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Archive for the ‘Trip Update’ Category

Rainier, Part 4: Summit Day

Thursday, September 5th, 2013


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.


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′



Rainier, Part 3: Training Day

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013
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Sunrise over Camp Muir

We awoke to another glorious day.  Despite cramped tents, thin air, and low temperatures near freezing, everyone slept pretty well after the long hike up to Camp Muir.  The prospect of a day to train and acclimatize, without having to carry a pack, was appealing.  A bright sun rapidly warmed the camp as we set about making breakfast.  Properly fueled with coffee, hot chocolate and eggs, we were ready for our training day.  Mark’s previous experience as a guide on Rainier was immediately evident, as he walked us though the basics of traversing snow and ice slopes with crampons and an ice axe, and taught the essential skill of self-arrest in the event of a fall.  When crossing glaciers or steep terrain, climbers rope together for safety.  If one person falls, every member of the rope team executes a self-arrest, anchoring the rope team.  It’s the wingman principle in action.

After lunch, we strapped on crampons and ventured out onto the Cowlitz Glacier, maneuvering around crevasses and getting the hang of rope management and moving as a team, four people on each rope team.  Eventually we worked our way to the lip of a large crevasse, a gaping crack in the glacier spanning fifteen or twenty feet across and plunging fifty feet or more down into the belly of the beast.  Here we set up and anchor to practice rescue techniques, in the event we should need to haul someone out after a fall.  Doug, one of our wounded warriors, graciously volunteered to take the sharp end of the rope, and was soon lowered down into the ice.  Setting up a pulley system to haul someone out takes some time, and Doug was a trooper as he dangled on the end of a 10mm rope while we got organized.  Across the crevasse, a group of three park rangers were practicing the same drill, and keeping a watchful eye to make sure we knew what we were doing.   With our trusty guides, they needn’t have worried.

Supper came early, as the whole team turned in by 8 pm in order to grab as much rest as possible before our 2330 wakeup call.  With adrenaline flowing and thoughts of what lay in the darkness above Camp Muir, it was a restless evening.

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Dinner time at camp. The start of the Disappointment Cleaver route crosses the rock outcropping in the distance.


Tomorrow:  Summit Day.





Rainier ’13, Part 2: The hike to Camp Muir

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

As promised, Saturday dawned bright and beautiful, portending near-perfect weather for our climb.  We met up for breakfast at the Whittaker Bunkhouse…not because it’s owned by the famous twin Whittaker brothers (Jim was the first American to climb Everest), but because it’s pretty much the only game in town in Ashford.  One cup of coffee and a breakfast burrito later, we were ready to load up the gear and head up to the Visitors Center at Paradise.  Brian Wadtke’s wife and a friend (both Airmen as well) joined us to make the hike as far as Camp Muir.  Named for the famous naturalist John Muir (who founded the Sierra Club), Camp Muir hugs the flanks of Rainier at 10,000’, a 4.5 mile and 4600’ climb from the parking lot at Paradise.  Ambitious park visitors make the hike to the top of the Muir snowfield as a day trip, and this outpost of a few stone buildings and a large tent city serves as high camp for the majority of climbers who attempt the summit.

Graydon 3

Mark shoulders his 50+ pound pack.

After distributing stoves, fuel, food, tents and snow pickets, everyone’s pack was tipping the scales at 50 pounds or more.  We shouldered our loads and walked the short distance from long-term parking up to the visitor center, stopping to fill water bottles and pose for a team photo.  Rob got the group in the right frame of mind with a couple quotes from a well-worn book he’s carried since his days as a ranger at Philmont Scout Ranch.   My favorite, from the aforementioned John Muir:

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”

With that bit of inspiration, we headed up the trail.

As you might expect on a sunny Saturday in July, the trail was crowded with everyone from casual tourists out for a stroll among the wildflowers to a few dedicated skiers heading up to the snowfield to bag a few summer turns.  Our heavy packs with ice axes lashed to them made our intentions pretty obvious.  We encountered snow within an hour’s hiking, and from that point on were on snow almost continuously.  Despite the surroundings, it was shorts & t-shirts weather, and sunburn was a much bigger worry than frostbite.


