Saturday, October 6, 2018

Climbing Mount Rainier!

The day was finally here!  The team was assembled, permits acquired, training completed, gear compiled, packs stuffed full, weather checked, plan in place.  Several months in the making, we were about to start our "for real" self-guided attempt at a climb up Mount Rainier.  I wasn't sure what the odds were, but we were giving it our best possible shot.

But first!  Several versions of selfies at the trailhead, two at once in this case:

I'm not sure I knew Leslie and Jason were photo-bombing us:

Shaun's turn:

OK, enough already, let's go!

Good morning Mountain!

The first several miles are well-groomed trails up from the visitor center, familiar to us from our training days:

Then it was time to walk up the Muir snowfield.  Above us the sky was clear, below was still covered in wildfire smoke.  Uphill, it is!  Everyone was in good spirits, and John's bionic hip was doing great.

Happy for the trekking poles:

Making progress up the snowfield:

Last time John and I had filled water bottles at the top of rock ridge around 9000' elevation, and we were hoping to do that again to avoid having to melt snow at Camp Muir.  We searched around along the rocks and didn't find anything, but then Shaun climbed over the top and found an excellent little hole with flowing water inside.  Here's the bottle he stuck down in there to fill:

Fun little video from Shaun showing the water flowing inside the hole:

I think his hands were pretty cold by the time we had filled all our bottles and dromedary bags - thank you so much, Shaun!  That saved us a bunch of time (and fuel) at camp.

The final push up to Camp Muir was pretty slow with all the extra water weight on our backs, but it wasn't too far and we weren't in a hurry.  Our resting point at 10,000 feet:

Happy to be back!

We brought tents, but it turned out there was plenty of room in the bunkhouse.  It's first come, first served, so we couldn't count on it, but we were more than happy to set the tents aside and snag sleeping spots on the platforms.

John walked up the rocks to get a view of the Cowlitz Glacier and the route over to Cathedral Gap:

Overhead shot of Camp Muir:

Closer view of crevasses on the Cowlitz Glacier (our route crossed at a much less crevassed area above this):

Enjoying sunshine and dinner:

One possible downside to sleeping in the bunkhouse could be noise from other campers, so we coordinated our wake-up time with the two Japanese guys who were already there and hoped for the best.  Unfortunately, one of them snored from start to finish, so we didn't sleep too soundly (John and I managed a couple hours, I think), but we were also just trying to rest and not get a full night's sleep so I guess it would have to do.  It was good rest for our bodies and legs, at least.

I think our alarms were set for ~11 pm; 7 climbers were all awake and getting ready in the darkness.  It was really nice being inside a relatively warm space plus having room for getting dressed and boots/harnesses on.  Soon we were down on the snow, strapping on crampons and tying in to the rope.  Let's do this thing.

The walk across Cowlitz went way better this time around - I was ready for the crevasses (especially the tiny ones we were stepping across), I knew what to expect now, there was not nearly as much rockfall noise compared to 2015, and most of all I was super comfortable with our rope team.

Soon we were on dirt and working up the steep switchbacks to Cathedral Gap.  Time for new territory for us!  We crested the ridge (still with crampons on since the dirt section was short) and turned to get a moonlit view of Ingraham Flats.  Well, first we had to climb up some snow, then the scene spread out before us.

It was neat spotting headlamps across the way - we knew there was an IMG group that planned to depart from Ingraham camp around 11:30 pm, so we figured they were on Disappointment Cleaver at this point.  A couple other sets of lights were making their way over to the Cleaver.  The Japanese pair was not far behind us.

Our only real navigational issue happened right here - John tried following what seemed like footprints but turned out not to be that at all.  We lost track of the wands, and then John was stuck in between crevasses.  OK, back up the bus.

John suggested we still might be able to cut across back to the trail (which we verified as accurate during our return trip in daylight) but we went with the certain option of retracing steps to the last wand and starting again from there.  "Won't make that mistake again" said John, and yep, he was right.  From then on he stopped to verify wands before forging ahead, taking his time and navigating the more maze-like sections with his excellent trail-sniffing skills.

