Summit Video Here
HIGHLANDERS SUMMIT MT. RAINIER
many thanks to everyone who made this trip of a lifetime possible. Above, John and Martin take a well-deserved break with guide Rob Montague on the descent below Ingraham Flats.
(LINK TO SUMMIT VIDEO)
We have no idea at this point what we have gotten in to, therefore, we smile like idiots.
Highlanders at the Summit Crater, 14,410 feet. Too tired to stand for a pic.
Somewhere near the High Break, I think. We were definitely high and needed a break. Our rope team forges across the dangerous terrain. Refer to narrative for details about this spot.
If you fall here, those climbing school techniques come in handy such as self arrest with the ice axe, a fact I quickly learned after almost pulling Martin and our guide down the slope. Imagine a yard sale without the signs!
Blister City.John with climbing legend and RMI founder Lou Whittaker.
Martin takes a well-deserved rest.
Account of the Ascent of Mt. Rainier, July 24-25 2004
Thursday, Climbing School
Meet at Rainier Mountaineering Base Camp for drive to Paradise at base of Mt. Rainier inside national park. Drive takes over an hour through beautiful hardwood forest and glacial river gorges. Meet our instructors, Phersumba Sherpa, a guide and veteran of 1960 Indian Everest Expedition, and Liam, an accomplished climber with impressive resume of his own, though younger. Phersumba Sherpa and John. He taught me the acclimatization technique known to Sherpa's as Copenhagen dipping. We were instant friends.
Embark in beautiful weather with shorts and backpacks, which include ice axe, double plastic climbing boots, gaiters etc and trail lunch. Make one hour hike to glacier at base of Rainier and learn self arrest with ice axe, rope travel, crampon use, pressure breathing and rest-stepping.
Rest-stepping is quite useful, as we would later discover and is a technique by which you place the weight of your body on the downhill foot, alleviating the muscular strain on the forward foot.
Pressure breathing is the forceful exhalation of air, which, I am told, expels the air from the lower part of the lungs and fills it with quality o2.
Preshumba says, "Two things will get you up that mtn, rest-stepping and pressure breathing" How ominous, I thought. His final adage, though, as he points to his furrowed brow is sage advice. "There is only one thing that will keep you from the summit, though, your mind!"
Self-arresting with a sharp object is another matter. I saw it as quite dangerous. I wonít go into detail but suffice to say that it WILL save your life and maybe that of your rope team. Enough of the climbing school, many lessons learned. I later discovered that this school was a weeding ground for the later summit climbs. If you had trouble making the one-hour ascent or difficulty with the skills, you could be cut and apparently, one guy was! Hope he got his money back.
Saturday, July 24. Trek to Camp Muir
After a sleepless night in the bunkhouse, we load our heavy, and I mean heavy packs into the vans and return to Paradise. When I mention heavy, we are not kidding. This is like a freaking hangover pack minus the spirits and hot dogs. Our climbing team looks cool. I am the oldest of the group. Our guide, Brenda Walsh, is a good-looking 31-year-old Seattle native. Rob Montague is the junior guide. At six foot four with legs up to his neck, he doesnít appear competent. I have doubts immediately. If you read to the end of this narrarative, you will discover how erroneous my assumption would prove. We hit the trail around 11 am. The weather is warm and sunny; we begin in shorts and climbing boots. My legs feel good. After a slow ascent, (much too slow, in my mind) we take a rest after an hour. Introductions are made like something out of "Stripes". Why do you want to climb this mtn etc. Martin and I are the hillbillies. The other characters will unfold as I recount if you can pay attention to the entirety of the story.
At the rest break, my feet are quite uncomfortable. A look shows impressive blistering on the arches of both feet. An ill fit width wise. That will be problematic later. Rob tapes the blisters and we press on. Shortly we don gaiters and we reach the significant snowfields at approx 7 thousand feet. We are hiking straight uphill now. Imagine climbing a ski slope, there is no longer a marked trail, you are above the tree line and there are literally dozens of folks around coming and going, glissading on the duff or sweating the uphill. This uphill was impressive and you practice rest stepping and pressure breathing. Altitude is not a problem at this point, although my feet are uncomfortable in freaking ski boots with blisters .
