It was in the afternoon of July 1st, 2015 when my flight from Dubai-India had landed and was taxiing into Sea-Tac airport. It was my first time ever to the Pacific North West Region and I had no idea whatsover about the place. I looked out the window and found a mountain covered in parts of snow towering above the airport and I was taken aback by the hugeness and the remoteness of it. There were was just this one beautiful mountain and nothing else in the sky. On July 5th, 2016 I was on the summit of the same mountain.
That mountain is Mt Rainier, an active stratovolcano and is the highest mountain (14,410 ft) in the U.S. state of Washington. On a clear day it can be seen from most parts of the west Washington, Seattle included. In the winter, I can even see it right from my living room. At the summit of almost every hike I did over the last year, Mt Rainier was visible in all its glory. One of the best sights of the mountain for me is from the Kerry Park, Seattle(Pic in the end of the post), which is couple of miles from my home. I had cravings of climbing the mountain for a number of reasons. One of them being to test myself for Seven Summits. I wanted to see how I would perform before venturing into more serious stuff. After watching the movie Mt Everest and talking to few people, I made a final call on 9/23 to avail the guide services from RMI and booked the expedition dated July 2-5 2016. RMI didn’t have much pre-requisites other than a questionnaire to validate our endurance.
Weather forecast and dates:
RMI organizes summit climbs almost every day from May – Sept every year. The slots for expedition gets filled way in advance, especially for the peak season. Since I booked for specific dates 9 months before the climb, I had no idea what the weather would be like on the summit day. I chose July 2-5 for 3 main reasons: Long weekend, ample time in Spring for practice hikes and according to stats, success rate for summit is highest in July. RMI has a blog which I was using as a tracker for daily summit climbs and there were quite a times the team couldn’t summit due to the weather. I checked the forecast for our dates a week earlier and It didn’t look good. I was kinda sad that we wouldn’t be able to summit. This itself made the expedition a thriller as we didn’t know until the final hours if we would be summiting or not.
I did not go undergo any formal training. I started practicing Yoga regularly (mainly to counter my neck pain). I stopped stand pedaling my bike during the commute to work. I jogged for a very few times and couldn’t make it a habit. I practiced rowing at Lake Union for few months. I continued going to hikes and especially in Spring, sometimes I would go for 2 back to back hikes in the weekend. Meetup was a great way to venture into variety of hikes. I often choose the difficult ones which ranged from Scrambling to Snowshoeing and Fast paced to Weight practice hikes. I enjoyed these hikes so much and kinda became less worried about the outcome of the summit climb. I met wonderful people who tipped, shared experiences and motivated me throughout. 2 weeks before the expedition, I hiked to Camp Muir which is half way to Mt Rainier summit at an elevation of 10,000 ft. Though it was strenuous with a 25 pound back pack, I became fairly confident for the expedition. Other than the consumption of dry fruits on last few days, I did not undergo any special diets.
Gear and food:
RMI had laid out the equipment for the climb very clearly and I kept checking off the list every now and then mainly from REI. I bought majority of the gear and rented the rest. I didn’t want to compromise on anything this time. I kept trying out the gear in my hikes and got comfortable using them. Packed food included dry fruits(raisin, pista and almonds), chocolates(snickers), energy bars(Cliff) and sandwich(packed this on 2nd night).
Travel and stay:
Fortunately, Balaji (a fellow climber) contacted me for the carpool and I traveled with him for the entire course. The expedition consisted of the climb only on the final 2 days. So we booked for stay at Rainier Valley Inn at Ashford which is a mile away from RMI office. RMI had arranged the shuttle to and fro Paradise for the mountain days.
Day 1 : (Orientation and Gear Check)
I was ready by the time Balaji came to my place for the pick-up at 9:00 AM on 2nd of July. There were two others in the car and all four of us were pretty excited. We reached the RMI office(called as Basecamp), Ashford by noon and went to pick our rental stuff. They had almost every gear available and most of them were in pretty good condition which impressed me. I had very few things to collect and was done pretty soon. The orientation would start at 3 PM and we had around 2.5 hours to kill during which we had lunch (salmon burger) and watched a football game. Germany was playing against Italy for the Euro Cup and the match went all the way till penalty shoot outs which ended just before 3 PM.
