The Sun had just peeped a little above the horizon, which was lit up faintly with a familiar reddish orange glow. The bright blob was aligned to the right of the center of the horizon, with the foreground still under the blanket of semidarkness. With each passing minute, we could see a little more of what lay between the mountain we stood on and the mountains far and beyond. As beautiful as it was before the naked eyes, I knew in my mind that it will make for a hopeless picture, unable to do justice to the reality. Nonetheless, I captured what I could and tried to absorb it in. I knew we couldn’t linger on for a long time. It was 4:30 a.m. We still had a long, ‘circuitous’ path ahead of us. There were many more snow step to be treaded and yet more crevasses to be crossed.
Rewind by 48 hours to begin at the beginning.
It’s hard to remember when and how I decided to be on Rainier because it seemed like it was always on the wish list. After all, it’s one of the most popular mountains in the US and mountaineers treat Mt. Rainier climb like a stepping stone for getting into more serious semi-technical/ technical climbing. It’s also popular because of the very short approach march – The entire climb from trail-head to summit and back to trail-head can be done in a matter of 3 full days, 2 if you are super fit. (Crazy as it sounds, the fastest time recorded on Mt. Rainier is of 4 hours 40 mins – but let’s not get into that). So when the opportunity presented itself, there wasn’t much to think about. There are at least 4 routes to the summit of Mt. Rainier; but we preferred Emmons Glacier route as it was a little more challenging and less crowded than the most popular and probably the easiest, Disappointment Cleaver route. We were lucky to not only get through the lottery for camping permits for this climb, but also to get the permits for our preferred route.
After giving myself about 3 months for the physical preparation for the climb (which mainly consisted of running, a month of weights and weekend hiking), I landed at Seattle a day prior to when my group was supposed to assemble.
The group consisted of myself, Abhishek (my boyfriend and hiking buddy) and Paddy as clients with Jasmine and Joe as our guides. This mountain is climbed the alpine way, meaning that you and your fellow climbers carry everything from tent to ration to equipment yourself, in the rucksacks. Before starting the climb, I had had a few practice hikes in upstate NY, with about 22-25 pounds in the rucksack; but the sack weighted about 30 pounds or a little more during the actual climb.
Driving the previous night to a ski resort closest to the trail-head served us well in terms of rest. I highly recommend it even if you are a Seattle resident and think you can drive 3 hours in the early morning and then begin your slog for the first climbing day at around 9 a.m.
The trail-head for Emmons glacier route is at White River campground(4400ft), about 45 mins from the beautiful, rustic ski resort we had stayed in for the night. The drive took us closer to the mountains and the thick green forest. We spent about 30 mins in gear check at a parking lot before driving ahead to the trail-head. At about 9:30 a.m. it was time to strap on the rucksack and hit the trail!
The 8 hour walk from the trail-head to our campsite at Emmons Flats was a hard slog. The trail meandered its way through a sub-alpine forest for the first 3.3 miles till Glacier Basin campground (5900 ft). We crossed the campground and had a quick bite at about 11:30 a.m. After this point, the terrain and the scenery around us changed significantly, owing to the gain in altitude. Till Glacier Basin Campground, we had gained only 1500 out of the 5200 ft or so of the total height gain we were supposed to do by the end of that day and the really steep part of the day had only just begun!
We passed the next one hour walking through a moraine. The fauna changed from tall trees to shrubs and bushes, with some bright wildflowers on the ground in the vicinity of the water. Shrubs soon gave way to the grass and finally, around afternoon, we hit the snow. We were feeling pretty comfortable till then.
While Joe and Jasmine assessed the route from the moraine, we rested our haunches on the rocks and finished our packed lunch. It was a hot and sunny day and there was no trace of coolness in the air at that point of time. We were in a glacier basin and needed to cross the mountain face that stood guarding the basin, in order to get closer to our campsite at Emmons Flats.While gazing at the mountains, I saw a trail going up a steep snow slope, that might have led to the other side of the mountains. This trail seemed to have been made by someone who might have glissaded down it. The slope seemed pretty steep and I almost hoped that Joe and Jasmine were thinking of a different route to cross the mountain. But apparently, that exact same route had seemed like a very logical way up the mountain to JJ. As I found out later through this climbing blog, the route we were looking at and were to climb in due time is called the Interglacier. And so it was, that we began our journey on the snow – we were to be on the snow for the rest of our 72 hour climb(and climb down) of the mountain.
