Climbing Mount Rainier – Part One

From March through June, climbing Mount Rainier was all I could think about. Njow, 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).

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.

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.

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