Mt. Rainier (May 1, 2010 – May 5, 2010)

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

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Mt. Rainier is a volcano rising to 14,411 and is the highest peak in the Cascade Range. The story that follows of our 4 days on the mountain is a story that has taught me many lessons that my change the way I view mountains. What follows is truly being an epic tale.

Well the story begins on Friday when Pierre - my climbing friend and near to a guide meet in Tacoma at 8:00am to attempt our summit bid on Mt Rainier.

We check in at the ranger station at 10:00 and are climbing to camp muir in white out conditions shortly thereafter. Only an Hour into it we run into two other climbers just having rescued their buddy who skied off the ridge - declined our help and they turned back and we kept going. Apparently another couple called for a rescue only a small ways up towards camp muir as they couldn’t see with the whiteout conditions and raging storm and panicked. In a rather humorous anecdote we asked each other a few times too if we should turn back and we both decided against it despite the fact we could barely see each other due to the white out. We reached camp Muir (10,000 feet) in about 5.5 hours in some decent winds but finally above the majority of the clouds - pics will follow.

So we prep dinner for our only expected meal on the mountain besides breakfast the next morning. We are up at 4:00am to check the sky it is gusty but clear - all the clouds are below us the sight is spectacular as you can only see the tips of mt hood and mt st. Helens poking through. We are sorted and climbing by 6:00am. I brilliantly pack my planned lunch of 2 snickers bars and 2 litres of water (let’s call this my first mistake) I will recount the rest of the tail by hour for simplicity.

6:30am - we reach the bottom of cathedral gap and attach the skis to our pack in exchange for just our mountaineering boots.

7:00am - we have reached the top of cathedral gap and Pierre notices ventricular clouds in the distance and we briefly discuss that we sure hope to get up and down before they arrive - we keep going. We add crampons to our mountaineering boots.

8:00am - we are making great time but there is no more sun as high clouds are moving in fast

9:00am - a storm has arrived and we have our first discussion of whether or not to turn back - we decide to keep climbing while we see if the storm improves to check back in an hour

10:00am - despite the near whiteout conditions and roaring wind we are making great time - right on schedule already at about 12,000 feet.

10:30am - we are in the middle of a raging blizzard with no visibility to the point where we are attached to each other by a rope and all I can see is about 4 ft of rope and then white not even a shape or a sound so we shortened the rope so we could at least have a chance to see the other fall into a crevasse.

11:00am - we have slowed down due to conditions as we have to stop every time a gust hits us to brace or you fall over and have a serious talk about turning around. I logic that climbing down in this storm is more dangerous than going up so let’s keep climbing and hope it let’s up. Staying still is not an option or we freeze to death. We keep climbing mostly up 35 degree to 55 degree wind swept snow over crevasses.

12:00pm - the blizzard is incredible - according to the stats at the ranger’s station we found out later the gusts were 93 mph (155kmph). Too many times we both stumbled as a gust would hit us and now I have resorted to climbing on all fours to handle the wind and zero visibility - when I was leading he couldn’t see my tracks and I couldn’t see his when he was leading. At times I can’t even see my boots. When the gusts came even climbing on all fours you had to stop.

1:30pm - we are at 13,850ft and are stymied by a crevasse. The crevasse is huge and with zero visibility we can’t find anywhere to cross.

I guess we are at the crater rim but not the summit I wanted but the summit most rainier guides call the summit.

NOW shit hits the fan.

While looking frugally for an ice bridge one of those gusts hits Pierre and knocks him off his feet but he arrest his fall only falling about 3 feet and I already dropped down to arrest his fall as I saw him falling but he caught it anyways. A uncontrolled fall here would be 1500 meters except a crevasse would catch you first and you would disappear into that forever.

