Monday, May 23, 2016

Road to Denali, part 17: Mt. Rainier

In order to be as prepared as possible for our trip to Denali, this past weekend Derek and I practiced flying into Seattle, as we’ll connect there en route to Denali via Anchorage and Talkeetna. Actually, we bought tickets a month ago for a quick shot at climbing Rainier as a final tune-up for the High One. The day before we left the weather report was dismal and would stay that way throughout the weekend. We were sure, well 95% sure, that we wouldn’t go above Camp Muir at 10,200 feet and probably not get that far.

Mt. Rainier is an awe-inspiring mountain. It’s absolutely massive. There is nothing remotely close to this mountain in Colorado or anywhere else in the lower 48 states. It harbors more glaciers than the rest of the country, minus Alaska, combined. The highest you can drive on this mountain is Paradise at 5400 feet. Rainier is 14,410 feet high. Mount Rainier has a prominence of 13,211 ft.  This makes it the most prominent peak in the contiguous United States, and the 21st most prominent peak in the world, beating out K2.

Despite all this, Rainier is a baby brother to Denali. Denali is the 3rd most prominent peak in the world, behind only Everest and Aconcagua. Denali almost beyond imagining, but Rainier offers similar climbing, albeit on a smaller, lower scale. But the mountains and the weather decide who gains the top, much more so than the climbers themselves, and we appeared to be out of luck.

It wasn’t just the allure of Rainier, though. We had an ace in the hole: The Loobster. My longtime partner lived in Portland just 2.5 hours south of Rainier and he was game to act as our chauffeur  and guide. The fact that the Loobster was just a couple days short of 73 years old didn’t concern us in the slightest. As you’ll see, if you don’t already know, the Loobster is a bad ass.

I’ve been climbing with the Loobster for nearly 30 years. He was in my wedding. I love this guy. Many of my most significant climbs have been with him and certainly many of my favorite outings. He’s unflappable, always positive, and a great story teller. Most of all, he embodies what I value most in a partner: he’s all about the team. Once you leave the car, there is no “your food” or “my water”. Everything is ours. Everything. If a team member has screwed up and not brought enough food or clothes, that sucks and he can be chided, but now the team has less food or clothes, not that member.

The day before we flew out was Derek’s high school graduation. Derek graduated summa cum laude with a GPA of 4.7 and was voted Male Athlete of the Year. His sport? Tennis. Here's the text of the Athletic Director's announcement at the award ceremony:
I get the honor of announcing our next award: The Female and Male Monarch Athletes of The Year. This award goes to the seniors who had excellent senior seasons, exceptional athletic accomplishments while at Monarch combined a high level of integrity and strong academic achievement. This award is voted on by the head coaches from our 23 athletic programs. Our Male Athlete of the Year was named a National Merit Finalist and Boettcher scholarship semifinalist this year. He is a 4 year varsity tennis letter winner and a four time state tennis tournament qualifier. Competing at the very tough #1 singles position he finished in the top 6 at state and earned 1st team all league honors his senior season. He earned 1st Team All State All Academic honors his sophomore, junior and senior seasons plus was named Most Valuable Player by the tennis team his sophomore, junior and senior years. He is a member of the National Honor Society and was awarded the prestigious Freemason Best Junior Scholar Award. He will graduate with a glaring 4.7 GPA and attend the University of Colorado in the Fall. Our 2016 Male Athlete of the Year is Derek Wright.
The Athletic Director/Assistant Principal also wrote us this email:
I was thrilled that Derek won this award. You have done a great job raising such a wonderful young man. He is a just the type of student athlete we love representing our school and community. 

Three weeks before our Alaskan departure, I got cold feet. Literally. I had huge down mitts and chemical heaters for my hands. I had a monstrous down jacket and even down bibs. I was confident I could keep everything warm, except my feet. My feet are a problem. They have the toughness of a first grade girl. Yet, I needed them to take me to the summit of Denali. In my panic I decided to buy the La Sportiva Olympus Mons - widely considered the warmest mountaineering boots on the planet. Actually, the solar system, since they are named after the highest peak in the solar system - the 70,000-foot giant volcano of Mars, where it gets to -200 degrees. Heck, if they can protect climbers on Olympus Mons they should be able to take care of my sissy feet in mere -40 temperatures. Right? I’m sure I’m not drawing incorrect conclusions from the name of the boot. In fact, I think Matt Damon was wearing these in his latest movie.
Learning how to set up a 3:1 pulley
These boots have one very significant drawback (besides their exorbitant cost). In order to keep the boot warm and light, they have very soft soles. So soft that they cannot be used on rocks. They need to have a crampon or a ski on the bottom of the boot. This makes it a very impractical boot for most of the climbing I do in Colorado, even in winter. Alas, I wanted the extra insurance on Denali. La Sportiva was kind enough to give me a deal on the boots, but I needed to test them out before heading to Alaska. Where can you do that?

