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The Rugged Tramper: Climbing the King of The Cascades

Hey everyone, welcome to another installment of The Rugged Tramper.  It's been one year since I accomplished perhaps one of the most difficult physical and mental challenges of my life - climbing the King of The Cascade Mountains, Mt. Rainier


Mt. Rainier @ 14,411 ft hovers over the dockyards near downtown Seattle.

Mt Rainier is a supervolcano that hulks 14,411 feet over western Washington in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.  It's the highest peak in the Cascade Mountains which includes Mt. Hood, Mt. Baker, Mt. Adams and the infamous Mt. St. Helens, whose eruption on May 18, 1980 claimed 57 lives and devastated millions of acres of its surrounding wilderness.  As far as Rugged Tramper excursions go, it didn't get much tougher than this.  

The majestic lure of Mt. Rainier has been with me since I first visited Seattle in 2001.  I remember crossing Puget Sound by ferry and experiencing the jaw-dropping sensation of seeing the mountain hovering behind the Seattle skyline.  In my native Australia, our highest peak, Mt. Kosciuszko, pales in comparison to Rainier's loftiness at a meagre 7,310 feet.  Since our first meeting, I've had this constant nagging to one day reach its summit.  

Sun sets over Seattle with Mt. Rainier in the background.  This was taken from the Space Needle.

Fast-forward 11 years and I find myself on a cloudy June day in the town of Ashford, basecamp for would-be Rainier climbers.  I joined a climbing team on an RMI (Rainier Mountaineering Inc.)  associated climb.  RMI is founded by the Whittaker brothers, Jim and Lou. Jim Whittaker was the first American to reach the summit of Mt. Everest in 1963 and RMI has since produced notable guides and climbers such as Ed Viesturs - the first American to climb all fourteen 8000-metre peaks without supplemental oxygen.  To cut a long story short, I was in good hands.

Two days were devoted to acquiring the skills necessary to climb the mountain.  It involved learning how to use ice axes, walk and climb in crampons, pressure breathing at high altitude and most importantly, how to self arrest in the case that you or anyone on your rope team should fall.  Our training was conducted in snowy conditions and visibility was limited.  June is still early in the climbing season, so we had to work extra hard on the climb because the route was still covered in snow, and a trail had yet to be blazed.

Feeling the altitude at 17,000 feet during my 2005 climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro

The weather in the days leading up to the climb was a concern.  A huge cloud cap hovered over the summit and climbing parties on the mountain were forced to turn around.  One party did summit and I spoke to one of the climbers from that group.  He was utterly exhausted and wind burnt.  I also spoke to a guy from Atlanta in a bar a few nights prior.  He was nursing his sorrows in several beers having had to turn around because of altitude sickness.  In 2005, I experienced severe altitude sickness on Africa's Mt. Kilimanjaro.  I knew the sickness he experienced and had my concerns as to whether Rainier would throw me the altitude curve-ball as well. 

The day arrived.  We were trained, fit and ready to climb.  Our climb would begin at 5,500 ft in the parking lot of Paradise Inn.  It was miserable.  Rain and wind met us at the trail head, and soon enough, we were kicking our way through the snow.  Our first day of climbing involved a near 5,000 ft ascent of the Muir Snowfield up to Camp Muir at 10,188 feet.  It took about 8 hours.  Around 8,000 feet, we broke above the low-lying clouds to gorgeous sunshine and arrived at Camp Muir around 4 p.m.  Here, we were told to eat, drink and be in bed by 7.30 p.m.  At 2 a.m the following morning, we would begin our final push for the summit.

