Ok everybody this is the day we have all been waiting for—Summit day!
The guides woke us up at 1 AM and we had one hour to get ready! I think I slept maybe 3-4 hrs, usually it takes me while to fall asleep and up in the mountains was no different. I was still sleepy and tired when I woke up but had no choice. Had to put on my gear and get on with it!
That hour sure went quickly. Before we knew it, it was time to go. I had actually slept with a couple of layers so just had to change my socks and add a few layers, made some coffee, and attempted to eat as much food(scones+ almond butter) as I could. I wasn’t that hungry but needed to consume some calories and warm up a bit before we left.
The temperature was around 25°F so it was chilly! Our crampons were outside so once we were done eating and packing all our gear we needed to go outside and get our crampons on. After the crampons were on we had to stay outside, so we waited until the last few minutes to go outside and put them on.
It took us a while to get our crampons on. We were wearing heavy gloves so it was difficult to put them on and also it was pitch black so it was a challenge. Eventually we did it. As we waited for the other team members to prepare the guides recommended we put on the “Parka” while we waited and also on every stop we had that day we would do the same.
As we had practiced in the Mountaineering School we were split up in groups of 4 (including 1 guide). We donned ropes, crampons & helmets and grabbed our ice axes, put on our backpacks and we were off! We left Camp Muir at 2:15 AM, a little bit late but we were good on time. The weather was not that great —it was cold and a bit windy and the forecast hadn’t changed since the day before so we were in for a bumpy ride up Mt Rainier.
We had 4 rest stops planned including the summit. We took the Ingraham Glacier route so our first stop was in the Ingraham flats and it took over two hours to get there (2hrs & 15 min to be exact). It was supposed to take us an hour to an hour and half but the weather played a huge factor with our pace and there was a couple team members in my rope team and others that were struggling a bit with the pace. The pace was brisk because the guides wanted to stay ahead of the weather so we were pushing it. I struggled a bit with the terrain and walking with the crampons. I slipped a couple of times (didn’t fall!) and struggled on some areas with rocks so it was challenging for me, I was a little bit winded on the first rest stop but I was OK to continue and physically I was prepared. Usually the first 2 hrs of a hike (at least for me) I use it to warm up so this was a warm up to what was ahead.
Our first stop was at 11,200’, There was actually some tents from other expeditions and they didn’t even leave their tents to attempt the summit due to weather! So that was encouraging when we found out! Before we sat down for our break the guide that was leading my group came up to me and asked me “are you still ready to continue”.. …and I was like “what?” …..and I replied “yea!”…but he continued and told me that I wasn’t looking very good hiking up and that I was struggling a lot!….I was honestly puzzled, I thought I was doing pretty good! The next thing that he told me really killed me inside…..he told me “You have 120 seconds to decide if you can continue! The next couple of stretches will only get tougher and tougher and you struggled a lot in this first leg!” I sincerely was not ready to concede…I never actually said yes, but the guides made the decision for me, it was in my best interest and the entire team that I returned to Camp Muir, I was a liability up there due to my inexperience and of course my clumsiness…..I was crushed!
Two other team members decided that they were not physically ready to continue so they were also coming back, and two others were flat out scared, so five of us turned to go back to Camp Muir.
Catie was in my rope team and she was cruising! But on our first stop she was a little bit scared and concerned about continuing! The guides were asking everybody that if they didn’t feel comfortable to speak now! Casey Grom (main guide) told Catie to come to his rope team because one of his climbers was coming down so he had a spot! Casey is an absolute rock star so she was in good hands.
Before we returned to Camp Muir we waited for a couple of minutes for the team to continue the ascend and the weather was getting worse by the minute. It was getting really windy as we sat. I decided to record it. Below is the video of us waiting to descend to Camp Muir.
As you can see it was windy and higher on the mountain the wind was stronger.
Due to the premature end to my summit bid I asked Catie if she could help me with this post and detail all that she experienced after our first stop, so the next couple of paragraphs were written by my rock star girlfriend, Enjoy!
Take it away Catie!
Hello to all of you who are training to climb Mt. Rainier, or who are thinking about training to climb Mt. Rainier! I’m Catie, and I’m here to fill you in on what I learned from my summit day experience.
