I slept very little due partly to excitement and partly to the other climbers preparation noises. Midnight finally arrives and I crawl out of my bag and put on pretty much all the clothes I have. We all start putting on gear: harnesses, crampons, climbing helmets, etc. About half way through our preparations we see a flare go off across the valley. I hurriedly run up to the ranger station to alert them. I’m sure the ranger loved a 12:30am wake up call and a glacier hike to go rescue a climber.
Half way through gear prep we discover that Raindog’s harness belt won’t thread properly. After numerous attempts I give him mine and tie a harness out of webbing. While safe, a tied harness isn’t exactly comfortable. We finally get everything set, rope up, and head out. In our 4 man rope team Raindog leads, followed by Jewel Thief, myself, and Murph. As we set off across the first glacier we see a long string of headlamps snaking their way across and up the first gap.
It takes a while for us to figure out the correct pace and for Jewel Thief and me to learn how to manage the rope. At first it’s more like playing “red light, green light” with a preschool class than hiking. The first big chunks of our route cross a small glacier, climb up a scree slope to a gap, cross the small side of another glacier, then ascend a steep, rocky ridge called a cleaver.
At the base of the cleaver Murph is having a hard time. We had all come up from sea level yesterday and the altitude was really bothering him. We discuss turning around, but Murph is insistent we continue. By the time we make it halfway up the cleaver Murph is worse. He is slurring his speech and has trouble with dexterity. We take a longer break and give him plenty of food and water. By now it is 5am and very cold with a brisk wind. We press on slowly and finally make it to the top of the cleaver in time for an unbelievable spectacular sunrise. As if the predawn red and blue glow wasn’t enough, the first rays of sunlight hit the glacier and produced a light show of glowing reds, blues, and deep greens.
As the sun hits and we begin to warm up, Murph arrives back in the land of the normal. It’s a good thing too since the next portion of the climb is up a huge glacier with many crevices. We plod steeply up the winding route. In several places we have to step across narrow gaps with yawning chasms that might as well be yawning on either side. As each man crosses the crevice, the rest of the team braces themselves for the possibility that he will fall and we will all have to use our ice axes to keep the whole team from falling.
By 9:30 we are on the last leg of the climb at over 13,500′. The wind has picked up brutally and not even the direct sun rays can keep us warm when we stop for breaks. Gusts of wind came whipping down the slope forcing me to crouch low to avoid being blown off my feet. We are all exhausted from 8 hours of climbing and know that every step we take forward we have to eventually retrace. Hearing reports from descending climbers that the wind only worsens at the summit, we make the difficult decision to turn around. It is incredibly frustrating to see the summit and not continue, but we also know a weather system is approaching and our time is limited.
As expected, our climb down goes much quicker and easier. We make it back to Camp Muir by 12:30 pm, drop our gear, and climb into our sleeping bags. After 12 hours of climbing I think I was asleep before I even was fully in the bag. We wake up at 2:20pm, pack up camp, and hike the 5 miles down to the car. It was so nice to hike without harnesses, rope, and crampons pulling at you. Arriving at the car by 5, we head back to Tacoma for food and much needed sleep.
While our summit attempt wasn’t successful, the trip itself was more fun than I could imagine. Of all the major peaks in the 48 states, Rainier is probably the most technical to climb. I was blown away by the sheer immensity of the mountain. I’ve been on my share of 14,000 foot peaks, but none like Rainier. It towers about twice as high as the surrounding terrain making you literally feel like you are climbing to the top of the world. This was my first dabble into mountaineering and I’m not sure I’ll do it again. One thing is for sure, I have a whole new respect for nature.