Driving to Rainier
Loobster picked us up at the Sea-Tac airport and, after getting a humungous breakfast at McDonald's, we drove out to Mt. Rainier National Park. The weather on the drive and at the park was overcast and drizzling. Rainier once held the record for most snow in a 12-month period, 97 feet! You don't get that much snow and have many clear days. The weather report at the climbing ranger station was just as bleak as we expected. Motivation was pretty low for slogging around in the fog and not climbing anything, but that isn't a surprise. I'm never very motivated for that.

We decided to practice our crevasse rescue techniques and, using this great book, we worked things out in the lobby of the visitor center. We were quite the sight with our ropes, pulleys, ascenders, prussiks. We "anchored" our rope to a table leg and tried to hoist a chair across the floor. Once we thought we knew what we were doing we geared up and headed out into the mist and snow.

In order to get at least some exercise I decided we'd randomly hike up 1000 feet before trying our techniques. We wouldn't be on a glacier and just be out in the snow, but at least we'd have our gloves on, using a full-length rope, and our pickets. We "belayed" ourselves with our ascenders as we moved up to prepare the lip of the crevasse and set up our 3:1 pulley system. I ran through it a couple of times and then Derek did as well. Sufficiently wet and hungry, we packed up and headed down the mountain, just making it to the cafeteria there before it closed.

Afterwards we were going to put up a tent in the rain in the soggy campground, but it just didn't appeal to us. We decided to head to the Whittacker Bunkhouse outside the park, but then, on the spur of the moment, stopped at the lodge directly outside the park boundary. They had a room for us with two beds, a big TV, wifi, etc. We stopped there and relaxed. Our plan was to go up to Camp Muir tomorrow and just get in some exercise. Loobster was even more tired than Derek and I and he went to bed at 7:30 p.m.. I fell asleep around 8:30 and Derek at 9:30.

The next morning we were up at 5 a.m. and packing for Camp Muir. We had some coffee and breakfast in the room, packed the car, and headed back into the Park. At the ranger station we learned that it was blue skis above 10,000 feet at Camp Muir and we decided to buy climbing passes ($46/each to go above Camp Muir) just in case it was nice the following day as well. Heavily loaded, we headed up into the soup around 8 a.m.
Heading up to Camp Muir
We followed a heavily beaten track of footprints in the snow. I was in the lead, though the Loobster should have been for after an hour or so, we seemed to be lost. The tracks headed off to the left and down, but there was a couple of crossed wands that seemed to indicate that wasn't the way. A couple of young guys had passed a bit earlier and they stopped here, as confused as us. Loobster consulted his GPS and said we were already too far to the left. We followed tracks that went steeply uphill and then disappeared, probably because they came back down, like we did. We had two choices reverse further or follow the tracks left and down. We chose the latter and it was wrong and it sucked to descend.
A rare instant when we could see some rocks.
Pretty soon, though, we came across a huge group of climbers with all their ropes laid out. It was the RMG (Rainier Mountain Guides) mountaineering training class. They were about to head out onto the Nisqually Glacier and practice crevasse rescue. They pointed us toward the steep snow covered ridge back to our right. We caught a glimpse of it before we were enveloped is a 100% pure white-out. The only indication I had that I was going uphill was effort. It was disorienting. I'd been in those conditions before, but maybe only once is such a pure white-out. There was no change in whiteness from sky to snow. We could see each other and our boots, but absolutely nothing else.
Inside the public hut
We tromped up the long climb and eventually hit the ridge. We saw some rocks here, which helped orient us. Then we found a wand and another and another and then nothing. There were no tracks here, but there were the wands. Did wind and snow obliterate the tracks. I stayed at one wand while Derek and Loobster forged ahead looking for the next one. Just then a big group of skiers caught us. They seemed to know the way and we fell in with them for the rest of the way to Camp Muir. Visibility occasionally was better, but it was mostly done in near white-out conditions.
When I showed this photo to my wife she started laughing. I look like a hobbit between these two, despite being the tallest
The skiers were all from the CU alpine club. They were led by a "Big Mountain Skier" coach. They were doing a training day and then would do glacier school and then head up Rainier. We chatted with them quite a bit. The guide had done Denali! Cool.

