Sunday, August 30, 2015

Mount Rainier - partial climb

Mount Rainier!  So much to say about it, but hard to put into words.  It's not just another high point, it's truly an amazing place and a powerful mountain.  We spent 6 days camped in the national park and didn't get close to doing everything we wanted to.  The good news is that we will be back.

The fun entry portal on the south side.  The huge trees in the lower forests were amazing, but I didn't really get any great photos of them besides this one (it was pretty dark in them there woods):

There it is!  Or at least, there it is behind that giant cloud.  The cloud covered the mountain during our drive in and for our first day there, while there were blue skies all around it.  Apparently the phrase "the mountain has its own weather system" is for real.

We chatted with a helpful ranger about climb conditions and routes and decided to give it a go.  The plan was to start in the evening, make it to Camp Muir about the time the "normal people" were getting prepped to leave, then continue up on the standard early morning schedule.  We figured our fitness level would allow us to do it in one push and then we could eliminate the camping gear and Camp Muir stop.

So we got our permit, that step accomplished.  The next day we went down to Ashford to rent some boots and crampons, and we compiled all the crevasse rescue ropes gear.  Didn't quite get a nap in, oh well.

Quick peek at the peak, it's out of the cloud!

The steps leading up to the start of the trail:

What a lovely sunset to start us off:

Parts of the mountain were visible:

All geared up and ready to walk:

A little bit of alpenglow:

Wonderful trails above the Jackson Visitor Center, what a great place for hiking:

More sunset colors:

That's it for photos!  The rest of this story is in the dark.

We climbed well on the trails to Pebble Creek, crossed over and started following a faint trail through the rocks.  Then some snow and occasional wands with tiny reflectors that lit up in our headlamps.  Up along the Muir Snowfield, eventually our shoes were slipping enough that we decided to stop and put on our boots and crampons.  I was following John's lead with leather boots instead of plastic this time, and what a huge different - much better, no shin issues.

It didn't take long to get chilled while we were stopped, so we put on more clothes, then it didn't take long to warm up again once we resumed climbing.  We knew it was a long way up the snowfield, just taking our time and enjoying being on the mountain.  We found lots of boot prints and tried to follow the ones that were going uphill instead of the larger steps of the downhill trekkers.

We heard occasional rock fall over in the Nisqually Glacier valley to the left, obviously nowhere near the main climbing route but still rather weird to listen to in the dark.

Not too far from camp we found a large rock off to the right with a little stream flowing down it.  We filled a bottle, got our new Steripen to work after a couple tries, and wondered why the heck we lugged so much water up from the parking lot.  I can only assume that this stream is seasonal (maybe normally snow-covered), or everyone is keeping the secret that there is an excellent water source at 9000'.

We could see lights moving up at Camp Muir, but by the time we arrived around midnight they had all departed for the next part of the climb.  There was one guy standing in camp watching for a couple people coming back, and he gave us some info on where to find the trail across the glacier, so that was helpful since it was plenty dark at this point.  We could see the lights of the groups ahead making their way across the Cowlitz Glacier, very cool.

We found a spot out of the wind to put on harnesses and set up the rope for glacier travel.  This is still pretty new to us so it took most of an hour to get it all together, and by then we were shivering pretty good.  We really need to get better at the setup part, and we also could have put on harnesses at an earlier stop with a chance to climb and rewarm ourselves before this point.  Anyway, just as we finally had our stuff together, a large rock slid a couple feet down onto the snow from a nearby wall and made a bit of a crashing noise.  Between the sounds of rocks falling (far away and now right near us) and the shivering, I was already on edge.

Then we stepped onto the glacier.  And into another world.  We have trained on a couple glaciers in the past and seen little crevasses and big snowfields, but this was different.  The good news was that the path was simple to follow, with all the boot steps of groups going up and down every day (and no new snow).  The challenge for me was that the path went right over the crevasses, cracks to step over.  It was really nothing to step across, just a few inches, but you could look down and see a void.  A dark crack going deep into the ice, no bottom in sight.

So my brain kind of freaked out on me, which happens occasionally as John can attest.  All kinds of questions - how does this happen?  Why do glaciers exist?  How often do they move and could a crack open up at any time?  Logically I know that the ice is super stable.  Plus we're on a rope.  But my mind was not quite grasping the whole concept.  It just didn't make sense.

I decided that we should walk the 800 meters across the Cowlitz Glacier and over to Cathedral Rocks.  It was an easy walk, John led the way and we warmed up quickly, and we were careful with all the crevasse step-overs.  By the time we reached the dirt trail on the other side, I had much calmed down.  OK, the glacier thing is still weird, especially in the dark, and it will take some time to get accustomed to it.  But the concept was starting to sink into my crazy brain.

We could have kept going, but I decided that I wasn't ready.  Mostly I need to feel a lot more confident in our crevasse rescue skills in order to be OK with being up there.  We need more practice on an actual glacier, and I would be way happier with one or two more people on our climbing rope.  So I called "turn around" and John of course (being John) was completely fine with that.

Back across the glacier, getting more comfortable with every step.  I could look down into the holes and be amazed at the shapes and colors.  It is such an incredible place.  To see it first at night was pretty special.  Maybe not super smart, but hey, I did handle the storm on Mount Hood completely fine, so you never know.

The consolation prize is that we definitely have to come back!  I am really looking forward to that, coming back much better prepared and hopefully with friends.

It was a long walk down the snowfield in the boots, and we kept the crampons on since the snow was getting harder in the chilly night.  By the time we reached the bottom we were realizing that it's a really long climb with big packs!  And we did only 4800' of it (up to 10,200').  Maybe we should do the tent camping thing at Camp Muir after all and break it up into sections with rests in between.  Anyway, I collected a ton of notes and made a bunch of plans, and it's all good!

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