Mt Rainier, August 2015

It was July 4th, 2015, I receive a text from my buddy Jeff who I had met during a search and rescue exercise a few years before. He had informed me that another friend of ours, John had broken his leg in a motorcycle accident. Jeff and John were both planning a trip to climb the Disappointment Cleaver or DC route on Mount Rainier in August. Jeff wanted to know if I was available to fill John’s spot. At first I wasn’t sure and thought I wouldn’t be able to afford the trip. My fiancé (now wife) encouraged me to do it. I thought about it the next day while I was on a search for a young boy with autism. The search went on for three days until the boy was found alive, thankfully. I made up my mind and accepted the offer to join Jeff and another fellow Dave who John and Jeff had connected with online. I purchased plane tickets and bought the necessary gear. For the entire month of July I planned for the trip. I had never climbed a big mountain before and was unsure of how I would handle the altitude. As the day of my flight approached I became more and more excited. I would fly from the Greenville Spartanburg airport to Portland where I would meet Jeff. From Portland we would drive up to the Paradise Inn where we would stay a couple nights till Dave arrived.

I arrived at PDX around three in the afternoon and hoped in the rental car with Jeff. We drove over to Jeff’s girlfriends place there in Portland and picked up his luggage. Jeff was in need of a pair of Gore-tex pants so we drove to several gear shops in town and then finally to REI where Jeff had rented a sleeping bag for the trip (he had left his in Asheville). Finally we were on our way to Paradise. On the drive from Portland to Paradise we must have been really excited because the next thing you know we’re getting pulled over. The officer was a Washington State Trooper, and was very friendly, however he ticketed Jeff for going seventy in a fifty five. We arrived at the Paradise Inn around midnight, checked in to our room and crashed. In the morning while sorting through our gear Jeff realized that he had left his GoPro in Portland. We had the entire day to hang out and explore so we decided we would drive back down to Portland and visit Mount Saint Helens along the way. Once back at the hotel we started the arduous process of sorting and packing gear. This being my first mountaineering trip I was learning as I went. Looking back on it I had definitely overpacked, my pack weighing somewhere around 45 pounds. While we had all of our gear spread out in the hall of the hotel, Dave arrived. Dave, a tall dark haired prison warden in his fifties introduced himself and immediately I felt more comfortable with what we were about to do. He had been on the mountain once before and had a lot of experience mountaineering including a course he had taken a couple years prior. With our gear packed, we went over the plan. We would wake up around six and grab a good breakfast from the Inn’s dining hall and then hike and trudge up to camp Muir. We would stay a night at camp Muir and the gain another 1000 feet of elevation to our high camp at Ingraham Flats. From the Flats we would go for our summit bid.

August 6th, the alarm went off and I was up, a bit groggy but up. We sauntered down to the Dining Hall and stuffed our mouths. There wasn’t much talking that morning just the sounds of silver on china. After breakfast we checked out of our rooms, grabbed our packs, and had a tourist snap a picture of us at the entrance of the Inn. It was 8:30am and we were off. We hiked up the dead horse creek trail, connected with the skyline trail and finally turned onto the pebble creek trail before starting up the muir snowfield. We stopped to fill water in pebble creek, strapped on our gaiters and trudged up the muir snowfield. Just below moon rocks we stopped for a lunch break and took in the views. It was a bluebird day and we were all soaking it in. After lunch we started the long grueling, stair kicking hike up to camp muir. We arrived at camp around 3:30pm exhausted. This was my first experience above 6600 feet and I was feeling the thinner air for sure. We started the process of setting up our camp. We picked a spot in the saddle and started digging out our bivy spot, while Jeff filled a trash bag with snow to melt for water. Setting up my bivy was hard work at 10,000 feet. After we were all set up we boiled water and ate some freeze dried meals before bedding down for the night. Once I was laying in my bevy I noticed that I had a terrible sunburn on my forehead. I had applied sunscreen during the day but I hadn’t been on top of reapplying and it got me. By 8:30 that evening I was fast asleep.

We woke with the sun and took our time around camp. We were in no hurry to get going, today we would only climb another 1000 feet to our high camp. While we were going about our morning routine, each taking turns going to the awful toilets and brewing coffee, I noticed a group of guides carrying a stokes basket down toward our camp. For some stupid reason I thought they were just training and went about making breakfast. A few minutes latter and they were walking past us with a guy in the basket and blood trailing behind them. That’s when I realized that something serious had happened. One of the guides informed the whole camp that a helicopter would be landing in camp and to make sure to have everything pinned down.

Rescue from Camp Muir. There’s Dave in the blue jacket on the right.

