Washington: Mt. Rainier (14,410 feet)
Dates: September 8-10 2011; June 10-12, 2019
Distance: ~15 miles
Elevation: 14,410 feet
Vertical gain: 9,100 feet
Bathrooms: Flushing toilet at Paradise, Fixed outhouse at Muir
Mt. Rainier was my first attempt at a state highpoint in September of 2011. After that experience, I temporarily set the mountain aside while I embraced the goal of standing on the highest natural point in each state of the Continental U.S. I have since reached those other 47 state highpoints. After eight years, I turned back to where it all began.
How the Idea Formed (September 2007)
All of those years ago, I had no idea what it took to attempt a mountain like Mt. Rainier. I’ve always been drawn to the outdoors, so when I found myself in Seattle in September of 2007 and saw the mountain, I had to go there. It wasn’t even a choice I’d stopped to ponder. On the fly, I rearranged my schedule of sightseeing in Seattle to go see the mountain up close.
We did a beautiful short hike near the base, then made our way to the Visitor’s Center at Paradise. I started reading signs about how people went to the top of Rainier. It had never occurred to me that anyone would attempt such a feat. I kept saying aloud, “wow, people go to the top of this…”
Shaun advised me (repeatedly) not to get any ideas and I assured him that I wouldn’t. But, several months later, I found I hadn’t stopped thinking about getting to the top. I had tried to contain the urge, but I needed to climb Mt. Rainier.
Attempt #1 (September 2011)
For those next few years, I talked to anyone who would listen about Mt. Rainier. Probably from my incessant chatter, I managed to recruit Shaun and his Dad for this pilgrimage.
We began with a 4 hour gear check at the IMG headquarters in Ashford. Never before had I put so much thought and preparation into each item I would carry on a hike. All of our heads were spinning as we left for the night with our packs ready for the adventure.
The next morning we rejoined with the climbers and guides at IMG and rode in a van to Paradise. We took care of our bathroom needs then hit the trail.
For the next six hours, the pattern was to climb an hour then rest on our packs to refuel and hydrate. Slogging up the snowfields with a 40 pound pack for approximately 5,000 feet of elevation gain might as well have been a stair master with unstable footing while carrying a small child. It was grueling work.
Having never done something of this magnitude, I just about crawled into Muir that afternoon. Our guides got us settled into the bunk house and showed us how to locate the IMG food tent and the bathroom. We rested and hydrated while they cooked us dinner, then journeyed over to the food tent as a team.
Sleeping at over 10,000 feet for the first time in my life, I battled a raging headache. Add to that, I felt quite gross sleeping in the same clothes I’d just spent six hours sweating in. But, this was all in the name of adventure.
The guides described the second day as an “active rest day,” which, in retrospect it was. But, at that time, it required energy that I didn’t feel I had. We awoke to blueberry pancakes and the advice of getting fresh air to combat the headache, both of which put me in a more positive frame of mind.
After breakfast, our team ran through crampon techniques, use of the ice axe, and how to function together on a rope. Once the previous day’s climbers returned from the upper mountain, we were clear to proceed up to the Ingraham Glacier.
We hiked for a little over an hour, gaining around 1,000 feet of elevation to the next camp. We worked out who slept in which tent, then found the bathrooms, which were essentially open air snow caves – one for each gender.
The guides cooked us dinner, then sent us to bed around 4:00 pm with the promise of awakening somewhere around midnight. That night, I slept in my winter hat with the mummy sleeping bag completely covering my head. It was cold, but I somehow managed a few hours of sleep, perhaps feeling better than the night at Muir.
Awakened somewhere around 1:00 am (I think), we joined the team for toasted bagels with melted cheese. Everyone then had a few minutes to layer up clothing, put on crampons, grab our packs, and begin the final leg to the summit.
Around 3:00 am the wheels came off. My rope team had run out of endurance. I, feeling rather diminished physically and spent mentally, decided it was okay to turn around as well since I’d had my adventure.
At the time, it felt like the right decision. I’d never taken on a mountain of this magnitude. I wasn’t ready mentally or physically for these demands. My feet were blistered and sweaty from the rented double plastic boots. I didn’t have a good sense of how to balance the mental toughness through the physical discomfort. The goal, while in me, wasn’t what it is today.
We returned to our tents, grabbed a few more hours of sleep, then went on a relaxed, guided tour of the crevasses while about half of the team summited. We returned to Muir for a long rest, then made our way back to Paradise.
