By Terri Reade
I was both excited and nervous about returning to Mount Rainier. I was lucky enough to go with RMI guides about 10 years ago and made the summit after a week-long skills class at Camp Muir. This trip in June would be an all women team from Colorado and I would be leading the route. The DC or Disappointment Cleaver route is the most popular route and is used by several guide services. There are still imminent dangers even though the route is well flagged and most say its not a technical climb.
In addition to myself, the team was made up of my girlfriends, Melissa, Jessica, and Casey. We met several times for gear lists, skills training, and just to get to know each other better. I have known Melissa for years because we worked together at Jax and Melissa just introduced me to Casey and Jess who have been friends since childhood. Melissa is now a teacher and has summers off which allowed her to drive up for the trip. Casey is in the process of moving to Fairbanks for a doctoral program at the University of Alaska and is currently teaching a class in Missoula, MT so she came via bus from Missoula to meet us. Jess and I flew into Portland.
We stayed the night of the 25th in Ashford, Washington at a little cabin owned by the Whittiker family who also own the RMI guide service. Whittikers Bunkhouse is a great little hotel and they also have a great coffee shop with wi-fi if you need it. The only room they had left was a cabin that is a mile from the bunkhouse but it turned out to be a perfect place to sort gear and repack for our trip. We got into Ashford at about 8:30pm on the 25th and were starving. We wanted something quick so we ended up at the restaurant just down the road from our cabin. The food was really good but the local service we found be quite interesting with the owner’s son, also the chef, hovering over our table encouraging us to stay to eat rather than get it to go. My burger was incredible though and I actually ate the whole thing.
Once at the cabin we unpacked everything and went down the list; sorting gear into group and personal gear. We had to distribute the 1st aid kit, tent, 2 stoves, fuel, rope, and food between us. Our individual list included a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, helmet, harness, 5 carabiners, 2 prussicks, webbing for a pack leash, sling for the fixed line, webbing for a chest harness, mountaineering axe, glacier sunglasses, snow goggles, crampons, mountaineering boots, gators, hard shell pants and jacket, down jacket, hat, and gloves. Other items included personal items such as sunscreen, and other toiletries, We were packed by midnight and planned to get up at 6am to start our trip.
The morning of the 26th we packed everything we were not going to take into duffels that had to be strapped on the roof of Mel’s car. We then stopped back at Whittikers for coffee, to check out and a few last minute work emails I needed to send. We made it to the ranger station to pick up our permit shortly after 10am and then started the long, steep hike to Camp Muir, the base camp, at 10:30am. Camp Muir is about 4 miles up and is from 5500 feet to 10,000 feet. Our packs were heavy which made the hike on snow pretty grueling. It was a bluebird day and we had to cake on zinc oxide to keep from getting burned.
There are many day hikers and skiers that take day trips up to Camp Muir and we ran into a lot of people passing us with smaller day packs as we slogged along. We would stop every so often and we group and then continue upward. At one of our stops we ran into an amazing woman day hiking up to Camp Muir that had just ran the Seattle marathon the day before! We visited awhile and she said that she was going to leave her extra water with the ranger for us; what an awesome person! As we hiked there were beautiful views of Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Hood in the distance.
Casey and I discovered that the sun had an interesting ring around it. Casey said that some natives call it a “sun devil “which either means good weather or bad weather to come; she couldn’t remember which, I was hoping it meant good weather.
Casey and I arrive at Camp Muir at about 5pm (6 1/2 hour climb). Clouds were starting to move in and the wind started to pick up so we decided to find a campsite and set up the tent. Jess arrived at about 5:30pm and Mel was about 6pm. What a long day. There are 3 main structures at Camp Muir; a hut for the RMI guides and their clients, the ranger hut, and a non-guided public hut. We visited with the ranger about the weather and got some of the water the wonderful lady had left us. The weather forecast was not looking good with a front moving in. It was looking like tonight would be the best night to summit. We collectively decided that we needed to rest a day before trying a summit attempt and were bummed that we may have missed our window for a summit climb. From Camp Muir the climb would be another 4,500 feet in about 4 miles. Most parties leave between 10pm and 2am in order to get up while the snow is still frozen, less potential for rock and ice fall, and winds are calm. After our full day of hiking with heavy gear we just couldn’t imagine going to the summit that evening. We decided to rest, wait for another weather report and practice our skills the next day.
We slept in the next morning, took down the tent, and made a decision to move into the climbers hut because it was virtually empty. The hut would be less windy which would make for better sleeping, give us a little more room to move around and we could save fuel by cooking in the hut. The weather conditions worsened overnight and we were happy to have moved to the hut. Parties who had attempted to summit came into the hut to warm up before their continued descent. One party explained that they had turned back because of white out conditions and high winds.
Later in the day we practiced our rigging and rope travel on the snow field near the hut. I chose to be the one who “mock” fell into a crevasse. We all self arrested and once we felt that everyone had held my fall they began to release from the back of the team forward. Mel and Jess were the two at the back so they slowly released from their self-arrest and all my weight went on to Casey. She continued to hold me while Mel and Jess begin to set up the hauling system. It was very cold and wet so by the time they set up the system, I was freezing. Mel suggested I go back to get warm while they broke down the system. I started dinner. I also surprised them with a few beers I had brought up. I originally saved them for the summit day but the weather wasn’t looking promising and I thought it might break up the monotony of the uneventful day.
