Mount Rainier Summit July 16, 2019
On Friday, May 10, I woke up to a text message from Kody Smith asking me if I wanted to fill a spot on a mountaineering trip to Mount Rainier. Filled with excuses, like most mornings, I said that I didn’t think I could afford it right now and that I was supposed to be out of town that week anyways. Once I got up and started moving around, I wrestled with the idea in my head.
I had started rock climbing earlier in the year and watched “Meru” half a dozen times or so. “Meru” is a documentary by Jimmy Chin in their attempt(s) to summit the “Shark’s Fin” in the Himalayas with two of his climbing friends. It was a gritty, soul searching expedition that inspired me to want to give mountaineering a chance. Mount Rainier could be my opportunity.
Located southeast of Seattle, Mount Rainer is an active strato- volcano that shadows over the city at 14,410 feet. It is the most glaciated mountain in the lower 48 states. It would be a technical, endurance climb gaining 10,000 feet in roughly ten miles. Not exactly something that you want to commit to at 7:30am on the first day of a beach vacation. But I texted him back “How much do you think it will cost?” No response. Thirty minutes later or so I texted, “When are the dates again? I want to try and go.” He called right away. He said that he wanted to let me sit on it for a bit and knew I’d change my mind. I didn’t know much about mountaineering, even less about Mount Rainier but I was up for the challenge. Our team was Kody Smith, Brett Bagley, Jeff Schoonover and myself and our permit was scheduled for July 15th, just two months away.
Training began right away and I started by running and cycling during our family vacation in Pawleys Island, SC. Upon returning from the trip, I joined a gym and started working out, along with adding the Stair Master to my cardio routine. It was just me and the ladies on the Stair Master mostly, working on our glutes! I bought mountaineering books, watched countless YouTube videos, and read climbing blogs for research. My friends Austin, Adam, and Andy let me borrow all kinds of gear for the trip from backpacks and down jackets to handwarmers and gloves. I would stay up late tweaking on what gear to buy with Kody,
arguing over each item until he won. I’d hand him my credit card and say, “Whatever, just buy it.” Jeff and I ran stairs with Kody at a local high school and ran up Stone Mountain a few times to work on elevation gain. The whole crew went to Stone Mountain a couple of times to practice being roped up together for glacier travel as well as crevasse rescue.
Although I had been doing all of this training, the research of the route had caused some serious anxiety the week before the trip. We were using the Emmons Glacier Route for our ascent to the summit. The route begins at White River Campground
(4,400 feet) and travels 3.5 miles to the
Glacier Basin Campground (6,000 feet). It
eventually leads you to the bottom of the
Inter Glacier which starts at 6,800 feet and
ascends straight up to Camp Schurman at
9,460 feet; gaining nearly 3,500 feet in the last 4 miles. From Camp Schurman you ascend to the summit of Mount
Rainier also known as Columbia Crest at
14,410 feet in anywhere from 2-4 miles
depending on route conditions. With all of
that said, I was freaking out. The closest thing
I had to relate that to was Stone Mountain in
Georgia where you gain 670 feet over a mile. This would be 15 stone mountains in 2/3 the distance. Adding to the equation a 50-pound pack, no experience at altitude, and lack of overall mountaineering experience equals panic attacks...lots of them. The week before we left, I was filled with anxiety about whether I was in good enough shape, knew enough, blah blah blah. The mountain was beating me before I even stepped onto the trail. I used Austin as a sounding board and he said, “You’re basic problem is that you just aren’t sure of what the outcome is yet.” I replied with “Yeah, yeah... but do you think I’m in good enough shape?” He was right, I wanted to know that everything was going to be okay and that there wouldn’t be any issues, which is impossible for a climb like this. That thought helped me get through the week and I was ready for the trip.
It began with an alarm at 3:00 AM on Sunday, July 14 to make a 6:00 AM flight to Seattle. Jeff picked me up to go to Brett’s house and we headed to the airport. The flight was uneventful and I was able to make up a few hours of sleep along the way. I woke up about 30 minutes before Seattle and was able to get my first glimpse of Mount
Rainier in person. It sat towering above everything below it with streams of clouds no more than half way up its face. It was somehow beautiful and intimidating at the same time. I had done lots of research leading up and was able to
point out our route from the
sky, once more intimidated by
the length and steepness of
our ascent. After landing, we
waited an hour or so for Kody
to arrive from his NOLS trip to
Alaska where he had learned
mountaineering skills and how
to survive on a glacier for 2 weeks. He looked a little rough and tired but was in good spirits, happy to see familiar faces again.
