Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Expedition: Mt. Rainier May 2015

Four times have I tried to organize a trip to Mt. Rainier. Twice with summer camp friends and twice with college friends. Every time it fell through for the same reasons, no one had the experience, or the experience and the money. Finally, this past winter a few of my rock climbing co-worker friends grew a little interested in mountaineering and pushed and prodded until I agreed to take them on a climb of Mt. Rainier. I was the last one to buy plane tickets, and commit. Wow, I'm super happy I went!

For all intensive purposes, Mt. Rainier is "The" mountain in the lower 48 United States. Alaska has bigger and badder, and there are others that push past 14,000 feet in Colorado and California, but this mountain has a staggering 9000 vertical feet of elevation gain from the parking lot to the summit and it's covered in glaciers. Mt. Everest is only 12,000 from the "parking lot" to the summit. I'm using the idea of a parking lot pretty liberally there, you can tie up your yak, or park your helicopter, but I'm sure no car has ever been there, motorcycle perhaps. Point being, it's big, and it's serious.

My three engineering rock climbing partners had never set foot on a glacier. We had done some mountaineering day school practice in March when the local ski resort closed, which I thought was very helpful. However, that was about it. Apparently they tried to practice crevasse rescue in a tree one time in a Dubuque city park, but where quickly told by a ranger, "no". While their rock climbing skills are well established, and they have even done ice climbing on a silo here in Iowa, mountains are different. There are crevasses, avalanches, route finding, breaking trail, cooking, weather, altitude,  and a whole lot of walking. When I learned how two of them had never climbed any mountain, two weeks before we left, I grew dubious of our upcoming performance.

They all flew out on Wednesday night and rented gear on Thursday. I met them at the lovely hotel a 30 second walk away from the entrance to the national park on Thursday night after flawless flights out to Seattle.

We woke up at the too early hour of 5 AM. Seriously, I sat around a good half hour waiting on everyone else, because I couldn't sign into the ranger station until 7 AM. However, once we got going, everything went really well. I registered to fall into a crevasse for $45, or something like that. Then we started hiking, after a quick stop at the hotel to pick up a plastic spoon because I forgot mine. There is usually something that gets forgotten.

We trekked up the Muir snowfield fairly undramatically, making good time, passing several other people. When at perhaps 8000 feet it started to drizzle. Not so bad, but we put on rain gear because it was getting cold out too. Around 9000 feet or so it started snowing, lightly, but it made our wet clothing cool our bodies down. At the time it wasn't an issue at all, we were hiking uphill, a 20% grade, with 50 or so pounds of gear so we were generating a lot of heat.
The View from Muir Above the Clouds
I was a little paranoid that we would not be able to get a spot in the shelter, so I kept pushing everyone to hike to get to camp Muir. Fortunately we made it just after noon for about a 4.5 or so hour hike from Paradise to Muir. Not bad at all considering the weight of our packs and the weather. There were plenty of spots Friday before Memorial Day so we quickly grabbed spots to sleep on the bunk plywood platforms. In total I think there were 15 people spending the night, our group of four, a West Point graduates group of four Luitenants, a group of three that made it pretty far Saturday, and then I think two groups of two that either weren't planning to summit or decided not to attempt based on conditions.
Camp Muir Shelter
After an hour or so of resting at the shelter, we started the boiling snow process. It's a slow time consuming process. Snow must be melted then it must be boiled. We had two stoves and got them cranking so it didn't take much more than an hour to boil enough water to fill people up. Then we boiled water for an early supper at about 4 pm. After a nice meal of freeze dried food, the weather had calmed down, and we took a little walk around over to the rangers and guides and talked to Brent Okita about his plans for the next day. We told him we were planning to start maybe 30 minutes after him and just follow his group up. It sounded good to him.
Kyle on Friday on the trail to the Summit (Well before the Crevasses)
After a couple pictures we boiled some more water and tried to go to bed at 8 PM, for a nice and early 1 AM wake up call.
1:30 AM, Sorry for the Flash
We woke up at 1 AM and started getting ready to go. Getting ready is never a fast process and after boiling some water and getting our clothing on it was 2:30 by the time we started hiking. The first hour or two went beautifully, clear skies, low wind, but soon enough the wind picked up during the gusts, snow began to fall, and and the fog rolled in. We crossed a couple crevasses, and got started up the cleaver. The climbing was steep, but there were fixed ropes, and it wasn't that steep. At the top of the cleaver the wind was a little stronger and the snow picked up. The situation was deteriorating.

Below is the video from my GoPro of the minutes leading up and following our turning around on Mt. Rainier. It's hard to completely understand everything that is going on, but you get to see crevasses, hear wind, see snow, see me climb steep snow with no defined tracks. It's over 13 minutes, so if you watch it, you've been warned.
Needless to say, we didn't make it to the top. You can see our GPS coordinates below.

Our Delorme inReach GPS Tracking Friday and Saturday


After some deliberation when we returned to the shelter we made the decision to head back down to Paradise and Seattle, which we did so safely. I'd like to thank my teammates Steve B.,  Kyle E., and Shane R. without them this trip would not have been possible. 

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