My next “big” event was Ironman Cozumel, but I had some other adventures to conquer along the way. One of which included climbing Mt. Rainier in Washington. Mt. Rainier is an active volcano that towers 14, 410 feet above sea level and is the highest peak in the Cascade Range.
Our plan was to climb the Disappointment Cleaver route 6.5 miles from the Paradise Visitor Center to the summit in June of 2014. We had a big crew with us: Dan, Brandon, Wes, Lexi, Brian, Michelle, Ellen, and me.
Lexi and I flew into Seattle, WA on Wednesday, June 25th, 2014. As we flew over Washington, we could see a cloud halo surrounding Rainier. It’s a pretty majestic sight to see. Ellen picked us up at the airport and we drove to Whitaker, WA to meet the rest of the crew. Due to rain in the forecast, we booked a conference room at the Nisqually Lodge. It was the perfect space for gear check.
Rain and snow remained in the forecast as we made our way to the Paradise Visitor Center in Mt. Rainier National Park to check into the ranger station. It was June 26th, but it was fairly chilly at 5,400 ft. We prepped our backpacks, took a few pictures and began the trek to Camp Muir. It was pea soup at this point, no views, but everyone was in good spirits.
The hike to Camp Muir is a pretty stout climb; the trail gains 4,000 feet of elevation over 4 miles. We stopped about every hour to rest and refuel. We needed to conserve our energy for the summit push.
Around 3:30 pm we reached Camp Muir, a welcome sight. Again, no views; we were socked in the clouds. Weather is always a limiting factor. About an hour later, there was a little break and we could see Cowlitz Glacier and Cathedral Peak. Cathedral Peak looked a little sketchy from where we stood – a narrow, rock scramble.
Around 5 pm, I started feeling very lethargic, cold and nauseous at camp. Brian gave me two warm water bottles to put in my bright pink puffy down jacket. The nalgenes kept me warm. If the sun came out, my fluorescent pink down would be even warmer. That thing was bright!
We melted snow for water (which took FOREVER) and refueled and rested to prepare for the summit attempt in a few hours. My lukewarm beef stroganoff was not quite a gourmet meal, but it was close. Ok, I lied. Not even close, but it was fuel.
I laid down around 7:30 pm or so and plugged into my music to rest before the summit bid.
I cannot describe how nervous I was; my heart pounded in my chest. I’ve never had a panic attack, but I imagine I was close to having one. I focused on my music and my breathing. I read an excerpt from Jesus Calling that Lexi brought with her: “Rest with Me a while. You have journeyed up a steep, rugged path in recent days. The way ahead is shrouded in uncertainty. Look neither behind you nor before you. Instead, focus your attention on Me, your constant Companion. Trust that I will equip you fully for whatever awaits you on your journey.” It was very appropriate for the situation and calmed my nerves to some degree. I remember thinking that I might not come back from this adventure. Mind you, I had NO idea what I was getting myself into and I had no technical training. Unless you count perusing YouTube videos and then “practicing” self-arrest techniques in the 90 degree summer heat of Nashville, TN (in the grass) as technical training. Which I don’t. Because it’s not.
At 10:30 pm, we got out of our sleeping bags in the Camp Muir hut and prepared for the summit bid. I never fell asleep.
It was clear right before we left Camp Muir; we could see the stars. Perhaps the weather would hold. We had a narrow weather window and decided to take a shot at the summit. The forecast predicted worsening conditions over the next several days.
Time to put all my fears aside, it was go-time. Even without any sleep, I felt wide awake. Adrenalin is a great drug.
Dan and Brian were on my rope team. As Dan led the way across the Cowlitz Glacier, it started to snow and the wind gained strength. We reached Cathedral Rock and took a short break. It was very cold as the wind whipped around us.
Beyond Cathedral Rock and 1 mile from Camp Muir was Ingraham Flats. Rope on the downhill and ice axe on the uphill. We walked over snow bridges where crevasses lurked underneath, a few feet below the surface. Or so Dan told me. I couldn’t really tell, honestly it all just looked like snow to me.
Past Ingraham Flats the trail narrowed significantly. One of my mountaineering boots took up the width of the trail, so I steadily placed one foot directly in front of the other. I began to pray. For health, good weather, and good judgment. There was a huge, black hole to the right of us. While I didn’t stare directly at it–it was the dead of night and low visibility–I could feel the emptiness. Just focus, Haley. Focus.