Graydon 4

The team at Paradise Visitor Center.

After six hours of steady uphill climbing, we struggled into Camp Muir, shrugged off the heavy packs, and began digging out snow platforms for our tents, overlooking the Cowlitz Glacier.  A snow slope is improvised furniture waiting to happen, and in no time we had hacked out a kitchen counter with room for two stoves and two cooks, and soon Rob and Graydon were serving up a delicious dinner of tuna noodle casserole.

Graydon 9

Slogging into Camp Muir after a long hard climb.


Graydon 7

Graydon and Rob in the kitchen







As the sun set, we enjoyed spectacular views of Mt Saint Helens, Mt Hood, and the other peaks of the Cascades.  A few ambitious souls scaled up Muir Peak in the moonlight, before turning in for some well earned rest.

Graydon 8

Moonrise over Muir Peak


Beaten down, but not broken

Friday, May 24th, 2013

We had hoped Rob might be able to post a new blog last night, now that the team is back in Katmandu. We may see one later tonight (once everyone wakes up in Nepal), but for now we can at least report that everyone has made it back to some semblance of a normal existence. The team hiked 40 miles in 18 hours to catch their flight, proving that the promise of a hot shower is strong motivator, even when your body is beaten down by weeks of living at high altitude, restless sleep, and limited appetite. Rob reports that they are a pretty sorry looking group. (Except for the beards, of course…those are looking good, with Nick Gibson and Marshall Klitzke bordering on world-class!) They will no doubt feel better after a few days of sleeping in a real bed and breathing thicker air.

We’ll keep you posted as the team makes it’s way back to the States. We hope to arrange for the team to get out to some Air Force bases to tell their story to fellow Airmen, and they may even get some invites from major media outlets to tell a good-news story for a change. But whatever the news coverage, we always owe a big debt to all of you who followed this epic journey here on our blog, and cheered on the team!

Here’s a picture posted earlier to our Facebook page, of Rob, Kyle, Drew and Marshall at Base Camp after the climb. As you can see from the smiles, the bodies may be hurting, but the spirits are strong!

Base Camp with beer

Return to Base Camp

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

The team reached Everest Base Camp last night (about 10am Nepal time), after their final crossing of the treacherous Khumbu Icefall. When they first arrived here on their trek six weeks ago, the air at 16,500′ seemed very thin, and the camp was teeming with climbers. By now, many of those climbers have packed their bags and begun the long journey home, leaving base camp a smaller, quieter place. Within a day or two, Rob, Kyle, Nick, Marshall, Colin and Drew will begin that trek as well. This time, it will be a relatively gentle downhill hike for these guys who have acclimatized their bodies to extreme elevation. After six weeks in a world completely devoid of vegetation, surrounded by ice and rock, they will relish the lush surroundings of the lower Khumbu. And of course, they will return to such luxuries as an internet connection, so they can catch up with the many friends and family who have been following their progress. Let’s give them a warm welcome back to the world.


20 May: Update from Camp 2

Monday, May 20th, 2013

It’s really annoying to find a missed call on your cell phone and realize you missed a call from Everest! Nonetheless, Rob did check in this morning (early evening in Nepal) to confirm that all six climbers were back at Camp 2 and chilling out in the comparatively “thick air.” Most of them had developed nagging coughs, not unlike the Khumbu cough, but exaggerated by breathing extremely dry air and oxygen. They may even elect to spend one more day resting before making the final descent to Base Camp through the icefall..there is certainly no need to rush, and the icefall is a demanding section that requires everyone to be on their A game. They will be trying to rehydrate and force down some food…Rob reported that most of them only consumed about 300 calories on the long day of the summit push. And of course, they’ll be allowing sore knees to recover a bit, after a long 8000′ descent in a single day!

We hope everyone will stay tuned, as we expect to get some photos from the team within a few days. Traffic on the website caused it to crash this morning, and we apologize for that…but we certainly appreciate all the interest!

Climbers in the Khumbu Icefall.

Climbers in the Khumbu Icefall.

