The highest point I had been too before I attempted Mt.Rainier was the summit of Wedge Mountain at 2892m’s, in Garibaldi Provincial Park, B.C., and I remember feeling a keen sense of achievement at having scaled that height. Just knowing that it was the highest summit in the park made it feel like more of an achievement for me, like I had conquered some invisible force, a force that as you reach higher becomes more and more oppressive.
Rainier, which stands at just over 4300m’s (14,411ft), was now going to be the tallest mountain I had climbed to date. Despite the many mountaineering trips I had taken in the last few years, the trip to Mt. Rainier felt like something outside of the scope of anything I had known. This was a big mountain and it felt like it deserved a deep respect of it’s own.
“….the most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I ever beheld in all my mountain-top wanderings.” – John Muir
As I stood at the Paradise visitor centre looking up at Mt. Rainier on that hot August afternoon, I couldn’t help thinking of how close it seemed. It looked no farther than a stone’s throw away. Rainier just stood there in all it’s glory, streaks of grey rock showing through the late summer snow, deep crevasses gouging the glacier that tumbled down within my view, brightly colored wild flowers dotting the grassy meadows in the foreground. Standing alone in all it’s immensity with no concern for the tiny creatures standing below looking on in awe; standing there thinking that we could somehow conquer this mass of stone and ice. But as usual the mountain doesn’t care that we are there or that we care to struggle and gasp our way up it’s flanks. It is just there, and it was in my own mind that I felt this sense of the mountains willingness to accept us, allowing us to pass and giving me the opportunity to test myself.
I remember looking at the winding path that made it’s way in the direction of Camp Muir, comparing it to previous hikes in my mind, thinking it wouldn’t take long at all. The mountain after all looked so close, like a super-imposed image on a screen, but no matter how long I walked that image remained the same distance away. My sense of scale was becoming more and more obscured. At that moment I remembered a quote I had seen in an outdoor store earlier that year regarding the Himalaya, it said “everything is so much bigger and so much farther away than you can imagine”. I started to feel a small sense of what they were referring to.
Several hours later our group of 5 made it to Camp Muir and I was welcomed with a dull aching headache. I pushed too fast to the 10,000 feet that the camp lay at. It was my first experience with what gaining altitude too quickly meant. Even at this considerably low elevation, my body was not happy with the quick pace, the heat and lack of fluids I chose to subject it to; and it was only less than 12 hours ago that I was at sea level. After dinner, and what seemed like hours making the liters and liters of tepid water we would need for our group, we decided it was best to try and get some shut eye for the 90 minutes we had before it was time to gear up again and attempt our climb. After an hour or so of just resting, as sleep seemed to escape our group, we walked out into the warmth of the midnight air. The moon shone so brightly that our headlamps were almost unnecessary. Groggy but full of excitement I forced down some breakfast, even though it had only been a few short hours ago that I had had dinner. But I knew I would need these calories for energy later that morning.
Pushing up past the well known spots on the climb like Cathedral Gap, Ingraham Flats & Disappointment Cleaver in the dark, I couldn’t really get a sense of my surroundings. Slowly and methodically moving our way up the mountain in the moonlit darkness, I turned around only to see a snaking trail of lights behind me, a trail of individuals pushing their way up through the darkness in a trance like state unable to fix there eyes on any features except the bubble of light cast by their headlamp down at their feet. Tethered together by our climbing rope our 3 person team wove it’s way up the crumbling Cleaver, periodically ducking and quickening our pace upon hearing the chilling shouts of “ROCK!” which had been released down upon us by climbers higher above.
Without incident we reached the top of the Cleaver and were winding our way over crevasses and up towards the summit crater. It wasn’t until we were 400m below this point that I was able to really get a sense of my surroundings as the sun was just coming over the eastern horizon. It really was one of the most stunning sunrises I have experienced. Gold and crimson seemingly rising from the earth like a dazzling pyrotechnic light show. At this point I was feeling dizzy from the altitude and fatigue. Consciously and deliberately making each step, continuously plodding uphill. It was such a welcome break to feel the warmth of the sun; to be able to stop in our tracks and feel the start of the new day recharge us.
Now so near the summit and feeling lethargic we were shocked to see a 6 year old boy, miniature ice axe in hand, short roped to his father coming towards us as they were making their descent. Smiles blazed across our faces at this sight and a little extra momentum quickened our steps. It was only at a regrouping before we crossed the summit crater, that one in our group told us how he had shared an ice axe high five with the little boy as he passed.
It was just a matter of crossing the football field sized summit crater and we could stand happily on the summit. Once again my sense of scale deceived me, for no matter how quickly I thought I was walking or how much effort I was putting in, it felt like I would never reach the rim of the crater. However a short while later we all stood together on the summit, happy, tired, breathless but most of all content. There was no farther to go, no more up to climb; we made it. As minutes passed photos were taken, celebratory summit dancing took place and a few fist bumps and high fives later we knew we would need to start making the descent as the early morning air was quickly heating up as the sun was now brightly shining high above us.
Once again on the move, we made our way down the mountain in the ever increasing heat and soft soupy snow. Our crampons were almost useless at this point as they did not give us much purchase on the melting snow, but this was far from my mind as all I could take in was the view in front of me. This view that I had missed climbing in the darkness only a few short hours ago. Now it was a mountain of gaping crevasses and jutting rock. Several times as I crossed the snow bridges I dared to peer down into the depths only to see a maw the size of which could swallow several large houses. I felt an ever increasing sense of how small I really was, how very little I mattered to this mountain, but also feeling a deep sense of gratitude for my body’s ability to take me to this wonderful place.
I have never felt heat so oppressive as that day descending down the Disappointment Cleaver route on Rainier. With no possible shade and no way to escape the heat I felt a claustrophobic sense of being pressed in from all sides. I needed to rid myself of all unnecessary clothing to prevent myself from hyperventilating. Our group slowed to a crawl, although we didn’t realize how slow we actually must have been moving, until at one of our rest breaks with a spectacular view of Ingraham Flats and Little Tahoma, we seen climbers far ahead on the glacier moving at a snails pace. We commented how slow they were moving and then realized it was probably not due to any particular lack of fitness, but due to the heat, the altitude and the energy required to make the summit that they were moving so slow. It was only at this point that we came to the realization that we too were a group of 5 snails slowly making our way back down to Camp Muir.
Winding our way down through the last sections of the route on the mountain, we could at last see our camp. Only one last glacier crossing and we were back to the coolness of the hut at camp and perhaps the chance to lay down and catch a few minutes of some much needed sleep. There would be little rest though, as we needed to descend back down the Muir snowfield back down the trail through the alpine meadows and back to the cars which would have us home that night.
But there was one last stop we needed to make before our group parted ways. Despite how tired we were and how long the drive home would be there was time and energy left for a celebratory dinner. Burgers, beers and chocolate milk were going to be a fine finish to a spectacular climb with great friends.
Now I look forward to spending more time in the high places, these places that both oppress and allure. These places that pull you in and create a desire for a suffering I have only yet to experience and enjoy.