Once our rental car arrived, we went to Kauf Sports to rent some essential mountaineering gear such as tents,
ice axes, mountaineering boots, some safety
equipment and crampons (metal spikes that
attach to boots). The boots aren’t very
comfortable and we went back and forth on
whether they fit us correctly. Not that any
of that mattered though, the ones we were
trying were the only ones available. A short drive from there was REI to get our freeze-dried meals, snacks, protein bars and last-minute gear before a much-needed early dinner.
At dinner I noticed everyone seemed quieter than before. It was probably a combination of exhaustion and hunger but mine was brought on by the anxiety of what I had seen from the window of the plane upon descent. During dinner, we picked a hotel in Enumclaw which was midway between Seattle and our trail head. It was the Roadway Inn, a majestic 2-star hotel that had a small coffee hut in the parking lot and a 2 queen bedroom for $140. It was perfect. We laid out all of our gear, splitting up the tent, cooking systems and safety equipment as evenly as possible. I probably asked Kody 150 questions in 30 minutes or so but he patiently answered most of them. It was the, “Should I take this or should I take that?” “What are you wearing on the hike in?” “How many layers should I wear for
the summit?” “How long does it take to boil water at altitude?” type questions. After stuffing everything into our packs, we put them on to see how much weight they had gained with water and the new equipment. Mine was most likely between 45 and 50 pounds. Jeff is not a big gear guy, but had decided to buy a brand new North Face pack. He was proud of
that one. He slung it on his back, clicked in the buckles and while tightening the straps he somehow managed to break the buckle around his waist. Literally the most important buckle on the whole pack, the only one that matters. It’s important now to mention that we looked up the meaning of
“Enumclaw,” the town we were staying in, and it means “place of evil spirits.” ...Perfect. We drove to a Tractor Supply Company and all we could find was a belt for shotgun shells. Jeff somehow made it work with a bit of electrical tape and sheer panic. Eight o’clock came and it was time to go to bed early because we needed to leave the hotel around 6:30 AM for the trailhead the next day. In the middle of the night, I woke up to my legs cramping up pretty badly... not exactly what you want to happen before a climb like this. I shook it off and went back to sleep, trying not to think about it.
In the morning we grabbed coffee and a bite to eat and headed to the White River Ranger Station to check in. The rain had already
started. Ranger inside told us that there was some really bad weather coming in and that we might not have a solid window to summit. Either that, or we’d be caught in a white out. I think the term “white out” is pretty self-explanatory... He obliged when we asked for an extra night on our permit in case we couldn’t push on due to weather or exhaustion.
With the car parked and bags packed, we hit the trail to Glacier Basin Campground. The hike was
beautiful, filled with waterfalls, and trees that shade you from the sun or in our case, rain. Moss covers the rocks
below and hangs over fallen tree limbs like
light green clothes that have been hung up
to dry. We saw a marmot and some wild mountain goats as well. It was a 3.5-mile hike that hugged the White River and gained 1,500 feet in elevation which is not terribly difficult. However, Kody is
leading us and starts out with this blistering
Alaskan bushman pace for the first 2 miles
or so until Brett finally asked to lead and slow it down a bit, thank God. A solo hiker passed us on the trail heading back to the parking lot and said that the weather was so
bad that he had to turn around at 13,000 feet and that there were some sketchy areas up there. Very reassuring.
We arrived at the Glacier Basin Campground, ate a bit and changed into our mountaineering boots. There were some campers there that were breaking up the trip into a few days and all I could think at that point was, “Why aren’t we doing that?” Kody’s pace had worn me out. We stashed our shoes in a tree and headed to the Glacier Basin and to the Inter Glacier. We attached our crampons, readied our ice axes and roped up. To “rope up” is to have a rope tied to each other, so if one person slips or falls the others can help stop them or pull them out of a crevasse. The order was Kody in
front, then Brett, then Jeff, and finally me bringing
up the rear with about 20 feet of rope between
each of us. The Inter Glacier is where the trail
begins to get steep and somewhat dangerous.
