MT Rainer – Facts:
- Summit elevation: 14,410 feet,
- The most challenging endurance climb in the United States and the most imposing glaciated peak in the lower 48 States
- A premier training ground for climbs such as Denali, Aconcagua, and the Himalayas.
- First known by the Puyallup Native Americans as Talol, or Tacoma or Tahoma
- Reaching the summit requires a vertical elevation gain of more than 9,000 feet over a distance of eight or more miles.
- It dominates the landscape of a large part of western Washington State.
- The mountain stands nearly three miles higher than the lowlands to the west.
- An active volcano that last erupted approximately 150 years ago.
It was a clear day in July 2000. I set out for the Puget Sound with two duffel bags stuffed with what was left of my 24 yr. marriage, my books, and clothes. I clung to a thread of hope that this just might be the beginning of a better life – a life where I no longer broke things or people, and finished what I started, no matter what-a life I once thought I was destined for as a child, but had long since given up on,
As the plane approached the Puget Sound, the voice of the pilot broke through my thoughts. “Ladies and Gentlemen, if you care to look out the left side of the plane, you will see a rare sight—the mountain is out”. I gazed out the window to a see something this Alabama boy had never seen. A great mass of rock jutted up out of the lush valley, covered with ice and snow like an ice cream cone standing upright in the ground.
It was almost perfect in its gradual slope as it rose up and up, above everything, until it formed into a large white mound, sliced on all sides by jagged ridges making it appear as if a boney hand caressed it. I gasped lightly as I peered out through the airplane window at the grandeur of the mountain rising through the blue-grey sky; it seemed to reach out to caress the airplanes wings in a warm welcome as a royal queen would a visitor to her kingdom.
As I gazed out dreamily at this beautiful geographic monument, I wondered what it would be like to stand on her summit. The mountain seemed to dare me, offering up to me the distinct possibility of finally doing something other than fail.
I had become very good at failure. I was well- practiced in the art of quitting just as I would get decently proficient and improvement grew hard. The list was long. I had quit piano lessons, wrestling, football, and track . I never technically quit my marriage or a job—I just quit trying until both my wife and boss said, “Bob, I don’t know what we would do without you, but we are willing to try”.
Then one day, I discover in a momentary flash that I have become a middle-aged man who has yet to do anything he once dreamed of doing. Yet…
Within weeks of landing in the Puget Sound and moving in with my father, a window manufacturing company hired me. On weekends, I went on some easy to moderate day hikes in the National Forest nearby. One day at work, I chatted with Gary, the maintenance manager, about my weekend hikes.
Gary is 48 yrs. old, tall, lanky, and strong—like many mountaineers. And like many mountaineers, he spent almost every weekend hiking. He would tell me it was because of this that he had never married. He told me that he couldn’t find a woman that would hike every weekend with him, and for him that was a deal breaker. Gary invited me to go hiking with him that weekend. I thought I had better say yes.
It was October, which was late in the hiking season. Snow had already covered the mountain trails. He had chosen a part of the wonderland trail at the base of Mount Rainer called “Indian Bar” — a 14.5 mile round trip with a 2900-foot elevation gain. As an Alabama native, my only outdoor hiking had been in warm temperatures among gentle, rolling hills. I had no idea you were not supposed to wear cotton, or bring extra food or clothing. I wore blue jeans, a cotton sweater, and a light cotton jacket.
By the time we reached our turn-around point, the temperature had dropped to 38 degrees and a light mist was falling. A small three-sided hut sat beside a small glacier stream, providing us some shelter from the cold breeze and mist. I stood in the corner of the hut, trying to stay warm. Gary pulled a stove out of his pack, began boiling water for Rama noodles with butter, and grated cheese, while I ate a cold peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I watched him in his wool clothing and expensive Gore-Tex shell eating the steaming noodles. I began to wonder why in hell Gary never warned me before setting out about the conditions. I was obviously unprepared. I was wet and cold, and began shivering uncontrollably. I knew that this was not good, and that I needed to do something quick. I became scared, and was no longer concerned about how I looked or what my hiking friend thought. I said, “Gary, I’ve got to get moving – I’m freezing”. He must have heard my concern, and jumped up quickly. Within ten minutes of starting back, the shivering stopped and I felt better. I made the decision during the long trek back to the car that I would never be that unprepared again.
