Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Climb

Finally, two weeks after the climb I have time to write about the experience.  I've finally had a chance to really rest up from the experience and everything else I've been up to the last couple weeks.  

Where to start?  I guess I can start on Tuesday before the climb.  I was pretty nervous before I left Seattle.  Not about the climb, instead, I was nervous about making sure I had everything I needed.  I decided at the last minute not to take my bigger camera (which I was sad to be without on the climb).  Now having been through the experience, I think I would definitely take it with me if I decide to climb the mountain again.  Since I couldn't not have a camera, I had to buy a decent small digital camera at the last minute.  I had to stop by REI to get my freeze dried meal and the much appreciated ear plugs that I would need the night before the summit climb.  Once I was on the road, almost all the nervousness went away and I was just plain excited.  I wanted it to already be Friday morning though.  I had been waiting for that day since January and I didn't want to wait anymore.

Rainier Base Camp was a pretty cool place.  RMI has a great set up in the town of Ashford.  I liked that everything a climber needed was right there.  Anything I may have forgotten could have been rented or purchased at Base Camp.  I liked the idea of staying at the place that we would be taking off from for both training and for the the climb.  It meant not really having to worry about much.  Tuesday evening was an introduction night.  We spent a few hours getting to know each other.  My group had very nice people from all over the United States. We got to know our main guide, Brent.  This climb would be his 368th summit of Mt. Rainier.  I felt like I was in good hands.  Brent went through all the gear we would need and showed us a slideshow of what we could expect on the trail.  

Wednesday was our training day.  Since the people that come climb with RMI have all different levels of experience, it's important to have a day to make sure everyone knew how to do things like rest step, pressure breathing, self arrest and climbing roped in.  For the training they drove us up to Paradise and we went on a short hike to an area that would work well for training.  It was a fun day that went by very quickly.  Most of the stuff was review for me, but I learned some good footing techniques as well as pressure breathing which would be extremely helpful on the climb.  The pressure breathing was good for dealing with the gain in altitude.  They told us that if we felt a headache coming on, that this would be the best way to alleviate it.

Wednesday night I got all my gear together and bought some last minute food for the trip.  Again, while I was looking forward to Thursday's hike up to Camp Muir, I still just wanted it to be Friday morning already.  

Thursday was a beautiful day.  This made the whole group excited since this meant our chances were summiting with decent weather were good.  The hike up to Camp Muir was just as beautiful as when I had done the Camp Muir hike last year.  This year it felt like the time went by pretty quickly though.  RMI has the climb extremely organized down to how often you break and for how long.  Roughly every hour, we took a 15 minute break.  They told us we should plan to eat 300 calories per break and drink a half quart of water.  This would help keep our energy up and helping our bodies deal with the gain in altitude.  I'm not used to eating much while I'm hiking up a mountain so this was a bit different for me.  I think I definitely appreciated it on the summit day though.  The hike to Camp Muir is 4.5 miles and you go from 5400' up to 10,000' in elevation.  It's probably one of the most rewarding day hikes I've done in the Northwest.

When we got to Camp Muir, we took our sleeping bags out and headed into the RMI hut to choose our spots.  Since I was in the first group I was able to get a spot on a lower level.  Luckily the hut already has sleeping mats in it, so we didn't have to bring those up with us.  RMI also provides water at Camp Muir so we got to restock our nalgene bottles.  We had a group meeting to talk about what we would need for the summit climb and what we should expect for the day.  After the meeting we ate dinner and then went to bed at 6pm.  I really thought I would struggle with going to bed at 6pm.  Luckily since it was dark in the hut and I had ear plugs, I actually got about 3 hours of sleep.  After that I was just laying there hoping that the guides would come wake us up soon.  I didn't want to wait around any longer!  

Luckily the time passed quickly and the guides came in and turned the light on around 11:30.  we got our gear on, ate some breakfast and then headed out to the ropes.  The view at night from Camp Muir was amazing.  It definitely made for a cool start to the day.  The weather was very calm and the sky was completely clear.  

The climb starts across a fairly flat section across the Cowlitz Glacier.  We only came across small crevasses on this part and at night you don't notice these as much as when we came back later in the day.  The next section is a rocky "skree" section up and over Cathedral Gap.  There were two larger rocky sections of the day including this part and Disappointment Cleaver.  Footing wise, these were the hardest parts since you're walking on very loose rock that varies in size.  The crampons really do help you dig in for both the snow and the skree sections so you learn to appreciate having them on.  

After we crossed over Cathedral Gap we came to Ingraham Flats.  This is a section with several larger crevasses and is relatively flat.  A lot of climbers choose to set up camp at the Flats so we could see a few tents as we came through this area.  We took our first break in this section.   We were told that if we could make it through the next section to the next break feeling good, that you might as well go to the top.  The second section over the Disappointment Cleaver was the only hard section of the day for me.  It wasn't hard physically, just mentally.  It was the only part of the climb I actually felt scared on.  This was another skree section with very steep drop offs.  I was fine until I decided to look down at one point and then my nerves got to me.   I know that I can be lacking in coordination so part of me worried that I'd stumble on a rock and end up pulling my team down the mountain.  Luckily that didn't happen.  However, I knew I had to come back down through this section on the way back later in the day! 

After that section it was smooth sailing the rest of the day.  We had two more breaks to take before the summit.  The third section included the largest crevasses we'd have to cross for the day.  Earlier in the week, one had opened up to the point of needing a ladder to cross.  We were able to step over a few crevasses, then the last one was probably about 6-8 feet across.  RMI places the ladders across these.  I think the crevasse I crossed on Mt. Baker helped me get over my fear of crossing these.  I was able to walk across the ladder without a care in the world and this ended up being my favorite section of the climb.  We were at this point around sunrise.  

The final stretches were just steeper sections on snow.  We had a lot of switch backs up toward the top.  Probably the last 100 yards of the climb my legs were starting to feel like they were almost done.  I was pretty happy to be at the top when we got there.  I believe we got there around 6am.  We dropped our bags and took a few minutes to rest.  Then anyone who wanted to go could walk across the top to the true summit of 14,410'.  I knew I'd hate myself if I didn't make it to the tippy top and the weather was still nice so I was excited to see how the view was.  It was pretty cold up at the top and the wind didn't help much, but it was an incredible feeling being up there.  

We signed the register, I claimed my earth cache find and we snapped a bunch of photos from the true summit.  We were up on the top for about an hour before it was time to head back down.  Luckily we got there in time to have clear skies.  As we were leaving, the clouds started to roll in so I don't think the other groups summiting that day got as nice of a view as we did.

The climb down was pretty smooth and quick.  I was nervous for the Disappointment Cleaver section, but all went well through there.  The only miserable part of the climb was my feet by the end.  Mountaineering boots just aren't comfortable, especially when you're heading downhill.  We only took a couple breaks on the way down, then we took about an hour break at Camp Muir.  We needed to collect our gear from there, rest a little bit and refill on any water we needed.  We did a lot of boot skiing on the walk down the Muir Snow fields and I did some glissading where ever I could!  Getting back into the bus the tiredness hit me and I was excited for when I'd get the chance to shower.  

Overall it was an incredible experience.  I had awesome weather, a great group of people to climb with and great leadership with the RMI guides.  During the climb I was saying to myself "I'm never doing anything like this again!"  Now, I'm thinking that I could definitely do it again.  Many have asked me what's next on my agenda.  Well, it's a little ways off and I'll possibly climb some other mountains before then, but my next major goal is Kilamanjaro.  :)  I'll need to save up a lot of money and do a lot of investigating, but my goal is to include this with my 5 year plan.