely breaks, got to take more photos, and Brent was obviously trying to smooth the blow of us not being able to summit.We were no longer bound by such a tight schedule. I felt bad because I knew he felt bad. I guess I was equal parts relieved and disappointed. Kind of like the feeling of a DNF in a long ultra. You gave it your best shot, but there were conditions outside your control..... At least I could be proud that I was one of the four in our group who could handle the physical challenge, and was still plugging away until they had to pull the plug. I didn't give up (where others did), even though it was taking all my physical and psychic energy to stay in the game. I felt like that was equally a carryover from that "solidering on" mentality from ultrarunning. There were hairy moments, but I didn't lose my cool or concentration.

After the return to Camp Muir, and about an hour and half to gather our gear and eat something, the rest of the way down was a little anticlimactic. Even with the sunny skies, and great views. I think the lack of a real skating or skiing background makes me a little nervous on descents. Feels like a face plant or butt slide is always imminent! Also, it seems like descending really hits me in the chronically sore trail muscles. Anyway, there really wasn't anything to be in a hurry about, and all my adrenaline was left many hours behind. So I was content to bring up the rear with a couple of the guides, and take it easy as much as possible.

It was pretty amazing to see folks walking up in shorts or short sleeves (a few of them pretty far up into the snow), as it was a warm day down below, hitting around 70. So we were peeling off layers as we went down. It was also a little strange to come from this intense, gripping experience high up on the mountain, and running into these folks who were just hiking up for the day or a few hours, most without a clue what it's like "up there" but sometimes curiously asking questions like, "did you climb the mountain?" "Well, sort of" was the best we could manage as our paths crossed!

The other weird thing, now that I'm looking back on this well over a month later, is how difficult, pretty much impossible, it is to convey to people what you've experienced in something like this. Unless they've done something like it themselves. A few are curious, but most don't really perceive that it's much more than a steeper version of trail running (if they even have a clue what THAT is!). Or just a hard-core version of hiking or backpacking....

Wrong! As the guides would joke, "this isn't a hike!" There are definitely climbs a lot more technical or steeper in alpine mountaineering, but I definitely haven't been on anything in any hike or trail run or race as remotely steep as some of what we were on. Where it would difficult to imagine doing it without being roped up and without the aid of ice axe and crampon. And while I've been higher, I've never done that much continuous vertical in that space of time and with that much weight of my back. Or faced as many hazards as are standard fare high on Rainier, avalanche conditions or not. This one was "out there," well "outside the comfort zone!"

They're pretty much right in the trip literature that "you need to be in the best shape of your life," at least for the armchair athlete or outdoorsperson. I had some setbacks in my prep with the broken toe in early August that forced the postponement till September. But I definitely trained hard through that with the cross-training and put in the trail time (and treadmill time) with the pack, did the gym time, and still had the residual trail running fitness I was just starting to rebuild in the weeks prior. Without something at least approaching that specific and general fitness, your average decently fit 30 or 40 something professional, like those four Chicago doctors who didn't know their bodies well enough to be up to the challenge, just isn't up to a challenge like Rainier. So, this isn't a casual undertaking at all, and I consider it something to be proud of tackling, in the same breath with my trail running or triathloning or whatever. Just way more adventurous!

And yes, I want more! Not sure when, with adoption and parenthood looming large but with uncertain exact timing, and the need to sign up for guided trips well in advance (and after this, if I had any doubt before which I didn't, I know just why I always want to be accompanied by an experienced guide who knows the mountain I'm on!). But hopefully not too much time will pass. Whether it's a return trip to Rainier or tackling one of the volcanoes in Mexico or Ecuador or eventually trying something higher and more expeditionary like Aconcagua or Denali, I do crave more mountain time. Nothing quite like that feeling of being above the clouds, of being in a place where so few people go, seeing up close stuff you usually see only in a documentary or travel book. I just can't get enough of wild, remote places, where you get there (and back) under your own power. It's eerily peaceful, it's quiet, it's intense...nothing quite like it!

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