Going straight up vertically was too tough, so we
began to zig zag to make it a bit easier. There were
other climbers in the distance above who looked
like they were struggling a bit, and we eventually
caught up and passed them. I started off feeling really good for the first 500 vertical feet or so, but then the cramps returned from the night before. The snow on top of the ice had become slushy due to the rain,
so every other step or so, your foot
would slide back. When that would
happen, my calf would cramp up, then
my quads and hamstrings followed. It
went off-and-on like that for a while and
the pain was getting to me. Eventually, it
got so bad that my leg locked up and I
was dragging it up the hill. I was in the
pain cave and it wasn’t looking good. I
had to ask to stop a few times, falling to
the snow as I yelled out. I’d rest my legs
for a minute before getting up and saying “I’ll give it a shot.” Jeff was very understanding and would check on
me from time to time or yell stop if he saw me fall. Here it was, all of my fears leading up to the trip being realized before we even got to high camp. I didn’t want to quit, I didn’t want to call it yet, but I didn’t see it getting any better with time. I took salt tablets, drank water, and tried to eat but nothing seemed to work. My mind went to some pretty bad places. “You
should have trained more.” “What’s everyone going to say when they summit and you don’t?” “What if they can’t summit because of you.” I had some serious thoughts about calling it off and heading back to the parking lot. Afterall, I knew Brett had left the key outside of the car, I could go and get a hotel for the night and pick them up the next day. “They’ll be better off without me if this keeps up.” But I kept climbing. The embarrassment and self-hatred was building as we made our final push to Camp Schurman. I played the “just get to where Jeff is now” game over and over, step after step, and somehow managed to cross the ridge into camp. I knew it was going to be “one step at a time” at some points, but I didn’t know it would be “one step and drag the other leg up the mountain.” At that point, Camp Schurman was the summit for me, and I thought I had about a 2% chance of summiting but I tried to hide that and stayed positive.
Camp Schurman is situated on the high side of the Steamboat Prow trail with a ranger station, toilet, and tents filled with excitedly worn out climbers. We set up our tents, breaking one of the poles in the process, laid out our sleeping bags and started on dinner. I was only able to eat half of my food but had some
salt tablets and drank lots of water. There was an
area where water was running just below the surface and we filled all of our bottles and water bladders
with it, saving lots of time and fuel from melting snow. The water bladders refer to a water reservoir system. The “bladder” holds anywhere from 1-3 liters of water in your pack with a tube and nozzle extending out of the pack and over your shoulder. It allows for you to carry lots of water and access it efficiently while hiking.
After dinner, Kody had everyone gather around his tent while he worked on his foot. He had a nasty blister on his heal that he was tending to and didn’t want to have to put his boots back on that night. The plan was made to get up at midnight and try to leave after one of
the guided groups in the morning. The reason you start so early is because when the sun comes up it starts to change the conditions of the route; crevasses get bigger, the snow bridges across them can melt and it’s flat out more dangerous at that point. Six inches to a foot of snow had fallen that day so the trail was covered and would have been miserable to be the first group out. Silence fell over camp by 8pm and everyone was trying to
rest and get as much sleep as possible before
their summit bid. Sleep did not come easy.
After cramping up a bit more at night and
going to the bathroom a couple of times, I
only managed a couple of hours. Brett woke
me up and my head went through all of the
excuses that I had been thinking about all
night, but I didn’t say anything. I just
reached in my pack, grabbed a Starbucks double shot of espresso and began to chug. Headlamps lit the tents nearby as other climbers started to make noise and camp was quietly alive again. You could hear all of the gas stoves cranking up to boil water for breakfast and coffee.
I ate as much as I could for breakfast and packed things that we only needed for the summit. The other teams started heading out around 1am. I was trying to figure out how to tell my team that I would not be joining them for the summit but before I knew it, I was roped up and ready to go. We left Camp Schurman for the summit at 2am.