Breaking the cloud barrier near Camp Muir  10,000 feet

We woke to a crystal clear night.  It looked as though we would get a narrow window of good weather.  The winds were also light, so the cold temperatures would be less severe. The rocky masses of Rainier's upper slopes could be made out in the dark, invoking a mysterious feeling as to what lay ahead.  After putting on our climbing gear, i.e helmets, crampons, ice axes and our heavy-down jackets, we split off into four-man rope teams and began our summit bid by crossing the top of the crevasse-riddled Cowlitz Glacier.  The crevasses weren't the only danger close by.  A notorious rock-fall zone loomed overhead.  Rocks could be heard tumbling, but because it was dark, there was no chance to spot them.  So, as soon as we set off, our climbing adventure well and truly began.

Our biggest obstacle on the way to the summit would be a very steep, highly-exposed ridge of rock called the Disappointment Cleaver.  'The Cleaver' for short, split two of the mountain's largest glaciers - Ingraham Glacier and Emmons Glacier.  I think this part of the climb was on most of our minds.  It was the most technical section and it would test the mountaineering skills we learned over the previous few days. Returning climbers that I spoke to at Base Camp all pointed out the dangers of The Cleaver and stressed how important it was to maintain your vigilance. One slip could put both you and your rope team into a life-threatening situation.

At the top of Ingraham Flats, as we short-roped together, our guides reiterated what I was told by those climbers as we began our ascent of The Cleaver.  I can't recall where I've been so focused on one thing in my life as I climbed step by precarious step up the pitch.  In a way, climbing it in the dark with only my headlamp was good because I couldn't see the nerve-racking, steep exposure on either side of me.  Nonetheless, I knew it was there.  I could feel its eerie emptiness.

Reaching the top of The Cleaver at 12,300 feet was a small victory, but I still knew I had to go back down it in the daylight with all of that exposure in its death-defying glory.  As we proceeded further up the mountain, dawn was beginning to stir and, well, it was a view that really can't be described.    

Sunrise from the top of the Disappointment Cleaver

After witnessing the beautiful sunrise, we now had the task of getting to the summit.  At our final break before the summit push, our guides made a statement - "This is the point of no return.  If you feel too tired here, this is where you stop, because from this point on, it's the summit or bust.  After this point, there's no turning back.  There aren't enough guides to accompany you back down."   

I had to stop and think about this.  The summit, although in sight, still looked far away.  My energy was extremely low.  The altitude wasn't affecting me, but the strenuous nature of the climb was. A foolish decision here could have put not only me but also my rope-team at serious risk. There were several climbers who did have to turn around at the insistence of the guides. They simply became too much of a liability.

This was the turning point of my adventure.  I could have quit here.  I really wanted to.  I was beat.  I'll never forget this point of the climb because it was where I chose not to be defeated by adversity.  This very point of the climb is what I remember most.  It wasn't so much what I remember about being on the summit. It was the decision I made right there at 13,200 ft.  I'll never forget that short few minutes where I had to dig as deep as I ever have within myself, considering all the risks, to find strength.  This has, and always will, remain with me every time I face a difficult decision where quitting is an option.    

The next step I took after those few minutes were in the direction of the summit of Mt. Rainier.  As the hour agonisingly passed by, at 8.03 a.m on June 19, 2012, I stepped onto the summit at 14,411 ft.

Standing on the summit of Mt. Rainier at 14,411 ft. 

It was a feeling of relief rather than elation in reaching the summit.  The elation would come later, but for now, I enjoyed the 50 minute break.  The summit was beautiful.  It was a clear morning with light winds, although the temperature was a chilly 5º F/-15º C.  I had to remind myself that I was standing in the crater of an active volcano.  We were warned not to venture off to certain parts of the crater because of heat and gas emissions. I tried to gain some sustenance in the form of a frozen pizza slice and an energy bar.  I then began preparing myself mentally for the descent.  After all, we still had The Cleaver to negotiate in the day light.  The words of legendary mountaineer Ed Viesturs stuck with me - "Reaching the summit is optional, getting back down is mandatory".  