We climbed up to the traverse across Ingraham Glacier, catching up to a couple smaller teams as we climbed up and over a some ice blocks.  Having 5 people on the rope was slightly unwieldy around tight corners (especially multiple switchbacks) but other than that we managed it quite well, and we were moving fine.  Perhaps a testament to our experience working together in expedition adventure races.  We passed those teams and didn't see them again.

We recognized the short sections called the Ice Box and Bowling Alley and moved across them with alacrity.  No issues with ice or rockfall tonight.  Quickly we were on the Cleaver, finding a spot around the corner with some space to sit and remove crampons.

Staying on rope to make the transition quicker, we each gathered up coils so we'd be walking much closer together for this portion of the climb.  The 1000+ foot climb up the dirt Cleaver was quite a haul.  John did some good route-finding, picking his way through various options and always finding wands to confirm our direction.  We were all moving well and stepping up and through the rocks and dirt.

I had estimated 1.5 hours up the Cleaver, but I suspect we were a good bit quicker than that.  We gave some of that back when we neared the top.  A couple climbers were stopped above us, seemingly trying to figure out which way to go (maybe they said something to that effect?  We had the impression they weren't just resting).

John tried around to the left, where we saw a couple headlamps coming down toward us.  One said that this was the right way to go (she seemed like a guide, bringing a client down the mountain).  The challenge was that it was ice instead of rock, so although it wasn't a great spot for this, we got out the crampons and managed to get them back on our boots.

Up the little icy reentrant, we popped out at a wand.  Now we had something of a view of the next section, although it wasn't completely clear which way to go.  There were lights slightly to the left and possibly some over to the right higher up.  We were back on the glacier and at the start of the section where "shit gets real."

This is also where the route shifts over the summer as conditions change.  Early in the season it goes more directly uphill, but recently it had been rerouted around some ice blocks/open crevasses and now it was on the "end of summer" version.  We would be traversing well to the right onto the Emmons shoulder, climbing up it and then traversing back to the left before ascending to the crater edge.  More distance, avoiding the larger hazards.

First things first, we had to figure out where the wands were leading us from the top of the Cleaver.  This was the least obvious area of the whole route.  Perhaps between the reroutes and glacier movement, wands weren't as plentiful or easy to see.  John again did really well, using his bright light and patience to find the way.

We worked our way up to an interesting set of giant ice blocks, needing to stop briefly so Jason could adjust his crampons.  It was a good time for a snack.  While we were there, the Japanese pair passed us.  "Konnichiwa!" - I wasn't sure if this was the right greeting but it was all I knew to say.  They seemed pleasantly surprised, replying in kind and then following up with a couple sentences in Japanese.  "I don't know what you said, but it's nice to see you!" I replied.  Maybe they were apologizing for the snoring.

This was the start of the interesting section, first climbing up onto a narrow ridge - "Really?" John asked, and yep, there's the next wand!  We followed the guys in front of us, verifying the wands and managing the rope around the corners.

They stopped just over the next rise, inspecting the first ladder crevasse crossing.  They motioned us to go ahead so they could watch.  John moved to the ladder and found the anchor with a carabiner attached.  We'd gotten enough beta about the ladders (Jason and I asked a lot of questions during our IMG classes) so we knew what to expect - very helpful.

John clipped the rope into the biner and stepped onto the ladder.  The rest of us were ready, following slowly to feed him rope and prepared to self-arrest in case he fell (which, it's John, so that wasn't likely).  Having the rope clipped into the anchor made everything safer, limiting the distance he would fall and limiting the number of people who could end up in the crevasse to 1.

He was soon on the other side, clipping into the anchor over there.  My turn!  He reported that the first rung was broken (lovely!), and I might be more comfortable crawling across.  OK then, that sounds like a good plan.  I passed my knot in the rope through the anchor and took a good look at what was in front of me.  Just the ladder, mind you, no need to look at anything below it...