We arrive at camp Muir around 4.45 pm. From that point it is a flurry of activity and instruction. You have 10 minutes to claim a bunk. Tents are scattered about the glacier. Your breathing is belabored and thirst is excessive. This thin outcropping of a camp consists of three structures and a NPS guide hut. I chilled with the pack off and donned some fleece. We were given instruction about the upcoming climb. I wonít bore you with details but know that it is now about 5 pm and we are to be "awakened" at 11pm. Dinner is made and everyone is bunked by 5.30. Everyone but myself and Matt and Steffanie of our group. You see, that bunk is worse than a Smokies Shelter with all the snoring etc. The altitude plays a role and the gas from your backpacker meal turns the walls of this place dingy. I returned to the bunk around 9pm to rest my legs and counted down the hours until 11. At exactly 11, the door opened and we were roused. I made some coffee and began to pack up. This was going to be a long day.
The trek to Camp Muir 10,500
Summit Day 12.15am
We roped up, donned crampons, headlamps etc and away we go. My rope team consists of Rob at the lead, Martin, myself and Constantine Smirnoff, the Russian. Constantine is a smart man, father of two, veteran of Mt. Elbrus. An investment banker, he proved to have the right idea about boots, that is, not renting them. Had I chose to do this, my blister problem wouldnít exist. I could have cramponed in the Scarpa boots I have, instead of renting those uncomfortable bastards for technical climbing. Since they were also Scarpa boots, I felt a little better and figured my feet would adjust. They did not.
Anyway, we began our ascent across the flats in the dark. Above us you could see the lights of previous rope teams. They looked like ants ascending in V swaths. The very top teams looked like stars in the sky. It was intimidating. The weather was cold and skies were clear. We were treated to the northern lights, which I had never seen despite a trip to Alaska. It is quite impressive, resembles two spotlights behind the mtn. I took this as an omen of providence.
Things are great and we have the first break at the bottom of Disappointment Cleaver. We are forced to don down parka, eat something and drink. I ate nothing but drank copiously. This is a well-choreographed machine. RMI is a quality outfit and they know how to put people on the summit. I am feeling pretty decent and our rope team is working well together. The break lasts about 13 minutes and we are off for the Cleaver. In the dark, we cross several crevasses. I have always been fearful of them after reading about deaths. That would be a suck-ass way to die, headfirst in a bottomless hole. At one point, I was focused on rest-stepping and pressure breathing when our guide shouts something back about "cracks". I turn to alert Constantine who is talking on his cell phone. Imagine having just enough breath to pressure breathe, while holding an ice axe in one hand and the rope in another. I donít know how he held the phone! He raised his finger towards me as if to say, "Just a minute". It was hilarious. I knew I liked this guy from that point on.
The Disappointment Cleaver is aptly named. After this section, many folk wash out. The reason is simple. You go from glacier to rock. It is rock because there is nowhere for the snow to land. It is too steep and windblown, like a cleaver. Imagine climbing hangover with more rock, steeper and in 10 point crampons and ski boots; all while short roped to the team. Short roping is a technique whereby you draw in lengths of rope until you are a few feet from the person in front of you. The treachery of this section demands proximity and trust me, it is treacherous. Your footing is uncertain at best. No purchase is made by your foot that isnít lost by the other. It is dark and what looks like dirt is probably scree rock. Your crampons generate a spark when striking the rock and you must resist the temptation to grab the rock for stability lest it break in your hand. Then there is the ice axe with which to contend. By now, my blisters had blisters and each step was excruciating. Martin looked like he was doing fine along with Constantine who had apparently finished his cell phone conversation with the wife in Russia. He would later remark, "Is good I make call there, no serwice on top of mountain".
Whenever you thought the end of the Cleaver was near, another technical section presented itself. I realized later why they took us up in the dark. Itís like blinders on a horse. My breathing was more intense and a rest sounded great. Too bad we werenít at that point. It would be another 40 minutes or so for that. At the top of that section, we reached Brendaís group and went through the routine, parkas on and eat/drink. You chill quickly here as the elevation is prob around 12,500. I was dog-tired and the time was approximately 2.30 am. Things get blurry here, I remember trying to down one of those Cliff Shot coffee energy goo things. It made me want to puke. The thought of food made me gag. I drank more water and shivered in the cold. The wind was picking up here; I knew we wouldnít stay long. Soon we were off again.