Suddenly, we took a sharp left turn and the trail went vertical. Okay, not ice climbing vertical, but it felt pretty damn steep. It was probably a 35 to 45 degree incline. So for a newbie like me, it was vertical. The wind was howling and a steady flurry of snow swirled around me. I was on 4 points, utilizing my feet and my hands, as I struggled up the mountain. I couldn’t tell how far we had gone or how far we had to go. I was trying to keep up with Dan. I could feel another darkness to my right. We were on the edge of Disappointment Cleaver. There was no room for error. I’m so glad I did calf raises as part of my training; my calves were on fire!
It seemed like an eternity, but we finally made it to the top of Disappointment Cleaver, mile 5.6. Holy shit. That was a little scary. I collapsed on the snowy ground. I tried to refuel; my water in my Camel Bak had frozen. Suddenly, I felt nauseous. I got sick. And then I got sick again. Great.
Where was the second rope team? Ellen, Michelle, Lexi, and Brandon were behind us. After about 10 minutes or so, they appeared. We discussed the next steps. The weather wasn’t going to break; there would be no view at the top. Folks were tired, I was still nauseous; it was time to turn around. Alas, it was not to be.
I felt relieved. There was no need to continue on at this point. We began to make our way down the trail and were approaching the top of Disappointment Cleaver. I was really nervous about descending on the steep section. Just as we reached the steep part, we saw headlights zigzagging off to the right. Switchbacks! Another team was making their way up the mountain. An easier route! Thank goodness we saw them when we did. We wisely decided to descend via the switchbacks.
Wind and snow encircled us. I could see the lip of a crevasse as we crossed a snow bridge. It was early enough in the season that the snow bridges were pretty solid; however, there was no lingering. Dan made sure of that.
My goggles froze over and then I had to pee. Like really bad. This is when being a girl sucks. It was freaking cold and freaking windy and I was on a rope attached to two dudes and I had to figure out how to pee with this stupid harness.
Thankfully, I had practiced using my Go Girl (a.k.a “Chick Dick”) prior to coming on the trip. I won’t go into detail, but it is essentially a pee funnel that helps the girl go like a dude. It’s one thing to practice at home, but completely different out in the field. It sort of worked… Glad I had my hand sanitizer. I have room for improvement to say the least.
The sun was rising as we descended to the Camp Muir hut at 4:30 am. We hiked in complete darkness for the entirety of the hike to the top of Disappointment Cleaver and back to Camp Muir, so we missed the beauty of the glacier world around us. At that point, I didn’t care. Why do I do this? I was wet, exhausted, and shivering uncontrollably. I fell into my sleeping bag and continued to shake. I didn’t have the energy to change into dry clothes.
But, it was over. We were safe in the hut.
The weather turned even shittier. We decided to sleep a few hours at Camp Muir and then head down the mountain to the Paradise Visitor Center. We hiked 11 miles of the 13 mile round trip route and made it to just under 12,000 vertical feet before turning around.
I cannot tell you how amazing it felt to get off the mountain, take off my soaking wet clothes and drink a cold beer. We were out.
A few takeaways:
- Be prepared. I should have taken an alpine course prior to this trip. (Lexi and I have since taken an alpine course from American Alpine Institute in Washington. I highly recommend them and so does Dan!)
- Take time to acclimate. I should have rested a day or so at Camp Muir. Weather was working against us though.
- Use a Nalgene instead of a Camel Bak at altitude. My tube froze.
- Bring earplugs. We stayed in the hut and the guy next to me snored like a freight train. A very loud, horn-blaring freight train.
- It was not to be. We turned around. I don’t care. It was the right decision. As Ed Viesturs says, “Making the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”
- Seattle Duck Tours are awesome. Thanks Dan!
I got off the mountain thinking I was done with mountaineering. My first experience was pretty intense and surreal. After a good night’s rest and a meal, though, I changed my mind. I was hungry for the views that were within my grasp, but unfortunately not my sight. I have unfinished business on Rainier.
Another Ed Viesturs quote:
“You can live a life so sheltered that when you’re old and gray, all you can claim is to have lived long enough to become old. That’s not my way.”
True that, Ed. True that.