Recounting the actual technical points of the climb are a little fuzzy for me because I was so laser-focused on not only conserving my energy enough to get to the top, but to keep myself upright and safe. I’m pretty sure I was in full-blown survival mode! The conditions were so treacherous for me…crazy windy, cold, and snowy at times…my thinking brain shut down and my survival brain took over. What’s funny is that my guide, Casey who I’m pretty sure you were introduced to already, would describe the conditions as merely miserable, but to me they were on a whole other level. I’m pretty sure my novice mountaineering status may have something to do with this as Casey had summited Mt Rainier 183 times prior to our ascent; I don’t think I’d climbed a mountain taller than 6800 ft. Needless to say, somehow I managed to keep putting one foot in front of the other!
Ok, so here are 7 things I learned from my Mt Rainier summit experience:
- I will never have the desire to climb Mt. Everest! The amount of physical and mental stamina I had to put forth from start to finish during this climb was something I was not expecting. This adventure was no joke for me. Granted, the weather conditions were absolutely miserable, but I had no idea what I was getting into when I signed-up. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I did it and I’d probably do it again (now that I’m a couple of months removed from the miserable fun), but I was definitely not aware I’d be walking on steep ledges of crevasses or even walking on ladders to cross them! Even the switchbacks seemed steep and endless to me! Unfortunately I can’t say how challenging the climb to the summit would have been for me if the conditions had been even half better than they were. What I can say is that I never want to know what it would take to get to the top of the tallest peak in the World! Heck, based on my experience on Mt Rainier, I’m not even sure I’d want to know what one encounters when they tackle Denali! (aka Mt McKinley)
- I can tolerate cold weather and high winds after all! To my surprise, I was never cold to the point where I wanted to cry. I grew-up in Maine and know oh so well what being in the cold was like for me…pure misery. Not on Mt Rainier though, and this didn’t have anything to do with the temperature not being as cold on the mountain as it got during my Maine winters; the temperature at the summit was 8ºF, not including the wind chill. It did however, have everything to do with bringing the correct equipment made of quality material and having fantastic guides to tell me which layers to have on during each leg of the trek! The only time I got cold was toward the end of each break (makes sense) and also when one hand had to hold onto the ice axe for too long. That freaking metal contraption made my hand so cold I didn’t think I’d be able to hold onto it any longer. Casey taught me a trick though! Keep wiggling your fingers while carrying it so you can get some good blood flow to your hand. Your hand may still be cold, but it probably will be the tolerable kind of cold!
- More gel packs please! The only thing I could manage to eat during our 15 minute breaks were gel packs of various flavors and brands. It was so cold outside, I had a hard time taking off my gloves to open the packaging to anything else I may have had with me. For example, I decided it would be a good thing to bring KIND bars with me. Turned out to be a disastrous idea because I couldn’t get the wrapping undone in a timely manner with my gloves on, and I was concerned my gloves would fly away in the wind if I took them off! With the gel packs, I just had to use my mouth to rip the packet open (the packet is built for this) and use my gloved hand to grab the torn off piece so it didn’t turn into litter. The gel was thicker than usual, but still easy enough to eat; whereas the bar was fairly frozen solid, which made it difficult to chew. The amount of time it took to open something and eat it was key because we may have had 15 minutes to break, but those 15 minutes felt more like 5 to me! Again, the conditions I experienced were a bit more extreme, so I’m thinking other food other than gel packs may be more doable in other situations. In fact, I know this because when we were halfway down the mountain the wind went away and I was able to open a peanut butter cup with no problem. It took a lot less time to get myself situated during our breaks, and I was a lot less fearful of my things blowing away! I did, however, get to eat a Snickers bar at the summit because we had just a teeny bit more time to rest, so I had extra time to put the effort in!!!
- When the guides tell you to eat 200 (or more!) calories per break, you eat 200 calories per break! I was probably about ¾ of the way into our 2nd leg of our ascent when I started to feel really fatigued and concerned I might not make it to the top. It was taking all the energy I had to fight the wind, and at that point I was losing the battle. I’m pretty sure I must have looked pretty drunk the way the wind was handling me! The problem was I only got about ¾ of a mini KIND bar in me (the other part broke, fell to the ground, and blew away) and that was it. I’m thinking that I got about 80 calories in before having to gear back up and continue on the trek. No, I didn’t mean to eat so few calories on that 1st break! I just didn’t make eating and drinking my priority. I was more concerned about where I was supposed to be sitting and how I was going to be transferred from one rope team to another; the team I started with was returning to base camp. I didn’t realize time was going to slip by so quickly, and believe it or not, strong winds tend to make it harder to get things done efficiently! From here on out, I made eating and drinking the suggested amount my priority, leading to my steady and strong energy levels the rest of the time.