Once on the Interglacier, we kept climbing one slope after another, with Joe doing the hard work of opening the route by cutting in the steps. The ground beneath our feet, although steep, was not tricky. We followed at a comfortable distance behind Joe, although he did get a little impatient with us at a few times, a toughie that he was. He was a very strong climber and a good guide, and as we were to discover on the summit day, his pushiness is probably what saved us from not being able to summit in a safe time.
Joe was forming a zig zag trail on the slopes – the snow was just sufficiently soft and we needed neither the crampons nor roping up; We were in ankle-deep snow and as we climbed higher and higher, the views started to get better and better. We could see the rugged mountains all around us. At some point, the magnificent north face of Mt. Rainier started to come in to view. It was if the peak was staring down from 14000 ft. Staring down hard at us mere mortals, who were trying very hard to climb on its body. We could clearly see the top and for the first time, I got some real idea of how the summit climb was going to be.
The trekking poles had long been replaced by the ice-axe. In fact, the only other time the poles were used in the climb was when we had to secure the tent and were missing a few stakes, before leaving for the summit.
The route kept going over one knoll after another, for about 2-3 hours before we could find ourselves at the top of the Interglacier, on a small rocky ridge. The ridge served as a good place for a rest-break, while Joe scouted around for a possible route ahead. Looking at the peak, Interglacier lay to the right side of us while on the left, lower part of Emmon Glacier expanded on the mountain slope, in a series of crevasses running in parallel one above the other. I was fascinated to see the huge expanse of the glacier and to know that this is the territory we would be stepping onto pretty soon.
From the ridge, we descended towards Lower Emmons glacier and began roping up on the dirt and rocky scree, just before stepping on to the glacier. While I have so far been on about 3 mountain climbs that were above 14000 ft, crossing crevasses was something that I had seldom done. So when I saw that a crevasse was gaping down very close to the edge of the glacier, I took my time in staring at it in amazement. As a safety measure with respect to the crevasses, we were to walk roped up from this point onwards. Thus prepared, I prussiked myself in the rope and got ready for the rest of the climb for the day.
I was the second person in our rope, just behind Joe, who started leading up the glacier route. Within a few minutes of starting our walk, we crossed our first crevasse via a very tenuous snow bridge. In fact, we crossed a couple of more such snow bridges before getting up to the safer part of the glacier. It was a miracle that the snow bridges didn’t give in. It was about 3 p.m. and the Sun had made the snow very slushy. Although we had safely crossed the bridges this one time, it seemed unlikely that we would gamble on them again during our return journey that was due a day after the next. Needless to say, it was scary and fun, both at the same time. Fast but steady, was the rule we were to follow while crossing the snow bridges. No sudden movements and definitely no running!
The next 1 hour was very tiring as we kept gaining height and digging our feet into the snow. Although our walk up the mountain was made easier by the perfect steps that Joe was stomping in, we had started to become impatient with the exertion and eagerly awaited arrival at the campsite. We had been walking for almost 7 hours by then and had covered about 4-5 mountain miles.The weather had been favorable throughout and we welcomed the fact that we didn’t have to deal with either low temperatures or precipitation of any form. At about 4 o’clock, we could spot Camp Schurman(9440 ft) in some distance to our right (facing the peak). Although the common route from lower Emmons to Camp Schurman passes via a hillock full of loose rock and scree, we avoided that route and didn’t leave the glacier till we reached Camp Schurman from its side, instead of its back (the hillock side). It was a relief to finally reach the gorgeous campsite that is nestled on a rocky ridge.
Camp Schurman sits on the ridge that divides the Emmons glacier from Winthrop Glacier. A hillock rises at the back of the ridge, while the front end leads up to Emmons Flats, merely 400 ft above Camp Schurman (9800 ft). As tempting as it was to take a nice break at Camp Schurman, which was dotted with bright colored tents, we decided to keep walking and rest directly at Emmons Flats. It was close to 5 o’clock and we had limited daylight and good weather left for setting up tents, firing up the stove, melting some water and getting some calories in. We made it Emmons Flats in about 15 mins and finally put our packs down around 5:30 p.m.! It had been a long, long day!
Emmons Flats Campsite sits at the base of the summit cone and is surrounded by crevasses all around. The way castles have moats running around them, we had crevasses running around our campsite, although the latter didn’t serve any purpose of protecting us from harm’s way. Having said that, it was a lovely campsite, made enjoyable by the good weather that had blessed us. Summit of Mt. Rainier towered over us as we started shoveling out snow for making the surface flat for tents. A toilet pit was dug up a little distance from the tents while another spot was made into a kitchen spot. That is where we would burn our fuel and boil our dry food.
