I have always loved the mountains, but since I live in south Texas, an occasional roller is about all the elevation that I see. Because my love for the mountains was not satisfied by the occasional ski trip to Colorado, I decided to give mountaineering a try.
For my first mountaineering adventure, I decided to climb Mt. Rainier in Washington. It was the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states at 14,410’ and was famous both for its breath-taking views and its temperamental weather changes. I knew this would be a serious challenge and so I decided to sign up for one of the beginners climbs with International Mountain Guides (IMG). The reason I chose IMG was because of the program that they offer. The one I selected was for novice climbers, the 3 ½-day Muir/DC Summit Climb. I chose this particular climb for several reasons. IMG provides a 2:1 client/guide ratio, a full half-day of training at their office in Ashford, and more days on the mountain in order to acclimatize. In addition to this, IMG received excellent reviews from others who have traveled with their group.
I knew mountain climbing was going to be a different sort of challenge both physically and mentally. I was confident in my base level of fitness, but I had never really gone on any serious multi-day hikes and I wasn’t even sure how I was going to prepare for the whole altitude thing; or in this case, lack there-of.
Luckily, I had a great trainer who put together a program that was going to prepare me well for Mt. Rainier. I knew that my cardio level was pretty decent. I could run 8 miles at about 7:00/mile. My trainer also adjusted my time in the gym to three times a week, where we did everything to really strengthen my core. He also allotted time for me to be in the pool about three times a week, where I tried (and failed) to do hypoxic swimming. After trying to work this in for a few weeks, we decided it would be best for me to stick to running 6-8 miles at tempo speed.
In addition to building my cardio and muscular endurance and strength, I had to get used to carrying a backpack for extended periods of time at elevation. Since the little rollers in my part of Texas were hardly adequate, my trainer and I decided that the closest thing we had to elevation would be a stair climber. So, for my long training days, I gradually built up to climbing on the stair climber for up to five hours with a weighted backpack. I started out with 20 pounds and gradually built that weight up to 52 pounds (I weigh about 105). IMG told me that my pack probably wouldn’t weigh more than 35-40 pounds and would probably weigh less than that on summit bid day. I wanted to make sure that I was more than prepared and so I trained so that I could comfortably carry the 52 pounds.
In addition to the stair climber, I would also go out on a hiking trail near my home. Although there wasn’t much elevation to be gained, it did help me get accustomed to walking for long distances with my pack and help get my knees and ankles accustomed to adjusting to uneven terrain. Again, I built up my hiking time to about five hours.
Although it sounds like a lot of training time, I am glad that I prepared well. Going into this, I knew I had several disadvantages to overcome: I live at sea level; I have never been on a multi-day hike before; I was not used to the extreme cold; oh, and did I mention that I had never been camping either! Yah! What was I thinking?
Besides the training, I had to thoroughly educate myself about the different types of gear that we needed to bring. Naturally, I had none of it, except for maybe some of the base layers that IMG recommended and the socks. Fortunately, IMG provided a thorough packing list for the climb and was very helpful in answering questions. At their recommendation, I bought my backpack early on in my training, along with a good pair of hiking boots. I was glad I did this because, by the time my trip rolled around, I was used to how the backpack felt AND knew how to pack and adjust it well. I purchased most of my equipment from REI and was thankful I did because even in the Texas stores, there were several folks on staff who had some serious climbing experience and were able to outfit me and answer many of my questions. Here is a link to IMG’s packing list for the Rainier Climb. If you don’t want to purchase everything, IMG does have rentals available. Since this was my first climb, and since I didn’t want to spend $600 for a pair of mountaineering boots, I decided to rent those.
Once I arrived at IMG’s corporate office in Ashford, I was introduced to our guides and the rest of my team. Our guides were very friendly and helpful and did an excellent job taking us through the basics of our training that day. We covered the following topics: brief overview and history of Mt. Rainier National Park; safety instructions; gear checks; group gear; proper use of safety equipment; and an introduction to basic safety climbing skills along with the use of knots and harnesses.
The following morning we met at the Ashford office and began our hike at Skyline Trail at Paradise (5,400 ft). At the beginning of our hike, there were snow patches and rocky outcroppings, then eventually we hit the beautiful snowfield that leads up to Camp Muir.
