Mount Rainier: Part Two

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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