Monthly Archives: September 2016

Muir Seminar, Day Four: Onwards and Upwards

Dave refused to tell us our scheduled wake-up time, lest we sit awake in anticipation.  At 02:45, we found out their plans.  The lights came on, the hot water was delivered, and the group of us went about putting our avalanche beacons on and getting dressed.

Three of our thirteen climbers had already decided they weren’t going for the summit: one had struggled with fitness from day one; another suffered shin bang the previous day, and a third was experiencing knee pain.  The rest of us did our best to get dressed, get fed, and get outside in 60 minutes.

One hour later on the nose, we set off.  With ten climbers and five guides, we were roped in groups of three.  My partners were the delightful Megan (a guide) and Libby (my coincidental cab-mate from Sea-Tac)—I was truly a thorn among roses.  Well, more like a thorn after two roses, as I was bringing up the rear on our particular rope.

We had learned of our rope teams the night before.  Of the thirteen people in our party, six of us had traveled in pairs.  Trevor and I were the only pair who weren’t roped together.  I understood the guides’ rationale—we were both heavier than the guides and would have overweighted the rope in the event of a fall—but it was still a little frustrating.  That said, I think T had reason to be more frustrated than I did; his partner was easily the least competent of anyone going for the summit.

Roped climbing by headlamp was a new experience for me.  It’s hard enough to match the pace of your rope mates in daylight, but doing so in darkness adds another dimension.  I eventually learned to follow a section of rope as it progressed along the snow, keeping it a constant distance ahead of me.

Within 40 minutes, one in our party was struggling.  I could hear him panting on the rope behind ours, struggling to keep pace with the teams ahead, taking breaks the rest of us weren’t.  By the time we hit our first break just after an hour in, it was clear that he’d have to turn back.  At sixty years old and not in tip-top shape, I credit him for even trying.

After about 15 minutes to fuel up and hydrate at Ingraham Flats, we were back in action.  But minutes later, we found ourselves stopped again.  The team from IMG, who had been camped at the Flats and set out before us, dislodged a ladder over a crevasse and had to reset it.  Standing still, my hands soon grew cold.  Not wanting to strip off layers just yet, I instead swung my arms, clapped my hands, and shimmied my shoulders in an effort to keep warm.  Thank god no one was recording this.

The ladder in question spanned roughly ten feet over a 100-foot-deep crevasse.  We arrived there still well before daybreak, so the depths were not readily apparent, but Libby made the mistake of looking down.  She stopped mid-stride, hand on the rope rail, and said, “I don’t think I can do this.”  Megan and I encouraged her, reassured her that it was okay, and she eventually made it across.

When my turn came, I ignored Megan’s advice and stepped with my right foot first.  The guide teams had placed boards across the ladder so that we weren’t forced to walk metal-on-metal, but the right board was wobbly.  I was immediately offering myself the same reassurances I’d given Libby: “Don’t worry, Edward.  Just keep moving.  You’ll be fine.”  A few quick steps later, and I was.

With that, we were onto the Disappointment Cleaver.  In mountain speak, a cleaver is a ridge that separates two glaciers, forcing them in different directions.  On Rainier, the Disappointment Cleaver is also the technical crux of the climb, the point that often leads many to turn back.  Ironically, the Cleaver got its name for a different reason—the original summit party had (incorrectly) thought its terminus was mountain’s peak.

We made our way up the Cleaver without much trouble.  The week’s new snow actually made the climb somewhat less technical if more physically demanding, offering as it did something other than bare rock on which to walk.  As we progressed, the sun began to break the horizon, providing spectacular views of the valleys and glaciers below.  Unfortunately, we had to keep moving—no time to stop for pictures.

We reached the top of the cleaver just over three hours after we’d set off.  When we arrived, the IMG team was already preparing to turn back—too may in their party lacked the fitness to continue on.  We took our scheduled break, fully intent on progressing towards the summit.