That following week I joined the Mountaineers, a climbing organization offering extensive mountaineering and rock climbing training and climbing networking. I signed up for the “Basic Mountaineering Course”, five months of classroom training and weekend field trips. If I passed this course, I would be qualified to summit any mountain in the lower 48 states with other mountaineer graduates without the need of paid guides.
Something nagged at me as began the course, though. Would this be one more thing I would start with enthusiasm only to quit when it got difficult? Yet, I felt a curious little something inside saying, “This time it’s different— this may be your chance to rub-out the past. It may be your last. This time the rest of your life is on the line”.
There were over 60 students in my class, the majority under 30 yrs. old. Yet here I was, 48 yrs. old trying to learn how to climb rock faces and negotiate crevasses. During the five-week course, I learned how to tie over ten specific knots while blindfolded in an ice-cold shower. I learned how to slide down a 45-degree icy slope and stop myself within 20 ft. with an ice axe (without puncturing myself— something I had to do a few times in order to learn how not to). I learned to fall head first or feet first.
I dropped down forty feet into a 100 ft. deep crevasse and then pulled myself up out of it as ice water dripped down my neck and back, carrying a 50 lb. pack. I learned to set up a “Z-Pulley” system in less than two minutes that would allow two men to pull another man and his pack up out of a crevasse. I approached each learning task with anxiety and trepidation, but I did it anyway.
During all the field trips, I learned invaluable tricks – like always tie my boots to my pack before setting out for a trip. I drove the two-hour trip from Federal Way, WA to Paradise for a daylong crevasse rescue practice only to discover that I had left my mountain boots at home. Because of this, I had to carry over some of my training to the next season. I did it. Though I felt that old urge to quit come upon me, I did not. Was I just now beginning to learn that I did not have to equate normal human error with abject failure, and that a mistake is nothing more than that—a mistake?
After completing the course, my goal to climb Mount Rainer was thwarted numerous times over the next ten years. My father passed away. I studied for and passed a professional certification exam, after failing once. This rejuvenated my career. Somehow, during all of this, I found the time to court and re-marry my ex-wife!
As the years went by, during those clear summer days, I would look up at the majestic mountain and fantasize climbing it. By this time, I had scaled most of the Northern Cascade peaks, and northwest volcanoes. Nevertheless, Mt. Rainier continued to elude me –for reasons of work, family, or climbing partners cancelling. In the meantime, I am getting nothing but older.
By 2013, I started to feel the hope and desire to summit this beautiful mountain beginning to slip away from me. I made dozens of trips to the 10,000 ft. base camps of Muir and Sherman, and from these camps, it seemed that the summit was only a little climb higher. How wrong that would prove to be. Yet these trips only convinced me more with each climb that one day it would happen. Little did I know how soon that day would arrive.
In July of 2013, I reconnected with my old high school friend Rich Halligan who I discovered was living in Coeur d’Alene. Rich had just retired as a firefighter, and had years of experience fighting Northwest forest fires as a “HotShot” forest fire jumper. He is short but muscular and fit, a man’s man. He had become an avid climber in the northwest. A year later, he and two of his fellow firefighters from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho planned a late spring summit attempt and they asked me if I would like to join their team. It took about a second to respond. It was on.
My life was now vastly different from when I had peered out at the mountain from the plane window 14 yrs. ago. Yet, there was some unfinished business with that majestic lady rising up in the midst of the Orting Valley. She had never really left me alone. With each person, I knew that had summited, the thought came that it could have been me.
Climbing this mountain is not as simple as deciding to, but that initial decision sets in motion a series of necessary activities and events. A successful summit requires a commitment to a lengthy and intense training regimen combined with the logistics of choosing a day where weather conditions will support your efforts. One never really knows when the next opportunity will come. At 61 yrs. old, those opportunities are dwindling rapidly.
