Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Mt. Rainier, Part 3, Summit Day

Thursday, July 17th, we woke around midnight to the sounds of other climbers already passing by the Flats, on their way up to the Disappointment Cleaver. As we rubbed the sleep from our eyes (the little of it we'd had - between the sun and our excitement it was hard to fall asleep, and I definitely got a little snappy at Brian and Michelle's excited chatting as Sharon and I tried to crash out), we could see a couple strings of headlamps approach the base of the cleaver, and begin the zig-zagging,
snow to rock, and back to snow, up the arete.

As others melted water and got breakfast ready, I untangled the rope - we'd left our knots and prussicks on from the day before, but packed it away for the night - so that everyone could easily clip into their spot. We had paired down our packs as much as we could, each bringing our down coats, a few extra layers, and our personal technical gear, snacks and water, and divided a couple sleeping bags, a single pad, an emergency bivy, and the team's technical gear (a couple ice screws, 2 pickets, and one extra ice tool) amongst us. Clipping into our crampons, and ditching extra layers (this time I would sure be glad I left the long johns on) we tied in and began our slow slog up Rainier at about 0130h. I've always been amazed at how long it takes to get moving in the morning while camping - even when all you have to do is eat breakfast, make water, and possibly pack up, and this day was no exception.

Shaking out the muscles from the pervious day's labours, we started slowly up the Ingraham, sticking to the climber's left in order to skirt a large crevasse that split nearly the entire upper reaches of the flats. We picked up our pace bit by bit, warming up like a diesel engine - stopping everyonce in a while only to quickly refuel and catch our breath. The well beaten path up the glacier soon began a traverse across and slighlty down towards the base of the Dissapointment cleaver, and after a moderately exposed, but short section, we were on the arete of the cleaver. There wasn't a large amount of moonlight that night, but the glacier dropping off below was still lit up in a dark subtle glow. Night is a special time in the mountains, and their beauty takes on a whole new meaning in it's darkness - the darkness that in the end highlights the mountain mystique that speaks to the alpinist. Behind us, other teams we slowly catching up, having started from the Muir hut that morning, and their headlamps looked like a broken string of christmas lights snaking up the far side of the glacier, until eventually coming even with us across the glacier and traversing our direction.

We didn't want us to rest too long at any of these lower spots, because we knew we were moving slower, and wanted to make sure we weren't below too many groups in the looser rocky sections that mixed in above. Moving on, we made our way up, always leaving our crampons on in the rocky sections, their scrape in some strange way comforting as we moved along. Mixed snow to ice terrain is probably my favourite place to be in the mountains, and I was loving every minute of it.

As we moved up the cleaver, some guided groups caught us, and passed us by relatively quickly. Although there is a relatively well beaten in path up the cleaver, the previous days' melting and deterioration of the trail caused me to strike out and form a new trail in places, and it was satisfying in my own mind to see the guides catching us following our new route to bridge certain sections - this wasn't difficult terrain by any means, only steep hard snow up a face with large sun cups, but sometimes it's the little things that count. It also made me glad that we were our own team, as the "mushing" of the guides wasn't at all what I like to experience in the mountains. A team should be exactly that, a team, and the dialogue between clients and guide of "when do we get to stop..." (cut off) "we'll stop soon, we didnt' stop that long ago, and we need to make it to the next point - I'm hungry and thirsty too, but we need to keep moving..."(said while the guide seems to nearly be dragging the client up), didn't at all mirror the team nature that I think adds a big part to alpinism.

As more groups caught up with us about 2/3 of the way up the Cleaver, I led our team out off the snow path to the rock edge of the arete in order to let the other groups pass more easily. Here we again took a quick break, before continuuing on, now behind most of the guided groups, back to the snow field and up to the top of the cleaver. As we arrived at the top of the cleaver, the guided groups (I believe all from RMI) finished their own break, while a small contingent waited to start down - either because the guides told them they needed to, they decided it wasn't their deal afterall, or perhaps because of some sort of physical ailment. We decided that this must be where the term "Dissapointment Cleaver" came from.

The RMI groups headed up, and we sat at the cleaver, watching the first rays of sunlight begin to peak over the eastern horizon and light up the hills below. Looking down at glaciers around Little Tahoma Peak, a beautiful dawn glow began to expose each and every part of the tortured glacial surface, broken and sweeping along it's slow path down. Brian and I took some pictures, and soon it we were back on our way up, trudging along the ice towards the summit above. Distances between points were deceiving, and I found myself setting too lofty of goals between each one of our brief breathers. Unfortunately, although we had a very good chance of making the summit still, I knew we were falling behind the optimum schedule, and tried to drag out the distance between breathers as far as I could - possibly pushing Sharon a bit to far at points, but she always dug down, found the strength, and kept pushing on hard. (I'd like to emphasize that as we were a climbing team, decisions on where we stopped, rested, etc. were actually team decisions, however being at the head of the rope I definitely tried to use that minor leadership role to subtley (I hope) affect when and where we stopped.)

