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Rainier, Part 4: Summit Day

 

When my watch started beeping at 2330, I was a little surprised that I’d actually fallen asleep and caught a few hours of decent rest.  With three of us in a small tent, getting dressed by headlamp was a challenge.  Once outside, we were greeted by a clear, starry sky and a brilliant full moon that almost made headlamps superfluous.  Mark, Rob, and Graydo were already up and had the stoves going, serving up “hots” for coffee, hot chocolate, and oatmeal.  We hydrated as best we could and topped off two liters of water each, and stashed it in our packs.  Without sleeping bags, pads, and food to carry, our loads seemed light…roughly 20 pounds of water, extra clothing, and emergency gear.

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Gearing up for the summit climb, as the headlamps of other teams mark the route.

We donned crampons, tied into our respective ropes, checked radios between rope team leaders, and slowly headed off into the darkness at 0100.  With overnight lows just below freezing, the route was firm and crunchy, and our crampons were biting the snow reassuringly.

The Disappointment Cleaver, or “DC” route, crosses the top of the Cowlitz glacier and climbs steadily over a rocky rib called Cathedral Rocks, eventually reaching Ingraham Flats, site of another camp with just a few scattered tents.  With the first 1000’ of vertical behind us, we stopped here for a short rest and hydration break.  With our bodies generating plenty of heat from the exertion of the climb, most of us wore just a thin base layer and a soft-shell jacket.  As soon as we stopped, though, we threw on puffy down jackets to trap that warmth and keep our body temp up.

 

Sunrise at 12,500'

Sunrise at 12,500

From our rest stop, we ascended just a bit further up the Ingraham glacier, crossing one major crevasse that had an aluminum ladder spanning the three-foot gap.  Unlike ladders on Everest, this one had been considerately equipped with a small piece of plywood, sparing climbers the need to peer into the abyss.  Soon we were inching our way along a narrow ledge at the base of the Cleaver.  With the flood of moonlight illuminating the glacier far below us, the exposure was enough to keep our attention focused inwards, on the rocks.  The winding route up the prow of the Cleaver was slow going, with crampons scraping over bare rock as we felt for handholds by the light of our headlamps.  Eventually we moved to the left, back onto the security of snow, and reached the top of the Cleaver just as the first streaks of dawn appeared in the eastern sky.

 

 

After another short rest, we headed up across a vast snowfield towards a steep wall of ice.  While most of the climb could best be described as “a long walk in the snow”, the short section above us promised some excitement.  A short pitch of 60-70 degree snow and ice topped out on a serac, where a narrow snow bridge led across to safer ground.  A fixed rope offered a little extra security, and we attacked the pitch with gusto.

 

Dawn heads up the crux pitch.

Dawn heads up the crux pitch.

By the time we’d all passed this crux point, it was fully daylight.  As we traversed around the eastern flank of the mountain, the winds picked up slightly, but all the same the temperatures remained comfortable as we passed the 13,000’ mark.   Far below, morning fog hung in the lush valleys of the park, a stark contrast to the world of snow and ice we were transiting.

 

 

Crossing the snow bridge

Crossing the snow bridge

After thirty minutes of switchbacks up the 35-40 degree slope and one more rest stop, we began to pass teams on the descent, who had started even earlier than we had.  They offered us words of encouragement and we replied in kind with congratulations of their successful summit.  Sooner than I had dared to hope, we were cresting the lip of the caldera at Guide Rocks, and shedding our packs before exchanging high-fives and backslapping bear hugs.  All that remained was a quarter mile traverse of the caldera, and a short climb up to the true summit at 14,411’.  We posed for the usual variety of summit photos before knocking out pushups in honor of fallen comrades.  Our two wounded warriors were all smiles.  I thought of one of the quotes Rob had read to us two days earlier:

 

“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”  -Rene Daumal

 

Doug and Brian would return to work in a few days with a new perspective, that of one who knows what is above.  They would never gaze up at “the Mountain” in quite the same way, regarding it merely as a distant landmark.  Instead they would feel, as we all would, a personal connection to the mountain.  They would know what was above.

 

Doug and Brian on the summit, 14,411'

Doug and Brian on the summit, 14,411′