My legs felt sore but weren’t cramping anymore, which was a nice change of pace. There was a full moon that night that would peak through the overcast skies from time to time, but our main source of light was from headlamps. Hiking at night was new to me as well but I really enjoyed it. The snow sparkled as the light hit it in certain
directions. All you’re
focused on is what’s in
front of you, just a few
steps at a time. With that
said, when you looked up
at the mountain you can
see these faint glows like lightning bugs in the distance, all in a straight line or zig zag formation. Those are the teams that had left ahead of us and Brett laughingly said it was “very discouraging.” They seemed so much higher, but also not far away, which showed how steep the ascent would be moving forward. An hour or so into the climb I looked up and called out to Kody, “Are those lights coming toward us?” “Yes,” he replied. A team of 3 climbers had turned around and I was worried that it was a guided group that had decided the route was too dangerous. My legs were feeling great and I really didn’t want to have to turn around, especially this early. Once the team approached us we realized that it was a guided group, but they were turning around because “it was too high” as one of their climbers stated. I think he was having trouble with the altitude. We pressed on.
Every once in a while, we would stop
and take a break to rest, change socks, and
grab a bite to eat but overall our pace was
solid. Around 4:30 AM we looked back and
noticed the sun was just beginning to peak
out. It was inspiring. As one of Jeff’s idols,
Jocko, says: “an earned sunrise is the best.”
We earned that one. Clouds blanketed the
ground below, rising and falling for as far as
you could see. The sun came through,
giving the snow a fresh glow and reinvigorated our spirit.
Just because my legs weren’t cramping anymore didn’t mean they didn’t hurt from time to time. There were
periods where I would have a cadence in my
head to stab with the ice axe, then take two
steps. “Stab, step, step; stab, step, step.”
During breaks Kody would yell to me, “What are we at?” referring to elevation. I’d check my altimeter on my watch and call back “11,800,” and he’d depressingly say “OK.” We always thought that we should be higher up or farther along than we actually were and we were, always playing catch up to the ant-sized teams ahead of us. It’s hard to describe how steep the route is with
words or pictures, but I’ll give it a shot: When we would look up at the teams ahead of us, they seemed to be at the top of a 50-story building, but only one block away. It’s intense.
On one of our breaks, Brett decided to layer up. He pulled his mid-layer pullover jacket that was in a zip-lock bag and lost his grip. It went shooting down the mountain straight into a crevasse about 40 feet below us; hearing it bang against the crevasse walls as it plummeted. “Well, looks like I’m not wearing that,” Brett said as he reached in his pack for his puffy jacket.
Shortly after this, Kody stopped us and said that “he’s not doing so hot” and he mentioned later that he was starting to fall asleep while he was walking... He never
mentioned any problems after that
and seemed to have gotten his
head in the right place for the rest
of the climb. Which was great
because at 12,500 feet we arrived
at a very narrow and exposed part
of the route that we had been
warned of the day before. It was a
“no fall zone” meaning that if one
person was to fall on the team
there would not be enough time
for the other team members to
self-arrest and catch you, and
everyone would fall into the
crevasse below. Self-arresting is
where you fall onto your ice axe with the sharp end going into the snow/ice and dig your crampons in as best you can. There was a 12- foot lip of the glacier that we had to climb the face of using only our ice
axes and crampons. Leading up to that was the exposed route for 50 feet or so that was only 18 inches to 24 inches wide. Kody assessed the situation, placed a picket (anchor) in the snow for protection and one by one we managed to conquer the lip safely but a bit rattled. It was around this elevation that both Jeff and Brett realized
that their tubes to their water bladders had frozen up. Brett was able to use other bottles he had, but Jeff was stuck without his own water for nearly 4 hours until the midway through the descent. I’m not sure how he got through that.
A section around 13,000 feet had us descending for a few minutes or so as we passed seracs or columns of ice on our left. Seracs can fall at any time without much warning. Kody let us
know before entering this area that we couldn’t
take any breaks and needed to get through it
quickly. The chances of them falling aren’t very
high, but he called it a “Low risk, high
consequence” situation. Kody led the
expedition from start to finish and he did a
tremendous job navigating around and over
crevasses and made confident decisions along the way. His NOLS trip had taken root and I felt safe the whole time. A thousand feet below the summit or so I started having this flood of emotions. I knew that nothing was going to stop us at this point and we were going to make it to the top.