We were handed out a envelope and a buff from the RMI team and then we met Geoff, our lead guide. First, we were given a short presentation on the expedition in a room which was lined with prayer flags. Geoff was a funny guy and it was a neat presentation which showcased some amazing pics. We were given a high level information on the route, timings, etc. Geoff sounded quite confident about the forecast and that lifted my spirits. Our team consisted of 9 climbers with people from five states and 3 guides from RMI. I thought 3:1 guide ratio was pretty good. After the presentation it was time for gear check and we all met outside on the grass. I laid out my gear and was so happy with my collection.
Geoff started checking all the important gear required for the climb and recommended stuff whenever people had missed anything. It was interesting to see variety of gear people had got, especially the shoes. Some of us had single boots and due to the chilly forecast, Geoff suggested to rent double boots. I had bought a new mountaineering boots(single boot) which I had used for the Camp Muir hike earlier and intended to use that itself but I would eventually not. After the gear check, we had dinner and Balaji and I checked into Rainier Valley Inn. The stay was comfortable throughout and I had good sleep on both the nights.
Day 2 (Basic mountaineering class):
After having a sumptuous breakfast we left for the basecamp where we got in the shuttle to reach Paradise (the place itself is called Paradise). One of the first things mentioned my Geoff was that he was a bit concerned about the weather since the forecast said increased wind speeds (45 mph) and freezing levels had dropped to 8500ft. So he strongly recommended double boots and I was in a kind of dilemma. It was a cloudy day and we couldn’t see any surrounding mountains. It was nowhere close to the view I had on my previous time at Paradise. We started walking east for around a mile till we found ample snow for our basic mountaineering lesson.
We were taught to self-arrest, team-arrest, rope walk, anchoring and were given many useful tips. Self-arrest and team-arrest included using our ice axes on the slope while we lay with our bumps up facing the mountain while kicking the ice to make buckets for a foothold. Also we had to shout “falling” to let the whole team know that someone is going down. I was careful not to stab myself with the sharp ice axe edges. I had never used an ice axe before. We had sharp ice axes in the hand, spiked crampons on the foot and had to be really careful about how we used them. On the mountain, we would be tied in a rope team of 4-5 people and we simulated that experience. We learnt why and how to maintain distance from the person in front allowing the rope to slack and to be careful to not step on the rope by saving ourselves from tripping. Sometimes I felt that all these safety measures would actually be dangerous for us. We walked for some distance confirming the pace and used anchors at some places where we had to unclip and clip the anchor’s carabiner which slid the rope. Overall, it was a great learning experience. By the end of the day I was feeling a bit cold at my toes and decided to go rent a double boots. I am so glad I did.
We returned to the base camp and ordered to pack 2 mountain lunches at the grill. RMI recommended 200 calories per break and we would require around 2000 calories during the breaks. I am usually not a calorie guy but this time made sure that I had enough packed. One person from our team had to back out due to pain in his legs. So it was just 8 of us with 3 guides for the climb. We then went to the room, packed our bag for the climb and had a good needed sleep.
Day 3 (Paradise to camp Muir – 10,000 ft):
With our bags packed and spirits high we all met at the base camp. I was like the bag should be packed in such a way that any access should be of O(1). My bag weighed around 25-30 pounds. The shuttle took us to Paradise and it was cloudier and wetter. We started with our expedition around 9 AM and we had to get up to Camp Muir which is at 10,000 ft. RMI was quite strict about the number of breaks, time during breaks and the pace. I learnt that the most important stuff to have a sound climb was:
- To take good care of ourselves (Good night’s sleep, staying hydrated, etc)
- Take breaks and be very efficient during the breaks (having an extra layer, food and water handy. Remember O(1) access?)
- To equip yourself with right gear. To wear the right layers of clothes which fits well and keeps yourself warm.
