Climbing Rainier: Once is enough

The author's toes still ache, 22 years later. And there was that Volkswagen-sized boulder speeding down the slope at 80 miles an hour.
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Mount Rainier

The author's toes still ache, 22 years later. And there was that Volkswagen-sized boulder speeding down the slope at 80 miles an hour.

Time present: I awkwardly descend the steps back of my house to wander the paths of my garden and enjoy it. The toes of my left foot ache. I think they are celebrating the anniversary of my freezing them 22 years ago climbing Mt. Rainier. For the umpteenth time I ask myself, 'ꀜHow could my toes have been frostbitten 22 years ago when I was on Mt. Rainier, patiently waiting for another climber having his foot massaged so that his toes did not get frostbitten?"

Time past: 22 years ago, 3:30 a.m., a clear night in July. I am standing on a really steep, packed-snow slope about 11,000 feet up Mt. Rainier. Had I not been wearing crampons (those long-spiked metal grabbers attached to my boots) I would quickly slide off the mountain. I have never worn crampons before and do not trust them. The slope I am stalled on feels maybe 10 degrees off vertical. I am the fourth person attached to this climbing rope and the girl in front of me has been asked by her father (roped in front of her) to rub his feet because they are getting cold. I am terrified. Not for the first time in my life I ask myself 'ꀜHow the hell I get myself in this situation?'ꀝ

I had lived in Seattle for close to 50 years before the idea of climbing Mt. Rainier presented itself to me. Being neither particularly coordinated nor strong, I had been content to hike on Rainier'ꀙs lower elevations and read about it. It had always been for me an improbable giant cut-out, pasted against the southern sky. But, always a fools-rush-in kind of guy, when, in March of my 50th year, a friend asked me to join his family on a guided climb of the mountain, I said, 'ꀜSure, I'ꀙd love to.'ꀝ

The event was months away and did not loom large. But just as the mountain looms larger and larger as you approach it, so did the reality of climbing it as the date approached. Rather than a job I had to hold down or something I could talk about, this was something very specific and arduous that I had to do. I started wondering if I could.

A few thousand people attempt the summit of Rainier each year, with half succeeding. Many get altitude sickness. Because of the vomit stains along the way, the route from Camp Muir to the summit is called the Cool-Aid trail. And although I have known one man who has done Rainier as a day climb, most employ the same strategy on different routes.

With a 35-pound back pack, climbers hike out from Paradise Lodge late in the morning and ascend the gradual snow fields to base camp. There they pitch a tent, eat some food, enjoy the view, and try to get some rest. At 3 a.m. they will strap on crampons, pick up an ice axe, and rope up for the steep three-hour climb to the top. It'ꀙs really important to make the summit early and get back to base camp fast. On warm summer days the sun loosens the snow and the mountain hurls boulders down its flanks.

The boss of my team has elected to climb the Kautz Glacier route. It is seriously steep. After concentrating on my breathing only, and slowly and endlessly putting one foot in front of the other, I do make it to the summit. I am exhausted. Where will I get the strength to climb down? I lie down on the snow nestled in the crater. After an all-too-brief rest I walk over to the southwest rim and look down at the blown-out throat of Mt. St Helens. From this perspective I have a new awareness of the millions of cubic yards of this mountain that had blown around the world when the volcano had erupted two years before.

After a couple of hours of climbing down, I am spent. It being a warm, clear day, the guides are anxious to get to the base camp before rocks start to plunge down the mountain. I see our tents just 100 feet away. We only have to traverse a gully to reach them. And as I stagger up the back side of the gully, my peripheral vision catches sight of a boulder — about the size of a Volkswagen beetle — speeding through the air parallel to the gully. It makes no sound. It is not bouncing. It is moving maybe 80 miles an hour. Had I been 40 seconds later, and had it hit any part of me, I would be dead for sure.

We rest for a while, take down the tents, pack up our packs. I am so exhausted that I seriously worry how I am going to make it down the mountain. And then a miracle happens. We come upon three glissade runs — they look like escalators strung out one below the other — that will take us several hundred feet down the mountains. All I have to do is sit and use the tip of the ice axe to control the rate of my decent. With my butt snuggled into these toboggan runs, my heart soars as gravity pulls me down the mountain.

Being in as good shape as I will ever get, that same summer of my 50th year, I climb both Mt. Baker and Glacier Peak. I can check them off my life list and put aside all desire to climb any of them again. But for weeks afterward, driving in Seattle, I occasionally look up on a clear day at Rainier. My heart swells in a way I have never experienced before. Yes! I climbed that thing! Check!

And I don'ꀙt need to do it again.


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