It was a brutal, tiring slog to Camp Muir - 5000 feet of climbing with heavy packs. A thousand feet before camp, Derek broke his backpack. That sucked, but better here than on Denali in two weeks.
Just two hundred feet below Camp Muir, we burst out of the clouds into brilliant sunshine and clear skis. A slight breeze and cold temperatures kept our jackets on, but the weather was glorious and we prayed it would continue for another day. At Camp Muir there are many buildings. It's like a small town up there. You've got the gated community on the west, where the guides and their clients stay and then a public housing hut, next to the three outhouses, on the east. We found the public hut was mostly empty - everyone was heading down save for three French Canadiens: Sebastian, Leo, and Sebastian. They had summitted today in these perfect conditions and they'd soon be our saviors.

It was around 2 p.m. when we got there and we were soaked with sweat from the conditions and our effort, we all laid down in our bags soon after arriving, to rest and warm ourselves. None of us had brought a change of base layer. We got up an hour or so later and when I went to melt some snow I discovered that we didn't have a pump in our bottle. We brought our stove, but Loobster's spare bottle. We originally planned to bring two stoves and hence, I had to have my pump with me, but I just forgot it, as we keep the pump in our bottle all the time. When Loobster handed me his spare bottle when we were packing up I failed to notice that it had no pump in it. We had no way to melt snow and no therefore no way to get any liquid. We'd survive the night and could probably get down, but there was no way we could go up. At least until Sebastian came to our rescue. He graciously allowed us to use his stove for hours that evening. We ate and drank and filled every container we had, including our pot, so that we'd have enough water for the climb and the descent afterwards.
We packed up our gear for the next day, assuming it would be clear. Derek would just wear the top lid of his pack, which converts into a fanny pack. We set the alarm for 1:20 a.m. and laid down to sleep by 9 p.m. The Loobster got up first and checked the sky. When he reported stars everywhere, Derek and I started getting dressed. I made a cup of hot chocolate and we forced down some food. We fell into line behind three guided groups just after 2 a.m.
At the top of the Cathedral Gap
I thought that the guides might be gruff and possessive of this route, for they were the ones that had scouted it, beaten out the track, wanded it, and even fixed some pickets and stashed rescue rope. Yet, they were all very friendly and very accommodating. One guide told us where we could pass and we went by two of the three parties. Further up a client's crampon fell off and the guide immediately moved the team off the track so that we could easily go by. They even offered friendly advice on the right distance between us up high, even being patronizing and always being helpful.

We were roped together from the Muir Hut to the summit and back as almost all of this terrain is on heavily crevassed glaciers. We first followed a rising traverse across the Cowlitz Glacier to something called Cathedral Gap. This allowed us to breach a rock rib and gain the Ingraham Glacier. From here we climbed up and then right to a flatish area known as Ingraham Flats. This is the high camp for some climbers and indeed a couple of guided groups had camped there. We could now see them ahead of us, high on the Cleaver. The guided parties stop to take a greak here, at 11,200 feet, and they'd take two more breaks at roughly 1000-vertical-foot intervals. We'd put some distance between them, as we continued across the glacier and onto the Disappoinment Cleaver.

The Cleaver is a giant rib of rock that protrudes from the Glacier and allows safer passage up the mountain then the icefall on the Ingraham. The icefall route is called the Ingraham Direct and is frequently climbed as well. We opted to follow the heavily beaten track though.

The climbing on the Cleaver was mostly 2nd and 3rd class rock with some sections of hard snow. We moved slowly here, with too much rope out and the Loobster seemed to be fading a bit. We took a break near the top of the rock section and three guided parties went by us. We fell in behind them, now back on the glacier, and when they took a break at the crest above, we stopped briefly as well. The Loobster felt whipped and said that he was thinking of letting Derek and I continue without him. I knew the only reason he said this was because he felt he was slowing us down. If he was with his normal partners, he'd have been the strongest and stopping would have been the last thing on his mind. The weather was perfect. Conditions were perfect. There was no way we'd leave the Loobster behind.