I could now feel the altitude. It was like a wave of sudden nausea, which made me temporarily glad I did not eat. For those of you that know me, not eating is a danger signal. There are few times I donít eat and this was one of them. My stomach felt as if it were consuming itself, energy was spent; pressure breathing was tough at this height. It dries your mouth. You canít drink until the break. Bladders were useless due to the freezing. Bottles were stored inside packs, couldnít have one of those careening down the slope and killing someone. This section before High Break was the toughest. Every alarm in my body was flashing. The altitude alert, the hunger alert, the lack of sleep alert, the thirst alert, altitude hallucinations made clumps of snow look like people. I was not the happiest camper. This section was steep, very steep. A mistake here could have consequences for the team. At this point we passed some real bodies, not hallucinations, bagged up, unable to continue. This gave real perspective to the climb. What a lonely place to be. One guy was barricaded inside a makeshift snow cave carved out by shovels with his head sticking outside an emergency blanket. Another guy was in a sleeping bag, sitting upright. Rob asked if they were okay, they muttered something unintelligible. I had no time to concentrate on them, that could be me pretty damned soon, I thought!
That is when the altitude really got to me. It was like a shuddering wave all through my body starting from my feet to my head. I was going to puke. I am like Seinfeld about puking, it just doesnít happen. Probably would have felt better if I did but resisted. Later, Martin and even Rob would confess they felt the same at the same point. Must be fairly common. Made me feel better to know that Rob was in my boat. Mentally, I was drained. No energy, thought process questionable. Pressure breathing and rest stepping. It makes a difference, I counted steps. Step, rest, pressure breath. Counted a dozen at a time and lost count. Played games with myself, looked at the watch and felt a tug on the rope. I was slowing the group down, I thought. The sun would be up soon, that would liven me up. At 5.30 we stopped at High Break.
This was definitely my low point. I was in trouble. Now shivering uncontrollably, Rob insisted that I put on more clothes. Two layers of fleece, a balaclava and down parka. It was cold and the wind was blowing. My speech was slurred as if drunk. I felt like passing out. I couldnít attend to motor functions. This was bad, hypothermia, I thought. Now Rob was my guardian angel. He sprang into action like a Labrador retriever. As I sat on my backpack to conserve heat, I attempted to convey that I was okay, but my speech was slurred and I could barely hold the water bottle. Soon I felt someone hugging behind me with his or her legs wrapped around my back. Yes, the dreaded man hug. I got one from the front and the back. It was embarrassing but warm and I couldnít even tell them to stop. I was still shivering uncontrollably, worse than ever. Unaware of anyone else, I was handed a cup of Chai Tea by another guide from a thermos. It was the best drink I ever had. I felt its warmth radiate through my body. The sun was rising and my guide was concerned. I sounded like an idiot trying to tell them that if we got moving, I would be okay. I would soon get my wish. Rob changed my position on the rope team, placing me at the back, behind Constantine. This all happened as if a dream. We were moving again. Warmth returned to my body, the shivering stopped and now my feet were slushing inside the double plastic climbing boot. It was blood, I knew, from the blisters. I have had blisters before, my feet were not wet. This was a sticky feeling. Each step forced the arch of my foot against the wall of the boot, which approximated Nepalese acupuncture. Prior to this, I never considered not summiting. Surviving was foremost. No mountain was worth this cost and I started rationalizing, privately.
The sun was now fully up and I looked at my watch. It was somewhere around 6 am. I knew we had to be close but just didnít have what it took to summit. It was a disappointing feeling, all that training and work. I stopped and pulled the rope team off their position. Rob unroped and came around. I dreaded what I would have to tell him and disappoint the team. This was to be my personal summit. The look on his face was curious. "Whatís wrong" as if he didnít know. I couldnít speak. My face tried to make words, which fortunately wouldnít produce. I gestured, breathing heavily. I was spent. He smiled. I knew what was coming. Instead of unroping me, though, he pointed to a boulder, very large, at the top of our sight line. "You see that rock, that is the crater rim!" You are there, he exalts. I still couldnít speak. He gave me a minute. Later I discovered that Martin and Constantine were having similar thoughts. When I was finally able to speak, the only thing that came out was, "Lets hit it!í Less than fifteen minutes later we were below the boulder. I passed two guys who congratulated me on their descent. I would make it. It was then that I felt the tug on the rope. It was Constantine pulling me. That gave me the jump-start I needed. We passed that rock and DESCENDED into the large teacup. People were shouting, we made it. We made it. Praise the Good Lord God Almighty. We summited Mt. Rainier at approximately 6.30am.
Again, thanks to all our family and friends who gave us the encouragement and prayers to finish this noble quest. The Highlander Flag now proudly waves atop the longest endurance climb in the continental United States, Mt. Rainier.