Guest Authors: Shannon & Tyson Head (@restlesscrusade)
What makes us want to climb big mountains? Maybe it’s the alpenglow en route to the summit, maybe it’s that feeling of pure emotional bliss standing on top, or maybe it’s the descent back down knowing we’ve accomplished what we came for.
After recently summiting Aconcagua in Argentina and developing friendships with some of our fellow climbers, we teamed up again to take on Mt Rainier. This mountain is also known as Tahoma at a height of 4392 metres. It is a large, active stratovalcano sitting in the Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest. It is also the fifth tallest and most glaciated peak in the contiguous USA and the highest peak in Washington state.
Mount Rainier, being an active volcano, makes for an amazing spectacle in itself. The 30m thick ice cap has numerous vents on its edges where you can see steam of toxic gas puffing out every so often. Somewhere around the edge also lies an opening to the world’s largest ice cave system that boasts over 3kms of trails and leads to the highest lake in the continental USA.
We all met up in Tacoma the night prior to get reacquainted over dinner and complete a gear check. Then it was early to bed as we would be meeting at 7:45 am for breakfast in Eatonsville at the base of the mountain. We stopped at Whittaker Mountaineering rentals as a few of the climbers needed to pick up some things before making our way to the parking lot at Paradise (1646m). Once there, we laced up our boots and headed for the lodge where one of the team mates got us checked in before starting our hike up.
We started off on snow right away weaving through day hikers that were making their way up and down the path. After about 30 minutes the crowds thinned out and we continued up to a nice rock plateau to enjoy some lunch.
It was a continuous yet gradual slog as we gained elevation, climbing all the way up to Camp Muir sitting at 3100 metres. We completed the 1525 metre elevation gain fully packed in around five hours. We started looking for a good place to set up our tent when one of our members, Harrison, had us pause for a minute while he checked out the Muir Hut to see if there was any room for our 11-member team. It was quite windy and getting late in the day so we were relieved when he told us there was just enough space for us all.
We quickly piled into the stone hut and started unpacking our sleeping bags and getting organized to make some dinner and melt snow to rehydrate. Shannon was having a tough time with her appetite (which is the norm for her when hiking) so was quite cold and needed hot pockets in her socks and to climb into her -30 Rab sleeping bag to get warm. I in term got dinner and water organized for us and ventured outside to check out the amazing views and catch the last little bit of sunset. We all fell fast asleep to rest up for the next day. There were people coming and going pretty much all night but Shannon and I were able to sleep right through it all.
Morning came and revealed the beautiful views from atop the Hut. We had a leisurely start to the day drinking our tea and hot chocolate and having breakfast before familiarizing the team on safe glacier travel techniques. We donned our harnesses, got roped up and did a trial loop to make sure communication skills and crevasse training was familiar to us all again. From here we ate lunch, packed up and headed out leaving the seasonal snowpack and onto the glacier. With two rope teams of four and one team of three we climbed a further two hours and 283 metres in elevation to Ingraham Flats at 3383 metres. Halfway between, one of our team mates’ soles delaminated from his boots so I volunteered to do a quick crampon swap and we were back on our way climbing.
At Ingraham Flats we promptly relocated snow to set up tents, melted snow and made dinner. Bedtime needed to be early as we agreed upon a 1:30 am start for our summit push. We all seemed to settle in around 8:30, climbing into our toasty warm Rab sleeping bags.
At 10:30 pm we awoke to the wind gusts and ice pellets ravishing the tent walls. We both started to have doubts about the morning climb. It just didn’t seem like it would be safe to be on the side of a mountain with risk of being blown off at any given moment. But we quickly drifted back to sleep. Our alarm went off at 1:30 am, we listened for others and heard only wind, strong winds. The tent poles were bending to the point that the walls were hitting us in the face and pushing our bodies off our sleeping pads. Was it safe to be outside? Would the weather change as the sun came up? Were we risking anything if we pushed on further? All these thoughts were racing through both our minds.
Soon a team member came knocking on our tent door. He mentioned that he could see multiple headlamps illuminating up the side of the mountain. He said that we needed to make a decision as to stay warm and safe in our sleeping bags or to venture out into the elements with hopes of the summit but also thoughts of turning around if the conditions worsened. We chose to push on and quickly found out that all 11 of us had the same thoughts. By 3:00 am we had eaten some breakfast, packed our lunches and snacks, loaded up on hot tea and water and locked our tents down with the hopes that it would remain in place while we were gone.