I'd been leading up to this point, but I now urged the Loobster to take the lead and set our pace. He did and lead us clear to the crater rim on the summit. We got in front of the guided parties for good here, so our pace was plenty fast enough. The Loobster is an animal. I used to look up to him as inspiration for my older years - that I too could still be climbing when I was his age. As we've both gotten older, he doesn't seem to slow down, but I'm on a steady slide. I no longer think I'll be able to match is fitness and productivity when I get to his age. He climbed Rainier faster than all the guided 20-somethings and 30-somethings. I thought about this as I took the back end of the rope and knew without any doubt that I was the most medicore athlete on this team. I was humbled to be able to climb with such partners.

The climbing above was steep at times and even had to descend steeply at one point to get around a monstrous crevasse. Derek had never been in such a position before, but he was reveling in it. He wasn't intimidated in the slightest and was loving the position. As the sun started to rise we could see a solid sea of clouds below us. We could see a long way, but couldn't see much but clouds. Mt. Adams (2nd highest peak in Washington) to the south looked impressive and nearly as high as Rainier, though I knew it to be more than 2000 feet lower.
A bit chilly at this point, but it would get very warm.
We finally gained the crater rim at the top and true summit was just two hundred feet higher on the far rim. Loobster told us that most teams unrope for this section and we should have done that, but we just get going, tied together. A short ways over to the summit, the Loobster decided to untie, as he was once again worried about making us climb slower. This time we didn't resist and I led the way to the summit. As I neared the top, I could hear and feel Derek close the gap behind me. He had a lot left and wanted me to know it. I was proud of how strong he was. I couldn't have moved that fast.
Derek on the summit with Liberty Point (one of three summits over 14,000 feet) in the background
We hugged on the summit and a photo frenzy ensued. We even called Sheri and talked with her for quite awhile. My phone only worked on the summit, but it was a nice perk. The Loobster joined us and we took more photos. We coiled the rope here and carried it back down to the other rim. The Loobster laid down here to rest, eat and drink. A guided client was having altitude problems and a female guide was staying with hiim. I told her about our Denali plans and she said she was flying into the Kahiltna just a few days before we were. She also said that the Loobster was the oldest person she'd ever seen on Rainier and was duly impressed with this speed.
The team on the summit
After a good break we started down. The night before we discussed our timetable. We had a flight out that night at 8 p.m. To make that flight I figured we'd have to be driving by 3 p.m. Derek asked that night if we'd have a turn-around time, in order to ensure we made the flight. I said, "No. If the weather is good, we're climbing this peak. We'll deal with the missed flight later." But now, we'd made thes summit and the question was would we make the flight.
On the descent at Ingraham Flats
We got to the top  around 8 a.m. but didn't start down until 8:45 or later. The Loobster once again led the way. With full sun we started to get really warm. The views were so spectacular now that we could see all the crevasses more clearly. We moved steadily with only one brief break at Ingraham Flats to adjust my right boot, which was killing my lower leg. I don't know why and I still don't know why, but it appears to be better now. I'm going with the boots on Denali and will manage.

We got back to the hut at 11:40 a.m. I immediately stripped off my right boot for the pain was significant. Then we all got to work packing up our gear. It had taken us 5.5 hours to get up here and in our current state, with my boot pain, I wondered if we'd make it. We were packed and heading down by 12:25 p.m. My originally plan had us leaving here by noon. I didn't worry about the flight so much as I was more concerned about my pain.

Just a couple hundred feet below the hut, we entered the shite-out conditions once again. Derek and I were moving pretty quickly and after only fifteen minutes or so the Loobster said, "I won't be able to keep up with you two. Here, take my car keys." I responded, "Loobster, we can't see a hundred feet in this soup. We are not splitting up. We'll slow down." And we did. A bit. Derek started to have some knee pain and he descended with increasing pain, as my leg pain subsided somewhat. After an hour the Loobster said we were at 7600 feet. It seemed like we'd come down a lot less than that, so it was a great boost to our spirits. We ended up doing the descent in just under two hours and arrived at the car in the same light rain that we'd left in yesterday.

Once again we were soaked. We took our travel clothes and headed for the visitor center lobby, AKA the crevasse-rescue classroom. We stripped off our drenched layers and changed into dry street clothes. It felt glorious. We were driving out of the parking lot at 2:50 p.m. and easily made our flight.

We arrived thinking we had 5% chance of climbing this mountain and left with the summit. We were elated. At least Derek can say he's climbed Rainier when the climbing rangers on Denali ask about his experience. We leave in twelve days.


Gayla Wright said...

Incredible journey,!!! Thank heaven for the wonderful climbers you met along the way. On to Danali.

Charlie said...

Sweet, congrats! Denali here we come!