So anyways he was hit by a 90 plus mph gust I just stand up and I am smoked by an even greater gust and it blows me right of the ridge. I am knocked on my ass and hurtling down a 50 degree ice slope rocketing towards the next welcoming open mouth Crevasse waiting to swallow me up. I am struggling to self arrest but I started upside down and on my back - I need to get around upright and on my stomach. As I’m picking up speed I realize that Pierre who heard my shout of “arrest arrest” was unable to arrest my fall. Now he is hurtling down with me and we are both going 50kmph easy I figure. He is ranked off his feet and does two somersaults gashing his head but staying conscious. We are both wildly trying to dig in our crampons and poles to arrest breaking the cardinal rule of never arresting a fall with your crampons as you can break a leg - but if I keep falling I will die so I will risk the broken leg - Pierre was doing the same - After about 100-150meters we are both finally able to miraculously arrest our fall - good thing we have training.

“okay I said to Pierre “now we’re done let’s head down”. “I was going to tell you that after I fell on the previous gust just before I fell” he said We clicked fists and I thanked him for saving my life - little did I know the life saving was just beginning but my turn next.

3:00pm - somehow it’s now managed to be 3Pm and we are still above 13,000 feet alt. I’m leading and placing my feet very gingerly walking backwards on all fours with zero visibility. I can’t see the snow so the only way I can tell if I am stepping into a crevasse is if my foot hits air - which … It does as my other foothold gives way but Pierre is alert and arrest this one enough that I can swing out - it’s a very deep but narrow crevasse. We continue.

4:00pm - Pierre takes the lead visibility is still zero and he clambers down the now about 30 degree ice field. Walks across a crevasse that is showing no signs it’s actually there so we didn’t know and it was a sight to behold! Mid step almost over it collapse creating a crater of 35ft long by 15ft wide and I see him disappear. Part of me wants to watch in awe the spectacular event occurred but instead I dropped down as I am uphill on 30 degree ice and the rope is about to be fully shock loaded when the slack is out of the system 15meter free fall from now - if I’m not bomber I am coming in with him. It shock loads I slide a little but am able to arrest before following him into this bottomless crevasse that made mine In October look smaller.

Keeping in mind we are still at 12,800 feet and totally exhausted I now need to build an anchor but I am hoping he is up the rope before I’m done. I’m face down with the snow blowing in my face and I use my ice ax to dig a tee slot that I will use my ax as an anchor. I build the t slot and before I can hook up the prusik rope to transfer my load to this anchor the 12 inch tee slot has already been filled in with the blizzard snow - I start over. I can hear nothing from Pierre because of the wind but can feel the odd tug on the rope. I finally complete this task while lying on my stomach and anchored well with my legs and now my load is transferred but my prusick is a little questionable because it’s iced I need another anchor the rope gets a big jerk.

Meanwhile Pierre is 15 meters down in the massive crevasse with no seeable bottom - attempting to quickly ascent the rope and chop away the overhanging lip as he self rescues - he makes his way to an internal snow bridge and slightly above when his iced prusik a knot also used to ascend ices up and won’t move up or down. He has to cut that cord and fall back down on my rope hence the jerk. He now has to ascend manually or give me rope to z-pulley him out which was going to be tough with the overhanging lip so he plans to climb out except he looks down to see his ice screw missing as it likely came off in the summit fall. He chooses the far side to climb out on the far side of the internal crevasse bridge - as it’s not overhanging and begins chopping a ladder. I don’t feel tugs so I pull to see if I get a response which I do so he’s still alive (it’s now been 45 minutes) - but my tug caused him to lose his balance climbing the other side and he lost his glove. Meanwhile I have taken up to huddling over my pack to keep off the snow to maintain what little body hit one can not really moving - still in an arrest position as a back up to my iced load transfer cord - trying to build a second anchor pit for my bag - that fills with snow as fast as I dig it. I’m really shivering expecting the worst and wondering if he is dying still no communication. He is one of the best mountaineers I know so I expect this should be easy not knowing his struggles so why is it taking do long? I finally get a second anchor and also build a small snow cave to huddle in as now I have an “I’m okay be out shortly” - I don’t want to venture to the side of the xrevass as I can’t risk falling in even with a back up prusik on me as I don’t know how much overhang it is - so I wait in my caves and shiver - it least I’m out of the wind.

5:45pm - Pierre emerges from the crevasse on one of the most impressive 15 meter free climbs I have never witnessed. Now we are really behind schedule and I am regretting my meager food choices. The blizzard is as bad as ever. During the crevasse ordeal I took off my goggles for something and now I have no eye protection as they froze instantly and my sunglasses were too iced to the guilds.