The route up the ice had many small crevasses, but nothing very large ever had to be bridged, and there were only a few small seracs to work around. The texture of the snow on the lower reaches, however, was incredible, with deep suncups forming ridged spikes (I believe the correct name is neve penitentes) across the glacial surface, dirty with a thin coating of dust, and glowing in the morning light. At one point a swiss couple passed us (my own guess - sometimes people just fit the image, their accent, clothes, facial features and manerisms all brought me back to my time living in Switzerland), but from that point on we would be on our own heading up, now the last group in the long chain towards the summit. The glacial travel on the upper reaches continued to be uneventful, with only a few fun sections where we got to step across deep chasms, jump, or climb around a small serac, but it was a fun slog, working our way back and forth, up the slightly tapering hillside. Around us blue skies showed no hints of weather ever even existing on the mountain, and a cool breeze kept our bodies at the perfect temperature (though my hands would freeze every time we stopped if I didn't immediately put gloves on).

After a few hours, another group who was descending with big grins on their faces, told us we were getting close "about 15 minutes", and that when rocks came into view above we would be looking at the edge of the summit crater. Their premonition about the rocks soon turned true, but those 15 minutes soon turned into an hour. Sharon and the others were doing great, but it was important that we got up soon as everyone was starting to show small signs of tiring, and I wanted to save any significant food and resting until we were in the lee of the summit crater. I also wanted to make sure that we finished on the still hard snow, before it warmed and became soft and slushy. Soon enough we were there though, and were all filled with elation as we crested over and into the summit crater at about 0830h (basically a large snow filled bowl, perhaps 200 feet deep at most). Another group was here, getting ready to head down, and as they took their pictures and packed up, we snacked, joked, and got ready to ditch our packs for the quick jaunt over to the true summit.

Unfortunately, my stomach was a bit upset about this time and was giving me some issues, but we ambled over to the summit to take some summit pictures, and admire the view from above. Oddly, it actually took us a little while to figure out what exactly was the "true" summit, as each about three points all seemed to be about the same hieght, but we eventually figured out which was the true summit, and soon had the amusing time of trying to get just the right group shot on auto-timer there. Luckily, at the same time that we were trying to get our pictures, another group came in from Kautz Glacier guided by RMI, and they took a picture thus eliminating our amusing "self-timer" shots with missing heads and the like.

Looking out from the summit of Rainier offers gorgeous views, and the perfectly clear sky with allowed us to see until the roundness of the earths surface blocked our view. Factually put by Sharon "Seattle is socked in w/ marine layer, but the Olympic Mtns. can be seen beyond Puget Sound to the NW. To the North – Mt. Baker & the Canadian Cascades. East – looking down on Little Tahoma & the Tatoosh in the SE. To the South – Mt. Adams, St. Helens, and down into Oregon – Mt. Hood & Jefferson. We spent almost 3 hrs. walking around the crater rim, checking out the steam vents, then melted snow for drinking water before heading back down." Unfortunately, part of this three hours was my taking part in joining Dan and Terry in what must be the SDMRT (San Diego Mountain Rescue Team) curse (to which they participated in years ago during a seperate ascent), as my stomach finally decided it had suffered enough, and I was forced to leave something on Rainier that I truly had no desire to leave behind, or the blue-bag available to avoid doing so... I blaim it purely on my dedication to SDMRT.

The way down was relatively uneventful - during our time on the summit, the snow on the mountain had gradually warmed up and began sticking to our crampons, and a few of the short snow bridges had begun to give, but we made our way down to the Dissapointment Cleaver with only a few short breaks for the knees, before packing up and heading down the rest of the way. I was still leading on the way down, and it was definitely comforting having Brian in the back to help arrest the group should someone slip, or have their legs give out. Our legs were pretty worked by this time, and although we never needed it, Brian did a great job making sure we wouldn't go far if one of us slipped.

The unfortunate part, however, about traveling on a rope team is the constant pull felt on the rope due to the differing walking speeds of the group. Being in front, I couldn't see when someone was stopping behind me, and even though I kept one hand on the rope as a feeler, would still get caught by surprise mid-step, and have to often stop with one foot in the air on a moments notice. I did my best to keep my pace slow enough so that these tugs weren't to often, but unforunately had a tendency to slowly increase speed with time. Michelle, behind me, probably had it the worst as she had me always pulling away at the front, and Sharon moving the slowest of us directly behind her, so she would get the pull coming from both directions. (Both of their patience when roped up was incredible) I felt bad, however, when only about 500 feet from camp Michelle stopped to joke with Sharon and Brian, and I, getting stopped mid-stride, yet again, and uncessarily, snapped at her for not being able to talk and walk at the same time. I'm normally a pretty patient person, especially in the hills, but being so close to camp, and wanting to keep moving (and feeling a bit like a dog on a leash) I wasn't able to contain my quick jibe back to her... soon, after I'd become the brunt of the joke though (if you dish it, you'd better be able to take it), we were back in camp at around 1500h, and happy with our fantastic day of climbing.
Not being in a rush to move on, we stayed in camp the rest of the day, enjoying the sunshine, and a gorgeous view. We couldn't have asked for better weather - in fact a few teams had turned back earlier in the week due to high winds - but we had steady winds of perhaps only 10 mph on the higher parts of the mountain, and probably only 15 on the summit. It was great. We enjoyed our view, looking out past Little Tahoma, and had an early dinner (I definitely learned this trip that I should bring more food - thank you Sharon for only needing 1/2 a ration each time compared to my 1 and 1/2!) and were sacked out by 1930h, this time having no problem falling asleep.

(Thanks again to Brian for some of the pictures, including the team travel shot from the rear, and the summit shot.)

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