Weather had become cold by this time, cold enough to justify putting on long johns, a down jacket, gloves and a woolen hat. We spent the next hour in melting snow and using it for boiling the contents of Backpacker’s Pantry packets. The sunset was magnificent and lasted for a long time. First orange and then pink, the valley was bathed in the rays of the mellow, setting Sun. Our tent opened on the west side – thereby affording us serene views without having to step outside the tent.
It was good to know that the day was over and next day was entirely reserved for relaxation. With that happy thought in mind, I crawled into my sleeping bag and kissed goodnight to the bright moon shining above our tents. The moon was so bright that it felt like somebody had installed a floodlight at the camp! There would hardly have been any need for the headlamp if one was to step outside the tent.
I awoke to a bright morning with the campsite basking in the glory of the 7 o’clock Sun. I opened the zipper of the tent and had a look at the hillock that was standing directly in front of us (with Camp Schurman at its base). I could see a couple of hikers taking a morning walk up the hill. It was my cue to finally get myself out of the tent.
A note about attending nature’s calls while climbing Rainier: Emmons Flats is a blue bag zone, meaning that you’d have to pack your poop in the blue bags and carry it back to Camp Schurman for dumping in the solar compost. It was my first time using these blue poop bags and even though I was initially disgusted at the thought of having to scoop up my poop, it turned out to be a fairly clean experience, when done carefully – at least when the poop was dry and solid. Ok, enough of poop talk.
We mostly spent that day around the kitchen spot. Enjoying the sunshine later resulted into some terrible sunburns on my face, high SPF sunscreen notwithstanding. Eating, resting, gazing around the panorama, listening to the intermittent rock falls, staring up at the peak and wondering what route we’d take up to the summit, kept us busy on that day.
There was a group of climbers that had started their summit attempt sometime after the midnight and we had spotted their movement on the upper reaches of the summit cone at around 7:30 a.m. We kept tracking their movements and it seemed like they were making very slow progress. This made us a little nervous because we were likely going to take the same route and didn’t expect to be any faster than that group. It meant that the journey to the top was going to be long and exhausting.
There was another data point which had signaled that the summit day was going to be very taxing (it always is, but still!). The previous evening, just after we had entered the campsite, we had run into a group of climbers who were headed towards Schurman after summiting the peak. They had looked completely winded and upon inquiring how the route to the summit was, one of them had taken a dramatic pause for thinking and had finally said that it was ‘umm…circuitous’. We had laughed at the peculiar way in which he had uttered the word ‘circuitous’ but on our summit day, we were to find out how apt that description of the route would turn out to be.
We had some excitement around noon time, when suddenly out of the blue (sky), we could hear the buzz of an approaching chopper. From the sound of it, it was coming from somewhere beyond the summit cone but it surely seemed to be coming closer to where we were. We had some excited talk about how it could be a rescue chopper but the chopper suddenly emerged out of the sky on the level same as us and flew straight toward Camp Schurman. It soon became clear that it was a kind of a cargo sortie and that thankfully, nobody on the mountain was in the need of a rescue that day. I was able to get some footage of the flying chopper before it dived out of sight towards Camp Schurman.
Around 3-4 p.m., JJ got the 3 of us on our feet to get some practice done for a crevasse rescue. We were to cross a lot many crevasses on the summit day and it made sense to have an idea of how things would proceed in case the leader falls in the crevasse. JJ walked us through the Z-pulley system commonly used for rescue and then we went through a drill, which gave us a fairly good idea of the process. Although it was good to practice our skills, we sincerely hoped for a fall free summit attempt the next day.
Our summit day was going to start at midnight, to afford us more time for the climb. We were a moderate speed party and could use that extra climbing time. The plan was to make it to the summit by 8 a.m. and then get back to Emmons Flats by noon. We would then pack up and walk all the way back to the White River Campground by evening. All in all, it was going to be the toughest of the 3 days on the mountain. The mileage was going to be about 9-10 miles, with a height gain of 4800 ft till summit and a descent of almost 8000 ft, all within a span of 18-19 hours. It was therefore imperative that we got as much sleep as we could before starting for the summit. With that resolve, we had dinner and retired to the tent at around 6 p.m. Outside, the moon shone brighter than ever upon the snowy landscape.
The last few hours before midnight slipped away fast and just when I thought that I was finally going to get some sleep, the alarm set for 11:00 p.m. started buzzing up. The D-Day was upon us. If ours had been the only tent at Emmons Flats at 6 p.m. that day, by 11:30 p.m., there were 5 more – groups that had arrived later in the evening and were going for a summit attempt the same night.
