Aug 2, 2014
Last week I spent 6 days climbing Washington's Mt Rainier. This was one of my first introductions to glacier mountaineering, and as such me and my buddies decided to take a longer trip and learn some skills along the way. The most common route up to the summit of Rainier is a two day, 1 night trip. We took longer, but learned a lot of new skills along the way with IMG's glacier skills seminar.
Mt Rainier, at 14,410 ft is only 100ft shorter than the tallest peak in the lower 48 (Mt Whitney in CA), but Rainier's trailhead starts over 1,000 ft lower. In addition, Whitney does not require travelling over glaciers to summit, which makes Rainier much more technically challenging. As IMG says, "you will want to arrive in the best shape of your life".
My main training regimen consisted of climbing a small peak in my city's backyard named Mission Peak, a 2200 ft climb over a distance of about 2.5 miles. I climbed this once a week after work, as the park was unusual in that it was open until 10pm. If you are in the bay area, this is a fun trip to do in the evening. It's a popular trail, lots of folks try to catch the sunset from the summit, so it becomes a bit of a party at the top.
In addition to the weekly stroll up Mission Peak, my co-conspirators on Rainier also planned several longer weekend outings which were a mix of adventure and training: backpacking in Trinity Alps and Desolation Wilderness, snowshoeing in the Tahoe mountains, and Ice Climbing in Lee Vining. Jeremy documented many of these trips as well as our Rainier trip over at rainier2014.com.
Before spending 6 days on the mountain with IMG, we met up at IMG headquarters to do a gear check. Our guide, Ian, met us there and had us lay out all of our gear and we went through each piece one by one. Due to the amount of gear we did need to take, he had us all pare down our extraneous gear to just the essentials. Everything else was left behind. I added back in a few luxuries that evening: a small inflatable pillow, some down booties, and my 2lb DSLR camera. In addition, we added in a few pounds of group gear such as tents, pots, fuel, and food. Ian then went over some basic skills such as blue bagging (bagging/packing out all waste) as well as answering our questions about the next day and the trip as a whole.
Next morning, we were up bright and early to shuttle to a trailhead near Paradise visitor center and begin our climb. It was a pretty short hike to the first camp, only about 2 miles made a little harder by the fact that our packs were quite heavy. The weather was inside clouds and walking on snow, so we wondered how one would navigate in such terrain with few landmarks to go on. When we got to camp, the guides gave us a crash tutorial on setting up 4 season tents in the snow (hint: it involves shoveling out a flat spots and burying anchors in the snow) and we got to work getting settled in. The photo below was taken the next morning when the clouds finally cleared, we had no idea there was a view to be had from camp until day 2!
After this we got to work learning how to walk efficiently on steep snow, practicing on the side of a ridge near camp. We had a bit of a scare when Matt post holed through a thin ice layer with one foot, but nobody was hurt. Next, we learned how to self arrest with our mountaineering axes. This is an essential skill - imagine you fall and are sliding down steep slick ice, how do you maneuver yourself to catch your axe on the snow and arrest your slide without having the axe rip out of your hand or rip your face open. We practiced arresting from all possible falls: head first, feet first, face down, face up. This was a ton of fun as it's basically a lot of sliding downhill in the snow. I wish I had some video but the clouds were too dense and I didn't have enough time.
The next morning, we took down camp and moved up off the snowfield and onto the Paradise Glacier. We had nice blue skies the whole day, which made for some fantastic views both along the hike and at camp.
When we got onto the Paradise Glacier, it was time to learn how to work as a rope team. Crevasses are large vertical holes in glaciers that can drop tens or hundreds of ft, which is not something you want to fall in. The problem is that the tops of the crevasses can get covered in thin layers ice and snow so that you can't easily see the crevasses, but you can still break through the layer ice below your feet. To mitigate this risk, we travel on glaciers with each person spaced out 40 or so ft from the person in front of them, but attached via a rope and harness. If one person falls, the others on the team arrest on the snow and then rescue the fallen team member. This particular training built on what we learned on day 1. We practiced this today on the way to camp - tying into a rope, maintaining good distance and communication with the other rope team members.
This time the area for the camp was a bit steeper and required a lot more digging out of a flat area for tents. We also were going to stay at this camp for two days, so we spent a little more effort making it comfortable, cutting out some steps in our terraces as well as cavities for gear and so forth. That evening we were treated to a lesson about glacier geology. One of our guides had done their master's work on the subject and gave us a little introduction to the basics, while standing on a glacier!
Today we weren't planning to move to a new camp. This was nice timing as we awoke to unexpected rain at about 4am. We did not get a break from lousy weather until after dinner. Warming up was to one of the best breakfasts of the trip, hot bacon and cheese bagel sandwiches.
Despite the weather, we had stuff to learn! Most of today was spent doing technical work on knots and ropes. Much of this could be done inside the group cook tent with a little storm protection, but whenever the rain abated a bit, we'd run outside and do some more practice there as the tent was a tad crowded.
The final goal for today was to be able to go from an arrest position on a rope team with a member in a crevasse to building an anchor in the snow, transferring the load to the anchor and then building one of various pulley systems to safely pull the victim out of the crevasse. At the end of the day, we got into pairs and practiced exactly this. Unfortunately due to poor weather, we didn't actually get ourselves into a crevasse, but we simulated it on some steep terrain.