6:30pm - The blizzard is fierce and it feels like someone is shooting shards of metal at my exposed eyes. But with the goggles on I can’t even see my feet and even the smallest detail of the ground can save my life so I am doomed to pain for the rest of the night but travel gets even slower as a huge gust we need to brace with everything we have to keep from falling and the smaller gust I need to stop just to save my eyes and close them. We are both exhausted from our gps navigation.

7:00pm - we are still way too high on the mountain and won’t be back before pitch dark at 8:00 so we decide that skiing may be the best option - it’s safer for travel over crevasses and faster. We make decent time but shortly need to switch to crampons again from skis for steepness - as we switch I and I grab my crampons from my bag my ski slides away and into a magnificent crevasse. I guess we won’t be skiing anymore.

8:30pm - it’s dark we have headlamps which are a bit of a joke in a blizzard like this but they helped some. Unfortunately as I was putting on my headlamp I felt dropping something and asked Pierre “what did I drop?”. When I realized I had accidently dropped my glove fortunately like Pierre up higher I too carry a spare glove set but they are small and thin. But right now all attention is on survival not frost bite

We get back to cathedral gap but way too high and need to clamber to another spot to descend.

9:30pm - we have descended to the final glacier field. Without skis this is a test - I fall into a moat (crevass next to a rock ) but clamber out thanks to Pierre tension on the rope I kept partially out. Skis would be nice as theyare safer but I can’t as I only have one. We post hole back to what our compass and map tell us is where the hut is as both of our GPSs are out of batteries.

10:40pm - 16 hours and 40minutes of continuous climbing - after wandering around we stumble on the camp muir hut - which if we can’t find is the only shelter outside a snow cave which I wouldn’t have survived as I was already hypothermic. Zero visability is really annoying when trying to locate a shack.

We get inside of course we are the only ones there - try to start a fire but realize we are out of fuel - strip down of all the wet gear which is everything - and jump in our respective sleeping bags and I shiver for the next two hours and fall asleep. Consuming a grand total 2 snickers bars and 1.5 liters of water since 6:00am.

Morning comes - I have stopped shivering but have nothing dry to wear and we look outside - the blizzard hasn’t let up at all so today will be our effort to dry our clothes if we can an find some fuel if we can. An emergency fuel provison is in the shack so we have hot chocolate for breakfast, nothing for lunch and soup for supper. We didn’t plan on being here so we had no food and wanted to save porrige for breakfast the next day. My throat is on fire.

We decide that tomorrow we will head down likely no matter what the day brings. We have new gps batteries and we are ready for more white out conditions.

We leave at 10:00am to return to the ranger station. The clouds are just below camp and we know they will likely extend all the way down. If we stay on route we will be back to the car skiing in 2-3 hours.

I’ve skiied in whiteouts but nothing like this keeping in mind we both have no idea what this terrain looks like as it was a whiteout coming up and no trees above the treeline. Vertigo after a while is inevitable where you can’t tell if you are going fast, not moving at all or going backwords - no frame of reference. And avalanche hazard unbeknownst to us is now assessed by the ranger station as high but we suspect as much. It is snowing hard but maybe only 25mph winds and again zero visability.

To make a long story short our gps batteries died, we were in a full whiteout - missed the ranger station and now opted to ski down and climb down an additonal 2000 feet to find the road 8KM away from the ranger station spent most of our time on steep ice trying to down climb with ice axes and crampons and 50lbs each of gear. We endured some really scetchy avalnche risk zones, some great steep pitches to get down to a creek bed that should lead to the road.

We hitch a ride back to the car and find out that a search party has already been summoned to rescue or recover us. Anyways we called that off of course and thanked them and left.

So in summary where does this leave me for everest? I don’t know - this was a lot to swallow the summit bid was apparently a sucess, but of the 16 hours and 40 minutes - 10 of it was just stuggling to survive and same with the decent. I may be rethinking my plans.

Partial list of completed climbs -

*First ascent