Mount Rainier Attempt, September '99

Mount Rainier

'I've heard some say Rainier is not a real mountain, well, it kicked my ass.'-Ric Altman

Looking down on the clouds
This photo wasn't taken on our trip, but it's a nice one.

I've been back for a few days and have been reluctant to admit that, as the quote says, Mount Rainier kicked my ass. After flying in from Florida, we met our guide at the airport. He was experienced and had climbed the same route on Rainier several times. We had originally contracted with him to take only Janet and I on the trip, but at the last minute, he asked if two other clients could go along. I said yes, not knowing this would become a problem later on. He had hired an additional guide to go with us and had also brought his girlfriend along. After staying overnight at his house, we got a late start to the Jackson Visitor Center, also called Paradise. Aside from the late start, we also had to wait until one of the other clients arrived from the airport. To my way of thinking, we left very late from the Paradise parking lot at 6,000 feet. Our packs weighed 65 pounds. At that point, we were under a lot of pressure to get to Camp Muir before dark, so our guide set a fairly brisk pace. Within the first hour, I began to fall behind the other 6 in the team, including my wife (for shame!), so at the rest stops, everyone would get the full ten minute break, but, lagging behind, I would get less and less rest at each stop. In other words, the one needing the rest the most, got the least, but that really is no one's fault but mine, not being in the best possible shape. At about 9,000 feet, I began to fall far behind, completely out of sight of anyone. It was getting dark and I had no idea where the camp was. I could only take about 10 steps, then had to rest for about thirty seconds, take 10 steps, rest again, etc. I was getting a little spooked, walking up a glacier in the dark, with no one anywhere in sight, not knowing where I was going, worrying about crevasses, wondering if I was lost thinking I may have to sleep alone on the glacier in my sleeping bag. At the time I didn't realize it, but the area I was climbing wasn't really a glacier, only a snowfield, not nearly as dangerous as a glacier. Camp Muir, the camp I was headed for, was at 10,000 feet. Trudging along in the dark, I finally saw a figure coming toward me. It was the guide's girlfriend. She took my pack, thank God, and I took hers, a net loss of 50 pounds. You would think that would give me a new lease on life, but not so. After about two more minutes carrying her light pack, I was having the same trouble I had with the 65 pound pack. Talk about swallowing pride, having a girl of 25 help me like that. Anyway, I limped into camp, totally whacked. We set up the tent, ate, and slept. The wind howled at about thirty knots all night, flapping the tent like mad. Got some rest, though, I think, don't know how.

We rested all day the next day, waiting for the 1:30 am departure for the summit. The idea is to get an early start to avoid melting snow, which produces avalances and rock falls. The later in the day, the more dangerous it gets. The idea is to go up to the summit and get back down as early in the day as possible. There were two levels to Camp Muir separated by a series of about 7 steps. When I went up those steps, I would get winded. Not a good sign. Everyone knew I had done poorly getting to base camp. Our lead guide and I talked about my situation. He said that if I wanted to attempt the summit climb and couldn't do it, he could send me back down with the other guide, without jeopardizing everyone else's chances of summitting. I thought this was great but the plan changed when we got the weather forecast. It was going to be warm the morning of our summit attempt, forty degrees or so. The team leader changed how we would proceed if someone had to quit on the way up. The warming would increase the danger and he felt that in the interest of safety, we should all stay together. If anyone couldn't make it, we would all come back down together. I really was feeling the pressure, I didn't want to cost the whole group their chance, but I wanted to do the climb. I agonized about it all day and evening, putting off the decision until we all were completely dressed and ready for the summit. I was feeling pretty good, so we roped up in the total dark and took off over the glacier and crevasses. Ten minutes into it, I knew I couldn't go, I just wasn't ready. I stopped the rope team and asked them to cut me loose and go on. I was close enough to get back on my own and they took off, including my wife. I was in a real funk, but I just couldn't ruin everyone's chances to summit.

My wife made it to 12,500, Disappointment Cleaver, and couldn't go any further. She was physically beat, and her feet had some massive blisters, but what a view she had while she waited on the rest of the team to summit. They put her in a sleeping bag, staked her off and went on. They all summited except Janet. She was completely cool with it. As you see, in leaving Janet, our guide changed his mind during the summit attempt, after telling me that we would all have to abort if one couldn't make it. At the time, I was upset when I found out. I felt cheated out of a summit attempt even if the odds were poor that I would make it. If I had known there would be a half-way measure, I might have at least made the attempt, even though, looking back, there is no way I would have made it.

When they got back to base camp, they rested for two hours and Janet and I, being the readiest to leave and motivated a little by embarrassment, left for the parking lot before everyone else. Halfway down, they all caught us and passed us, I was doing pretty good, but Janet was going a little slow, having been on the go for 15 hours at that point. Well, we got lost on the way down. We didn't think it possible, but it was. We had gone off on a side trail on the snowfield. Eventually the girl that had taken my pack came back up a trail and found us. We were going really slow at that point. My knees were so painful I could hardly walk. Anyway, she thought we were doing ok, so she took off again. This was at dusk. At about that time, a young couple came by us on the trail and offered to carry Janet's pack for her. At first she said no, but after I asked her if she was sure about that, she said yes and the guy took her pack and walked off into the sunset. We thought we might never see the pack again. Given what we had been through in the last two days, that thought wasn't very upsetting. Well, sure enough, we got lost again. My knees got so bad, I was threatening to leave my pack behind on the trail. We were really getting worried, we hadn't seen a soul in two hours. We finally made it to the parking lot, but not before thinking we were going to have to pitch the tent and spend the night. We had gone at least a mile or two more than needed. That's a long way on bad knees and with a heavy pack. I was pretty pissed at our guide, but more at myself for getting lost.

I've been trying to figure out what went wrong. A combination of age, training and altitude I suppose, plus allowing the guide to bring additional people along, but none of those were as big a factor as better acclimatization. I am unsure how to proceed at this point with mountaineering, if at all. It was really discouraging. I would like to try again, but would do things a little differently. First, I would hire a guide for Janet and myself only, no other clients. That way the trip would be geared to us, not other stronger or weaker clients. I would go a few days earlier than we did before and get acclimatized a little better. Training for longer periods at a slower pace on steps with a heavy pack would be better than the treadmill work I was doing. I hadn't trained all that hard for Rainier. I had read a story about a guy than day-hiked it, so I thought to myself 'How tough can this be?' Foolish, I know. It won't happen again.

The trip wasn't what I would call fun, but it really was a great adventure. I'm glad I went and am training with an eye on Rainier again in 2000.

EPILOGUE: Since this trip, we have been training very heavily on bikes, monitoring our progress and training with heart monitors. We climbed Mt. Whitney in September, 2000, Mt. Hood in May of 2001, Boundary Peak (13,200) two days later, and had no problem. We were much better acclimated for Whitney, hiking for five days between 8,000 and 11,000 feet before summitting. We weren't as well acclimated for Hood, we flew up and climbed the next day. We summitted, but I didn't do nearly as well as Whitney.