In addition, today we went over some advanced navigation techniques with a map, compass and altimeter. We discussed in some detail how you would navigate in whiteout conditions where angles to distant landmarks were not available.
Finally, after dinner, the clouds parted for a little while giving us some fantastic views of the valleys below with clouds floating through. I captured this series of images which ended up being some of my favorites of the whole trip.
Today, the plan was to take down camp and move up the mountain to Muir Camp. The weather set us back again this morning. We awoke to thunder and lightning. At one point the count between the flash and bang was only a second or two, so it was largely over top of our heads. Rather than get an early start, shelter in place was the plan. Plastic foam pads and staying low to the ground was the safest bet. Walking across a flat snowfield swinging steel ice axes was not. Even if not for the lightning, we small marble sized hail was coming down on our tents.
After the worst of the storm stopped, we decided to get moving. The weather was likely to stay all day, so there was no sense in waiting. The rain was still coming down sideways, but we broke down camp and hiked up to Muir in our storm shell layers ("battle armor"). Unfortunately even gore-tex doesn't 'breathe' or evaporate moisture if it's soaked on the outside. Thus, any sweating we did on the way up just stayed in our clothing and soaked it out too.
Muir Camp delimits, at least psychologically, the point between lower and upper mountain. Above Muir, we'd be travelling exclusively on rope teams and not for training. For most teams, Muir Camp is the end of day one and the camp from where makes a summit attempt. Muir is also quite lavish - there are a few small structures with bunk beds, an evaporating toilet, even a place to discard used blue bags. We all shared some bunks inside the Gambu hut, named after Nawang Gombu, a nepalese mountaineer who guided on Rainier until a few years ago.
Our focus that afternoon was on getting clothing dry. We ran rope lines throughout the Gombu hut and hung up the most critical clothing. Very little dried completely, but it was no longer dripping wet when we put it on the next morning.
That evening our guides made us some absolutely fantastic burritos for dinner. Apparently pan frying a burrito in olive oil is crazy delicious. Aside: Olive oil is also a super backpacking food. In addition to simply being healthy, it weighs in at a whopping 230 calories an ounce (candy bars are only 100-150 calories/oz). It's stable at a variety of temperatures. It can be added to almost any food and that food magically tastes better. You can use it to loosen jammed up zippers or other gear. It even has useful properties when applied to blisters or sunburns. As a high-fat food, your body must spend a little energy to break it down, which helps you stay warm, so it's great before sleeping.
That evening we spent some time going over rappelling setups and self-climbing rigs. I feel guilty, but I wasn't fully engaged with this lesson. I was cold, wet, and fairly tired. We also learned a bit about altitude related illnesses, but this was fairly familiar stuff to me as I had some first hand experiences on Kilimanjaro.
The clouds were still rolling around the next morning, but the rain had dropped down to lower elevations. Climbers coming up from below were soaked, but we were seeing more and more sunlight as the day progressed. We were in pretty good spirits. Today's plan was a short walk up to our final campsite at Ingraham flats. We had plenty of time, so we did a little extra practice of some of our rope and crampon skills.
Early in the afternoon we headed up to the Ingraham Flats. The Ingraham Flats is a campsite on top of the Ingraham glacier. It has an amazing view, one of our guides put it in his top 5 camps worldwide. I can easily see why. Look at the photo above for the camp tents. You can see them on the glacier near the upper left hand side (yellow/orange pixels). The area is apparently a flat part of the geology underlying the glacier and is not prone to crevasses opening up.
Surprisingly, we didn't have to carry tents up to Ingraham Flats, we left those behind at Muir. The tents at Ingraham were buried intentionally under several feet of snow. We dug them out of the snow and set up camp for the last time. The guides have an agreement with the rangers that they can leave tents out at Ingraham for the season as long as they are only set up and visible when they are actually occupied. Another team was coming in the day after us, so we didn't have to tear down the tents.
The rest of the day was short and restful. As soon as camp was set up, we laid down on our sleeping bags. We got up for an early dinner and went to back to bed with several hours of daylight remaining.
The mountain had seen 2 full days of full on storm weather, including hail. Nobody had been on the mountain above camp Muir since our Day 2. Big changes in weather mean big problems. I think most of us expected that the summit would be unattainable due to weather conditions, but we were going to climb as high as we could until it was no longer safe to go further.
Summit day started with a early start around 12:30am. For several hours we were climbing with only our headlamps, but still in a rope team and full climbing gear. At several points our guides continued to be surprised that the rain had made it as high as it did as well as surprise that we were still making progress. There was no visible trail ahead of us. At a few points, we'd have to stop and the guides would go ahead with shovels and cut a small ledge for safety.
I began to really struggle with breathing the last 1,500 ft of elevation or so. The air was thin, I was getting tired and having trouble keeping up with the rope team. Eventually, with some significant help from the guides and team, we made it to the summit of Rainier. We were the first team to summit in 4 days, followed only a few minutes later by several other teams who had gained on us due to the trail we had been cutting.
We didn't stay at summit for too long as the plan was to descend the entire mountain by mid-afternoon. We downclimbed and glissaded our way all the way back to the parking lot by about 5 in the afternoon. When all was said and done, we had been going for almost 14 hours with only short breaks. I was sore, exhausted, blistered, and all smiles. We said our goodbyes to each other at IMG headquarters, and again over beers.