Crawling was a good call, quite easy with the boards over the ladder, and I had no issues.  More knot-passing around the anchors and each team member took their turn crossing the crevasse.  That wasn't so bad!  We heard the team behind us working on the crossing as we continued forward.

Next was a long traverse, some minor ups and downs, and another short ladder (easy peasy and walkable).  We were getting into a rhythm now.  I was pretty stoked that everything was working and nothing was too stressful.  We heard the Japanese team behind us and saw their lights at the next ladder but didn't see them again (bummer that they must have turned around).

At the Emmons shoulder we started climbing again, switchback after switchback.  It was good practice for making turns while on rope, stepping over the rope, switching hands, keeping the right amount of slack/tension in front and behind.

During class we'd been told, "Don't be a slacker and don't be a tight-ass," meaning don't go too fast such that there is a lot of slack in the rope ahead of you.  And if the rope behind you tightens up, slow down and let the climbers behind you catch up.  We got good at communicating just by watching the rope ahead and keeping a hand on the rope behind, adjusting speed as needed.  Any one of us (generally it was me) could slow down if the pace was too high and the effect would ripple through the rope so the whole team adjusted within a couple steps.

Turning corners took more focus, keeping the same speed as the rope slackened and then watching behind you so you didn't speed up too much before the next person made the corner.  For sure, there was more give-and-take with 5 on a rope, but I think we handled it pretty well.

One more ladder crossing, this one straightforward enough but longer than the 2nd one.  We took turns carefully walking across, no problem.  Somewhere around this spot I realized I was really enjoying myself.  We were doing it!  Following wands, crossing crevasses, walking across glaciers, managing the rope.  In the dark.  I found myself grinning.

The route was easy to follow, up the switchbacks and then on a long traverse back to the left.  Eventually the slope mellowed out, just a long walk at this point.

First photo of the morning!  Good morning, sunshine!

Eventually the route rejoined the original direct climb and we turned uphill once more.  Some sections tracked through narrow trenches, with the challenge of putting one foot in front of the other without catching a crampon on your pant leg.  Good thing those didn't last too long.

Crisscrossing around crevasses in the early morning light, now it was getting obvious that we were nearing the top.  The 14,000 foot elevation made breathing more of a challenge, and the long climb was wearing down our legs.  One last push, we can do this.

We looked up to see a team coming down the trail toward us - and their guide was none other than Harry from our IMG classes!  It was so great to see him, I think I jumped over and hugged him, proclaiming "I am having so much fun!"  He seemed really happy to see us too, glad we were about to make it to the summit.  Thank you Harry, for all the help in getting here!

Then there was the crater rim, sweet!  We paused to remove the rope, except John and Jason kept their ends coiled over their shoulders instead of undoing everything (they stayed roped together the whole time).  They were using Kiwi coils, which we now understand to be better for scrambling where you might want to constantly adjust the rope lengths, but a mountaineer's coil would be better for crevasse travel so you can more easily take it off and stash it.

One more short section - walking across the crater to the highest spot on the other side.  This turned out to be harder than expected, with the choice between a deep narrow trench vs. a super bumpy snow surface.  I had not understood just how uneven the snow surface would be, and how much work it must be for the guides whenever they reroute the trail and have to knock down all the hard peaks to make it walkable.

The strange shapes on the surface of the snow, at the other side of the crater:

Partway up the little trail to the other side of the rim (Shaun signed us in):

And... one of our two less-than-perfect actions that morning... not getting a good selfie of all 5 of us at the summit.  It was windy and chilly, so we weren't as patient as we should have been.  Attempt #1 (not ready):

Attempt #2 (so close - except missing Jason, d'oh!):

We did get good pictures of smaller groups of us:

The second less-than-perfect happening (I consider it a navigational failure, really) was not knowing exactly where the summit was located.  It seemed like it should have been right above the Mazamas summit register, so that's where we gathered as a group.

But then that spot over there looks higher, could that be the summit instead??  Leslie and Shaun declined to follow as the rest of us just had to go check it out:

Wait, what about that little bump?  I sure as heck didn't want to miss the actual top of the mountain after all that work.  But the first spot behind us now looks higher...?