- Did I mention gel packs yet?! Haha, just kidding! I’m just bringing them up again because I realize now I should have researched the food situation a little more. Not the quality or quantity of the food, but how easy it would be to eat my stash. As I mentioned before, the gel packs I could handle, but with the KIND bars I thought I was going to break a tooth! I suggest thinking about how much effort it would take to eat a food item that could become mostly frozen before purchasing a ton of them. I also would keep in mind how difficult it will be to handle your food selections. Can you unwrap them easily? Are they too small or bulky? Will there be a lot of trash involved? If I did the climb again, I’d want to keep things as simple as possible. For me, it became all about conserving as much energy as possible, and it was amazing to me how fast this energy left me when performing seemingly simple tasks like taking care of my trash!
- Communication is the key to success! There were a few times during the trek where Casey was quick to remind me that it was imperative to communicate to the rest of my team. One of the times was when I caught my crampon on my gaiter and took a swift and painful fall straight onto my knees while walking on the ledge of a crevasse. I couldn’t react fast enough to break my fall with my hands, but I at least could’ve thought to tell my team to stop. Had Casey not told them to stop, we could’ve been in a precarious situation! Since we were all roped together, if one person falls, we could all fall. By me not informing my team that I had fallen and that we needed to stop for a minute, I could’ve put us all in serious danger. Communication is a must on this mountain in order to climb it safely and successfully!
And last, but not least
- I love RMI and their spectacular guides! There is no way I would have made it up that mountain without their support, expertise, and passion for mountaineering. There is nothing they want more than to get you to the very top safely! If it weren’t for Casey’s belief in my abilities and his mastery of guiding, I would have turned around in a heartbeat at that 2nd break. Just prior to that break was when I was struggling big time mentally and physically. His uncanny ability to read his team and the mountain were fascinating to me. Right away he picked-up on my struggles and gave me encouragement and support. At all times, he was aware of the conditions on the mountains, from the status of the trails and glaciers to the shifts in the stars and the clouds. Based on others in the whole group, these characteristics were not just limited to Casey; all of the RMI guides share these same attributes! I am so grateful for this amazing group of guides because without them, my Mt Rainier experience would never have been the same awesomeness that it was!!!
She’s really good at writing these post things isn’t she?!
If you guys haven’t figured it out she made it to the top! And also all the team members that left after our first stop made it as well. They certainly struggled but the guide’s determination and cunning abilities played a huge factor on making the summit as safely and enjoyable as possible.
Usually a Mt Rainier summit bid takes around 6-8 hrs (from Camp Muir to the Summit and back to Camp Muir) due to the extraordinary conditions it took them almost 11 hrs and also they were only at the summit for 15 min, so as you can imagine when they started to arrive at Camp Muir they were exhausted. Catie’s team was the first one that arrived at Camp Muir and I thought she was going to be so spent and mentally exhausted, but the first thing she did when she saw us was smile and wave at me…that made my day!
The rest of the team slowly started to arrive and we only had around 1 hr to get ready to start the descent to Paradise. We packed our gear and we were off.The descent to Paradise only took us 2 hrs. We just had one stop to have a quick snack & water and change our shoes. When we arrived at Paradise the bus was waiting for us to drive us down to BaseCamp. The ride down was quiet—nobody had energy to talk.
When we arrived at BaseCamp we just wanted to get some real food so we ordered some burgers, beer & wine and we just sat! While we were loitering we decided to return the rented equipment, so we were a little bit productive.
Lastly we met up with the team and guides one last time to get together and just hang out for a bit. The guides also gave us certificates of participation or certificates that acknowledge your summit!
We also had the privilege of meeting Dave Hahn! He’s part of the RMI family and if you don’t who he is, he’s a legend among the climbing/mountaineering community! As I call him, the “LeBron James of mountaineering!” He’s a really cool guy. He actually singed our certificates so that was cool! And one thing that he told us that made me feel a little bit better about my experience was that Mt Rainier is an extremely difficult mountain to climb and anybody who attempts or summits must feel extremely proud of their achievement, Mt Rainier is no joke!
This has been one of the most difficult and mentally challenging things I’ve ever done in my life; I started this journey with the goal of conquering Mt Rainier but in the end as Jim Whittaker once said “You never conquer a mountain. Mountains can’t be conquered; you conquer yourself”. He was right, I wasn’t able to conquer it but it made me realize that I need to push myself more and more on everything I do and try to make the best of it regardless of the outcome because “If your aren’t living on the edge, you are taking too much space”. We literally lived on the edge when we were up in the mountain for that short period of time, and that space we filled we deserved it and we owned it, because we were living on the edge.