During my hikes I usually took care of the 1st and 3rd point but I missed the 2nd by large. I hardly used to consume calories and took very few breaks. We had 4 breaks this day and after getting kinda scolded on the first break for the 2nd point, I conformed to it. We walked in single file and everyone kept up with the pace. Though I had extra weight this time, the hike this day felt much comfortable and less tiring than the one which I had done 2 weeks earlier. Since I was aware of the terrain the entire way, I was not very surprised and managed the climb in 2 layers on the top and bottom with gaiters and mountaineering boots. We were getting above the clouds and Sun was starting to warm us which felt quite good. At around 8500ft we came above the cloud layer and could see Camp Muir in the distance. But some clouds/wind kept coming at us every now and then and blocked the Sun. We made it to Camp Muir in around 5 hours. We could see only Mt Adams for some time and the rest was covered with clouds.
RMI has its own hut at Camp Muir and its reserved only for the clients. So we didn’t have to carry anything but sleeping bags for the stay there. The restrooms were clean and convenient too. We settled into the hut and I picked the place one beside the wall to deal with one less person around me. We were accompanied by another 5 day climb team from RMI. So we were around 16 climbers with 6 guides. RMI had melted the snow to provide water for us all and I had my veggie sandwich and kept drinking good amount of water. After some time there was a summit talk held in the camp. There was a picture of Mt Rainier in the camp which was used to talk about the summit climb. Sid, lead climb from the other team and Geoff spoke about the route, timing, terrain and gave some very useful tips. The best one was to stuff our snacks for breaks in the packets of Parka. We would had to wear Parka’s during the breaks anyways and having the food in the jacket makes things all the more convenient. Forecast had somewhat turned better and Geoff was optimistic about making it to the summit. Guides would be vigilant about the weather and would determine the best time to start on the fly. I wanted to get some sleep and heal my neck. So I wore warm layers, slid myself into the sleeping bag with ear plugs and tried to sleep. I could sleep but not for much time and was glad with whatever I could.
Day 4 (Summit and descent):
The day which I was waiting for 9 months was finally here. It was at 12:00 AM when Geoff came to the hut, switched on the lights and asked the team “Want to Climb Mt Rainier?” Geoff told that weather outside is extremely calm and we would start in an hour. I woke up instantly and was very excited. Even though it was off routine, fortunately I could take a dump and not be worried about it on the way. The sky was quite clear and I am not sure if I saw the milky way. I got ready soon and took Geoff’s help to wear my crampons. By 1 AM everyone was ready with helmets and head lights on their head in the dark to start the climb.
We were divided into rope teams and 2 others and I were lead by a guide called Blake. I was the last person in the rope team and our team was the last to depart. So no one was behind me. The first section was to cross the Cowlitz Glacier to reach to 11,200 feet. It was quite an experience to walk in the dark lit with headlights and being the last person made it all the more dramatic. I could see the entire group’s stream of lights making their way up the Cathedral Gap. It was quite intimidating whenever I flashed my light on the slope. We slowly gained some elevation, crossed the Cathedral gap and walked into next glacier called Ingraham. We took a break and we all were quite efficient by now in taking rest and consuming calories during the breaks. We could see lights from a distant town, Yakima. It was quite windy, I was wearing two layers on the top and had started getting cold with running nose. So I added a layer for the next section and it was a good decision. People started dropping the climb and it continued till the last break. We started with next section and we weren’t the last team anymore. People would take nature’s call not very far from the trail so sometimes the smell annoyed me. We couldn’t see much of Ingraham glacier in the dark and were unaware of the huge crevasses until we saw in the daylight while coming down. We crossed a small crevasse on a short ladder and it was chilling to look down into the nothingness. Guides had told that the next section till Disappointment Cleaver(DC) was the crux of the climb and the most difficult one. It was sort of scrambling on a non-snow terrain. I am not sure if crampons helped or not but this section was quite engaging. Usually during the scramble on the non snow-parts we would be very close to fellow climbers with no slack on the rope between us. Our rope team communicated clearly and we managed to keep climbing safely. On the east, the horizon was dimly lit by the Sun and it kept getting brighter. We were on top of DC at 12,300 ft in less than two hours since the previous break and I was doing ok except the running nose.