What happened the moment I heard myself say “Yes” to Rich and to the climb is a mystery to me today. It was as if a light deep within my soul had come on that had been turned off. Nothing had changed about the challenge ahead. It was going to be the same grueling, weather-constricting, mental challenge as it ever was- more so since I am 14 yrs. older. Yet, it felt as if I had some other force within me, call it providence, or grace, or even God, pushing me forward along the way – providing for me the time for training, the weather, the experienced climbing team, and above all the desire to see it through.
There is a quote attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”
I was never an athlete. I was usually picked towards the last when choosing off teams in grade school sports. But I have learned some things about myself in undertaking rigorous physical challenges. I knew from my experience riding the Seattle-To-Portland at 50, running my first Marathon at 59, and training for this summit attempt at 61, that if I give myself enough lead time, find a training plan, and stick to that plan, that my body and mind will follow. If I would but persist, remarkable things can happen.
I used a 16 week mountaineering training plan I found on the internet. I had only 14 weeks, and a one-week layoff to attend my daughter’s wedding. My kids gave me a 40 lb. weight vest for Christmas, and I would wear it in the gym on the stair-stepper starting at 15 minutes and worked up to 90 minutes. I climbed Mt. Si every weekend, an eight mile, 3200 ft. elevation hike. I started with a small 15 lb. hydration pack, and gradually added weight until to my own amazement I could scale it in two hrs. with a 50 excursion pack. Experienced climbers say that is the point that you are ready for the mountain.
I found myself moving from terrified at the beginning of my training, to growing in confidence as I saw my endurance and stamina change. Early in my training, I would breathe in wheezing fits as I jogged to the crest of the long steep trail from the Sound to my home. Near the end of my training, I could run up and down the trail three times in succession while breathing comfortably.
Yet, as we approached the summit day, I was growing more and more nervous. Rich and my climbing partners had selected a more straightforward route (translation- steeper) than the classic Camp Muir route. It was named “The Fuhrer Finger”, after Hans Fuhrer, the first to climb this route in July 1920. The “Finger” comes from the description of the thin, bony look of the 3000 ft. narrow chute with its 45-50-degree grade. While climbers summit Mt. Rainer thousands of times a year from Camp Muir or Camp Sherman, only several hundred climbers a year summit through the Fuhrer Finger. We planned to set high – camp at the Wilson glacier and head straight up the Fuhrer Finger during the dark hours of the morning.
In the days approaching, I practiced my knot- tying skills and gear donning so I could put my harness and crampon’s on and tie into the climbing rope quickly, correctly, in 18 °F and in the dark. I studied the route carefully, but found the more I looked at it, the more scared I became, so I quit that. To add to that, the news came out just a week before the summit attempt that 6 experienced climbers perished in a fall. My wife Susan for the first time questioned this little adventure.
My climbing team arrived the night before our first ascent to base camp. During the evening, Susan quizzed our climbing lead Joe about the route, the experience he had, and the fall protection we would need. She knew just enough to borrow a few phrases she had heard me use, but she was going to get comfortable with this one way or another. By the time Joe finished walking Susan through our trip plan, I could see a little glaze forming over her eyes. She ran out of questions, and I knew we were all good.
The next morning, we drove the two hours up to Paradise, registered for the climb, and set out for the 4 ½ hour hike to the 9800 ft. elevation Wilson Glacier basecamp. On the way, we passed a mountaineering crevasse rescue class, reminding me of my days as a mountaineering student. As I watched for a moment those poor souls trying to scramble out of the crevasse, and the teams above furiously trying to assemble the “Z-Pulley” system, I thought to me “This is no practice. This is it—the real deal. Finally, after 14 yrs. I am on my way to the top. I really hope we don’t have to use any of that rescue stuff”.
We stopped twice to eat. Some ate sandwiches, some trail mix. I ate a power bar an old friend mailed to me for good luck. We all laughed and joked, not thinking about the 24 hrs. ahead. We were savoring this moment, as we would every moment from here on out. While it never escaped any of us what would be required from this point, everyone was in high spirits.