For some reason, I have never found it easy to be up and ready with the gear in place in time, before beginning a summit attempt. May be it’s because all summit attempts begin in the icy cold of the midnight or because I feel a little nervous or because it’s both. Joe kept showing off how fast he can get ready (he claimed that he took only 15 mins to wake up and get decked up). I was a little irritated at him but I guess, you always need one such person in the group.
We could make it in time for our pre-planned 00:00 beginning. I was the second person in our 5-men rope. Joe would lead as usual while Jasmine would bring up the rear end. Our lives were thus tied up with one another for at least the next 12 hours.
I don’t have any pictures of the summit climb as we were roped up the whole time and passed through some very dangerous terrain. We stopped only few times and that too only within the safe zones. Suffice it to say that this was probably the most technical and scary climb, among the 3-4 high altitude summit climbs that I have done or attempted so far. I had a great time and although I struggled in between to keep up a good pace, the experience has made me more confident about my mountaineering abilities.
We started walking up in the moonlight around midnight. We were one of the early departures – most other climbers were going to leave an hour later. As a result, we didn’t encounter a lot of rush ahead of us on the mountain. But after an hour or so, we could see a line of headlamps on the ridge behind us. This line caught up with us soon and eventually passed ahead of us! (We took no shame in being a slow-moderate speed party).
These initial few hours of climbing in the dark and just focusing on not tripping on the next step, of not stepping on the rope, of maintaining a consistent pace and of dealing with the unavoidable tugs that one goes through in a roped up situation, are far from beautiful. You just put your mind to the task and keep walking behind the leader, hoping that he’d soon take a short break. But of course, he is always far too strong to pause or the terrain is never safe enough to be lazy and stop by. So you keep trudging up the slope, stepping into the leader’s steps. My initial two-three hours on the summit day felt exactly like this. I was feeling very comfortable in terms of stamina but I could sense that the climb was going to be long, tough and arduous. We were going to gain 4800 ft in a span of about 8 hours.
From the campsite, we traversed up and to the left first and then began going towards the ‘Corridor’. The route was crisscrossed with crevasses. At times, we also encountered glass ice, but luckily, that patch lasted for a very short time. We relied on Joe’s judgment while crossing crevasses via snow bridges (hardness of the snow/ice due to night temperatures helped). At a couple of places, he would go ahead, set up an anchor using a snow picket and then belay us around a tricky crevasse. We had many scary moments and they made this entire climb worth the effort we were putting in. After all, these adrenaline pumped moments are one of the main attractions a lot of people like me, visit the mountains for!
Throughout this time, weather blessed us with warm temperatures and a windless night. I took it as a sign that the mountain really meant for us to climb to the summit that day.
Around 4:30 a.m., we found ourselves on a traverse. I am not sure about this but it was possibly the traverse leading towards the saddle between Liberty cap and Columbia Crest (the summit). I feel that this was one of the most comfortable spots on the mountain to rest and enjoy the vista around us. Visibility had improved as the Sun was breaking and after the first few hours of constantly going up and up with our necks down, it felt good to be on a relatively easy traverse. We took a short break for snacks and pictures and soon, got back to climbing. We were only halfway through at this point. Didn’t I tell you at the beginning that a ‘circuitous’ path lay ahead of us!
At some point on the traverse, I started to feel more and more tired or rather sleepy. I tried ignoring it initially, but soon, my sleepiness began to bother me and I finally realized that it could be a symptom of hypoglycemia. I hadn’t been careful about putting in enough calories in my body during the climb and that might have had something to do with the sleepiness. Having diagnosed the symptom, I made myself eat a cliff bar (I hate cliff bars since they become so hard in low temperature). I did feel more awake than before but still kept having a feeling of fatigue. My pace improved but it was far from consistent. It started to feel like we had been walking forever.
The traverse lasted for quite some time and it seemed to go on and around the mountain. At some point, we passed below a bergschrund – I was kind of fascinated by the idea of passing by a bergscrhund as I had only read about bergschrunds in mountaineering related books till then. The bergschrund was like a gaping mouth of a giant. I didn’t dare going close to it to find out how far below one would go if one was swallowed by that gaping mouth.
Around 7 a.m., we had passed the bergschund and one last push was all that had remained between us and the summit.
Fortunately or unfortunately, none of us was aware of how close we were to the summit at that point as the summit wasn’t visible and this route was new for our 2 guides as well. This last run was steep as it ascended a hump and then went on to the summit. 5 minutes of starting this part of the climb, I stopped in my tracks and asked for a long 15 minute break as I was feeling very tired again. I felt like none of our rest breaks had been satisfactory in length to allow myself a bite big enough to provide me sufficient energy. At the same time, Joe was getting impatient with the thought of taking more breaks and let us know as much. Looking at our speed, he declared that we might have to contend with going back without summit at this rate.
