“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”
Photos by: Dan Paulson & Misty Broesicke
Returning to Mt Rainier within 10 days of my first attempt was a no brainer. I had spent the past six months gathering gear, training, climbing, hiking and focusing on a successful attempt. Getting shut down due to weather was not what I had in mind and so I begged my climbing partner to return for a Mt Rainier re-do of sorts.
We drove from Boise to Washington only this time we would be truly roughing it. With no room at the inn (the Whittaker Bunkhouse) or anywhere in town due to the 4th of July holiday, we camped a short distance from town.
On July 6 we awoke to glorious weather and made the drive to Paradise, checked in at the ranger station and then began our climb. The day was beautiful and the mountain was majestic. On our previous trip the mountain had remained covered in thick clouds as storms raged above. I never saw even a glimpse of what I was going to be climbing. On this morning I had a breathtaking view of Rainier, it was massive and it was beautiful.
Lenticular clouds covered the top of the mountain and indicated very strong winds up top. In fact the forecast was calling for 55 mph winds on the summit for this day but they were expected to steadily decrease through the afternoon and be 25-30 the following day.
We climbed steadily for six hours with our heavy packs. My pack had weighed in around 53 pounds on this attempt which seemed lighter than the rain soaked pack of my previous attempt. Another difference, the weather – it was hot! As the heat of the day increased the clothing disappeared eventually leaving me in a tank top and capris.
There was a lot of traffic on the mountain on this day as well. Literally lines of people ascending, some who would climb only to Camp Muir as a day hike and others would stay and attempt to summit the mountain in the days to come. We stopped on occasion to eat snacks, re-apply sunblock, take pictures and admire the views, but eventually Camp Muir was in site.
Approaching Muir left me with an enormous sense of accomplishment as we had been forced to turn back at the Muir snowfield on our previous attempt. I felt strong, excited and ready to take on the rest of the mountain. In my training for the climb, I had been most intimidated by the idea of carrying a very heavy pack up to Muir. This was the most weight I had carried and reaching Muir meant that the next phase of climbing would be lighter and faster, and that I had already conquered what for me was mentally challenging.
We reached Muir and were greeted by other climbers who sat along the block walls checking out the views, resting and visiting with others. The camp was crowded with people and there was a feeling of excitement in the air. We immediately began working to set up camp, leveling the snowpack, pitching tents, melting water, and sorting through gear. The camp felt hot when we arrived but after having been in a tank top for much of the day I didn’t want to sit exposed anymore. I covered myself head to toe trying to block the harsh rays of sun and prevent the epic sunburns I had heard about in high alpine climbing.
The afternoon passed with the busyness of preparation for the upcoming climb. We discussed gear, the route and eventually settled on a departure time. We agreed that we needed to be leaving our camp no later than midnight for the best climbing conditions. With such an early departure that left us with very little sleep after a very physical day. Around 6:30 or 7 I tried to sleep but the sun was beating down on the tent and I felt like I was baking in my own skin. Stripped down to my sports bra and boy shorts I laid on top of my bag attempting to get at least a little rest before the early start. When the sun set I climbed into my sleeping bag and stayed asleep until 9:30.
I awoke to the sound of climbers shuffling gear. My alarm had been set for 11 p.m but I was too excited to sleep. At first I attempted to close my eyes but when that failed I climbed out of my bag and began to gear up. The temperature had dropped dramatically and I was chilly as I made final gear selections, cooked myself oatmeal, drank water, and feathered out the rope. By 11 p.m the camp was alive with activity. Many climbers had chosen this awesome weather window, while many more slept through this night either in attempt to acclimatize or rest before their own summit attempts.
At 12:07 a.m we were roped up and were leaving our camp. A steady line of headlamps ahead of us and behind us soon filled the route and we may our up the mountain.
Climbing in the dark by headlight is a strange feeling, especially without any moon. We were in the blackest of night but I felt strangely comfortable. Having no idea of what the landscape looked like we followed the Disappointment Cleaver route up through Cathedral Gap, and soon after to the cleaver. Reaching the cleaver we encountered our first crevasse crossing. At only a couple of feet wide there was a ladder crossing the gap that we walked in the darkness. The deep blackness of it was a reminder to stay alert and prepared for Mt. Rainier is a temperamental mountain.
