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Mount Rainier: In a Day

When the alarm went off at 9:45pm, my first instinct was to throw my phone out the open truck window. It was too early, too late, too ___ to be waking up. What should be labeled as a ‘glorified nap’ had turned into 4 hours of tossing and turning in the heat of the evening as car after car rolled in and out of the parking lot- babies screaming, music blaring, voices screeching. Nothing about that sleep had been restful. But, I knew I needed to pony up, get dressed, and try to amp myself up for the long day ahead.

I shook Andy awake and began getting dressed, glancing out the window as I did and noting that the truck was enveloped in a sea of fog. Visibility wasn’t what I had hoped it would be. But, as I’ve learned over the course of the last two years, just because you hope for something in the mountains doesn’t mean it will come to pass. We dug ourselves out of the truck bed and started multi-tasking seamlessly: eating breakfast while pulling on ski boots, attaching skis to packs, and triple-checking that we’d packed everything. In a few minutes, we were ready—at least we were ready on paper. Now it was time to get psyched. Psych would be the only way we would be successful today, the only way we would make it from the parking lot in Paradise, WA to the summit of Mount Rainier in a single-day push.

Carting skis and hiking in ski boots up the paved trail out of the parking lot was initially kind of brutal. I walked as quickly as I could- trying to shorten the amount of time I carried skis on my back. Turns out it didn’t matter. After missing a crucial switchback, and discovering a patchy, partially snowy trail, we found ourselves taking skis on and off- packing them up steep slopes, hunting for the lost-and-found trail in the darkness. It was quite the adventure.

Eventually, we found our way to the Muir Snowfield and began skinning up its frozen flanks- noticing the occasional burst of howling wind as it ripped across the open area. I slipped and nearly fell multiple times- my skins refusing to gain traction on the ice. At one point, I did fall, and smacking my knee with force on the top of my skis left me momentarily shaken and assessing the damage. I was thankful my pack was so light as I pulled myself carefully up off the ground and began making upward progress once again.

By the time we reached Muir, all of the guided parties had already left- the camp was a ghost town. Even here, tents were billowing in the wind- rainflys rippling with the current. We stashed our skis and put on our harnesses- ready to cross any yet-unseen crevasses. Right before we started off, an overwhelming wave of nausea hit me. I couldn’t move. It wasn’t altitude, going from sea level to 10,000’+ in a matter of hours had become relatively passé to us. It wasn’t from food- I hadn’t eaten anything weird. I couldn’t figure out what it was, all I knew was that I was scarily close to projectile vomiting the contents of my stomach all over the snow, effectively ending our summit-bid. I sat on the ground and curled up, willing it to pass. 30 minutes later, we were finally able to start moving again- slowly, but we were moving.

Making our way up to Ingraham was fun. Rocks came shooting down behind us as we made our way to the other side of Muir- it felt like we were playing dodgeball with the mountain… only, Rainier was playing nice with us. The rest of the climb to the flats was a chossy mess- we stayed roped up since we weren’t sure how quickly we would be back to traveling on the glacier but it would have been much faster and more efficient for us to have packed the rope away at this point. Our crampons had a rough time stumbling up the loose, chunky scree. On our way up, we ran into multiple parties who had elected to turn around due to the fierce wind that was howling around us. Apparently, the wind grew progressively more violent as the elevation increased and decisions were made to stay off of some of the ‘more technical’ terrain while it was present.

One of the parties decided to take the ‘choose your own adventure’ route during their descent and sent a number of cooler-sized blocks careening down toward us. They didn’t take any more caution after they realized we were traveling below them so we had to time our progress based on their location. I was frustrated with their inconsideration and inexperience since it (as is the usual case) was affecting the safety of myself and those traveling with or near me.

Please, please use caution when traveling above other people- it’s the safe, smart, and ethical thing to do.

