John Muir: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.”
Muir and many others share so many remarkable footnotes about the experiences we all share in the mountains. They all have the same underlying message, “mountains are here to make us humble, to help us understand our place.”
Mt. Rainier was my big Pacific Northwest goal for this year. Residing in the Midwest it took planning and an organized logistical approach to make this adventure possible. The Big “R” has always been one of those mountains on my list, but it always seems to get put on the back burner for closer peaks in the west; Garnett, Granite, Wilson and Maroon Bell. Now with several buddies living in Portland and Seattle, a team could easily be put together and the logistics come down to only my worries of getting out to the mountain. This was the time to put the boots into Pacific Northwest mountain snow.
We decided on an early May ascent. A late winter ascent were the weather was a little more unpredictable but an attempt to miss the big summer crowds. Going into the adventure we all knew the level of risk and factors with a winter ascent.
I had talked to my buddy Jason Tanguay who has guided the Big “R” more then a 100 times, who said: “Those Rainier dates ARE really early, essentially a winter ascent. Won’t be crowded! It could be amazing, but you may get schooled by mountain’s weather.“
With that Dave, Elliot, Leif and I were committed. We planned a three-day/two-night adventure. We would climb to camp on Saturday, re-evaluate the situation and if the weather holding we would work up to a high camp the next day. Allowing our bodies acclimatize, before making a run for the summit on an alpine start on day three.
Two weeks out NOAA posted a sunny sky and light winds. One week out it was holding with a front moving in late Monday—hopefully well after we are headed into the tree line. Two days out, NOAA was showing the front moving in early Monday with major snow above 9,000 feet. This being possibly my only shot at Rainier in 2010, I remained optimistic.
“No worries it will change again, and we will just push the trip to a two-day summit shot.” I optimistically rehearsed in my head.
Leif picked me up at SeaTac airport and our conversation quickly changed from the college buddy “I haven’t seen you forever!” to “Have you checked out NOAA?”
The next morning the sky was overcast and Rainier, well, had disappeared into the clouds. During the drive from Seattle, past all the lingerie coffee pit stops that we don’t get to see in the Midwest, the rain and fog moved in and only got heavier as we entered Mt. Rainier National Park. Nearing 5,000 feet elevation and Paradise Visitor Center all views of Rainier were socked in. Sitting in the front seat I looked back at Dave. We each had the same thoughts: “This is going to be epic”. Our optimism was dwindling. Oh well, it’s an adventure, we’ll make the best of it.
Trekking up from Paradise to Panorama Point the visibility decreased while the winds, snow and whiteout increased. If you have never been in truly whiteout conditions, it is one of the those experiences in the mountains that puts you in your place.
We stopped a few times to gather our bearings, check the map and GPS. Taking the lead just below Panorama, I was walking slow checking the GPS every 30 steps, double checking the team with every 20 steps, and the snow with every step.
Probe, step, probe, step, probe, step, and then it gave away. A small cerac broke away with my weight. Having only trekking poles in my hands, my instinctual reaction was to dig in and stop myself from sliding. The heavy snow pulled me further and faster. I was helpless to the situation, for what seemed to be endless but was only a few seconds. Coming to a stop with a big slump and gathering myself to realize what had just happened. I quickly self-checked: “Everything is o.k., nothing hurts… I am good.”
Just as we were leaving the huddle a group of four other climbers came out of the white nearly right into us. They informed us that it was only getting worse up the mountain and said that one of their team members had taken a 60-foot fall off a cerec just up a little ways.
“Don’t go left. Stay right. Don’t go left,” they repeated to us several times.
You could tell they were all a little shaken up by the situation that they had just got themselves out of. It took them two hours to get their team back together and they decided to bail on their climb.
Once that group headed back down the mountain we reassessed the situation and decided this wasn’t our day up here. Doing what any group looking for adventure would do, we bailed down to treeline, found a sheltered area and began to pile snow for our evening lodging.
We decided if we can’t make the summit let’s at least make an adventure and spend the evening on the mountain in a snow shelter. Four hours later we were all piled into our sleeping bag in out snow shelter accommodations.
The next morning we packed out safely and headed for the homeland of Pacific Northwest coffee.
Even though we couldn’t overcome the elements of the weather, there are lessons to be learned. Mountains deserve to be shared with others. Our experiences of sharing a hand-built snow shelter with three of my friends might just have been as fun as making it to the summit this year.
The mountain will always be there. However, the shared memories of digging out our accommodations might have just been a once in a life time deal.
John Muir said “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” This years tidings were the shared memories with Dave, Elliot and Leif.