Mount Rainier: Part Two

by Emily Thursday, August 4th 2011

Finally the day came. After three months of intense training and intense worrying, I was on a plane flying over the peak that I hoped to stand on top of. And then I was on a van driving through thick pine forests scarred by avalanche. In the parking lot we divvied up group gear and put on sunscreen, and as I rolled up my sleeves to get sunscreen on my shoulders, I struck a fake bodybuilding pose to explain to everyone the direction of the bathrooms. I was nicknamed "Guns" the rest of the trip. A short time later I was strapping a 50 pound pack on my back and 3 pound boots to my feet and hiking behind our head guide, crampons and snow shovel lashed to the back of his pack. I was the only girl and I was always in the front of the line.

Back home the desert was entering the driest 110-degree summer I'd seen since moving to Tucson, and so it was fascinating to see this old pine forest completely drenched with water. There was snow on the trail and meltwater surging down the ravine to a fast stream below us, gathering at the bases of trees. In flat spots in the valley below, water pooled with the pine needles. On the steeper slopes there were thin but fierce waterfalls only briefly slowed by rocks and downed trees. Every once in a while there was a break in the trees, with evidence of the slide that opened up the view, and we could look up to the glaciers and the jagged peak of Little Tahoma looming.

 Rainier part 2 pic 5   

Soon the dry ground disappeared altogether under snow as we made our way to Glacier Basin, a wide snowfield ringed with the last pines of the tree line. A few backcountry skiers were out, cutting wide loops down from the ridge line. We trudged halfway up the soft snowy Interglacier and stopped to put on Gore-Tex for our first mountaineering lesson: the self-arrest.

Rainier part 2 pic 2

The prospect that we might actually have to use this skill was terrifying to me. We practiced "tripping" sideways, backwards, and face first down the slope, stopping ourselves by digging ice axe and feet into the side of the mountain, a feat that usually required spinning or flipping around to get upright in the snow. I didn't want to know what this would feel like with full momentum on an actual slide, but I did want to know I could control my mind enough to stop myself. I tried not to think of whole rope teams sliding over an icy cliff edge into an abyss. It didn't help that they asked us to strap on avalanche beacons for the rest of the trip.

Camp Curtis, at 8,500 feet, looks back down into the forested Glacier Basin on your right and over a rocky pass into the white-tipped Cascades on your left. I want to live here. There is enough snow, I could build a little snow castle and watch the sun turn the walls blue and orange every morning. Camp Curtis itself is no more than a bench dug out of the snow on the side of the Interglacier. We smoothed out the snow and pitched tents as the guides went to work in the kitchen: they'd carved counter space at waist-height and a square cooler to hold water bottles. We had soup, and macaroni and cheese with sausage and veggies, and hot chocolate. It got cold quickly as the sun ducked behind the mountain, and we fell asleep with daylight still shining on the trail below.

The next morning we packed up camp, strapped on crampons, and learned to walk on the frozen snow. We split into two rope teams, tied in 30 feet apart from each other, and started a traverse of a steep mountainside into a basin under a crumbling rock face. Deep crevasses came into view, glowing blue on the mountainsides above us. As we stepped onto the Emmons Glacier, the physical space between us in the rope team led to a quieter, more introverted trek for each of us as we rest-stepped up the steepening slope. With my shins beginning to ache from the stiff plastic boots, I kept my eyes to the ground, planning each step to keep my feet as flat as possible. The instances I stole a glance up at the rock pinnacles above us or the vast folded landscape below became mental photographs that will stick in my mind, absolutely and forever.

Rainier part 2 pic 3

At Camp Schurman (9,450 feet) we built snow walls around our tents to duck from the wind. There was a ranger's cabin, and a good-natured ranger who checked in often with weather updates. Our forecast was not good. Raging winds up to 50-plus miles per hour, a freezing level dropping to 8,500 feet, and billowing clouds spelled a potential storm for our summit attempt. We ate dinner as we watched a wall of white cloud roll up quickly from the valley below. My shins had gone past the point of aching to pain so sharp and persistent I could barely walk to the outhouse. One of the guides chopped two pieces of foam out of my Ridge Rest pad which I taped to my shins and hoped for the best. We sipped water and crawled into sleeping bags by 5 p.m., hoping to be well rested if the mountain would let us up in the middle of the night.