We re-organized again and I was with a guide named Joe. The Sun was slowly rising and painted the horizon in dark Orange and it looked stunning. The rays reflected the white fresh snow and it was like a thin transparent orange blanket. Below us was a sheet of clouds and Little Tahoma peak with number of slopes and crevasses. It was surreal and amazingly beautiful.
It was clear and we could see all the way till the top. Here it was quite sure that we would attempt for summit. The trail was very visible and well made out by guide services so we walked on the beaten trail for most of the parts. We started making slow switchbacks and there were anchors placed in this section. Though it was just unclipping and clipping, I spent quite a time to make that happen at the anchors. There was one place which I thought was very dramatic where we walked over a huge cave like crevasse. It was this section till the summit and back to DC which was most difficult for me. I started feeling nauseous and felt that I was not producing enough energy. I felt uncomfortable and kept motivating myself thinking about family and friends. People had told me that Rainier climb was a slog and it was just one foot over the other. I had torn a tiny part of my gaiter somehow mostly by the crampons. We reached the last break called “High Break” which is at 13,300 ft. As always, the last section was impatient wait for the summit and the first person after guide in our team kept taking breaks. It was like a blessing for me since I could take break too whenever he did. Joe pulled him close and kinda took some of his weight for rest of the climb.
We reached the rim of the summit crater at 7 AM and I was ecstatic to have made it to the top. We were well over 14,000 ft. I bowed on my knees to the mountain and got very emotional. It felt great to have achieved something and I was beaming with happiness. The crater surrounded with rim is huge and it was sort of a playground. The true summit(highest point) was at some distance at the other end of the crater but guides decided not to pursue it. All the 8 climbers with Geoff’s team had summited. Guides later told us that its rare that everyone in the team making to summit. I surely had a tough and great team to accompany me. It was very windy and I was wearing 4 layers including a parka. My happiness was doubled when a fellow climber took out Indian flag. I was surprised, glad and felt proud looking at the bright colored fluttering Indian flag. It was US Independence day the previous day (July 4th) but here I was standing holding the Indian flag.
After spending some quality time at the summit we started our descent. I started feeling very thirsty and realized later that it might have been due to the running nose. I was losing mucus frequently and couldn’t help it. The ascent was kinda tiring but descent demanded concentration. I longed for the break to get some water. We took a break at DC and after that I started feeling better. We could see some tents on Ingraham glacier and that region in daylight looked very brutal with wide crevasses.
The scramble route down too was little taxing. Here the guides switched to the back of the team to monitor us descending. There was a guy named Quinn ahead of me who was leading the entire group and I was right after him. He was very patient and lead us with good pace. We made to the Ingraham break point after crossing narrow crevasses. We headed to Cathedral Gap and down the slope I felt like a sheep being forced to climb down whenever I took some time to descend. We made it to Camp Muir at 11:30 AM and packed our bags for the final descent to Paradise. I glissaded some parts of it and felt the weight of my bag a lot during the final mile. My right toe was hitting the shoe and by the end I had developed some kind of clot in the toe. It’s still there but doesn’t hurt. It was 3:30 PM by the time we reached Paradise. We went back to base camp, returned our rental stuff and the guides congratulated us with the certificates. I had my favorite Salmon burger for one last time and headed back to Seattle with a lifetime experience.
I was very happy making it to the summit and back for numerous reasons. During the last few months the mountain had turned very dear to me and I will look at it differently from here on. Seattle and Mt Rainier will always have a special place in my life.
Especially from the Camp Muir, each look up and down was uncommon and cherishable. This surely was a gateway into mountaineering for me and should see how I take it forward from here. It’s an amazing feeling to know so much about your body and utilize. I thank each and every one who has helped me achieve this. Especially numerous people from meetups, friends and family.
- July has the highest rate of success for summit.
- Pack sandwiches from Base Camp Grill. They are the ones which serve guide service clients and know how to pack. My sandwich was good for 1.5 days.
- Don’t compromise on the gear. Buy them before hand, try them and see how they fit.
- Use ear plugs for the sleep. You will be surprised with its usefulness.
Activity Overview (Could record only half the climb)