Photos by: Dan Paulson & Misty Braden
The idea of big mountain climbing has always been appealing and there has never been a mountain I have wanted to climb more than Mt. Rainier. Having scheduled a late June climb back in January of 2014, the past six months have revolved around my quest to climb and summit Mt. Rainier for the first time.
I can’t really say why this mountain has had such an impact but for 9 years it has been a goal.
As the trip approached and we watched the weather, our first indicator of things not going our way came about a week before the climb. The mountain looked as if it was going to be hit with a very big storm beginning on Thursday and raging on through Sunday. We considered shifting dates, but with 3 other people on our camping permit and a lack of alternatives for a backup date, we waited and we watched.
The weather went back and forth for a couple of days initially looking as if the storm would not materialize or be as bad as initially thought, and we felt we still had a decent shot of climbing the mountain, so we continued with our plans and travelled to Washington.
We parked ourselves at the Whittaker Bunkhouse, in Ashford, WA. The town itself is a climber and tourist destination where nearly everywhere you go, restaurants/gas stations etc there are pictures of the mountain, prayer flags, and even options for Nepalese food.
“Whittakers” a climbing guide service, has grounds in the center of the small town that serves as a motel & bunkhouse as well as a great hangout. The vibe of Whittakers is cool with a covered outdoor seating area where you can purchase beer, burgers and pizza, and chat with climbers from all over the country, even the world. Photos of the highest mountains in the world adorn the walls and there is a true sense of adventure just being on the grounds.
Sunday was looking as if the mountain would clear and seemed to be our best shot at a summit. The winds on the summit would be the highest on Saturday night reaching 55 mph at their peak but were supposed to calm significantly the next day and by Monday the weather was supposed to be spectacular. Unfortunately Monday was not an option.
Considering our weather window it seemed, at the time, that Saturday was when the worst of the storm would rage, so we made the decision to climb to the Muir shelter at 10,800 feet on Friday, wait out the storm on Saturday, and make our summit attempt on Sunday.
Checking in at the ranger station during heavy downpours, it became obvious that rain gear/hardshell gear was going to be necessary for the ascent.
We left the parking lot at 10:09 a.m and began the long slog up to Camp Muir. With a heavy cloud cover enveloping the mountain it was impossible to see ahead on our route but both myself and my climbing partner Dan had GPS units with specific coordinates plugged in for the trip to Camp Muir.
Just the day before a Ranger had become lost descending from Muir to the Ranger station below in the heavy cloud and fog that encircled the mountain. Although he was fine and found his route, it was a strong indictor of how careful we need to be on this climb.
It wasn’t long on into our ascent that we began to run in to climbing groups descending the mountain with stories of the weather raging above us. As we proceeded higher and higher we continued to run in to more and more climbers soaked and with warnings of what to expect. Guide group after guide group that had turned back due to the awful weather made their way past us.
We considered retreat at this point but we figured we only needed to make it to Muir where we would hunker down and wait it out.
As the elevation grew and we reached Panoramic Point the wind picked up and the rain turned to sleet. I had already soaked through one pair of gloves getting to this point and we still had a ways to go. Beneath Panoroamic Point, I pulled out my goggles, put on some fresh and more hardy gloves and zipped up the jacket to cover my face. Groups descending had told us that this was where our climb would become a real adventure. We continued our climb to the next wave point of Sugar Rock and eventually up to Moon Rocks. We only had the Muir Snowfield to go.
We were about 1000 feet of vertical away from our destination but soaked to the core. We were taking shelter by some rocks and pondering our choices. We could see that we were about to get blasted by very high wind, and we were already wet (I had by this time soaked completely through 3 pairs of gloves) and the visibility was being reduced significantly with every step we took.
The only decision to make was to climb back down. I pondered us pitching a tent and getting another go in the morning but quickly realized my gear was wet and would be frozen in the morning, and that I could not have gone for the summit anyway with wet gloves.
We began our rapid descent as the weather raged above and around us. With poor visibility the GPS units were a god send as it was easy to wander off the boot tracks with the high wind blowing frozen water on to my goggles.
Down climbing with my 50lb pack (full of the food I was supposed to eat up there, full cans of fuel that would have been used to melt snow for drinking, and heavy rain soaked gear and packs, put some intense pressure on my knees. The down climb was miserable!
Getting back to the base of the mountain the rain continued to soak everything including us. We dropped our packs under the awning of the visitor center and soon after loaded our gear in Dan’s truck.
Heading back to Ashford, I had never felt so defeated. While I knew we made the right decision about coming down I couldn’t help second guessing myself on everything we could have maybe done different.
After getting a room, taking a shower, and calling my boyfriend I literally cried in to the phone. This mountain had been such a let down, it had taken months of focus, planning, training, and expense to get to this point only to be shut down in such a harsh way. It was devastating and while I knew the choices made were right I was broken-hearted. I wasn’t ready to be done and needed to find a way to get back on the mountain for another shot.
After eating dinner, drinking a few beers, and a really good nights sleep I woke up with a fresh desire to get back on the mountain as soon as I possibly could. I realized that the mountain was a really good teacher. There should be no arrogance or expectation of a summit on this mountain, all the planning, training and desire in the world can still leave you on your knees. However, the desire will bring me back to do it again.
I learned a very valuable lesson on gear limitations. Rocking the most high tech gear in the world can still leave you soaking wet in conditions like this. Short of wearing a plastic bag there was nothing that would have stopped the soaking that we got. Every climber descending the mountain as we climbed up was soaked head to toe regardless of brand, and regardless of the layers they chose to wear.
I also learned a very valuable lesson about myself. I may get my ass handed to me on a mountain but the challenge and desire to accomplish my goal is always there. I may be humbled but it almost always causes me to come back stronger, and thats the whole point of it for me anyway.
TO BE CONTINUED!