When we arrived at base camp, I was elated at how strong and fresh I felt- no blisters, soreness, or fatigue whatsoever. This was the very best indication that my training plan had paid off, and it would not be my level of conditioning that would stop me from summiting. The nervousness I had for several months during training was all but gone, replaced by both exhilaration and the distinct possibility that in 12 hrs. I would be standing on the crater of Mt. Rainer. I also knew that was only one-fourth of the equation. The other factors, the weather, the conditioning of my climbing team members, and altitude sickness — I could not control.
We set up camp, which consisted of a single tarp the four of us would all pack into for a few hours before the summit attempt. While at camp we melted snow, boiled water, ate hot soup, Raman noodles, mountain stew, or whatever we brought, and rested. The day had been warm for early June on the mountain. My ham and cheese sandwich was mushy from the afternoon’s radiant heat. I felt energetic and rested at base camp. At night, my three friends reminded of the seven dwarfs sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder taking turns snoring in a rhythm that seemed to make the tarp itself inhale and exhale. Rich and I softly chatted about everything except the upcoming summit attempt until I heard him softly snoring. While it did not seem that I slept at all, I must have fallen off for a while, because at 1:00 am, I woke to Joe pulling me out of the makeshift tent by my ankles.
It was a cold 15 degrees, but the night was calm and clear with the half moon and stars all out for show. In this secluded spot on top of the world, there were so many stars I had to pause and gaze out at the brilliant display. There was little time for that now. The clock was ticking, and we had much to do just to get started for our final ascent. Within 45 minutes, we were dressed, harnessed, and had our crampons laced onto our boots. We boiled and drank our coffee, wolfed down power bars, and roped up. Our headlights provided just enough light to see 10 feet around us. We started out, crunching our steps into the frozen surface of the snow. I alternated my view of Joe’s dark silhouette ahead of me against the purple horizon, with the sparkle of the frozen snow at my feet. I followed the rope as it went slack, then tighten, and then go slack again. Thoughts were flying everywhere at first, like the occasional meteors we saw. As time passed, my mind centered on my basic, simple tasks; keep the ice axe uphill, the rope downhill, and my eyes in front. Sometimes my mind would go blank as if meditating, while my legs moved me up, and up, and up.
For the next four hours, we slowly climbed straight up the “Fuhrer Finger” Snow chute – a 3000 ft. 45-degree slope with only the half moon, stars, and our headlamps for light. Only the outline of the rock walls on either side of the narrow chute gave us our bearings as we ascended.
As the sun began to rise, we stopped for a break and took in the first orange and purple rays of the dawn, and to reflect on the steep chute we had just climbed in the dark. Looking down the 3000 ft. wall we just ascended, I got my first appreciation for the shear steepness of the slope we had just spent four hours ascending, and very glad I could only see 10 ft. in front of me all that time.
At this point, we all felt tired but good, knowing we had scaled the most difficult part of the climb. We turned to begin the remaining three-hour monotonous, long slog up to the crater rim. At this point, there are no landmarks to judge distance, and you cannot see the summit—just one snow covered hill after another, lulling you into thinking your almost there.
We finally made the crater rim at 8:00 am in the morning. The wind howled at 35 mph, and the wind chill was below zero. We watched as those approaching from Camp Muir crossed over the crater to the true summit, Columbia Crest.
I did not feel the elation I thought I might when standing at the 14,460 ft. crater rim. I felt satisfaction, but I felt the 35 mile per hour freezing wind more.
I had brought signs for each of my six grandchildren (two of them on the way) and Rich brought a picture of his deceased father. After snapping some pictures, we headed down.
We had decided not to descend the same route, because of the danger in the “finger” as the sun hit it and began melting the ice, releasing car sized boulders down upon anyone unlucky enough to get in their path. So we headed down the Kautz glacier. This is where the climbing became technical, challenging, and for me, terrifying. First, there was a 200 ft. section so steep we had to face into the mountain slope, cut footholds with our crampons and use the ice axe for a belay as we down-climbed.
