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How to Climb Mt. Rainier, Part 4: On Top, at Last

Enough humble pie. Success, I promise you, tastes much sweeter, and on Monday, July 26, I got the full-meal satisfaction deal when at last, 1 week after enduring an ego-crumpling failure, I stood atop 14,411-foot Mt. Rainier, the tallest glaciated peak in the lower 48.

"For a few minutes, we're the highest people in the Pacific Northwest," my ace climbing partner, John Colver, told me on the summit. He meant physically, not psychoactively, of course. And in my case, the sentiment applied emotionally as well.

tw-atop-rainier-511

T.D. Wood atop 14,411-foot Mount Rainier. (Photo: John Colver)

Standing on Rainier's iced-over crown meant I had:

1) bounced back from a woeful first summit attempt 1 week earlier, and 

2) recovered from a nauseating bout of altitude sickness that gripped me on my first conscious breath of our scheduled summit day. It was a dispiriting realization, and at one point I wondered if I could even muster the strength to crawl out of my sleeping bag -- then climb more than 4,000 feet from our high camp at 10,080 feet? Inconceivable.

Even though it was his 6th Rainier summit of 2010, and nearly the 80th in his career of professional guiding (he is a senior guide with International Mountain Guides), completing a challenging climb, John says, still gives him a buzz.

"Reaching the summit and enjoying the beauty of the mountain is an accomplishment you never take for granted," he said, a notion that conveys even more gravitas when heard Colver's dignified Scottish accent. On top, a little more than 6 hours after leaving our base camp at Camp Muir, we shared a handshake, finally a manhug, and radiated contentment and camaraderie from 14,000 feet to all 4 corners of earth's horizon.

colver-wood-camp-muir

John Colver, left, and T.D. Wood at Mount Rainier's Camp Muir.

Learning the Hard Way

As explained in an earlier blog post, I -- a high-energy hiker who is only briefly stepping into a climber's world -- blundered mightily and frequently in my first summit attempt. Worse, I committed all these mistakes in the company of an encouraging group of instructors and students from The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based group dedicated to enhancing outdoor adventure skills.

Among my many forehead-slappers:

1. Burning up lots of energy at the start of the climb. Who was that loon dashing 'round and 'round, taking dozens of pictures during the first hour on the route? I remember now: It was me. What a chowderhead.

2. Not enough water, not enough food. A galoot my size (6-foot, 206 pounds) needs to pound down 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour during intense activity. Plus enough water to keep urine clear. I wasn't even close to those levels.

3. Not enough sleep. Not before the climb; not on the climb, either.

4. Abrupt altitude change. The 3 factors cited above did nothing to ease my acclimatization at a high elevation.

The outcome: Our 12-person group rose at 11 p.m., began climbing by 12:30 a.m., and within 2 hours I was first fatigued, then frustrated by 2 difficult rocky sections along Mt. Rainier's heavily traveled Disappointment Cleaver route. I, the gasping blogger, forced my 3-man team (which included Mark Scheffer, the kind-hearted fellow who invited me on this trip) to turn back before reaching 12,000 feet. Exasperating.

colver-muir-peak-512

Atop Muir Peak, John Colver views Mount Adams and Mount Hood (T.D. Wood photo)

"As we say in the guide business, you got spanked by the mountain a week earlier," says John, who operates AdventX, a pioneering outdoor training program in Seattle for outdoor athletes. "But you did the right thing: You immediately dusted yourself off and decided you would go again."

Lucky Me

The only reason I could go was because John, the technical alpine sage, agreed to guide me, the near-hapless climbing novice, on short notice. The strange thing is, I had met John only 2 weeks earlier, during a guided-by-fate encounter at Mt. Rainier.

I was finishing a practice climb on Rainier's slopes late on a Sunday afternoon when our paths crossed. A trail conversation led to a business-card swap and a see-you-maybe-never-again wave at the trailhead. Yet within 24 hours of my failed climb, I was slinging SOS messages into John's email inbox. No other climbers I knew could commit to a Rainier climb on such short notice. Yet John, the almost stranger, signed on.