We stepped into our predetermined rope location and locked in for the days’ adventure. By now we couldn’t help but notice that many of the headlights we were looking at earlier had made a 180 degree turn and were heading back towards us. One team got back into camp just as we were ready to go and mentioned that they started at the Muir camp at 10:30pm and were forced to turn back before the summit due to their freezing feet as well as the strong winds. We could see that dozens of people had made this same decision. They also mentioned that we were heading out at the perfect time as the sun would be warming us in just a few short hours.
As our 11 little headlights started upwards the feeling of pure joy had already started. We casually weaved our way up the snow face as we wandered in, out and around the crevasse field of the Ingraham Direct Route. Our first major obstacle was now a manmade one. As there is no safe and easy way around the National Parks Service had placed three aluminum ladders latched together and spanned over an opening in the ice. As we negotiated the rungs with our metal crampons, our rope team had to adjust accordingly for the rope to be sure we were always safe and secure if a slip should occur. This section took nearly 20 minutes for all 11 of us to cross.
Not being properly acclimatized to the altitude you can really start to feel the shortness in your breath the higher you get above 3500m. This made for the perfect opportunity to slow down, turn around to gaze into the breathtaking sunrise that was unfolding in front of our eyes. The colours of the sky shifted right before us to display new features of the mountain that we didn’t even know were there. It was so beautiful that our memory of the wind howling at our back got lost from our memory. You don’t think of the cold, your lack of sleep or the further five hours of climbing that still lies before you. All you can see and all you can feel is the beauty of the mountains surrounding you.
As the time altitude and switchbacks slipped by we were passed by more groups that were forced to turn around before the summit, all talking about the weather rather than the snow condition. To us this was great news. Every hour or so we would stop and take a break, drink some liquids and eat some calories. Mainly odd mixes of protein bars, beef jerky, M&M’s and hard candies. Anything that would fuel our bodies further than our mind wanted to take us. Before long we were crossing paths with summitters. They were easy to spot as they still had smiles on their faces and filled our minds with encouraging words and estimating time frames.
The crevasses’ thinned out the higher we got and eventually we could see black lava rock that ringed the summit. We crept our way over the crater lip as the wind gusts nearly had us on all fours and threatened to blow us down the mountain. Once on the crater floor we dropped our ropes and climbing tools and enjoyed the only flat section of ground on this entire mountain. We crossed the 400m long ice field to the far side and the summit of Mount Rainier, the Columbia Crest at 4392 m. After seven hours of climbing we had reached our goal. We signed the summit log, took photos and each celebrated in our own personal way. The winds were estimated around 100km/h with gusts upwards of 150km/h so our time on the top was limited and any form of communication was nearly impossible.
After an hour within the crater we topped up on food and water then began to make our way down the same way we came up. The winds down lower had softened up and the sun’s rays were now turning the wind packed snow into slush. After twisting our way back through the switchback, seracs and crevasses we eventually found our way back over the aluminum ladders and down to the tents. We didn’t stop here however.
We packed up all our tents, shed a few layers and continued down further to Muir camp. Once here, we were safely off the glacier so crampons, harnesses and all other technical equipment was removed. Bags fully loaded now we continued to descend the mountain. This time however we would take the easy road. We climbed inside a black plastic garbage bag and glissaded our way down the snowpack. There were sections that went on for what seemed like half a kilometer. We eventually found ourselves back in the tree lined forest enjoying the sunset before reaching our vehicles by 9:00pm.
In a total of 18 hours we climbed 1000m and descended 2746m over 22km back to where we started. We endured freezing temperatures, hurricane force winds and utter exhaustion. We built lifelong companions, gained a handful of photos and created memories that can only truly be relived with fellow Rainier climbers, not to mention a few black toe nails that will be staring back at us for the next year. So when people ask us why we would ever want to climb these mountains and put our bodies through what we do, I don’t really feel obligated to answer. Because these people have obviously never put themselves into these situations and the true answer to this question can never be truly spoken, but only experienced.
For us, the mountains are always calling. We do juggle picking mountains our kids can accompany on versus the ones they can’t. So when we do these big ones and we find we are reaching our breaking point, we often think of our girls and how much they look up to us reaching the top.