Climbing Mount Rainier
by Steve Bragg
Our original intent in climbing Rainier was to attempt Liberty Ridge, one of the more difficult climbs in North America. However, on the evening before we were to depart for Washington in May of 1988, news arrived that three climbers had died on Liberty Ridge that day. Upon our arrival at Rainier's Paradise ranger station, we learned that the group had fallen four thousand feet down the ridge. Their bodies had been fished out by a helicopter, which hooked onto their climbing rope and pulled their bodies from an avalanche chute. The ranger also mentioned that a front was moving in, and was expected to arrive in one day. We had 24 hours to climb Rainier, which was normally a two or three day ascent. Liberty Ridge didn't look too promising, both because of the deaths and the long backpack into the base of the route (the road to Liberty Ridge is snowed in until early July, and is fifteen miles long).
Consequently, we decided to start from the ranger station at Paradise Park (at 5,557 feet) and ascend via the Disappointment Cleaver route, the standard way to climb Rainier. The route starts at the Paradise ranger station, which can be reached from the southwestern Nisqually entrance to the park. To reach the park entrance, take Route 7 south from Tacoma. Upon reaching the town of Elbe, take Route 706 east to the park entrance.
Digging into the trunk of our Chrysler Fifth Avenue rental car, we spread out an enormous pile of equipment on the tarmac, much admired by passing tourists, and culled out the specialized technical equipment we'd brought for Liberty Ridge. Having thus reduced the weight to be carried to perhaps 40 pounds, we shouldered our packs at 7 p.m. and trudged up the gradual, mushy snow slope toward Rainier, looming in the distance. We had to travel 9,000 vertical feet and 18 miles through heavy snow in one day.
We hiked through low angle snow for several miles. The snow depth was never sufficient to require our donning snowshoes, so we carried them in one hand. Rainier gleamed bright above us. We saw the minute figures of climbers coming down the ridge we were headed towards. As they passed us, we heard many stories of successful ascents; the weather was good, and it was hard to miss bagging the summit under such fine conditions.
The sunlight dimmed as evening came on, spreading lengthening shadows over our route. We stopped several times to don clothes as the temperature dropped. A searching breeze awoke and fingered our clothing, causing an occasional shiver. A faint cloud cap began to form over the summit of Rainier.
The sunlight disappeared, leaving a pale glow on the peak. Muir Camp, our destination for the evening, was nowhere in sight, so we decided to set up camp at 10 p.m. in a relatively flat spot amongst a cluster of boulders. Our tent was a Chouinard Megamid, a single-pole tent with no floor, really just a bivouac shelter.
Looking like Indians shuffling through a rain dance, we stomped down the snow to create a stable floor and pitched the tent over this space, packing snow around the edges to keep the cold fingers of the wind from entering. I looked around before following Paul inside. The wind was picking up, and thin clouds were forming over the summit. The main mass of the peak piled up into the heavens, glacier upon glacier, merging into the night.
Inside, the tent was distinctly uncomfortable. My sleeping pad rested on an uneven surface that developed potholes during the night, into which my body slid. The tent pole was planted where my belly button should have been, so I curled around it as best I could. In addition, the tent was not long enough, and the foot of my sleeping bag soon pushed out under the tent, exposing it to the elements. The weather did not wait long to make its presence felt; the wind picked up, rattling the tent fabric.
For the next six hours I restlessly moved about within the sleeping bag, sliding out of the least uncomfortable sleeping positions and being startled awake by the booming rattle of the tent fabric. The shaking of the tent grew worse as the night progressed. Even though we were situated in a safe, flat area, the noise made by the fabric sounded just like an approaching avalanche. More than once, I sat straight up, eyes wide open and staring, certain that we were about to be smothered by tons of rushing snow.
A lightning storm erupted after midnight. The interior of the tent flared bright as lightning streaked above us. I was acutely aware that I was curled around the only lightning rod within miles. At one point I opened the flap and beheld a night black as pitch, violently interrupted by lurid red flashes as the lightning sparked.
Paul remained silent and unmoving as a log throughout this episode. At 3 a.m., he woke up and began to boil water for our water bottles. I hadn't slept all night, but managed a few minutes of napping with the comforting purr of the stove near my head. The tent still banged and shook to the onrush of the wind.
We were uncertain whether continuing up would be a good idea, and waited until 4 a.m. to see if the weather would improve. It did not. We decided to continue anyway. We flattened the tent and packed minimal supplies for what looked like a long day. The trail headed upward at a low angle. I led, head down, into a penetrating wind, nose dripping from the cold. The path ascended through a wide expanse of packed snow, through which boulders cropped up in short ridges.
After an hour, we came to Muir Camp at 10,188 feet. A small hut, exclusively for the use of Rainier Mountaineering clients, was situated to the left of the path. Elsewhere, tents were perched on platforms carved from the snow. The camp was not large, since level camping spots were in short supply. A bowl-shaped depression ate into the further boundaries of the camp, effectively limiting camping spots.
The area was nearly empty; everyone must have gone on ahead of us. We tramped through in silence and traversed around the left side of the bowl. Small cracks appeared in the snow, the first sign of crevasses.
