I stepped off the paved trail, my boot plunged into the sun ripened snow of the Muir Snowfield. Standing majestically, miles above me the glaciated slopes of Mount Rainier called to me. After months of training, fundraising, and traveling to smaller mountains to test my mettle, I had arrived, It all came down to this climb.
If I said I wasn’t a bit nervous, maybe even reluctant, I’d be lying, but climbing a mountain of this magnitude is not anything to be taken lightly. After all, many use Rainier as their training grounds for far off peaks in the Himalaya and Alaska Range. “Was I ready?”, “Did I train hard enough”, “Would we be caught in a bad rock or icefall?” These were the thoughts that filled my head in the weeks leading up to my Arrival in Ashford, Washington.
Long had I dreamt of big mountain adventure, and for some reason I fixated on Rainier. For months, years even, I read what I could about mountain travel and this enthralling stratovolcano bearing the name “Rainier”. Being considered the most technical mountain climb in the continental US, Rainier was a formidable pursuit to say the least. I chose to up the ante by making my pursuit a charitable one by enlisting in the Summit For Someone program. This program directly benefits Big City Mountaineers, a non profit responsible for taking under-resourced teens on week long outdoor experiences.
By the time I arrived at RMI Base camp in Ashford I had been traveling for over two weeks with stops in the Colorado Front range, and an unsuccessful summit attempt of the Grand Teton. Despite not making the summit, my two days in the Wyoming backcoutry had given me the confidence I needed to feel comfortable about Rainier. Our team had made it all the way to 13,000 feet and I was feeling strong considering that it had been my first time working my body above 8,000 feet.
As I continued up the Muir snowfield on a warm August afternoon, I could not help but stare at the perspective bending views surrounding me. Behind me, like an oil painting in the sky stood Mount Adams, Saint Helens and in the distance even hood. Ahead of me, the glacier capped volcano that is Rainier with the Nisqually glacier being the most imposing feature in my current uphill view. Appearing as a severely cracked sheet of glass sliding down the mountain, the Nisqually glacier was littered with crevasses and seracs. Our planned route, Disappointment Cleaver, Took us around the objective danger of the Nisqually by crossing the Cowlitz and Ingraham glaciers.
With roughly four miles of terrain at our backs, Camp Muir became visible in the distance. Excitement began to noticeably increase among the members of my group. We had all been Summit For Someone climbers who tasked ourselves with the mission of scaling this peak in the name of all of the generous people who donated to our cause, but more importantly, we climbed for those teens. At around 2:30pm we strolled into Camp Muir glowing with energy and excitement. Our snow school training the day prior allowed us to excel at conserving energy.
Camp Muir, situated at 10,080 feet was built in 1921 under the supervision of Daniel R Hull of the National Park Service. The original stone shelter is 12 by 25 feet and consists of only one room. In addition to this structure, there are other newer structures including solar composting outhouses, and the RMI bunkhouse in which we made our home for the evening.
Dan, our lead guide debriefed us for the day when we arrived to Muir, Praising us on our effectiveness and strength as we ascended the Muir Snowfield. He assured us that he had no concerns about our ability to climb to the upper reaches of this mountain provided the mountain allowed it. The weather looked clear for the next twenty four hours, the clearest Dan had seen all season. We were left with a final piece of advice to continue consuming liquids and food until we went to be to help fend off the effects of being at altitude. We broke our huddle and went off to rest for the evening.
Knowing that we intended to be marching toward the summit no later than 11:30pm to take advantage of the firm night time snow I began to wind down. This was difficult I would come to find as it was only just after Three in the afternoon. After a cup of hot tea, I rolled out my sleeping gear in the confined platform of the RMI bunkhouse and lay down. Most of the evening was spent thinking about the summit push while staring at the ceiling. The closer the clock ticked to 10:30, the more anxious I got.
Eternity finally came to an end and one of the guides came in to begin to bolster us from our sleeping bags. I quickly jumped to attention and began to ready my gear. I hurriedly put on the necessary clothing and packed my summit bag. I strapped my crampons on and we began to tie into our rope teams.