We all slept pretty well in the hut out of the wind and away from the flapping tent fabric. There was one other team of 4 that were in the hut and they were also from Colorado. Everyone waited patiently to get a new weather report from the ranger. Jess and Casey went over to the ranger hut to get the report. It was now Tuesday morning the 28th and tonight might be the last attempt we have to summit since we had to go back down to Paradise Park on Wednesday. Casey and Jess returned from the rangers hut and the forecast was more of the same; the front was still over us and the visibility and winds were not ideal. The ranger, Ben, invited us out on a side trip to check out a very large rock fall. We had to cross over the Nisqually glacier and rope up through the crevasses but it sounded like good practice. There had been the largest recorded rock fall on Rainier the night before we got to Camp Muir. So large that is shook the huts. We got all our gear set up and roped up right from the hut. Ben took the lead and I braced myself in a self arrest position as he traveled through a small snow bridge between the two crevasses. He used an avalanche probe to check the depth of the snow. We moved slow and cautiously through the section and then traversed over to the snow/ rock slide. It was amazing and a lot larger than I imagined. We moved on to the snow/rock fall and walked a good distance down the mountain as much of the slide had filled the crevasses beneath us. There were boulders of snow several feet high.
We returned to camp and Ben offered us into his hut for a beer or wine. So, we gathered some apples. cheese, and chocolate and went over to Ben’s hut to just relax and visit. Even though Ben said that the weather was not ideal we decided that we would make a summit attempt if the winds were not too strong and it wasn’t white out conditions. We planned to check the weather at 10:30pm and if it looked good to try a summit attempt. The wine, beer, and snacks were great and it put the team in good spirits. We made dinner, got most of our gear set out and headed for bed around 6pm.
There were several parties staying in the hut that night which made it more difficult to get around and find all of our gear. At about 10:30pm we got up and peeked outside. Believe it or not, it was the first night we could actually see the stars. Everyone in the hut started bustling around; starting stoves, getting gear together, putting layers on. We decided to have hot tea and get outside to be one of the first on the route. We were roped up and left Camp Muir at 12:30pm. There were actually several parties crossing the Cowlitz glacier and heading up the Cathedral Gapwhen as we started so I thought we were behind the guided groups. We moved slow and steady in complete darkness. I just focused on one step in front of the other and keeping a solid stance on my crampons so there was no chance of getting off balance. We got to the top of Cathedral Gap and the other Colorado team came up behind us. We let them pass and then moved towards the Ingraham Camp still in darkness. We knew that there was some rock and ice fall danger near the Ingraham Camp but I couldn’t see anything because it was still completely dark. The wind began to blow through the camp and it was a bit difficult to see the tracks in front of me. The snow was blowing over the tracks but I kept looking for the flags which helped us stay on the route. We made it to the base of the Disappointment Cleaver and the beginning of the fixed lines. We had read not to trust them completely and not to prussic into them. I suggested to girth hitch a sling around everyone’s belay loop and hook a carabiner into the fixed lines. We moved slowly and cautiously around the base of the cleaver. It is very narrow and on mixed rock and snow. We moved slow because we had to un-clip and clip into each fix line at different times. After the mixed rock section you move on to a steep snow ramp. When I stopped to release the tension on the rope I scanned with my headlamp over the side of the snow path and I could only see that it dropped off; I just didn’t know how far. This kept me moving very cautiously with my steps. We started up the crux of the DC route which was very steep; I am guessing 60º slope. We all plunged our mountaineering axes into the snow as we stepped up the slope. It was hard wind blown snow so we used the blade of our mountaineering axes to swing into the snow pack with each step up. The route also didn’t have kicked in steps so it made it more difficult to place your crampon on a stable pitch. We moved very slowly up this portion and other teams were now right behind. Close to the top I found a place I thought was safe to move the team off and let other teams pass. I then realized that all the guided teams were behind us. One of the teams’ leaders climbed by us and mentioned that we should have short roped during the climb. He was also was using an ascender to move up the fixed line. I looked down at the other guided teams and they were all close together and pulling on the fixed line. I learned two very important things while I watched everyone pass. The short roping would have helped our team move faster and it would have also been more safe. We would have also moved much faster if I would have told the team to use the fixed lines rather than not to trust them.
It was now 6am and we had set a turn around time at 8am. It is just as important to get down safely as it is going up safely. We discussed the fact that there was no way we were going to summit by 8am and if we should keep moving up or head back. The sunrise was amazing coming up over the clouds below us. We sat and discussed it knowing we had just completed the crux of the climb. Everyone was very disappointed but all decided that it was best to turn back now before we were too tired and rock and ice fall became a problem. We took some photos and then started to move down the crux. It was very steep and we let a guided group go down before us. I had planned to have the group go down the way we had come up thinking that it would be safer. We watched the group, again short roped, wrap the fixed line around their arm twice which helped with stability and speed. It worked great so we did the same.
As we moved down towards the Ingraham Camp and viewed the route we had just climbed. It was interesting to see the dangerous ice fall and crevasses we didn’t’ see at night. The views were amazing. We stopped to rest at the Ingraham Camp and then again at the top of Cathedral Gap before we descended back to Camp Muir. Even though I was bummed about turning back I still believe it was the safest option for our team. We would have needed to start earlier or move faster.
We packed the rest of our gear at the hut and decided to head back to Paradise Park right away. It would be nice to get a shower and eat something that wasn’t freeze-dried for dinner. The clouds still hung at 9000 feet and we disappeared into white out conditions as we descended from the hut. We made it down and back to Portland the afternoon of Wednesday, the 27th. Jess and I got a hotel and said our goodbyes to Mel and Casey who were headed back to Seattle.
It was a great experience and I believe that our team came out of the trip with a very good understanding of our strengths and weaknesses. We also learned a tremendous amount about mountaineering over the past several months. The mountain will be there when we try again.