The guides woke us at 1 a.m. with news of winds but no clouds. We began in the 3-foot spheres of light from our headlamps, a world so small that there was no mountain, just the wind and our crampons chopping through the frozen snow. I was roped behind our head guide, Eben, and I loved this man. He walked so slow. The first couple of hours was a meditation in the dark, the sound of kicking measured steps in the slope and the singular thought of going up, up, up.

The sunrise seemed to come quickly, like maybe we were so high up we saw it before anyone else. Suddenly our endeavor took shape: we could see our tiny orange tents far below, and look down on the tip of craggy Little Tahoma. We crossed a snow bridge and looked into the sculpted blue depths of the crevasse below. We stepped over a crack no more than a finger's width wide that was seemingly bottomless. And we kept going up, on slopes sometimes 45 degrees steep. The up was endless.

Rainier part 2 pic 4

Until we were right under the lip of the summit. Clouds boiled up the valleys, obscuring most of the terrain but for a few small glimpses. A steep push and we found ourselves standing on the rim of the huge caldera, the top of the volcano stoppered with snow and baring its ragged teeth. We ran around in the crater, sheltered from the wind and fueled by a couple of gulps of bourbon someone brought up in a Nalgene bottle. We could see Mount Adams poking his head above the clouds. I ran to the edge again to take pictures, got whipped by the wind, and promptly came back to the steam vent. Under a pile of rocks was an army canister with a green bound book and a few pens. I signed my name to a summit log which, once filled, will go on display in a museum with all the books that have been filled out by mountaineers since the first known ascent. I was so elated that when someone turned their camera to video mode, pointed it at me, and asked how I felt: I had nothing to say.

We turned out to face the Cascades as we stepped back down the mountain, and this was perhaps the most beautiful part. The steep slope seemed to drop off to nowhere, as if we were on the white pocketed face of the moon and about to step off into space, poised to land somewhere in the forests of Washington. Halfway down a cloud came up to meet us for a whiteout. I took photos, but it just looks like a blank screen. For just such an occasion, our guides had placed bright green wands with pink flags along our route, and as each one came into focus I could see what I'd missed in the dark: gaping cracks edging in from both sides of our route. Eben later told us that because of where the cracks had split in the glacier this year, the normally switchbacked and wandering Emmons route went straight up. Combined with the wind, it was the second hardest ascent he had done on Rainier. Out of sixty-four. Back at camp the guides cooked up pot roast and mashed potatoes, and sitting in the snow in a whiteout eating from a Nalgene mug with a plastic fork, this is the best dining experience I have ever had.

Rainier part 2 pic 1

On our last day we descended the Interglacier by glissading, which is an overly fancy word for sliding down on our butts. In the fashion of good amateurs, our water bottles and trekking poles went everywhere. It was a really good time. Like a good pro, our driver had a cooler full of beer for us when we made it back home.


Climbing Mount Rainier – Part One

by Emily Thursday, July 21st 2011

From March through June, climbing Mount Rainier was all I could think about. Now, a few weeks after my guided trip up the Emmons route, that amazing experience is still all I can think about. But this is the part where I'm relieved. For three months, I obsessed constantly. All my worries could be summed up with just one question: Is this enough? Am I training hard enough? Is my Gore-Tex light enough? Do I have enough trail snacks? Do they contain enough protein? Am I strong enough? Am I mentally tough enough? On and on. Any particular day or even hour where I felt I could be lacking in a given area was cause for a deep introspective temper tantrum over how this was surely a sign I would never make it up Mount Rainier. How my sweet and forgiving boyfriend could possibly stand me during this period, I have no idea. But sweetie, thank you. Thank you so, so much.