After everything I had been through the day before with cramps, I couldn’t believe how strong I felt on the summit day. I thought about all of the people that had helped financially with the expedition; my grandparents, aunts and uncles, family friends, sisters and parents. And all of the encouragement I had received from friends along the way. I was so excited to tell my family and
teared up thinking about telling my little
sister, Anna Grace, she’d be so happy! Then
it hit me, we hadn’t made it yet... still 1,000
feet to gain and an hour and a half left at
least. Get yourself together. I managed to
and we began to pass teams that were
starting their descent. We were close.
It wasn’t a false summit anymore, it was
the real deal, the Columbia Crest. After 7 hours
and gaining nearly 5,000 feet in 3.3 miles, we
reached the top of Mount Rainier at 14,410 feet
around 9am! What an amazing feeling! The
triumph, jubilation and a strong sense of relief
overwhelmed me. We hugged, took pictures,
and let it sink in for about 15 minutes or so. The
views were unbelievable, it was hard to tell
where the snow ended and the clouds began.
Jeff snagged a few sips of water from us and we
were on our way back down. The wind howls at the top and once you stop moving around, you get cold pretty quickly so Kody and I were ready.
The descent for me ended up being harder
than the ascent somehow. They say that most
accidents happen on the way down because the
adrenaline is gone, you’re exhausted and the
conditions are worse. I understand that now.
The windblown snow nearly filled our tracks,
but Kody was able to find our way. Our steps
seemed heavier and clunkier, not as smooth as
on the way up. Thousands of feet below we
could see our campground and after an hour of
trekking we didn’t seem any closer. The lower we
were, the worse the conditions became and the
once firm snow was now a slushy mess. We were
having trouble staying on our feet as we slid from
one step to the next. My mind wandered to the
joy of summiting and getting to tell my family
about our journey. It’s easy to see the romance in
it after you’ve summited, but during the struggle
you aren’t thinking, “Man, is this going to add to
the story.” After a long grueling 5-hour descent, we made it back to Camp Schurman. Other teams that had arrived were happy for us and we had a quick bite to eat, and tried to get some rest before packing
everything up to head back to the car that night. Brett made me the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had just before we packed up. Shortly after, he found my half-eaten freeze-dried meals in the corner of the tent. He had been telling me to eat more but I just couldn’t. I was a little embarrassed when he found my stash. We loaded up our packs with everything and headed back down from Camp Schurman. Once we made it to the Inter Glacier, we were able to glissade (slide down using an ice axe as your break) down going anywhere from 5 to 15mph. What took us 3 hours to climb with cramped up legs took us 5 to 10 minutes glissading. It was a nice boost to moral as well. Another grueling 4 miles of hiking brought us to the car around 9:30 PM.
Mistakes were made along the way. Kody didn’t wear glasses and would wake up to mild snow blindness; and Jeff and I forgot to wear sunscreen and had pretty sever sunburn for the next week or so. And all of us have struggled with mild frostbite in our
big toes, but they’ll all heal in time. We had gone
from car to summit and back in 36 and a half
hours and were exhausted...
There was no trophy waiting for us, no plaque to put our names on, no news reporters eager to hear of our tale. No, this is a type of victory that only rewards internally and within a team. The congratulations from other teams waiting for their summit bid didn’t hurt; but at that point I had a realization about Mount Rainier. It wasn’t about getting to the top. Sure, it was nice to have made it and the views were insane, but that wasn’t it. It was
the training, researching, staying up late with
Kody to talk about gear, night runs with Jeff,
and long preparation talks with Brett. It was
about that cramping nightmare on the Inter
Glacier and getting through it somehow. It was
that “earned sunrise” and seeing your
teammates push through struggles of their own.
It was all of it, that was the summit. I didn’t
climb for the profile pictures like I had jokingly
said before I left, I didn’t climb so people would think I was cool or a badass. I climbed to test myself, to overcome those insane fears that let the mountain beat me before I started. I climbed to let all of these external struggles become an internal battle and come out on top. I climbed for these memories with an incredible group of guys that pushed me harder than I could ever push myself alone. My grandfather
used to always say “enjoy the journey” and I’ve never understood him more! Can’t wait for the next one!