As we prepared for the descent, my guide asked me if I would like to lead our rope team back down, meaning, how would I feel about leading us down The Cleaver?  I was exhausted, but my pride was quick to answer in the affirmative.  The challenges just kept on coming.  As we stepped off the summit, my mind made a very quick transformation to the descent and keeping the pace of our rope team.  

Descending Mt. Rainier

Descending Mt. Rainier

We reached the top of The Cleaver and took a quick break.  We also discussed the task ahead.  Our guide, Jeff, made a stern yet very simple point - "If there's a part of the mountain where not to f*** up, it's here on The Cleaver".  With that in mind, we short-roped together and I began the pitch down the steep gradient of The Cleaver, taking in the ominous exposure onto Emmons Glacier far below.  My legs were shaking from nerves and exhaustion as I made step after slow, calculated, step, placing the spikes of my crampons in the best place on the rock that I could find.  The guys in my rope team were all on this climb together from Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  Their rolling southern accents provided words of soothing encouragement throughout our little group.  This is where the climb felt more like a team effort rather than an individual effort.

The last section of The Cleaver was perhaps the most difficult.  Although the gradient had leveled out, we were now negotiating a narrow ledge of ice that dropped steeply and immediately to our left.  It was one careful step in front of the next using our ice axes to anchor into the slope to our right side.  I was extremely careful not to catch my crampons on my pants as this would most definitely upset my balance and send me off the ledge. 

As the sun began to beam down, we took our last jubilant step off The Cleaver.  The elation of the climb began to set in as I realised that the most difficult portion was behind us.  The change of mood was perhaps most notable in our guides.  After The Cleaver, they seemed to relax more than we did.  The guides really do take on a huge amount of responsibility and it was good to see their lighter side appear.

Our guides Jeff and Solveig taking a break on the Ingraham Flats after leading us down the Disappointment Cleaver

As we negotiated the last section through Cathedral Gap and across the headwall of Cowlitz Glacier, avoiding the crevasses and the rock-fall zone, the celebrations at Camp Muir began.  High fives, handshakes and hugs brought our group closer together.  The sense of accomplishment radiated from all of our faces.  We rested for a little while, took off our crampons and began the descent back down the Muir Snowfield to Paradise Inn where our van was waiting to transport us back to Base Camp.  Since we set off for the summit at 2 a.m, we had been on-the-go for 14 hours. Sitting wet, tired and sore in the van I could only reflect on what I had achieved.  It was an amazing feeling!  

Over the next 24 hours, I gorged myself on food, enjoyed a slumber on the scale of Rip Van Winkle, and said goodbye to the people who were strangers to me only a few days earlier.  I then returned back up to Paradise Inn for one last look at the mountain.

At the steps where the journey began.

In that 24 hours, I would also learn that a couple of climbers died attempting the summit via a different route.  It was a sobering reminder that mountaineering is indeed a dangerous activity and not to be approached lightly.  I felt for those climbers and their families.  It also reinforced how fortunate I was to have quality, professional guides that made my experience a safe one.  Safety was definitely the number one priority of RMI and I can not praise and endorse their guides enough.

As the year passed, I constantly find myself back on the slopes of Mt. Rainier reliving the amazing experience I had there.  I find that it's a place I can go to whenever I doubt my ability to accomplish something.   It also wills me on to find my next challenge! In August, I will be climbing Mt. Rainier's sister peak, Mt. Adams.  Although less technically challenging and some 1,700 feet shorter, it will be a great experience and I'll get to see Rainier once again from Adams's summit.  

I have to thank my fellow climbing buddy Alan Kirmeier for using some of his photos in this post.  Click here to check out this awesome short video he made of the days leading up to the climb and the climb itself.  According to Alan's video, we climbed over 9,000 vertical feet and burned in excess of 13,000 calories.  Here's also a gallery of more images from the climb and of the surrounding beauty of Mt. Rainier National Park itself.  Although the mountain is the main feature, the park encompasses some absolutely stunning scenery.

 Thanks for stopping by!