If you want to know what my trip was like, please feel free to skip to Part 2. For now, I'm directing my attentions to the prep work--the training and the gear--for those in the audience who have similar obsessive propensities but would be interested in undertaking a great endeavor for which there is much to worry about. Never fear: I made it to the summit. And it was wonderful. And really, you could stand to chill out a bit about the whole thing.

The well-meaning lady who organized our trip sent us each a handy training DVD outlining a 6 month program with mountaineering-specific exercises to do each week, such as walking on a treadmill with a heavy pack on. Or climbing a Stairmaster with a heavy pack on. Or hiking a steep trail with a heavy pack on. I didn't have 6 months, or a Stairmaster, or hours of time to spend on it with a heavy pack on. I had 3 months and a rough hour I could carve out of each day for training. I tossed the DVD. A growing number of studies on fitness are showing that short, super-intense workouts are as effective at training endurance as long endurance training is. The idea is that the more you train in an anaerobic state (meaning high heart rates and an inability of your cells to do the required work with oxygen: they switch to burning up ATP and give you the sensation that you should stop what you're doing right now or you might throw up) the higher your aerobic threshold goes, and the more work you can do with a lower heart rate. Something like that.

Conveniently, I was already training at a CrossFit gym and though I worried about whether the studies were right, I decided to join the experiment. I threw myself into CrossFit as fiercely as possible and crossed my fingers. A lot of people know by now what CrossFit is, but for those who don't: it's high intensity training of functional whole-body movements, like pull ups, push ups, jumping onto boxes, throwing medicine balls, swinging kettle bells, sprinting, rowing, and a slate of Olympic lifts like overhead squats, deadlifts, and the wonderfully named clean and jerk. Workouts are quick and everyone works out together in a class, adding a gentle edge of competition and enough pressure to make fitness slackers like me work harder. In short, there's a lot to do, workouts are generally 5 to 30 minutes, and it's really fun.

I started going to CrossFit Purgatory 3 and then 4 times a week (which is huge for me, a gumby girl who just six months ago thought yoga was everything) and supplementing that with stadium stair runs at the high school near my house and yoga on rest days to stay balanced and limber. When Logan and I went climbing, I took all the gear, draws, rope and water and slogged slowly up to the wall. I made him carry his own harness, helmet and shoes, though really I wanted to take those from him, too.

This regimen was potent work for my legs, and when it came time to trudge up 10,700 feet of glaciated mountain, my quads didn't even burn. Which is not to say it wasn't hard. It was hard. But I was ready. Pound for pound, my legs had already pushed more weight than that in four days of CrossFit workouts versus four days of hiking. High intensity training gets a big thumbs up.

Diet was really important for training too: namely getting enough protein at the right time. Workouts shred muscle tissues, and if complete proteins aren't available in your gut to start repairs, your body will take proteins from muscle, making you weaker. I religiously drank a smoothie with almond butter and whey protein within a half hour of every workout, and I increasingly felt stronger. Following the CrossFit method includes a Paleo diet, meaning focusing on meat and vegetables, with nuts, seeds, and some fruit. No grains, no dairy, no refined sugar. It helped me consistently eat a lot more protein, and while I wasn't strict about the no grains rule, staying mostly away from grains kept my blood sugar levels balanced, where before I would spike and crash throughout the day. I found Paleo trail snacks, too: for the trip I filled a stuff sack with buffalo jerky, dried mango, and Lara bars, which are just dried fruit and nuts. I also brought Bonk Breakers--peanut butter bars that aren't Paleo (since peanuts aren't really nuts) but are super delicious--and a trail mix with chocolate covered espresso beans. For summit day I packed a few Gus, which I really didn't want to use because they're all sugar, but on that tough sustained effort I ended up needing them: jerky wasn't going to cut it. On that effort we burned through sugar easily, and as one mountaineer advised me, proteins and fats take a lot to break down and pull a lot of blood into the gut, taking it away from everywhere else--which is not something you really want to do in an intense endurance activity at altitude. So for just one day, I was grateful for the sugar.