This was then followed by two sections of a 60-degree slope, which was not climbable without technical protection. Joe placed ice screw protection and anchors into the ice wall, and using this we each repelled down several rope lengths (a couple hundred feet).
Physical exhaustion began to set in, but what was worse, I was becoming mentally exhausted, having to consider the safety of each and every hand and foothold as I down- climbed this icy slope. No longer did I think how fun this was, or what an adventure, or even of proving anything to myself, but I only thought of getting back to my goddamn car! I just wanted to get through this section without falling, so I focused on safety, I followed Joe’s instructions, and we all made it through the Kautz ice cliff safe.
We then followed this with a top rope climb up a 20 ft. rock wall with all our gear. We were engaged in the full mountaineering experience, and it was now that I was very glad I had some strong climbers with me. After a few hundred yards, we arrived at base camp. We ate some nuts and power bars, gulped water, packed up our gear, and headed down the mountain. Everything now seemed to go excruciatingly slow. Just boiling water and rolling up your sleeping bag demanded whatever energy we had left, and we still had 4.5 miles of down- climbing to the car.
On the way down, there were several perfect “Glissades”. Sitting down in the semi-soft snow, we leaned back slightly, using our ice axe like the steering rudder of a boat, and slid down narrow tunnels of snow at 15-30 mph. Oh, how much easier and quicker this is than punching through the softening snow up to our knees.
It is at this stage of the climb, with only two hours left to the car, that my feet and legs started screaming, and though I realized then that I had accomplished my dream, here I was in the middle of God’s most beautiful creation, all I could think about was getting home to a shower and hot meal. Enough with the power bars and trail mix!
When I saw the roof of the Paradise Inn from Panorama Point, I began to allow myself to enjoy what I had accomplished, and the road I travelled to get to this point. At the Lodge, we signed out, changed from the wet and smelly polyester to warm cotton, and drank some cold fresh water. All of this seemed to take tremendous effort, and go painfully slow.
We unpacked our gear at the car, took some pictures, and had the ceremonial drink of whiskey. A group of young adults who had just returned from a day snowshoe trip were parked close by. “Hey, did you guys just summit the mountain?” one of them asked. I can only assume we looked a little more haggard and exhausted than a day –trip would have indicated. “Yes, we did” I replied. We talked awhile – they wanted to know all about it, and how it felt to have summited. The four of us all agreed that right now, it just felt exhausting and good to be back to the car safely.
My climbing partners and I said our goodbyes to each other in the parking lot and drove off to our separate homes. Driving home from Paradise, my legs ached and seemed to scream at me. “What were you thinking?” Then it started to sink in. After fantasizing about climbing Mt. Rainer for 14 years, I finally did it. But it was the next morning, as I drove into work on a beautiful clear day, and I saw her, rising up majestically, that a sense came over me that all the past failures in my life had been erased – but not only by this summit. I had these past 14 years undertaken a series of challenges and risks that was simply summarized by the mountain. I had made it to the top. Just 24 hrs. ago, through providence and grace, I was standing on top of Mt. Rainier.
Since that day I have often thought about what it was that drove me to climb this mountain. What was it that would not let me quit, almost taunting me, for 14 yrs.? What was different about this challenge and all the ones in my past I left unfinished?
If I am honest, I will see that many smaller, but vital ones preceded this challenge. The daily decisions to show up and be helpful to others, commitments kept, small risks taken, persisting through the daily difficulties that makes up life. Little accomplishments leading to bigger ones… each individual challenge paving the way for the next. For all of them, it meant a commitment that ushered me into providence and a grace that saw me through. Yes. Goethe got it right. Once one commits, unseen forces conspire to help see me through. The mountain has become a symbol of this power of commitment. Each day as I go about my business, I look up at it, and am reminded of what I can do once I commit to do it. This is the lesson of the mountain, and the mountain will be always there looming over me to remind me if I were ever to forget.