Climbing the cleaver seemed as if it would never end, shortly after the crevasse we began to steeply rise and gain elevation. Hand lines placed in strategic zones, and climbing over rock, and ice the mountain challenged us to reach ever higher toward the summit. In the blackness we climbed up further and further, and just as you would think this must be the end, you would catch a glimpse of climbers high above, still making their way up the steep rocky face. Rock fall is a big concern here so lingering or resting is not an option. Seeing headlights above is not comforting as you don’t want to be hit in the head, or anywhere for that matter and being the party above other climbers, we were cautious to manage our ropes carefully and not kick loose rock down on others.
Reaching the top of the cleaver felt good even though we still had a long way to go. We stopped briefly stepping off the trail to adjust layers, drink water, and have a quick pee break. The ridge we stood on was exposed to the wind and cold and as I stood waiting for Dan to make his adjustments. It took only a few seconds to cool down and I was shivering. I pulled out my down coat while I waited and then stuffed it back in the pack before we took off. There was certainly no warmth on the mountain at this hour and cold was a very real concern.
The next couple of hours were a blur of headlamps, endless steps, hand lines, crevasse crossings, and icy cold. We kept our rests quick, kept hydrated and steadily moved up the mountain. Nearing 13,600 we were met with our first glimpses of daylight. We climbed upward but continually looked back as the sun began to fill the sky with bright colors and cast its orange glow on the mountain. As the sun continued to rise the drama of these mountains came in to full focus. The landscape of Rainier broken by crevasses, steep and glowing had allowed me passage through it.
Although the wind and the cold at this elevation was brutal and had caused me to put on my parka for the remainder of the climb, the sun had somehow warmed me. I felt a renewed motivation and excitement to reach the summit. We made our way passing more crevasses, one in which we had to jump over and then over a very sketchy snow bridge that looked like it would give way at any moment.
As we reached the final 100 yards to the craters edge my knee which had been giving me trouble throughout the climb began to throb and protest. Each step was agony, but my goal was within sight. Climbers who had passed us on their own missions were now descending. I was in agony but as a climber I had met in camp passed me he encouraged me “you are almost there”. I knew it was true, I could see it, and I wanted it.
Reaching the crater rim meant that the steep climbing of Rainier was behind us. We walked into the crater, dropped our packs, sat and ate a snack. Sitting in the crater we felt protected as the edge seemed to block the cold wind. The true summit of Mt. Rainier lies on the summit ridge opposite of where we entered the crater, and there was no doubt in my mind that is where I was headed.
As my partner struggled with a little nausea I set off for my final steps to the summit on my own. Crossing the crater and a short climb up dirt and rock I met another group of climbers that were siting near the top with the summit register. I chatted with them for a bit and signed my name. By this time Dan caught up and signed his name as well. We climbed the final steps of the mountain together. 14, 409 feet and a long sought goal accomplished a great partner.
I had been challenged to do 10 push ups on the summit so that I could be an “official” bad ass. I did! I felt lightheaded after but it was still awesome. After taking photos, summit hugs and high fives, and admiring the views we had of the other cascade volcanoes we headed back to our gear. We sat in the crater for a bit and soaked up the sun, drank more water and ate a snack. It felt good to enjoy the sun in such an amazing place.
While I could have stayed in this place all day, we knew that it was time to go. We roped back up, took a final picture, and stole a final glance at this magical place before beginning the long descent.
Following our same route down the landscape was so different in the light. It felt truly amazing to be able to pass through such an extreme environment and to have such a radically different experience then only a week before. The views from above showcased the beautiful danger of the mountain. The ground opening up with giant crevasses big enough to swallow a house lay riddled throughout the route, ice chunks bigger than cars hung precariously above the route and the warmth of the sun creating its own obstacle of really slick snow. We carefully and meticulously navigated our way back down route. The sun baked us and layer after layer was stripped off our bodies as we neared 10,800 feet.
We reached Camp Muir at 12:07 – exactly 12 hours from the time we had left. We weren’t breaking records with our pace but we thoroughly enjoyed the experience and made it our own. Upon reaching Muir we began packing our gear, we had decided that getting down the mountain for a good nights sleep and an early departure back to Boise the following day made the most sense.
Motivated by beer alone, I managed to haul all my gear another 3 hours down the mountain and back to Paradise. Reaching the parking lot, exhausted, stinky and stoked beyond measure, I looked up at the mountain once again. It was incredible to think that just that morning the mountain had allowed me to climb it and the magic of the experience is something that I will never forget!
Reaching town that evening, we went for dinner at the Wild Berry Restaurant and I finally ordered my Summit Burger. Just like Mt. Rainier, it took me two days to conquer it, and the beer – well it was frosty and satisfying.