Attempt #2 (June 2019)
Eight years later, having set foot on the highest natural point of the 47 other highpoints in the Continental US, four friends (Karen, Steve, Rachel, and Cody) who have partnered with me on at least one other highpoint joined forces for #48. We couldn’t have asked for better teammates than John and Dylan, both Seattle residents who we met for the first time at the gear check.
This time, our gear check, in addition to examining every ounce entering our pack, included a PowerPoint presentation that walked us through the rough schedule including visuals of what lay ahead. This was a helpful addition to the itinerary for climbers who haven’t experienced the mountain.
As a fun side note, my blue Nats cap accompanied me on both journeys.
We wrapped the check in about three hours, then gathered for a team dinner in Ashford.
Day 1 (~5,000 feet of gain)
The first day of the climb mirrored the first day of the last attempt. The snow fields did not feel any easier despite me feeling physically and mentally stronger. The grueling slog on the never ending stairmaster of snow still presents a challenge.
One team member opted to turn around before the first break because the snow fields presented that much of a challenge.
We worried about losing a second teammate, who became dehydrated and slowed his pace in the final two legs, but made it to Muir with us. Admittedly, I just about crawled into Muir myself.
The shelter remained the same as 2011, but the bathrooms have moved in the eight years since I’ve been there. Now, Muir has several flushing toilets, conveyor belt style that you pump with your foot – true luxury for a multi-day climb.
Dinner included amazing burritos. While I had no appetite on trip one, I consumed almost two full portions of dinner this time around. The team voted on where each meal ranked in terms of deliciousness – these burritos came in #1, with Day 2’s breakfast as a close #2.
Day 2 (~1,000 feet of gain)
Our second day began with a group meditation inside the shelter. We wrapped the meditation feeling centered, in a solid frame of mind before the journey ahead. We also walked out of the shelter that morning having enhanced an already strong team bond.
Together we journeyed over to the food tent for delectable chocolate chip pancakes. Like dinner, I feasted on double portions and added in coffee for good measure.
Fueled, we ran through mountaineering techniques before heading up to the flats on the Ingraham glacier. This time, day 2 truly felt like an active rest day. It was still challenging to climb 1,000 additional vertical feet after the 5,000 the prior day, but all seven of us made it in good spirits.
The bathroom situation had changed at this camp too. Instead of two open-air snow caves, we now had one for everyone to share. The orientation of the snow wall also now sits perpendicular to the tents, rather than parallel. With only one stall, we had to coordinate timing, but navigated well as a team.
Settled in at high camp, we enjoyed mac and cheese before the guides put us to bed at 6 pm with the promise of waking between 9:30 and 11:30 pm.
Day 3 (~3,000 feet of gain; 9,000 descent)
At 10:30 pm, our lead guide woke the team. Though granted four and a half hours to lay down, I estimate that I slept only one of those hours. Karen, my tent mate, didn’t sleep at all.
We consumed an oatmeal breakfast, put on our crampons, grabbed our packs, and began marching exactly at midnight.
Instead of pushing for an hour then resting, today’s agenda was to sprint for an hour and a half or more between each of two stops. Having trained with one hard hour, a break, followed by another hard hour, going for 1.5+ hours at a clip challenged me. Add to that, I was on one hour of sleep with legs that had been pretty worked from the 6,000 feet of elevation gain over the prior two days, and asked to do all of this in the dark.
Disappointment Cleaver gains around 1,000 feet of elevation over unstable rocks. I would occasionally look up at the headlamps of the rope team in front of me. Several times, it appeared they were stopping for a break much higher than where I was standing, but then it would both surprise and disappoint me that they kept moving. Confusion further set in as I felt certain the team ahead of me consisted of Cody and John. Only later in the day did I discover it was actually Rachel and Dylan.
By the time we sat down from our first sprint up the Cleaver, it was around 1:45 am. Needless to say, I wasn’t feeling so great. I’m fuzzy on how this went down, but my guide asked how I was doing. Avoiding eye contact, I replied with something to the effect of – “I’m not going to lie: that sucked. Tell me about the terrain ahead because I can’t do that for another three hours.”
Ever skilled in talking clients off the ledge, my guide assured me that what I was experiencing was mental. My legs were refusing to work; this felt quite physical. But, like other mountains before, I hadn’t come this far to only go this far. Reaching the top of the Cleaver was not finishing my business with Rainier. Even if this was physical, I had to keep going. Also, the thought of descending the Cleaver immediately after ascending it – not to mention doing it in the dark – horrified me.