After the commotion with the helicopter, we packed up camp, roped up and headed for our high camp, Ingraham flats. 10:45am, I would be in the lead, lightest guy goes first. We were probably only 100 feet out of camp when I saw my first crevasse. It was tiny compared to what would come latter, but exciting none-the-less. We followed the well established boot track toward cathedral gap, crossing under the rock face that claimed a broken leg early in the morning. I couldn’t help but push Dave and Jeff to move quickly through this section. We arrived at the rock feature of cathedral gap, shortened the rope between us and started the crampon scratching hike up and over. It wasn’t long that we left the kitty litter trail of cathedral gap and were back on snow. We passed by some massive crevasses and while walking next to one, the whole side calved off and a plume of snow dust rose from the crack. It was amazing and terrifying all at the same moment. By 11:15am we reached the flats, and set up our base camp. Here we would rest and go for our summit bid in the wee hours of the night. After setting up camp we laid about relaxing and resting up for the summit. From camp we had a great view of the Disappointment Cleaver rock ridge, the feature the route was named after. We could see groups picking their way down the loose chose pile. Every once in a while a massive rock slide would be triggered by the parties descending. It was scary to watch especially knowing that we would be up there soon.

We all laid down around 5:00pm in order to get some rest before the final push to the summit. I felt restless, with the same loop of thoughts running through my head, “will we do it, will I have the strength to get to the summit?” My eyes closed, I drifted off into some sort of sleep, and just at that moment I hear a rumble that got louder. Crashing of rock on rock echoing in the nearby cadaver gap. The sound snapped me from my “sleep” and I unzipped my bivy to see the plume of dust rising over the gap. After that moment sleep never really came back, and I lay in my bivy until the sound of my alarm went off. 10:30pm I unzip from my bag and half reluctantly slip on my boots. Jeff and Dave both do the same. We barely speak as we gather our things and sort our gear. By now we know what must be done and there is no reason to waste our precious energy speaking. I stomach a pouch of freeze dried oatmeal and drink some hot glacier water. Once we have all eaten and packed our bags, we harness up and tie into the rope. We run a safety check and the summit bid begins. A surge of emotions well up in me and pass just as soon as it came. Onward we march, headlamps burning in the cold clear night. We cross the first of many crevasses and then a ladder, the first of three we are to encounter. Moving beneath the Ingraham ice fall we surmount the cleaver, a sharp ridge of loose choss. We follow a faint path up the cleaver, winding around boulders, as sparks fly from our crampons. I look down what seems like a 1000 feet to our camp below, and like a serpent of light, there are several lines of headlamps winding up the mountain from below. I think of Lord of the Rings. It’s the siege of Mount Rainier. A little over an hour has passed since we left camp and we’ve come to the top of the cleaver. I stop to change my sweaty base layer, and onward we trudge, back on glacier. Following the boot tracks ahead we march into a chasm surrounded by giant house sized seracs, and huge crevasses below. The smell of sulphur emanates from deep within crevasses. I imagine a fissure in the rock below, venting the volcanic gases. We stop again, Jeff has to warm his freezing hands. I look ahead and see the next obstacle, a steep traverse hundreds of feet above a series of giant crevasses. My heart pounds in my chest, “Holy fuckin shit!” I mutter under my breath. The realization of the risks we are faced with starts to sink in and weigh heavy on my mind. As I approach the traverse I see a fixed hand line that the guides have set up. I clip in and start up the slope. I come to a picket and have to unclip and clip back in the uphill side. I make it to the top Jeff and Dave both working their way up behind me. I turn a corner thinking that the scary part is over, then to my surprise my headlamp shines down a huge eight foot wide crevasse with a ladder angling up hill. I swallow the lump in my throat and begin to step on the ladder. The ladder moves and my light shines down into the crevasse which seems bottomless. I exhale heavily and craw hands and knees across. Jeff and Dave follow suit behind me, however I think Dave calmly walked across. Up another bit of hand lines and we stop again. This time the wind is whipping and I begin to shiver. We are somewhere near 13,000 feet, the summit only another 1000 feet or so above us. Once rested we trudge on, the wind in our faces making the journey that much harder. Ahead I see a pair of headlamps over a crevasse and as we approach I see that two guides are fixing the last ladder. We cross and start the final switch-backing up to the summit. Day light is coming and the wind is fierce. I feel the rope get tight behind me so I slow and then stop. I wait and then start up again trying to regain my pace. Jeff is struggling, he’s hit the wall. We stop I walk down to him and we all discuss the options. Jeff tells us to leave him and for us to go on. We both explain to him that there are only two options, we all go up together or we all go down together. We will not leave anyone alone. I hand Jeff a Gu, he eats it and chases it down with some water. In a few minutes he’s regained some energy and we start going again. The sun is rising in the east and I see the crater rim only a hundred feet or so above us. The surge of emotions hit me hard and I start to weep a bit. I think of my fiancee back home and my parent too. I think of how proud they’ll be. My dreams are being fulfilled and I’m not sure how to handle it. A few more steps and I’m standing on the crater rim looking down into it. I start down and cross a moat formed by the hot volcanic gases. once in the crater we stop again and make a brew with the small stove I carried up. After a short break we cross the crater toward the true summit and sign the registry. We hang out for a bit and then start the long slog back to base camp.

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