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How to Climb Mt. Rainier, Part 3: One More Time

If at first you don't succeed, you climb, climb again. Obviously.

Welcome to a confessional recap of my unsuccessful first attempt to summit 14,411-foot Mt. Rainier, the fifth-highest peak in the lower 48.

Embarrassing? You can't imagine. I'm typing this report through the eyeholes of the paper bag that covers my head. I feel like a football coach whose team was favored by three touchdowns, and now I have to explain how I lost by 14 points. Ugh. Where can I hide?

Happily, this story also includes some good news:

• I know where I went wrong.
• I'm heading back to Rainier this weekend to try again.

If I don't make it to the top this time, of course, the chagrin factor will be so acute that I've decided I'm simply not coming down. "Good idea," says my blogging sidekick Steve T. "You can become the Yeti of Rainier."

Let's flashback to what went wrong last weekend:

1. Excessive energy output at the start. To supplement a newspaper story I'm writing about this experience, I spent much of the first hour of my group's ascent from the trailhead (Paradise Visitor Center parking lot, 5,420 feet) running ahead or to the side to take pictures. Within the first hour I was drenched in sweat. I burned up much of my energy reserves in a hurry. Dumb.

2. Inadequate food and water intake. Dumb, part 2: On high-intensity hikes it's not unusual for me to lose interest in food, which is a bad backcountry habit of mine. It’s common for people to lose their appetites at higher elevations, so it may be necessary to engage in “mechanical eating” solely for the sake of providing critical fuel regardless of appetite. (I force-fed myself a handful of energy chews before descending from high camp in order to put some pep in my step.) Insufficient refueling apparently is a common blunder on Rainier climbs, in addition to inadequate hydration. One of 8 tips Rainier's lead climbing ranger Stefen Lofgren shared with me for a trio of Seattle Times articles on climbing Rainier is "Drink enough water to keep urine clear/transparent." I didn't do it, even though I knew better, and paid the price. At high camp (Camp Muir, 10,080 feet), snow must be melted for water.  Definitely take the time to melt plenty -- and drink it.

3. Inadequate rest. I only got 6 hours of sleep the night before the hike to Camp Muir. (Dumb, part 3.) Then at camp, our group bunked down at 8 p.m. and arose at 11 p.m. I wanted to be a good guest with two other climbers inside our 3-person tent, so I focused a little too much on not rolling around. Thus I lay there like a plank for 3 hours and never conked out. All this dumbness was beginning to pile up: Early fatigue + minimal replenishment + insufficient rest = trouble's brewin'.

4. Trouble negotiating rocks. When leaving Camp Muir in the dark (12:30 a.m. for our 12-person group), we strapped on crampons and climbed an easy route up Cowlitz Glacier. Next came an unpleasantly rocky catwalk (Cathedral Gap) above the glacier, then a moderate ice walk across Ingraham Glacier, followed by the jumble of steep, inhospitable rocks and grit on Disappointment Cleaver. (This ice-rock-ice-rock routine is known as "mixed climbing.") I'm not agile to begin with, and with 12-point crampons lashed to my weary size 13 hoofs, I morphed into Kurt Klutz on the rocks, falling several times.

5. Capitulation. The turnaround moment came just below 12,000 feet in the Cleaver when I stumbled backwards into ace climbing partner Mark Scheffer, a respected climbing instructor (and board of trustees member) with the Seattle branch of The Mountaineers (who was short-roping me at the time), and took out his headlamp. As I rose from the dust I could imagine Mark and rope leader Rich Leggett silently thinking the same notion that Detective Frank Drebin (The Naked Gun) indelicately blurted when standing at the bedside of a wounded comrade: "I wouldn't wait until the last minute to fill out those organ donor cards."

Altitude also was a likely factor in my struggles. I battled thin air a few years ago when climbing Washington's 12,276-foot Mt. Adams. I doubt that conditioning was an issue. I had been training hard for weeks at the gym and on the trail. So altitude likely played a role, but I think my drained energy supply was the key culprit.