Do you know what else gets a big thumbs up? My gear. I couldn't give enough accolades to my gear. Like the women's Sajama pant from Mountain Hardwear. It's a stretchy synthetic pant that has the weight and abrasion resistance of a good canvas pant, but because it's synthetic it works infinitely better in wet conditions and variable weather. I wore them the whole trip and just layered Smartwool leggings under them for summit day. They didn't even get very dirty. When we had crampons on, which was three days out of the four, I wore Outdoor Research Verglas gaiters to keep from shredding my favorite pants, and that was really smart as I did in fact shred the gaiters with my crampons. Nothing that couldn't be patched with duct tape in the field. I only put Gore-Tex on over them once when we glissaded on the way down (more on that in Part 2).

 Rainier part 1 pic 3

On top I spent my time in a comfy Patagonia Active Mesh bra and an Icebreaker Tech T that somehow, at the end of the trip, smelled better after four days than the cotton t-shirt I'd worn just one day on my flight to Seattle. Wool is pretty amazing. I also had two wool long sleeve shirts, one of which I wore most of the time and an additional one I layered with for summit day. I brought my fancy Real Fleece Icebreaker hoody, which I absolutely adore, but really only found myself wearing in Ashford before the climb. The work of the climb kept me so warm in the baselayers and my Transition Jacket (best windproof multi-purpose light soft shell in the whole wide world, by the way) that I never put it on. The only other clothes I brought were a Minimalist Jacket in case of storms, rented Gore-Tex shell pants, and a rented insulated parka that I threw on at the breaks when we stopped moving and nearly froze in the wind.

And gloves. One of my favorite piece of gear, simple as they are, was a pair of Icebreaker liner gloves. They were super thin, so I could take off my puffy gloves and leave the liners on to do tasks that required dexterity, like tightening guy lines on the tent in crazy wind with ice all around. They dried super quick and when my hands sweated they kept them from getting cold. I relied on them so much that the seams on the index and thumb of one glove completely unravelled by the end of the trip, but I wore it anyway because having the fabric wrapped around my hands helped so much. And there was the wool Buff, a similarly thin layer that I pulled over my face, wrapped around my ears, and used in a variety of combinations to protect against wind burn. That was great, and stretchier than the synthetic Buffs; I could stretch it over my helmet. I had it around my head or neck the whole time.

Rainier part 1 pic 1

Then there were the boots. The only nice thing I can say about the boots is that they did indeed keep my feet warm the entire time, and for that I was grateful. But for the damage they did to my shins, I wanted to throw them out the window in front of a moving car on the way back. I got what's known to mountaineers as "boot bang," which feels about like kicking a steel plate with your shins on each step, for however many thousand steps it takes to climb Mount Rainier. It was so painful I cried privately when no one was looking, and limped up the mountain on my guides' and friends' generous doses of ibuprofen. (Ah, Vitamin I. The one thing I didn't bring that is an absolute must.) On summit day one of the guides cut pieces of my RidgeRest pad up to tape to my shins for an added cushion. It kind of worked, but mostly it didn't. At that point I'm pretty sure the damage had been done. I didn't, however, get any blisters--unlike my cohorts on the trip--and I think that's attributed to my Over-the-Calf Injinji toe socks. Dorky as they may be, like the liner gloves they kept my feet totally dry and wicked all the sweat from between my toes, where most people were getting monster blisters. On top of that I had a pair of heavy cushion Smartwool socks (so cushy!) and at night put on a fresh pair and laid the liners and climbing socks on my chest so my body heat would dry them out while I slept.

I slept on a simple RidgeRest pad, which was plenty warm and perfect for tossing on the snow to sit on while eating dinner. (It came in handy when I needed pads for my boots, too.) I'm pretty good at sleeping, and each day's effort made that pad feel pretty comfortable. I'd be hard pressed to recommend that people bring a blow-up pad, even though they're considerably more cushy; it was nice to be able to use the foam pad all around camp and not ever worry about it popping.

