Last week marked my first week off since I started work up here in the Northwest nook of the San Juan Islands in Washington. The only way I could best think to spend it was by climbing Mt. Rainier. This is something I’ve had on my bucket list as a mountaineer and as a new resident to the state, it had to happen before the end of summer.
Jeff, an old climbing buddy that I met in New Zealand and ranger in Olympic National Park happened to have the same time off. We began concocting plans to give it a crack–definitely a challenge for two guys who spend the majority of the summer out in the backcountry. Luckily, he was able to snag our permits and the plan was after we had finished our respective work weeks and headed south to meet in the town of Ashford for our climb. Catching the late afternoon ferry from Orcas Island to Anacortes, I climbed to the upper deck and shut my eyes with Snow Falling on Cedars, a novel set in the San Juans still on my chest.
Arriving around midnight, we were tuckered out from long days at work followed and the drive that followed and passed out in Rainier National Park shortly after meeting in town. I suprisingly slept really well, despite the itch to climb.
The following morning, we woke up and had some breakfast and tea and headed up to Paradise at 5,400 feet (the main parking lot and base area of Rainier) to snag our permits. After some bag packing and getting our climbing gear dialed, we blitzed up to our high camp at Camp Muir. At around 7,500 feet the clouds broke. Glancing sun on the snow warmed our faces and we hiked in t shirts, with views of Mt. Adams to the south. As we hiked upwards, the jagged ice sculptures of the upper Nisqually came closer into view. Arriving at Muir, we set up camp, had some tea and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon. An early dinner of some whole wheat pasta and veggies and a prolonged sunset put us at ease for our evening climb. Tucking into the tent around 9pm, I knew it would be a short rest and I’m not sure whether or not I actually slept.
At 11:15 pm we woke up to stars and began getting dressed sleepily yet excited for our summit bid. Crazy? Yes, but we were driven to beat the guided groups and summit first. Jingling gear on our harnesses as we put them on and roped up shook off some of the sleep for me and helped to transform nervousness and uncertainty into excitement.
Ascending from Camp Muir, we headed up rock talus to the Ingraham Glacier in total darkness. Black sky and white stars surrounded us above, and the snow glowed eerily. At the upper end of the Ingraham Flats, we encountered a few jumpable crevasses. Making sure to be calculated with our route in the middle of the night, we swiveled our heads back and forth–our headlamps were like searchlights for dangerous ice features and cracks.
Hopping on the Disappointment Cleaver, we climbed from ice to rock and continued our ascent. Our crampons clattered over rock as we coiled our rope in to keep it from dragging. It seemed like minutes had gone by, and before we knew it we were at 12,600 feet, above the cleaver. Watching the guided groups below us, their rope teams and headlamps made them look like bioluminescent fire worms ascending the white slopes towards us.
After the “DC,” the real ascending begins. The berchsgrund and seracs made for an exciting last few hours as we chugged up and up. At around 4:45am, the sun began to show first light and by 5, the scene became a low golden tone glow of warmth, pushing us the extra distance. I found myself baffled by the fact that I had spent all summer at sea level and was now above 13,000 feet on Mt. Rainier, experiencing a sunrise that I’ve seen many days this summer in Washington on the ocean from a high alpine wonderland.
Cresting our climb, we were almost to the top. The last few hundred feet were across the Columbia Crest, the crater of Mt. Rainier’s summit, which is a volcano. On top, it was really cold and we hunkered down near the summit log. The wind was whipping. Jeff took out some Rainier summit beers we had each brought up, and we shared a Snickers bar. We both enjoyed a solid half hour of quiet on the top. We had beaten the guided groups and gotten our prize: some peace and quiet at the top of Rainier.
Heading to the true summit, I took out some prayer flags I had gotten earlier in the year while I was in Nepal. We enjoyed the view, took a few summit photos with Mt. Adams in the background and then decided it was time to start our descent.
It was like a completely different mountain on the way down. Features that had been veiled in darkness appeared all around us. We heard rockfall coming from towards the Gibraltar Ledges as the sun became warmer and we increased our speed. Cruising down, we stopped briefly by Muir to melt some water and then continued on down to Paradise. Fortunately, we shaved some walking by being able to glissade and slide down snow fields on our butts.
Wildflowers of all sorts abounded as we left the snow and sheer alpine environment behind. Bright red and pink Indian Paintbrush and Lupine dotted what will be seered in my memory as the best contrasting mountain imagery I have ever seen. I had lived in Colorado for four years for college and had seen my fair share of wildflowers, but never had I seen the contrast of vibrant color, white ice and blue sky like that day on Rainier.