Sally Hara, a registered dietician and board certified specialist in sports dietetics of ProActive Nutrition, based in Kirkland, Wash., concurs. On Day One, during the climb from Paradise to Camp Muir (4.5 miles, 4,660 feet), Hara estimates a person with my body type (6-foot, 206 pounds) will burn about 700 calories an hour. I was trying to make the trip on an early-morning bowl of Grape-Nuts, a banana and a now-and-then handful of trail mix along the route. Dumb; I needed way more carbohydrates, according to Hara.

"If you're not able to store enough glycogen, you bonk," Hara says. "You need to be eating at least 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour for such an endurance activity. Protein and fat provide fuel too, but cannot be utilized as quickly or as efficiently as carbohydrates during exercise.

"Hydration and electrolyte replacement is another huge issue," she says. "If you are depleted in electrolytes, your brain can't send signals to your muscles as efficiently. It's a like a cell phone trying to send out a phone call in an area where the phone has no bars. Our brains can't make our legs go." Maybe that's why I was stumbling all over myself in Disappointment Cleaver.

I also can't rely on any extra flab I happen to be lugging around as a backup energy source. "We need oxygen to burn fat as fuel," Hara says. "At higher elevations, our bodies' ability to do that is reduced.

"We have an additional hydration need at higher elevations as well. In thinner, drier air, you put out more moisture through sweat and breathing than you take in. For this type of activity, you have to keep feeding your body carbohydrates and beverages."

Nine other people in my climbing party summited, 5 of whom (4 of them women) are enrolled in the Basic Climbing Course of The Mountaineers. The climb fulfilled the glacier-climb requirement of their class. I was mildly comforted to hear that several of them had occasional stumbles in the rocks as well. Everyone was compassionate and sympathetic to my plight. If I had a nickel for every time I heard "The mountain will always be there," I could have bought new pants to replace the ones I tore up during my falls.

I appreciated all the kind words, but the words that really echo in my mind are the ones I heard a week before the climb, during a training hike at Rainier. As I was heading up, I bumped into a couple in summit-descent mode. I'm guessing they were in their early 60s and, let's just say they did not project a classic mountaineering presence. The woman acknowledged as much as we discussed their successful climb. She gestured to herself. "Look at me," she said. "If I can make it, anybody can make it."

So I, Mr. Anybody, will try again this weekend. I will follow Hara's suggestion to ease off training in the days before the climb and power down extra carbohydrates. I have enlisted the generous help of another skilled climber, John Colver. Colver, a former British Olympic cyclist, is founder of Seattle-based AdventX, an outdoor training program for endurance athletes. Colver has summited Rainier 75 times, most often as a senior guide with International Mountain Guides, one of 3 commercial guide services licensed to take paying clients up Rainier.

Colver will publish a book next spring on the virtues of training for the outdoors in the outdoors. He's a strong, reassuring fellow, an athlete who entertains much bigger personal goals than my relatively modest quest to climb Rainier. This September he plans to compete in the Gore-Tex TransAlpine Run, an 8-day, 3-country race (Germany, Austria and Italy) covers 179 miles in mountainous terrain. Sheesh. I feel so…ordinary. Colver is plotting a 3-day game plan for my latest summit attempt, starting Sunday. If all goes well, I'll be on top Tuesday morning.

"We're going to get this done," he says. I'm eager to try.