Safely at Camp 2

Monday, May 20th, 2013

The team completed their descent all the way to Camp 2, almost 20 hours after they departed from the South Col for the summit. (And recall they got little if any actual sleep at Camp 4, so they mush have been really spent by the time they arrived.) After a good night’s rest, they will descend one last time through the Khumbu Icefall to Everest Base Camp, where they will pack up and begin the trek back to civilization. By “civilization” of course, we mean “wi-fi”, and we all look forward to seeing the photos from the final push up the mountain.

Yesterday’s website traffic reached almost 12,000 hits, and we thank all of you who so closely followed this climb. Hopefully as the word of the accomplishment spreads, the team will receive even more widespread recognition. Hundreds of people climb Everest in a typical year, but these guys did it for all the right reasons: to promote esprit de corps in the Air Force, to honor their fallen comrades, and to raise awareness of risk management in saving lives and preventing injury. Please continue to spread their positive message to others!

Camp 2.

Camp 2.

Back at Camp 4

Sunday, May 19th, 2013

Rob checked in about an hour ago to report that the team was just below the Balcony on descent.  The team were among the first dozen or so to summit today, so on descent there were many climbers still ascending, but at a slower pace.  The team is taking their time and being patient, as they have to work around people on the fixed ropes.  Rob said he had managed to drink some tea on the Balcony (enjoying the view, no doubt) and was feeling reinvigorated by that.  Since there is still plenty of daylight, the team plans to rest briefly at Camp 4 and rehydrate, and then descend the fixed ropes on the Lhotse Face to Camp 2.  Rappelling down the face will be much easier than climbing up, but they will have to wait for an opportunity as other climbers will be making ascents to Camps 3 and 4.  Still, getting down lower will greatly improve their chances of good night’s rest.  The air down at 21,000’ should feel like a day at the beach compared to the summit!


Those who have followed the USAF 7 Summits Challenge know that the team has a tradition of doing pushups on the summit of each peak they climb, and this was no exception.  Rob Marshall knocked out an incredible 30 pushups in 30 seconds, at 29,000’, without oxygen!  (That might just earn him a waiver from his annual PT test.)


The track is  now showing them back at Camp 4.  Please keep your thoughts and prayers with the team as they continue the descent.

Camp 4 on the South Col. Photo courtesy of www.alanarnette.com

Camp 4 on the South Col. Photo courtesy of www.alanarnette.com

The Hillary Step

Sunday, May 19th, 2013

By now the first of our climbers should be approaching the Hillary Step. Although it is only about a 40’ rock outcropping, any type of technical rock climbing at such a high altitude, after an exhausting seven or eight hours of climbing, can be pretty daunting. Because many climbers struggle with ascending the fixed ropes at the Step, it is a notorious bottleneck. The picture below shows exactly what the team was been trying hard to avoid: a gaggle of climbers held up by overcrowding at this crux point.

Overcrowding on the Hillary Step in 2012.  Photo from OutsideOnline.

Overcrowding on the Hillary Step in 2012. Photo from OutsideOnline.

Because this has been such an issue as more climbers attempt Everest, the guide companies have done some good deliberate risk management, and this year they have invested the resources in setting a second set of fixed routes, to enable climbers to ascend and descend at the same time. This alleviates the risk of climbers being stuck at the top of the step, breathing precious oxygen and getting cold due to it moving, while they wait for a break in the ascending climbers to rappel down.

Hillary Step Alternate Route.  Photo by IMG guide Michael Hamill.

Throughout this climb, our team has emphasized the principles of risk management, and we applaud the excellent RM mindset applied by the International Mountain Guides team, and other teams on the mountain this year, to manage risks appropriately.

Stay tuned…we hope to hear word from the team in the next hour or two!

The Cornice Traverse

Sunday, May 19th, 2013

Here’s a shot of the traverse that our climbers are facing right about now.  The sun rises in another hour or so, so they may actually have a glimpse of this scary section of the route.  Imagine how daunting this must have looked 60 years ago to Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, when no one had done it before, and no fixed ropes were in place!


The Cornice Traverse, with the Hillary Step in the distance.

The Cornice Traverse, with the Hillary Step in the distance.