CLIMBING MT. RAINIER: LIFE BEGINS AT THE EDGE OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE
By: Jose Soto
The trek to the summit of Mt. Rainier proved to be one of the most challenging yet rewarding experiences I have ever had. With Madison Mountaineering as our guide, the C4C team made it to the summit safely and had a whole of fun along the way as we literally leaped over crevasses.
Our team consisted of 9 climbers and 3 guides and the plan was to make it to the summit and back in 3 days/2 nights. We were extremely fortunate in that Mother Nature provided outstanding weather for our trip: sunny skies, minimal winds and temperatures above freezing through all 3 days. Many summit attempts are derailed due to inclement weather, but we did not have to worry about this. One minor setback that affected our trek were the forest fires burning in nearby British Columbia and the limited visibility from the top of Rainier. All things considered, this was a small trade off to pay for having picture perfect weather.
Day one started with a trek from the trailhead at Paradise to Camp Muir at 10,000ft. From the trailhead, Mt Rainier stood majestically in the distance, yet oddly enough I could not have been more calm and relaxed. Perhaps this sense of calm was because of our guides: one of them had previously climbed Rainier 190 times and I felt that we were in extremely capable and knowledgeable hands. Side note: if you have the opportunity, I highly recommend you take a trip with Madison Mountaineering – these guys are the real deal. The hike to Camp Muir had us on the Skyline trail traversing alongside beautiful alpine meadows initially and then the seemingly endless Muir snowfield. The elevation gain throughout the first day was relatively steady and hazards were minimal – we still were not in crevasse or rope team territory. We arrived at Camp Muir after ~4-5 of hiking and prepared to set up camp for the night. I remember thinking that Mt Rainier had seemed so grandiose from the Paradise trailhead, but from further up close at Muir Camp, it didn’t look as daunting or intimidating. Little did I know, this mountain was not as friendly and docile as it looked.
Day two had us going from Muir Camp to high camp at the Ingraham flats. We started the morning with some basic training on rope travel, crampon usage and self arrest techniques with the ice axe. It felt great to finally figure out how to properly use the ice axe I had been carrying up the mountain since the previous day. After breaking up into three rope teams each led by a guide, we started the trek across our first glacier and up Cathedral Gap (read: rocky terrain). This was the first point of the trek where the hazards were apparent: steep cliffs just off the trail, ice/rock falls and crevasses the size of a house. While a single one of those conditions would deter most people from attempting this trek, this was ultimately what we had signed up for: a truly Mountaineering adventure in rugged terrain and Rainier did not disappoint. The trek to Ingraham Flats took us about 90 minutes and we arrived around lunch time in time to set up camp. Overall, spirits and energy levels were strong and the high alpine terrain around us was simply breathtaking.
After setting up high camp, the team got together and we discussed our options for the summit. We could attempt a sunset summit or the more traditional alpine start sunrise summit. Either way, from high camp it was ~9 hours to the summit and back; our decisions was simply when to go for it. Considering that everyone was feeling strong and confident, we opted for the sunset summit attempt which had us departing camp around 2pm. Our selected route had us going up the Disappointment Clever, traversing across the Edmunds Glacier and finally making a push for the summit.
This was the part of the trek where Rainier flexed its muscles and showed that it wouldn’t be conquered that easily. The climb up Disappointment Cleaver was challenging due to the rocky terrain and at times steep elevation gains. Upon conquering DC (as the locals call it), we came across the first (and only) ladder bridge across a crevasse. This is your run of the mill ladder that is placed horizontally across a crevasse and requires trekkers to walk across the rungs. We were fortunate that this particular ladder had wooden planks attached to it, but it was nonetheless a first for me and makes for a great story to tell afterwards. This was not the place to be if you suffered from vertigo or fear of heights. As we continued along he trail we came across smaller crevasses that simply required us to leap across from them. Did I mention how fun this was? As we entered the 4th hour of our summit attempt and as we continued to gain elevation, fatigue started to set in. This was it, the final push to summit and there was no turning back. Rainier tested not just our physical conditioning but also our mental fortitude as the summit was out of sight until the very end.
With enough determination, grit and a sprinkle of encouragement from our guides, we made it to summit just before 7pm. We celebrated, took many photos and gazed out as we stood on the tallest point of Washington state. Though we couldn’t see too much due to the clouds and the layer of smoke from the forest fires in BC, it was clear that we had just accomplished quite the feat. To this day, it all just seems like a hazy dream: a really challenging dream that pushed us to the edge of our comfort zone and showed us what lies there: a feeling of truly being alive.
Ultimately, Rainier was a mountain and we successfully climbed it. Yet, that seemingly elusive feeling of great accomplishment, personal growth and feeling alive is one that will keep me climbing for many more treks.