Whichever one it is, we made it!   :)

Now let's get out of the wind.

We gathered back together and decided the first bump must have been it, confirmed after we crossed back to the other side of the crater and asked the next guide who had brought a group up behind us.  Yes, we had all officially reached the top, yay!

Time to start the long trek down, not wanting to hang around and wait for the morning sunshine to start melting stuff.  I think the wildfire haze might have helped temper the normal heating process, but in any case we were moving early enough and didn't have any issues.

Everyone seemed to still be doing well, no altitude issues or physical problems, awesome.  John had just climb Mount Rainier, less than a year after hip resurfacing surgery.  So impressed!  The downhill along the top part of the mountain went easily and we had time and daylight for some photos.

Let's stay up here instead of descending back into the smoke...

Making a switchback, John got a picture of the rest of the team coming down above us:

Amazing ice formations and dark blue colors:

Short break for food and clothing adjustments (and posing for the camera):

Seems like a rather roundabout path through here...

...ah I see, we're weaving through crevasses, that's fun!

Back at the top ladder, with everyone wanting to document this experience.  John went first:

John's normal reaction = look down:

It's hard to get a good perspective on this, let's just say it's really deep:

My normal reaction = look straight ahead and get this over with (I think it was more fun in the dark, and yes, that's what she said):

John doubled back to take more pictures.  Shaun taking his own photos of the crevasse below him:

Leslie's turn:

And because she's fearless:

Jason on the ladder:

What a fun team!

Traversing through the snow back toward the Cleaver, and I probably should know what that mountain is in the distance (Adams?):

Working our way through the small obstacles:

One final ladder, and wow, that sure looks interesting from this perspective:

A guided team was coming up behind us, so we figured it would be good to get across this ladder before they caught up.  OK by me, I'd rather get it over with instead of waiting.

Clipping in before crawling back across:

It was interesting being able to see everything we had done in the dark.  Route-finding was certainly easier.  Soon we were back at the top of the Cleaver, dropping down to a flat-ish area where we could sit and remove our crampons.  The guided team met up with us and we chatted a bit before they took a break and we moved on down the hill.

Climbing/sliding down the steep loose dirt was my least favorite part of the morning.  The team helped me down and we got there eventually.  We found the sheltered flat spot where we had taken off the crampons in the dark, reversing the process now to return to the Ingraham Glacier.

A traverse, a bit more climbing to pass above a crevasse (come on legs, you can do this!), then an easy trek past Ingraham camp to take this excellent photo (that's the Cleaver over on the right):

We could hear a stream running below us and we were almost out of water, so Leslie and Shaun offered to go fill some bottles so we'd have fresh glacier water back at Camp Muir - thank you!

Mountain Buddies, still attached at either end of the rope:

Checking out the scenery:

Down through Cathedral Gap (much easier dirt to deal with compared to the Cleaver), across Cowlitz Glacier, then we were back at Camp Muir, yay!

I sent a check-in message on the InReach tracker, got a quick snack, and crawled up onto the bunk for a little nap.  Normally Leslie is always raring to go, but even she seemed to be OK with taking a break for a couple hours here (I think she may have had a headache at this point).

John heated water, we all ate a meal, we repacked everything, and eventually we continued on down the mountain.  It was nice not being rushed, or hot, or in any way stressed about moving quickly.

The walk down the Muir snowfield took a while, and we passed the time by experimenting with boot skiing, butt sliding, and foam pad sledding techniques.  Leslie is definitely the most graceful.  I would never challenge her to a downhill race.  Well, any race, really.

Finally back at the visitor center!  Happily John didn't mind walking over to the overnight parking lot to get the truck while we collapsed at the benches:

Thank you to the random stranger who offered to take a group photo of us - I love it!

Thank you, teammates!  It was truly an amazing experience.  I'm so grateful to have such awesome friends and climbing partners.

#41 in our highpoints quest:

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