We cut through a steep gap in the Cathedral Rocks, a sharp spine cleaving the glacier, slicing sharply down the mountain. Upon reaching the top of the gap, we looked out upon the jumbled expanse of the Ingraham Glacier ahead and to the right. Luckily, we were heading left, away from the gaping crevasses of the glacier. Traveling now up the east side of the peak, we stopped to rope up and take pictures of the sun rising through a wrack ofclouds flying overhead, spinning away from the summit. A stinging breeze began to swirl about us.
Traversing to the right through heavy snow, we noticed a line of people coming back down. Paul was in the lead, and they clustered about him like bees, gesticulating. This was a Rainier Mountaineering group climb, and the guide had decided to turn back. He told us that we were facing strong winds and poor visibility at the top of a steep slope that lay around the corner. The group went past us. It was time to talk.
"That guide has probably climbed this peak a hundred times. If he think's it's dangerous, we should turn around. On the other hand, we've come a long ways to climb this thing; turning around is easier for locals than for us, since they can drive back here next weekend. I think we should keep going and reevaluate every few minutes. That way, the only real danger is of having the clouds descend, which might cover our tracks."
We decided to push on. I took the lead, and followed the well-beaten path created by the Rainier Mountaineering group, which they had now trodden upon twice, both in going up and in coming back.
We circled around a corner and came to a steep snow-covered slope. The cloud cover looming above it was a dark gray. A distant roaring of wind, as of frieght trains passing, sounded from high above. Down here in the lee of the mountain, there was no wind. I set off up the slope, following a zig-zag line of marker wands. The path was gone, since I'd passed the Rainier Mountaineering group's high point. I churned through snow up to my knees, stopping frequently for breath. Paul switched over to the lead partway up the slope, cutting a path like an icebreaker while I rested in the rear. As we ascended, the clouds tore past close overhead, mottled clumps spinning about. Always, the rushing sound of the wind, like a surf continually breaking drew nearer. I began to wonder just what in hell we were doing in this place.
We climbed over the brink of the slope and were assailed by a strong, steady surge of wind coming right at us. The wind's force pressed my goggles relentlessly down on my nose. The overall effect of the blast was of a large hand pressing against my midsection, pushing me back.
Immediately ahead, a great cloud cap sat upon the summit cone. We stopped on the fringes of the swirling mass. Ahead was a wasteland of howling whiteness. Far below, partially cut off by the snippets of clouds shooting past, lay the brown and green fields of Washington, climbing onto the snow-laced knees of Rainier. My camera, hanging in its harness outside my parka, was covered with rime ice. I stored it in my backpack.
I was leading. The thought of local mountain guides turning back while we ascended lay in the back of my mind, along with the deaths of the three climbers. Nonetheless, we did not seriously consider the option of halting - yet. I bent over into the wind and forced a way upwards, trying to stay aware of changes in the weather and of any physical weakening on my part. Paul looked strong, as always.
Small marker wands were driven into the snow every fifty yards, though the path leading from one to the next had long since been scoured clean by the wrath of the gale. I halted at each marker, peering ahead anxiously for the next wand. The distance between markers was at the extreme limit of visibility, and we reached some wands based on guesses, the fiberglass poles looming up through the gloom some distance after we passed the last marker. I signaled to Paul to take the lead. He closed to within shouting range, about six inches away.
"What do you think?" I yelled. The roar of the gale far exceeded my voice, physically pounding us down until we were bent over, the size of dwarves.
Paul looked behind us. The mists tore aside momentarily, and again the comforting sight of the lowlands was revealed to us.
Encouraged, he shouted back, "Let's go on, and keep an eye on the weather!"
He trudged ahead, leaving me to reflect that the weather didn't need to remind us of its presence; I had barely heard his voice, though he had bellowed directly into my ear. My Gore-Tex parka and pants kept out the chilling effect of the wind, though I felt like an old man in a ramshackle hut, wondering how long it would be before the hurricane blew down the house.
I staggered on, buffeted by gusts of wind. Generally, the wind blew strong from the left without much increase or slackening of its force. I found that I was keeling over several inches from the vertical; I could lean on the wind like a staff. Paul was perhaps thirty feet ahead, and was nearly invisible as rolling masses of fog passed between us.
The noise of the wind was an animal scream, and overbore all other sensations. My left arm was held up by the wind, in the same position it would be in if it were held by a sling. I forced it down, and it immediately swung back up.
We had advanced into the midst of the maelstrom. No view of the green fields below was afforded us; we were cut off in a world twenty yards across, rimmed by the vague shapes of ice-covered boulders and brooding cliffs. A shallow pool of fear lay below us, waiting for one blunder to send us sliding in. We did not. With good conditioning, absolutely the best equipment available, and having just the survived the same conditions two weeks before on Mt. Fletcher in Colorado, we were less concerned with current conditions and more concerned that the weather would worsen. The line between fear and enjoyment is indeed narrow; we were treading close to the edge. Most climbs have long periods of boredom, when the mind sinks into daydreams while the body moves onward, punctuated by short stretches of excitement. We were immersed in a heavy dose of tingling excitement. Every sense was on edge, and I was keenly aware of the pressure of the wind on my goggles, the tickle of the Gore-Tex hood on my chin, the numbness of my cheeks -- and above all, the rushing of the wind.