But twenty minutes into our planned fifteen-minute break, it became apparent that something was amiss.  The guides were just uphill of us, talking closely among themselves.  As the break grew longer, doubts about our prospects grew louder.  It wasn’t long before we were called up to see the guides’ findings.

What they’d discovered were severe avalanche conditions.  New snow over the preceding days had led to a large, intact slab that could detach at any minute.  No party had many the summit since the previous Thursday, and this Thursday’s effort would not break that pattern.  My heart sunk.

As I surveyed the situation, I began to doubt the guides’ resolve.  “They just don’t have the drive,” I thought.  “They’re not sufficiently motivated.”  Then came the snow science demonstration.

Testing for avalanche conditions involves isolating a 30-cm × 30-cm square column of snow roughly 10-meter high.  Once dug out, one slaps the column first ten times from the wrist, then ten times from the elbow, and finally ten times from the shoulder.  An observer notes break in the column as and when they occur.

Our first break occurred after only 13 hits.  The snow above the break line wasn’t particularly solid, what is known as Q2. The next break occurred only five hits later, and it was decidedly more solid.


Subsequent testing of a separate column revealed an even thicker slab, also fully intact, ready to detach with relatively minor disturbance.  My initial desire to push on quickly and fully reversed.  Our guides didn’t lack resolve; they possessed knowledge!

With that, our attempt at the summit was over.  I’d chosen RMI for their safety first mentality, and safety had won out.  We soon turned back and made our way towards camp.

On the plus side, our early departure provided fantastic lighting for photo ops.  The sun was still at a low angle, highlighting the depth of the crevasses that we’d already bypassed, illuminating our path from base camp.  It wasn’t all bad.

Rainier Panorama

We made our way back down the cleaver, traveling close together.  Having reversed course, I was now leading our rope, with guide Chase directly ahead of me.  The leisurely pace and close proximity offered opportunity for conversation, and I made the most of our opportunity to chat.  An avid ice climber, Chase would soon be returning to his new home base of Bozeman, MT, a veritable ice climbing mecca.  But not before he took the opportunity to do some hardcore trad climbing in the Cascades.  I found myself overwhelmingly jealous.


Roughly 45 minutes after turning back, we found ourselves back on Ingraham Flats, where we took another break.  In the mountains, one only takes breaks in so-called “islands of safety.”  But safety is relative—this particular island had a truck-sized boulder on it, which had tumbled down from above earlier in the season.  It pays to keep your wits about you, even when you’re relaxing.

The sun had risen higher by now, and I was getting warm.  I stripped down to my base layer, and even so it was borderline uncomfortable.  It never ceases to amaze me how that celestial orb, 93 million miles away, can make a glacier feel balmy.

Another 45 minutes later and we were back at camp.  Our compatriots who’d stayed behind were there to greet us, and I couldn’t help but feel like they’d each made wise choices.  That said, I had no regrets or laments about our turning around.  I’d come here to learn mountaineering skills—an attempt at the summit was just part of the package.

But our day wasn’t over yet.  It wasn’t even noon, and energy levels were generally high—why waste a beautiful day?  So after lunch, we headed back onto the Cowlitz for some ice climbing.

Just as we took up station on the edge of a large crevasse, the conditions took a turn for the worse.  Clouds rolled in, and snow soon began.  As we each took turns climbing, conditions only got worse.  By the time we left, we were in the midst of a blizzard.  It was like walking inside of a ping pong ball—I could hardly see Chase at the front of our rope!

Fortunately, we made it back to camp safely.  Our journey was more or less over; we finally could relax and enjoy ourselves.  But not before one last lesson!

Megan, Dave, and Solveig arrived after dinner to demonstrate how to perform a self rescue.  After Megan simulated extricating herself from a virtual crevasse, no one was eager to attempt it themselves.  Not wanting to leave her hanging, I stepped up to the plate.

Self rescue was surprisingly easy.  As in much easier than rescuing a partner.  Even so, I think I’d rather be the one on the glacier than the guy dangling inside a crevasse.