Please allow me one moment to give propers to the folks at Western Mountaineering, who literally sew bags one at a time, and fill it with the most puffy down known to man. I stayed so warm in that bag that my tent mates edged away from me, complaining I was hot to the touch. This is in a tent in a snow dugout at 9,450 feet on Mount Rainier in Washington. My ten degree bag was perfect, I didn't overheat and it only cost me two pounds of weight in my bag. Kind of makes me want to kiss the two people who constructed and filled my bag at Western Mountaineering. Come February 14th, I just may send them a valentine.

Rainier part 1 pic 2

Gear | Trips

Secret Canyon

by Emily Thursday, July 7th 2011

Bryon wears soft cotton pants and no shoes, so when he walks behind you--even right behind you--you can't hear him at all. He knows how to build a fire by rubbing two sticks together. He knows the best wood for making a bow, and the way to prepare cactus to eat so that it doesn't act as a diuretic. Bryon knows that if you go ahead and chomp into a piece of cactus without preparing it this way, it will act as a diuretic and dehydrate your already desert-worn body.

There's a map in his head of secret canyons he's found where water flows in the summer, and he offered to take Logan and me--sworn to secrecy, of course--to one he calls "cat canyon" because he's often seen the wash full of mountain lion tracks.

A disclaimer for the kind of story this will be: I cannot tell you where this canyon is, though I do hope, dear reader, that you discover an amazing canyon for yourself. In Bryon's case, he was driving along one of our local mountain roads looking for something inspiring, and in the distance he saw a large bright green patch of cottonwoods. So he hiked to them, because cottonwoods mean water. Some days I forget that there are so many places to be explored.

We hiked in the dry bed of the wash until rock walls started to rise on either side. Then from the sand we came upon small pools of murky water and slimy gardens of algae. One hundred yards later, the water was running down to the algae in trickles. Then the pools got bigger, and some of the water was clear. It was weird to follow the water backward, from the mucky places where the desert is thirsty to a more hopeful place where the oasis might last all summer. We waded through deep troughs, and the tall boys were in water up to their thighs; I soaked my shorts entirely.

Crawling up amazing rock formation
Crawling up an amazing rock formation.

In the swimming hole the water was so cool it had this weird relaxing effect. Not so cold that we were shivering, but cold enough that it felt strange to sit still. The rock rising out of the water was black granite with beautiful white veins, and reflections of the water, brighter than its stripes, danced over it.

Reflections playing on the rocks
Reflections playing on the rocks.

In the belly of the secret canyon
In the belly of the Secret Canyon.

Way up in the canyon, the trees closed in. Bryon showed us the place where a mountain lion was slaughtered. He came up the canyon one day to find blood all over the rocks. The now dried carcass was laying near the stream, missing head, feet, tail and hide. The smell stayed in my nose even as we hiked back down to the field of thistles and sweet honeysuckle. I'm told that hunting mountain lions is legal in Arizona. It didn't help me feel any better about it being done.

Angry gila monster
Angry Gila Monster

Hiking back out, we doused ourselves in the water, fending off the afternoon heat. Someday, Bryon says, he'll hike up to the source. We watched the water trickle back into the sand as we neared the car, knowing that somewhere up there a spring was pumping a lot more out.


Samaniego Peak

by Dave Baker Tuesday, May 31st 2011

Residents of Oro Valley and the town of Catalina, north of Tucson, are very familiar with stately Samaniego Ridge, which drops off the top of Mt Lemmon and stretches north in a seemingly straight line for over 8 miles before dying out beyond Charouleau Gap. The highpoint on the ridge is a prominent craggy rock outcrop – Samaniego Peak.

Samaniego Peak

Samaniego Peak

The Samaniego Ridge Trail runs north down the ridge from Mt Lemmon past the peak and then down into Charouleau Gap. However, the trail was hammered by the 2003 Aspen Fire and in the fire’s aftermath the trail bed was littered with fallen timber, overgrown with nasty brush, and quickly fell into disuse.

Samaniego Ridge & Samaniego Peak

Heading towards Samaniego Ridge

In the past few years, things began looking up for the old trail. First, the Forest Service did some work on higher elevation portions, and then volunteer work groups of mountain bikers put considerable effort into cleaning up long sections of the trail on the main ridge. There are still many sketchy sections of trail to deal with, but trips out to Samaniego Peak from the top of Mt Lemmon are once again reasonably pleasant for fit and able hikers.