Posted on at 9:06 PM

Tagged: AdventX, Camp Muir, Climbing, Disappointment Cleaver, John Culver, ProActive Nutrition, Sally Hara, The Mountaineers and mt. rainier

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Lisa Hess Elliott

Hi there T.D. :) I have lived around Mt. Rainier for years and have completed many 1/2 marathons and hike everywhere. I am a regular person, but I have to say I go to the mountain just to watch people head up the snowfields. I know you are put through a grueling test before you even go. I believe you have it figured out and YOU ARE GOING TO SUMMIT! You are right on in assessing where you went wrong. This time don't talk to anyone either, bring headphones and some sort of distraction. I am sure you know to dress in layers and I even dress on the cool side to start, don't let your heart rate get elevated. AS far as sleep I don't think a lot of folks sleep there, bring earplugs if you think that may help. I also eat a lot of Laffy Taffy and just plan sugar and tons of water while I'm up playing at Muir.

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Jason Liburdi

I was fortunate enough to summit with John and IMG in late June. I cannot imagine that anyone else could give you as much encouragement, confidence, and guidance. Plus, he makes a mean batch of chocolate chip pancakes! You're probability of success just multiplied. Good luck!

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Jason Liburdi

I was fortunate enough to summit with John and IMG in late June. I cannot imagine that anyone else could give you as much encouragement, confidence, and guidance. Plus, he makes a mean batch of chocolate chip pancakes! You're probability of success just multiplied. Good luck!

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halhiker

I don't think energy exertion or lack of sleep had as much to do with you failure as poor diet. I wrote on an earlier post that you needed to bring some real food. Carbs are never going to give you enough energy for a long haul climb at elevation; you need more fat. There's a reason climbers have always eaten cheese, fatty meats and GORP. Those things give you the energy you need for long, slow climbing. Most of the newfangled energy foods are more hype and marketing than real nutrition. None of the old time climbers I know would ever think of consuming that stuff to support a climb.

I've climbed Rainier, Hood, numerous peaks in California and have done a lot of day hikes in the 20-30 mile range. I know about energy expenditure and replenishment. You need a good balance of dietary input, not just carbs.

However, most of the mountaineers I know do spend plenty of time carbo loading before and after climbs. They tend to prefer a high carbohydrate carbonated grain beverage. The good thing about it is that it goes very well with a variety of foods.

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Allegheny Jeff

I was pulling for you to summit, sorry you didn't make it. Last August, I summited with a group from RMI. I'm 6'1" 205 and was 47 at the time. Climbing Rainier was most physically demanding thing I've ever done. I'm guessing you are in better physical shape than I was for the climb. My suffering was a result poor physical conditioning: relying on 30 minute workouts on a Stairmaster plus some strength training. The first time I wore a backpack was during the RMI training course the day before climbing to Muir. I ate something at every stop (RMI would have breaks nearly every hour). I'd recommend trail mix (w/ peanuts and chocolate), a couple of five-hour energy drinks (one per day when needed most), Gatorade, and Snickers. Hydrate like crazy. Don't worry about sleep, you probably won't get much. I got about 6 hours before climbing Muir. At Muir, my bunk mate's "jimmy legs" and my elevated heartbeat from high altitude guaranteed zero sleep the night before summit.
Near the summit, I was sucking wind so much that I suffered frostbite on my tonsils and on the entire back of my throat; during that part of the climb, I couldn't dig back in my pack to get a gator. My throat hurt like crazy for a week and it took over two weeks to completely heal. I was one of the climbers that guides worry about; I made it to the summit but had nothing left to get down. I laid on the summit for an hour waiting for those who crossed the crater to make their way there and back; that let me rest. My legs were like spaghetti for the descent, but somehow I made it over crevasses and the Cleaver.
I remember encountering a couple from Chicago on the descent who approached our team with wide-eyed wonder. They smiled and said, "We're thinking of climbing one day. How was it?" I must have seemed like such a downer when I replied, "Be prepared to suffer like you've never suffered before." It was an honest reply, but not the one they were looking for.
When RMI says to be "in the best shape of your life" they aren't kidding. My mistake was not hammering more cardio and working out with a backpack.
Weather permitting you'll summit on Tuesday. With your physical conditioning and watching your food/fuel/hydration intake, you'll make it to the top.

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