With that, our long day was finally over.  All that remained was our journey back to Paradise the following day.

Muir Seminar, Day Three: Help! I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up!

Night two in the hut was somewhat more restful than the first.  Sleeping through the emphysema-like noises remained difficult, but my second attempt at a reasonably comfortable clothing-pillow was better than the first.  Still ample room for improvement.  Still two more days to get it right.

Our morning routine was the same as the previous day: quiet hours until 07:00, hot water to “cook” breakfast around 08:00, ready to rock by 09:30.  After the previous day’s clomping around led to very sore feet, I was relieved to learn we’d do a lot more standing around today.  Specifically, we’d spend the morning learning how to set up standing anchors in snow and ice.  After lunch, we’d learn how to perform a crevasse rescue.

Setting up anchors is really important stuff, but that doesn’t make it exciting.  While my feet appreciated the break, the rest of me was getting pretty bored standing there.  I welcomed the opportunity to hammer a picket into the snow, if only because it was a break from the monotony.  And learning how to build a V-thread ice anchor is pretty neat.

The combination of thinner socks, looser laces, and less walking seemed to be helping my feet.  Whereas each step the day before had been just shy of agonizing, the morning had been mostly painless.  That was good news, because we had to trek pretty far onto the Cowlitz glacier for our crevasse rescue course.

After lunch, we roped up and made our way down to the crevasse field.  We watched as the guides explained, setup, and performed the initial “rescue.”  Contrary to what you might see on screen, getting someone out of a crevasse involves a lot more than just pulling on the rope.  Fixed anchors must be set (we used snow pickets), the fallen climber’s rope length must be fixed/secured, and friction hitches must be tied to ensure that the rope stays put during the rescue.  It’s an fairly complicated, intense, all-hands-on-deck effort.

During the lesson, the day’s clear skies soon gave way to thick clouds—weather changes quickly on the mountain.  Sitting still soon became less comfortable than it had previously been.  In my fidgeting and shuffling to stay warm, I let my attention drift from the lesson.  The complicated setup of ropes and hitches soon looked like nothing more than a tangle of ropes.  Oops.

When the opportunity came to jump slide into the crevasse, I was eager to go first, to get the blood flowing and hopefully warm up.  Unfortunately, someone beat me to it.  Having not paid much attention earlier, I was less eager to lead a mock rescue effort.  I figured I could learn from my teammates’ efforts before I had to give it a go myself.

When it was my turn to go in, some of my excitement had died down.  There would be no dramatic jump to simulate a fall, just a slow easing down on the rope.  It makes sense—no need to introduce unnecessary dangers—but it was pretty anticlimactic.  Still, being down inside a crevasse is pretty cool.  It’s not often one gets an inside view of these mountain menaces without being in actual danger.

I ended up being one of the last two people to work the ropes for a fallen climber.  Unfortunately, observing my colleagues proved less helpful than I’d hoped.  They all seemed as confused as I had been, so I ended up observing a series of repeated mistakes.  I managed to get a couple of the hitches right on my first attempt, but had this been a real rescue attempt, I think my rope-mate would have perished.  I’d better get some practice before I try to lead a rope.

We wrapped the day earlier than we had the last two, but not without reason.  Our summit attempt was scheduled for the next day, which would mean an early start.  We needed to get ready and get rested.

Anticipation level: Maximum.

Muir Seminar, Day Two: Learning to Walk

My first night in the cabin was fairly restless.  Efforts to make something resembling a pillow from my parka and other assorted clothes proved largely unsuccessful, so I was unable to assume my usual side-sleeper position.  Efforts to drown out others’ snoring with my iPod proved similarly fruitless—I remain convinced that someone in the cabin has emphysema and is in need of medical attention.

With my body still on Eastern time, sleeping until quiet hours ended at 07:00 was a non-starter.  I awoke frequently from 03:00 onwards, continually forcing myself to sleep until that was no longer practical.  By 06:30, I was outside awaiting the sunrise.  Others from the hut soon followed suit.