I've learned this about climbers: Many, if not most, are self-sacrificing zealots who love evangelizing their sport. Mark Scheffer? John Colver? Cut from the same charitable cloth.

The Game Plan for the Comeback Climb:

1. Take 3 days instead of 2; use the extra time to acclimatize at high altitude.
2. Eat. Drink. Often.
3. Climb at a measured, moderate, non-huffing-puffing pace where conversations can be sustained and the anaerobic threshold is not exceeded; rest briefly every 1,000 feet (roughly every 50-60 minutes).
4. Attempt a less-conventional "sunset summit." Depart Camp Muir around 1 p.m. of Day 2; reach upper slopes (above 12,400 feet) when Rainier's summit has shaded over the route, firming the snow for high-traction travel.

Three others were invited to join us, but none could make it. John and I would be a 2-man summit team, a glorious luxury for me. Day 1 was a thing of beauty. Using the advice of Sally Hara, a certified specialist in sports dietetics who operates ProActive Nutrition in Kirkland, Wash., I pounded down pasta days before the climb and ate freely and liberally during the climb.

rainier-5-below-camp-muir

A climbing party draws near Camp Muir at 10,600 feet. (T.D. Wood photo)

My little ritual: I brought 4 sub sandwiches with me. (The only time I eat subs, making each bite a brain-pleasing motivational treat.) John and I each ate a 6-incher at the trailhead; I wolfed down another on the snowfield hike up to Muir. The last one would be in my pack on summit day. Plus I packed energy bars, gels, chews and electrolyte drinks. I even consumed them this time. It all resulted in an easy climb from 5,420 feet at Paradise Visitor Center to Camp Muir (10,080).

Uh-oh

Yet when Day 2 dawned, I awoke with a queasy stomach, a headache (a 4 on the 10 Misery Scale), weak knees and no pep. What a groaner. Am I doomed to shame myself on Rainier again?

John, an EMT, prescribed repeated "pressure breaths," a technique that follows deep inhaling with forceful exhaling to purge stagnant air from lungs. In the paramedic community, Colver says this is known as positive pressure exhalations, or PPE. He relies on academics to properly explain the process.

That, plus some snacking, forced movement, prayer and forced water intake put the brakes on my morning of illin'. "Look, you've got color back in your face. Good," John fairly marveled at 11 a.m. By noon I was loading my pack. At 12:50 p.m. we headed out.

On my first trip, where high fatigue compounded my low agility, I entered the difficult, exposed-rock sections of the route (Cathedral Gap and Disappointment Cleaver) in the dark. With fanged crampons clamped to my size 13 hooves, I navigated the lumpy, chopped-up catwalks like a human wrecking ball, tending to crash as often as a student driver in a NASCAR race.

This time I navigated both rockpiles in daylight and without crampons, 2 factors that contributed to my total of zero stumbles. At the top of the Cleaver (12,400 feet), with only firm ice ahead, I lashed on my crampons and scarfed down my final sub. A good appetite is a good sign at that point in a climb, John said, especially for someone who started the day barely able to sit up.

We marched steadily up the always-steep route, short-stepped across some heart-clutching crevasses and, just past 7, attained the rocky crater rim of Columbia Crest. We crossed the crater, signed the register, hiked to the high point and blissed out as Rainier cast an immense, pyramidal shadow over every hill and dale to the east.

A Sunset Summit?

Return time was less than 5 hours, even with my slow-go knees, and we reached Muir after midnight -- about the time most parties are beginning their push for a traditional sunrise summit. Was the sunset option a radical choice?

"It's a favorite of guides and rangers," Colver said. (We met a climbing ranger on patrol during our descent, in fact.)

"The safety question is one that needs to be looked at objectively. Most accidents are the result of subjective hazards -- people making poor decisions that lead to getting lost, being on the mountain too long or getting tired, dehydrated and so on.