Roping up for glacier travel made me feel like I had never felt before on an outdoor adventure. This felt serious. Exciting, but at the same time something that must not be taken lightly. Glacier travel can be unpredictable and deadly if not respected and I knew that. I thought about my family and all the folks who have cheered me on throughout the past few months of fund raising and living unconventionally. I thought about how lucky I was as I watched some of my biggest dreams, the stuff I fantasized about for years materialized right in front of me and finally I asked whatever high power may be out there for safe passage to and from the summit for not only my team, but everyone on the mountain that day.
In no time at all we had begun our ascent. The sky was clearest I had seen it in a long time, and a vivid blanket of starts filled my view. I placed one foot in front of the other as we stepped onto the Cowlitz Glacier. Making sure to employ the rest step with each motion and the pressure breath as needed. Conserving energy at this altitude is important. It could mean the difference between A summit sunrise or an early turn around.
Over the following few hours our conga line danced across the glacial crust of Rainier with precision and grace. We stopped infrequently, only for our short rest breaks, and to coil in the rope teams for travel across rocky terrain like Cathedral gap and the routes namesake, The Disappointment Cleaver. In what seemed like mere minutes we were on the home stretch to the crater rim. A smile across my face lit up brightly with enthusiasm and gratitude, I began to laugh. It seemed as if the mighty Rainier was going to grant us passage to her crater rim.
Only one more obstacle stood between us and the rim: A nearly four foot wide crevasse. We arrived at the gaping crack in the glacier and one by one our rope team crossed the aluminum ladder spanning the fissure. I was up. I grabbed the hand line anchored to the snow for balance and placed my crampons onto the rungs of the ladder. One foot in front of the other I crossed the unnatural span until I had landed safely on the other side.
A few short minutes later our rope team crested the crater rim of Mount Rainier. The early morning sky did little to showcase the grandeur of the Caldera before me. The real show would start shortly when the Sun permeated the ridge to the east. For six hours I had traveled as a unit with my comrades, but with the hazards of the glacier behind us, we detached from one another.
Though we had made it to the crater, we still had about twenty more minutes to Columbia Crest, the true summit of Mount Rainier, But we rested for a bit before making that final push to the roof of Washington. I sipped on water, ate a candy bar and reminisced for a bit about the trek up this formidable peak. Though the hike up was not without its moments of altitude induced nausea, exhaustion and cold, the overall ascent was an enjoyable one. The experience made me feel nothing short of elated.
As the group gathered, The guides applauded our strength and ability, but also made it clear that we were only half way there. Alpinist Ed Viesturs said it best when he said “It’s a round trip. Getting to the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory.”
By this time, the sun was beginning to rise. One by one, the eleven members of our group began to rise to their feet. With ice axe in hand we crossed the crater snowfield along a well defined path to columbia crest located on the other side. As we neared the far side of the crater, the sun hit my face for the first time in nearly twelve hours. Everything in it’s path took on a brilliant fiery glow.
I stopped for a moment just below the summit to snap a picture for one of my comrades and to admire the beautiful sunrise. I had never seen anything this beautiful in my life.
Within moments I had arrived at Columbia Crest, There were many successful climbers celebrating alongside us. Some hugged one another, many shook hands, and everyone was smiling. Our group each had their individual summit celebrations. I took out my prayer flags and held them up for a photograph, as well as took photographs for others.
We gathered as a group on the summit and reveled in our accomplishments, talked briefly about some of our fundraising experiences, then took a group photo. Over the past day and a half, this group became brothers on the mountain. None of us new each other coming in, but now we all have new friends going out. We thanked each other for the support throughout the past day and then turned back down the mountain.
I stood there on the summit for a bit longer, smiled and said “i’ll be back again” Then turned to head back down the mountain. After all, we were only half way there.
Patrick Gensel is an outdoor and travel enthusiast from Northeastern Pennsylvania. His travels have led him from the summit of Devils Tower to the deserts of Southern California in search of adventure. In addition to being a writer and photographer, Patrick runs an outdoor blog called CampTheSummit.