The guides arrived at 08:00 with hot water.  I had packed a mixture of instant coffee and chocolate protein powder with the goal of making something akin to a breakfast mocha.  Unfortunately, my chosen protein immediately congealed upon contact with hot water, making for a gloopy mess.  Guess I should have tested that one at home.

The group convened outside around 09:30 to begin the day’s lessons.  First up: how to walk with an ice axe.  Yep, there’s a right way to do that (axe in the uphill hand, pick pointed backwards).  As part of the lesson, we were also taught proper foot placement in varying snow conditions and terrains.  This mountaineering isn’t as straightforward as just hiking uphill!

With our walking lessons complete, we moved on to ice axe arrest.  To my surprise and delight, neither I nor any of the team was accidentally impaled or otherwise injured during this exercise.  And it really is exercise.  There’s a marked amount of effort required to hold oneself in the arrest position for an extended period.  Shoulders, arms, hips, and legs are all under strain, and it’s not as though you can just take a break when you get sore—in a real arrest situation, someone’s life is on the line.

After an hour or so of repeatedly throwing ourselves to the ground, it was time to eat.  My lunch plans for the week involved a variety of pre-made peanut butter bagel sandwiches.  I figured they were sufficiently rugged and calorie-dense to sustain me and withstand being shoved in a bag.  What I hadn’t figured on is how hard and dense they would become in the mountain cold.  I may have burned half the calories just trying to bite through and chew them.  Still, they did the trick.

After lunch, it was again time to learn to walk, this time with crampons.  Crampons are a necessity to securely travel on snow and ice, providing much-needed traction in an inherently slippery environment.  They are also great at tearing pants and damaging ropes, so you can’t just move around willy nilly.  You’ve got to keep your wits about you.  And walk like a cowboy, legs wide apart.

With everyone geared up, we got in a conga line and made our first foray onto the Cowlitz Glacier.  We repeated our earlier walking lessons, now with added traction!  Up and down hills, switching ice axe from side to side.  Back and forth across the glacier, careful not to trip or tangle our crampons in one another.

My feet are starting to hurt.  And I’ve already snagged my gaiters a few times.  Oh well, we’ll be done soon.  What, we’re trekking completely across the glacier?  And up the ridge?  Oh.  Great.

By the time we got back to camp, my feet really hurt, hurt like hell.  As in “I’m not sure I can do this again” hurt.  I quickly removed my boots and threw on camp shoes.  I scrounged some Advil from my friend.  I tried to elevate my feet.  And I hoped things would be better by tomorrow…



Muir Seminar, Day One: Paradise Lost

The schedule called for us to convene at 08:00 PDT.  With my body still on Eastern time, I wasn’t able to sleep much past 05:00.  So I went for another short run, naturally.  That’s what everyone does before hiking 5,000 feet up a mountain, right?

Sunday’s weather had been beautiful, sunny and in the low 70s.  Monday looked less promising.  It was cool and damp during my run, and the temperature hadn’t increased much by the time we grouped up.  Moments later, the rain began.  

We met our three junior guides, introduced ourselves to them, and discussed the day’s plans.  After taking shuttle to the park entrance, we would trek through Paradise Meadows and across the Muir snowfield before arriving at Camp Muir.  Sounds simple enough.

Only by the time we arrived at the park, the morning drizzle had turned to a steady rain.  Weather data suggested that we would cross the freeze line around 6,000 feet, but we were still faced with two miles and 1,000 feet of vertical in cold, driving rain before we crossed over.  Not an ideal way to start multiple days sans heat.

Dave set an easy, steady pace up the mountain, and we were instructed to follow single-file.  I promptly took up second position, hoping I’d have a chance to chat with the maestro.  Unfortunately, rain slapping on Gore-Tex makes for a fair bit of noise, so conversation was difficult to manage.  No matter—we would all have plenty of time together over the next few days.