We reached Camp Muir after about 5 1/2 hours of hiking. It was pretty challenging with full packs on and especially once we hit the snowfield. The guides did a great job of pacing everyone and giving us plenty of breaks to eat and to make sure that we stayed hydrated. Drinking plenty of water is critical to acclimatizing and to keeping any altitude sickness symptoms at bay. Along the way, the guides wasted no time in preparing us for our summit climb. We learned a lot in that short period of time. In addition to teaching us how to rest, hydrate, and eat properly, our guides taught us about proper climbing techniques, pressure breathing, rest stepping, how to climb on a rope team, and how to self-arrest. Day 2 was a VERY full day and we were all thankful for the hot meal and the lodgings provided at the guide hut at Camp Muir (10,000’).
The following day began with hot drinks, a delicious breakfast (prepared by the guides) and breath-taking views of Nisqually and Cowlitz glaciers. After breakfast, we learned more essential skills on how to travel on the glacier. From there, we were divided into rope teams and prepared for our first glacier crossing across Cowlitz Glacier. We went through Cathedral Gap and up to Ingraham Glacier where we reached our second camp called “The Flats” (11,000’). Once again, the views did not disappoint. Little Tahoma stood majestically in front of us, along with amazing vistas of Emmons and Ingraham Glaciers.
After dinner, we all settled in early for the night and tried to sleep. Although the cold was significantly more at this elevation, it was the wind that I found unsettling. It was so loud in our tent that I could barely hear my tentmates wish me goodnight.
Our guides roused our group at midnight and served us a quick breakfast of coffee and oatmeal. By around 1:00 AM, we were divided into our rope teams and headed out. My team consisted of our lead guide, along with two other guys. Because I was the smallest, I was placed in the middle. The wind did not lessen but only got stronger as we ascended. In fact, there were several times where the wind gusts literally picked me up and threw me on the ground. My guide eventually had to “short-rope” me, which made standing up a bit easier. For the first several hours there was not much to see except what your headlamp illuminated before you. We took multiple breaks and the guides were really good about reminding us to drink, to eat, and to layer up once we stopped.
The altitude and harsh weather conditions were starting to take its toll on me. I was grateful for the breaks and that they taught us how to pressure breathe. Aside from just feeling a little fatigued and VERY cold, the only real discomfort I felt were starting to come from my calves and feet.
The sun started to rise around 6:30 AM and all I can say is that you have never really seen a beautiful sunrise until you’ve seen it while on the glacier of a mountain. No one said a word as we watched the sun slowly rise and as we took in the beauty and the reality of being at over 13,000’.
After about eight hours of climbing, we finally reached the summit crater. We rested briefly and then a few of us from our group and a couple of the guides hiked over to the actual summit, Columbia Crest, at 14, 410’. We spent about 45 minutes at the top, then our guides said that it was time to head back. Our clear skies were becoming cloudy quickly and we had a long descent ahead of us in order to reach the Ashford offices by the end of the day.
As we made our way closer to Ingraham Flats, the weather at the summit was turning stormy. Visibility up there was very poor, and the climbing teams who did not get as early a start as we did, had to turn around and head back down the mountain.
As we approached Ingraham Flats, one of our group members on my rope team was exhausted and hitting a wall. He said he needed a rest. Our guide though, would not let us and firmly said we needed to try to push for another 30 minutes more before we could stop. Stiffly our group got up and continued on. When we were finally able to stop for a break we heard a loud rumble. We looked up and the area where we originally wanted to rest had large chunks of snow bouncing down the side of the mountain! It was an avalanche! Our guide said that was why he didn’t want us to rest there and needed us to keep moving because that particular area was known to have avalanches.
We waited for the rest of the team to catch up with us at Ingraham Flats and then headed down together to Camp Muir where we took our last break. By then, a blister that had started over 12 hours ago, was bleeding and quite angry, and my feet were so sore from the plastic boots that I rented, that I could barely walk. One of the guides gave me a trash bag and suggested that I try glissading. He explained that glissading was just a fancy word for sliding down the mountain on your rear end. All I had to do was use my ice ax or roll over in a self-arrest position in order to stop. I enjoyed the glissading tremendously, especially since it got me down the mountain faster and saved me from taking any more excruciatingly painful steps than was necessary!
Once we reached Paradise, the IMG vans were there to drive us back to headquarters. The guides gave us our certificates, offered their congratulations (everyone in our group summitted), we snapped a few more group pics, and I started planning my next climb!