On our trip to Samaniego, we followed the trail to Walnut Spring, located 0.3 miles due east of Samaniego Peak. Although Walnut Spring goes dry most years, it is surprising how often it shows water given the small watershed that feeds it.

Walnut Spring

Walnut Spring shows water in April, 2011

Once in the general vicinity of Walnut Spring, it’s time to leave the trail and bushwhack! The final push to the top of Samaniego Peak involves moving through dense brush among white granite slabs and boulders. It’s worth the effort though; the top of Samaniego Peak is surprisingly dramatic, featuring a rather small granite summit block and steep cliffs dropping off towards Oro Valley. You’ll enjoy unusual and splendid views in all directions: Oro Valley, Canada del Oro, Reef of Rock, Pusch Ridge, and Mule Ears.


Samaniego Peak - summit bushwhack


Reach the trailhead (32.44036 N, 110.7858 W, WGS84) by following the Catalina Highway from the Tucson valley towards the small settlement of Summerhaven. Just short of Summerhaven, turn right (west) onto “Ski Run Rd”. Continue on Ski Run Road past the ski facility through a gate (often closed during winter months), and on up the narrow winding road to trailhead parking lot near the top of Mt Lemmon.

Samaniego Peak

Samaniego’s diminutive summit block

The Mt. Lemmon Trail #5 leaves the west side of the parking lot right next to a fenced electrical facility, crosses a dirt road and then joins an old jeep trail heading west along the broad summit ridge. Follow the Mt. Lemmon trail west for about 1.6 miles to a signed junction and turn north onto the Sutherland Trail which in turn leads to a junction with the Samaniego Ridge Trail. Leave the Samaniego Ridge Trail in the general vicinity of Walnut Spring for the bushwhack to the summit blocks.

Season: Spring and fall. The trailhead is closed to vehicular access for some of the winter, and snow can obscure higher elevation sections of the route. In spite of 7000’+ elevations, this hike gets very hot on the exposed Samaniego Ridge during summer days.

Water: Water is intermittently available at Walnut Spring and just off route at Shovel Spring, perhaps 6 to 9 months out of the year. Bring plenty of your own, and treat any water you might collect.

Difficulty: Moderately difficult. About 11.5 to 12.5 miles round trip with a 1,700’+ elevation drop and then gain on the return trip. The trail is sketchy in a few places, and the scramble off trail to the summit of Samaniego Peak involves some pretty thick bushwhacking. Take care among the summit blocks; there are many steep drop offs.

Notes: This is a Forest Service fee area. This area was impacted by the 2003 Aspen Fire.

Maps: Rainbow Expeditions Santa Catalina Mountains, Green Trails Maps Santa Catalina Mountains, or National Geographic Arizona digital map software.


Click map for larger image


The Authors

Dave BakerDave Baker

I'm Dave Baker, founder of Summit Hut, an independent outdoor retailer based in Tucson, Arizona since 1969. As an experienced and passionate hiker, climber and backpacker, my blog is intended to be an informative and interesting look into the outdoors and the outdoor industry.

Dana Davis

Dana Davis

I’m Dana Davis, co-owner of the Summit Hut. I mostly enjoy hiking and road biking though I often do other things to keep it interesting (mountaineering, motorcycling, backpacking, climbing, you name it!) My biggest challenge is sometimes finding the balance between career, family, and fun but it’s working out so far!

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

I'm Dan Davis, after retiring from the National Park Service as a Ranger and manager, I worked for the Summit Hut until 2009, then retired for good (maybe). I'm now spending my time traveling around the southwest writing and working on my nature and fine art photography business.

Emily Gindlesparger

Emily Gindlesparger

I’m Emily Gindlesparger, a member of the Summit Hut floor staff. Since moving here from the Midwest, I’ve been taking advantage of all possible adventures in Arizona: rock climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, whitewater kayaking, caving and trail running; I’m always excited to see what’s next!