The schedule called for four rest breaks at predetermined locations.  It was still raining when we reached the first, so we kept it quick.


By the time we made our second stop on the Muir snowfield about an hour later, the rain had begun to freeze.  Great—still wet, just colder.  

Muir Snowfield

Muir Snowfield

Being stationary during the rest breaks did me little good.  My core temperature dropped, and my left hand was mostly numb by the time we got moving.  Wiggling my fingers was sufficient to bring the feeling back, but I was nervous about the coming days—one pair of gloves was soaked through, and we were barely an hour in.

The freezing rain made conditions on the snowfield treacherous.  Each drop added to an ever-increasing crust of ice, and traction was hard to come by.  To make matters worse, we were on the snowfield’s steepest slopes—sub-optimal for trekking without crampons.  

After slipping and sliding for another hour, we finally escaped the rain.  With still 1,000 feet left to climb, Dave decided a rest break at Moon Rocks was in order—we had skipped a scheduled stop earlier to avoid hypothermia.  I would have been happy to push on to Camp Muir, but some of our crew were lagging well behind.  

Another hour of climbing brought us to Camp Muir.  Perched on a narrow, saddle-shaped ridge, Camp Muir is a literal and figurative dividing line: it separates the Muir Snowfield from the Cowlitz Glacier, and it’s the highest one can go on Rainier without a climbing permit.  Shelters for climbers and guides mark both ends of camp, with some horrendous but welcome outhouses included in between.

The camp’s location on a ridge leaves it particularly exposed to winds, but it affords travelers incredible views.  Looking south across the snowfield, one can see Mount Adams, Washington’s second-highest peak.  Farther south and a bit to the west is Mount Hood, the highest point in Oregon.  Still further west one sees the exploded face of Mount St. Helens.

On the other side of the ridge sits the Cowlitz Glacier, behind which lies Little Tahoma, a satellite peak of Rainier that is actually the third-highest in the state.  Any summit attempts from Camp Muir necessarily cross the Cowlitz, and we would get to know it well.

Our home through Friday would be the RMI guide hut.  Originally erected by the Whittaker brothers against NPS wishes, the plywood shack is anything but plush.  Fortunately, we were five under its 18-person capacity, so there was some room to spread out gear and avoid the inevitable funk caused by five days without a shower.  I claimed a spot on the top level, figuring it would be marginally warmer and removed from some of the hustle and bustle down below.  It proved to be a good choice.

Once everyone was settled in, we had some time to chat and warm up.  My bunkmates on the top level were Albert, a university data center operator from Iowa, and Kirk, the younger half of our party’s father-son team.  I got lucky with this pair—they proved to be friendly, accommodating, and not particularly smelly colleagues.

Guides Dave and Billy soon joined us to discuss plans for the the week.  Conditions above the Disappointment Cleaver were still questionable—new snow avalanche conditions were rife—but they remained optimistic about our summit prospects later in the week.  With the following day’s mission laid out, we were given time to “cook” dinner and further acquaint ourselves with one another.

Cooking at Camp Muir consists of anything and everything that can be prepared with boiling water.  For most of us, that consisted of Mountain House freeze-dried food and copious amounts of Swiss Miss hot chocolate.  Many in our party, myself included, had never experienced the wonders and woes of dehydrated meals—if you don’t hydrate and incubate them sufficiently, they are prone to providing GI distress.  With that in mind, I allowed my chicken and potatoes plenty of time to steep, and I was pleasantly surprised by the results.  I’ve paid more for less satisfying food, although that be the circumstances speaking.

With a full meal in our bellies, it was time for bed.  Fortunately, I was still on Eastern Time, so 9:00 PM felt like midnight. With this Old Man typically retiring at 10:00 PM local, I was already up late.  It’s not to say I slept like a baby—my rolled-up-extra-clothing pillow remained a work in progress—but I was ready for bed by the time the lights went out.  Phew!

