Muir Seminar, Day Four: Onwards and Upwards

By | 2016-09-29

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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