I used the break to eat and hydrate. The wind tore through my four layers of jackets, but I just sat there uncomprehending. It wasn’t until I had to shed my puffy as the next leg began that I gained awareness of the cold around me.
The next segment started off as a relatively easy traverse. But, that all quickly disappeared as the terrain became significantly steeper over the course of many switchbacks. Being roped, I struggled with the slack on the switchbacks as I constantly felt I had to run to keep up with the guide.
In a few places, we traversed terrain with a snow wall on one side, a steep drop off on the other side, and a ledge only slightly wider than our mountaineering boot. This might have scared me if I’d had more energy. Instead, it registered as awareness without any fear.
We used several fixed lines on the ascent. I took my time in these spots, not because I struggled with the carabiners, but because I saw it as an opportunity to grab any amount of a break possible.
After an excruciating second segment, we rested at 13,500 feet. At this point, I lost my appetite and felt nauseous. I didn’t want to eat or drink. Writing this three weeks after the climb, I have no memories of this stop. I know we took a break. But, I couldn’t tell you what happened at this stop other than me not eating.
From this stop, one guide assured us it would be another 45 minutes. Another estimated an hour and a half. Which was it? I was about to die. That 45 minute difference mattered. As it turned out, it mercifully took closer to 45 minutes.
With mixed guidance and a lack of certainty surrounding the remaining piece of the ascent, we journeyed on. Now, each step took everything I had. On Gannett, I thought I had pushed myself to the max. On Rainier, I pushed far beyond that, farther than I thought was possible.
Several times on this last leg, I plunged my ice axe into the snow, doubled over in agony. I groaned a lot, not out of complaint, but because my body was shouting at me to quit.
Finally, finally we saw the summit! From the time you can see it, you’re a stone’s throw away. But, I still wasn’t quite sure I’d make it.
We pulled into the crater rim at 4:50 am, dropped our packs, and exchanged hugs and high fives with each other. I wasn’t alone in shedding tears from the accomplishment.
Together, we watched the sun rise from the top of Mt. Rainier. I still can’t believe we did it. The six of us who set out from the Ingraham glacier all reached the summit!
The descent went by in a blur. The highest part of the mountain seemed easy. The Cleaver felt nearly as formidable on the way down as it had on the ascent, only this time we had daylight and we could measure how much farther we had to go.
We took a lengthy break at the flats to pack up and refuel. Karen also used this time to address some major blisters that had formed in the wee hours of the morning.
Eventually, we descended to Muir. At one point, we rushed through a rock fall hazard zone going uphill. I fully expected to vomit, but thankfully didn’t. I mentally rejoiced once we broke free of the ropes and put our crampons away.
We stopped for a break at Muir, where my appetite started to bounce back. On the trip down from Muir, we enjoyed glissading at every possible opportunity.
We hopped the van ride back from Paradise to IMG HQ, devouring snacks and soft drinks. Back at HQ, we signed the summit board, returned our rentals, then went to Whittaker’s for one final team dinner.
I’m still processing this intense experience. It seems poetic to end my highpointing journey of the lower 48 in the very place it began. I feel honored that the mountain allowed us to summit. I am grateful to have been surrounded by such an incredible team – four of whom had climbed other highpoints with me and two who met us for the first time, but immediately felt like family.
When I consider the innumerable dangers climbers face, I feel lucky that we all returned safely. Only one week prior to our trip, a climber died on the mountain from rockfall. Rocks, ice fall, dropping into a crevasse, and sliding off the mountain are only a few of the hazards climbers face and risk when taking on Rainier.
As a team, we walk away with minor scrapes and bruises, a sense of pride from accomplishing something bigger than ourselves, and memories of an incredible journey.
Thank you to International Mountain Guides for keeping us safe, bolstering our mental game, and cooking us fantastic meals.
A huge thank you to our team. This summit happened because we kept a positive attitude and worked together. Y’all are family now. Long live Midnight Burrito.
And, a heartfelt thank you to everyone who has been a part of my long journey since 2011. Those who have reached a highpoint with me, offered a word of encouragement, driven countless miles in support of this goal – I am humbled and grateful to have shared such an amazing experience with you.
Highly recommend Whittaker’s for sandwiches and ice cream as a pre or post-Rainier meal.