Five Days on the Mountain

Rainier PanoramaA couple of years ago, my friend and I “climbed” Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48.  While a decidedly long and strenuous trek, it wasn’t mountaineering in the true sense—there was nothing technically demanding, no specific skill required.  So when said friend inquired about climbing the slightly shorter but heavily glaciated Mt. Rainier, I thought some training was warranted.

Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI) is the premier guiding outfit on Rainier.  In fact, from 1969 to 2007, they were the only outfit on Rainier.  RMI offers a variety of programs on their namesake peak, with their guided summit climbs being the most popular.  All the programs involve some amount of safety and skills training, but I wasn’t going to pay someone a good chunk of change merely for a chance at the summit.  I wanted education, skills that I could deploy independently on other mountains.  

RMI describes its Muir Skills Seminar as a “comprehensive training courses designed to educate climbers to the mountaineering skills needed to tackle the world’s greatest peaks.  Days are spent on nearby glaciers developing mountaineering skills such as snow & ice anchors, crevasse rescue, ice climbing, fixed line travel, belaying and other technical skills, before making a summit bid.  The program’s flexible itinerary allows for our guides to plan the summit bid depending on the best weather conditions and the team’s strength.  Successful completion … provides you with a foundation for other major glaciated mountains.”  Perfect fit.

Day Zero: Orientation

The skills seminar begins and ends at Rainier Basecamp in Ashford, WA.  Ashford is a small tiny town a few miles from the entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park, so small that it has no cell phone service (at least for AT&T).  RMI and its competitors pretty much comprise the local economy, with a bit of lodging and food piggybacking thereon.  It’s a part of America that city slickers like me almost forget exists.  

After an early morning run along pretty much the only road in town, I grabbed a quick breakfast from the on-site coffee shop and reported to our assigned meeting place.  Once the group had convened, we met our guides, and hell if we didn’t get lucky.  Our lead guide, Dave Hahn, is a veritable mountaineering legend—he has summited Mt. Everest 15 times, more than any non-sherpa.  Our co-leader, Billy Nugent, had just returned from Everest.  Three more junior guides would arrive the following morning.  Needless to say, we were in good hands. And with a guide to every three climbers, there were plenty of hands to go around.

Having met the guides, we met one another.  Our team of 13 was diverse in age, background, and experience.  Two in our team had summited before, one on a similar RMI seminar in 1973.  Another, a 60-year-old business owner, had recently trekked up Aconcagua, the 22,000-foot apex of South America.  Apart from the party’s sole woman and an AARP-eligible Army doc, my friend and I were probably the least experienced of the group.  Experience isn’t everything, though, as we’d learn soon enough.

With introductions out of the way, we learned more about the work ahead.  We would depart from Paradise Meadows on Monday morning and trek to Camp Muir at 10,200 feet.  Over the subsequent three days, we would undergo intense mountaineering training, including an attempt at Mt. Rainier’s 14,410-foot summit whenever conditions looked most promising.  We would finally return on Friday morning, having spent four nights crammed into a primitive mountain hut sustained primarily by Snickers bars and dehydrated food.  

One doesn’t just set off for five unsupported days on the mountain without proper preparation, of course.  It’s important to be properly equipped, so we dumped all our stuff on the lawn and proceeded to do a gear check.  Good thing, too, as I’d brought the wrong kind of ice axe!  Fortunately for me, our trip coincided with RMI’s annual Mountain Fest, which included their selling lightly used gear at dirt cheap prices.  #winning

With our gear sorted, it was time to learn how to use some of it.  While the climbing and belay training were old news to me, it was clearly new to some of our participants, even the party’s preeminent peak bagger.  Basic ice tool and crampon skills were new additions to my repertoire, though I had my doubts about how much climbing a foam “ice wall” would resemble the real thing.  

Once we’d gotten to our guides, our gear, and our partners, orientation was, appropriately, over.  We were freed to re-pack our gear, pack our bellies, and pack it in for the night.  The time to escape civilization was nigh.