Eventually, we crested up to Ingraham Flats and took a quick break behind a snow shelter someone had built. My nausea seemed to be holding off for now but I was worried it would kick back up at any time. I still felt slow, weak, idiotic, but I fueled up and assessed myself, realizing that I was still safe enough to climb and descend from where we were heading. The sun was coming up in full force at this point and we basked in its glory before covering every inch of exposed skin we could find. The wind was brutal and it was doing its best to unstake the tent city we were sitting amongst. Rainier certainly wasn’t going to let this day be easy.

Up and up we went- crossing our first crevasses of the day on our way to the Cleaver itself and enjoying a brief reprieve from the wind when we drifted behind larger rock outcroppings. The trail was so well marked that I didn’t even have to think about navigating. Just one foot in front of the other- mindless movement. Which, given the state of my body at the time, was probably a blessing. Above the Cleaver, we traversed out onto the glacier and were smacked in the face by the most powerful winds of the day. We could see a few small parties heading back down and as we met them on the snow, we gathered bits of info, “the wind just gets worse and worse,” “the summit is really bad,” and/or “we turned around at 14,000’- we couldn’t take the wind anymore.” We pushed on- the wind didn’t seem too bad and we were continuing to make decent progress despite how slowly I was moving. Winding around crevasses and crossing snow bridges at their marked points didn’t take any mental energy- we simply followed the same path that hundreds of parties had taken and braced ourselves when the gusts became their strongest.

Above 13,000’ we took a break and assessed ourselves. I had started to regain a little bit of pep but we were moving slowly. Very, very slowly. Looking around, we set our sights on the next highest point we could see, our 12noon turnaround time seeming to echo in my ears. I didn’t feel tired. I didn’t feel pushed. I just felt like my pack weighed 75 lbs instead of the 15 or so that it did.

As we climbed, one foot in front of the other, we noticed that clouds were beginning to make their way in down low, obscuring what we could see of Muir and heading in toward Ingraham. By the time we finally made our way to the crater, we were in the middle of the craziest windstorm I’ve ever felt. The winds rushing over the crater’s rim were so intense that they knocked me to my knees and sucked the breath out of my lungs. With the true summit in sight, we kicked our way across the snow as quickly as possible, heads down, one step, two steps, three steps. Trudgery.

When we finally reached the summit, I felt a huge wave of relief. We had actually done it. We were sitting on the summit of Mount Rainier, our 20th Cascade, and we had done it in a day. The winds were so powerful up top that I had to crawl onto the summit- standing was a precarious balancing act and I didn’t want to waste any energy stabilizing myself for a few selfies. We spent no more than 60 seconds up top, briefly enjoying the views, before heading back down. Thankfully, the way down was as straightforward as the way up and the wind-chill had kept the snow in relatively frozen shape. The risk of snow-bridges collapsing seemed small but we moved across them carefully, as we had on the way up.

At this point, Andy was starting to feel the altitude and we were both moving slower than normally. We took a break before descending the Cleaver and forced calories into our bodies. I was so looking forward to reaching our skis.

We found Muir alive with activity. New groups were setting up camp and a number of individuals were walking around- some, terrifyingly, were wear tennis shoes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many selfie sticks in use before! The fog below Muir was thick and we were worried about shrinking visibility so we started skiing down almost immediately. The snow was incredible and skiing on tired legs, although requiring much stopping and starting, was a great relief. I practiced skiing in the chop, working on turning on a dime and picking my tips up and over dense patches of ice and crud. Climbers had completely flattened out most of the skiable terrain so the ride down was not without effort- especially for me and my baby-skier skills. The really eerie part was that the lower we went, the thicker the fog was. Since we were both totally tired and I can’t keep up with Andy on skis (yet…) we were skiing in shifts- Andy would ski ahead of me and I would catch him. By the time we hit 8,000’, I was having to follow the tracks left by his skis. We were losing sight of each other at about 50’. It was crazy!

After what seemed like ages, we packed our skis on our backs and made our way down the marked trail to Paradise. I’d kept blisters at bay during this trip and I was totally psyched about that. When we reached the parking lot, I dropped my stuff and started getting it ready to load into the car- Andy walked down to the overnight lot and brought the car up to us. We were exhausted, thirsty, and still letting the events of the day sink in.

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