"An objective hazard is one that we can't do anything about -- rockfall, icefall, lightning. We can mitigate those things through planning and movement. On that route, the most hazardous section was the transition under the icefall (on Ingraham Glacier) onto the Cleaver -- the 'bowling alley,' as we call it.

Rockfall and Icefall Issues

"Intuitively, one might think that the afternoon is the hottest time on that section," Colver says. "However, the east-facing slope is subjected to its greatest heat in the morning.

"I don't have any statistics but we see most rockfall around 9-11 a.m., when the ice holding the rocks is melting. Yet the biggest risk of rockfall is climber-inflicted rockfall. So for these reasons it's far safer to do that section in mid-afternoon compared to morning. The snow is cooling because the angle of the sun is very low, and there are very few climbers. So less chance of rockfall."

colver-ingraham-ice-field

John Colver pauses, but only briefly, on the Ingraham ice field. (T.D. Wood photo)

Colver says it's important for a guide to assess rockfall potential by looking and listening. "During the hour before we crossed, I heard or saw no rockfall, and this is a good sign," he says. "Finally, if we were to experience rockfall, it's far easier to see falling rocks in daytime than at night.

"All in all," Colver adds, "it's a perfect time to climb. But it should be noted that this is an unusual situation because of the angle/aspect of the slope and the presence of the Disappointment Cleaver, which is not a glacier, so it poses no risk of crevasse falls. As an example, I would not climb the Tahoma Glacier in the afternoon, since it is facing west and gets the full brunt of the sun during that time.

"Icefall is an odd thing to predict," Colver says. "Seracs fall when they choose and it's impossible to predict. Statistically, the 13 or so fatalities that have occurred at that spot happened just before dawn.
 
"I think my best advice to people trying to mitigate hazards would be: Have a good plan, and make sure that plan is based on sound judgment, not 'We'll do it this way because everyone else does.' Look at the actual terrain, weather, temperature and any other factors as you see them. Be prepared to turn around or change the plan accordingly."

The 2 Sides of Risk

Risk is inherent in mountain climbing. Mt. Rainier has averaged roughly 10,000 summit attempts per year for the past 5 years, yet no climbing-related death had occurred on the mountain since 2005 until this year. A fatality, the third on Rainier during 2010, occurred on the day John and I descended to our vehicle, unaware such a tragedy was unfolding.

An experienced, respected climber, Lee Adams, fell into a crevasse at 13,000 feet on a route adjacent to the one John and I climbed 1 day earlier. Sobering news; it tempered the celebratory rush my redemption climb had stoked inside me.

Colver, who has treated numerous injuries on mountains, is always aware of climbing's potential hazards. "I have this quote by Friedrich von Schiller on my desk: 'Who dares nothing, need hope for nothing.'

"I like that and I believe in it," says Colver, a former paratrooper in the British Army (and a past national team cyclist). "The mountain is so beautiful and the experiences we have are so profound. I just try to keep things in perspective. As a soldier friend of mine always says when we climb together, 'Sure, it's scary -- but at least it's not actually trying to kill us.'

"I hope to never see another accident on Rainier," Colver says, "and I hope I die sitting on my couch watching TV when I'm 90. Until then, I'm comfortable with the risk."

Two additional items of interest:

  • Read T.D. Wood's 3-part series on preparing for a Rainier climb, published in The Seattle Times.
  • View a photo gallery of an all-woman Rainier climb in July led by REI CEO Sally Jewell.

Posted on at 3:19 PM

Tagged: AdventX, Cathedral Gap, Disappointment Cleaver, John Colver, Mark Scheffer, The Mountaineers, mt. rainier and sunset summit

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NorthWest Climber

Congrats, Terry! Good job getting back up there and making it happen.

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Manley

Way to go, Terry!...

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whammer

Congrats Cuz! WOW is all I can say! You are the man! I am glad you made it back safely!

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