I do not know if Joe was making up the threat in order to motivate us to keep walking fast and consistently or he really felt that way on that day. But his threat worked wonders on me. This was an important summit for me for various reasons. One, it was going to be my redemption. Redemption for not being able to summit in my previous 3 peak attempts in other high mountains. Two, I had worked much harder in preparation for Mt. Rainier climb and I certainly didn’t mean to let it go to waste. So I quickly finished an energy bar, gulped down some water and bucked myself up for doing whatever it takes to get my ass to the summit. Going down without summiting in excellent weather conditions was an option I couldn’t accept.
About 15-20 mins of resuming the summit push, I felt back in control, back in form – the way I had felt for the last 2 days, barring the last 1 hour. The sugar from the energy bar must have kicked in the blood. Whatever the cause behind the happy outcome, I ended up walking consistently at a good pace for the next 45 mins. When the rocky ridge of the summit came into view suddenly, I kept walking without asking any questions to Joe. In case it wasn’t the summit, I didn’t want to get disappointed. I kept the curiosity to myself almost till the end. But upon nearing the base of the ridge, a returning climber passed us and encouraged us by saying that we were almost there and that on the top of the ridge, was the SUMMIT!!
Those words felt like poetry flowing out of the mouth of an Angle. We forgot our fatigue and hurried up the last few step to the summit. At around 8:30 a.m., we stood on Columbia Crest – the highest of the three summits of Mt. Rainier! I, rather, We, had done it and it felt very, very good!
Frankly speaking, I was disappointed with the views from the summit. I didn’t find anything that was better or something that even matched what I have been able to see from the likes of Stok Kangri or Draupadi ka danda in India. Furthermore, summit of Mt. Rainier, being the rim of a volacanic crater, was too broad to feel like a peak. In the distance beyond the summit, we could see other volcanoes in the cascades, namely, Mt. Helens and Mt. Adams. Other than that, the view was quite plain.
But that small disappointment didn’t dampen in any way, our excitement of making it to the summit after 2 hard days on the mountain. Most of all, I was happy that the uphill climb was over and although downhill climb is by no means comfortable, I preferred it to uphill at that point. We spent about 90 mins at the summit – resting, registering our names in the Summit Register and taking pictures of each other!
They say that you don’t bag the summit till the time you make it safely back to the base. How true those words felt while climbing down from the summit of Mt. Rainier!
We were supposed to climb down to Emmon Flats by noon, wrap up our belongings and then head back all the way to the White River campground by late evening.
The first half of the this descend included climb down from the summit, across all the crevasses and snow bridges that we had crossed while climbing up. Just that these snow bridges had been rendered very unsafe by the Sun’s heat and the resulting slushy snow. Joe carefully traced back the route that we had used while going up as it was a tried and tested route. At one point, we followed another group and ended up on a very dicey section. We eventually retraced our steps, painfully climbed up some distance and got routed back to our original descent path. The whole effort took a large amount of time as we had to be very careful while navigating the crevasses and also because we were very tired. At one point, my right leg punched through a snow bridge and although it didn’t lead to any falls or disasters, it gave me a perfect glimpse of what could have happened! It was imperative that we reach the campsite ASAP, before the heat made the snow bridges more dangerous.
By the time we finally made it back to Emmons Flats, we had crossed the noon time by 2 hours!
Climb down from Emmons Flats, back to the trailhead was a hard slog that lasted about 5 hours. We first descended to Camp Schurman, then climbed up the scree filled hillock (which was a lot of fun as it involved some scree and rock scrambling) and then walked down the glacier all the way to the base of the Interglacier, the point where we had started our snow march on the first day. All in all, we had to do a LOT of hill pointing that day, to get down to the snow-less area of the mountain.
From the base of the Interglacier, we walked on through the moraine and finally reached Glacier Basin campground by evening. Needless to say, I was tired to the very core by this time and used every opportunity to stop and rest my feet. The hike seemed endless, esp. during the last two miles. The Sun had already set by the time we reached the White River campsite.
I cannot describe the satisfaction I felt upon reaching our car in the parking lot – satisfaction of summiting a big, semi-technical mountain, satisfaction of knowing that this was the end of the 3 days long slog and the satisfaction that none of us had sustained any injuries or had had any serious falls during the entire climb. The whole venture had gone very, very smoothly!
As John Muir has rightly said, ” Of all the fire mountains which like beacons, once blazed along the Pacific Coast, Mount Rainier is the noblest.”