The route had ascended at a low angle for some time, and now leveled off. We stopped together in this place, eyes straining through ice-covered goggles for signs of the summit. Of to the right, we saw a range of boulders stretching up into the gloom, cut off by swollen banks of clouds. The distance looked considerable. We engaged in a shouting match once again.
"It doesn't look good! We could be hours from the summit!"
"I agree! Let's wait a few minutes and see if we can get a better view!"
We stood close together, much like a herd of antelope protecting themselves from the onset of the lion. The wind roared on. Suddenly the mists were rent by a gust, and we had a clear view of the crater rim! Much less than several hour's climb, it was only a few minutes away! We whooped with glee and strode across a short flat stretch, the boulders shrinking into small rocks as we approached them.
Skirting around to the right, we tackled a short ridge line, which became the crater rim. Stopping at the highest discernible point, we peered about through the mist, which had again closed in. Nothing higher could be seen, and the wands had disappeared. We concluded that we were either on the summit, or so close that it made no difference (the actual summit was on the other side of the crater rim, but was only slightly higher than our stopping point).
There was little time for celebration. I leaned over next to Paul's ear, and shouted, "If we stay here much longer, we'll die for sure!"
He nodded in agreement. We headed down after only a few seconds on top, at 14,410 feet. The descent was fairly easy. Each succeeding wand appeared through the churning mist while the last wand was still in sight. We descended through the featureless landscape in this fashion for some time. Suddenly a hole appeared in the solid wall of white that surrounded us, showing a patch of green valley hanging in midair, like a picture hanging on a wall. It vanished at once. Cracks continued to appear in the normally impenetrable cloud cover with increasing frequency, affording brief glimpses of glaciers, woodlands, and fields. Finally, the clouds parted and stayed that way. We had a clear view of the lands below Rainier. Above us the clouds rolled past ponderously, like the underside of some great fish from the deep.
Continuing on into the lee of the mountain, we finally stopped to rest. It seemed an eternity since we had passed this way. With no sleep and little food or water, near the top of a large peak in poor weather, it was clear that this trip was not yet completed. Most accidents occur on the way down the mountain, since that is when climbers are most exhausted. Rainer could still nip us during our escape.
Suddenly figures appeared through the mist, coming toward us from one side. It was a group who that just climbed the Liberty Ridge route. They had wisely stopped short of the summit, and were descending via our route, which was much easier than Liberty Ridge. It was a great relief to see and speak to other people after going through the hellish conditions on the summit. All of us came down the steep snow slope together. The other group paused to rest shortly thereafter, and Paul and I walked through the avalanche zone without them. This section, and indeed most of the remainder of the descent, is somewhat hazy in my memory due to a combination of exhaustion and lack of sleep. We stopped at the head of the bowl near Muir Camp to put away the rope. Paul was so tired that he stretched out in the snow for a catnap. I was even more tired than he was, but was also beginning to feel nauseous, and couldn't lie down. I paced about in the cutting wind until he was ready to go on.
Passing through Muir Camp, we noted that several new tents had been erected. Further below, we passed many people ascending to the camp. The nausea spells were increasing in frequency, and it was with some relief that the remains of our bivouac appeared. I sank down in the snow next to the flattened tent and instantly fell asleep. I awoke a few minutes later with beads of mist forming on my face. The valley below was rapidly filling with fog banks. Paul sat nearby on his pack, munching on snacks.
We had to push on before the route was obscured by fog, so on went the packs and down we wandered. Visibility was a hundred feet and the humidity was near 100%. We stayed within the cattle path of footprints left by the ascending climbers, sometimes sinking to our knees in increasingly slushy snow.
I recall most of the hike out with the same clarity one accords a dream; snippets remembered, large pieces fading away. The considerable extent of my exhaustion became more apparent as we plowed slowly through the heavy snow. Paul took the lead and stayed there. I concentrated on following his feet, moving rythmically up and down. My capability to sustain a conversation disappeared, and we traveled in silence through the thickening fog, the two of us the only reality in a world composed of hazy outlines of rocks and trees. The scenery in a dream world would indeed be close to what we were experiencing.
Finally, the fog lifted. A short uphill stretch appeared before us. I quailed at the thought of slogging up anything, and veered away to the left, hoping for an easier path back to the car. Paul continued on up the hill. Sliding down into a snow bowl, I noticed that my face felt puffy and hot, as did my hands -- common symptoms of heat exhaustion. I stopped to peal off clothes and drink water. There was no point in resting, since the car was within a half-mile. A group of climbers moved through the trees several hundred yards ahead and disappeared into a dell, heading in the direction I wanted.
Plowing through yet more snow, feeling like I was wading through surf, I eventually reached the path they had made, and followed it straight to the Rainier Mountaineering headquarters building. The car was parked around the corner, where Paul was waiting.