Rainier Test Climb

It's Memorial Day Weekend, and I've got an outlandish scheme to rent a car, leave Portland on Friday night, climb Mt Hood at midnight, then drive straight to Bend, and go up into Three Sisters Wilderness for two days with some vague notion of camping and climbing in the snow. I'm not even sure if the road to Three Sisters will be open. The ranger I called said there is still eight feet of snow on that road, but they plan to have it clear. I dunno, sounds sketchy...

It's 9pm on Friday night. I have all of my gear piled up in the middle of the floor, but for some reason feel reluctant to pull the trigger on this trip. I'm feeling weary from a long week. I'm not sure I have the energy to start climbing at midnight to make summit on Hood by sunrise, or the energy to drive all the way to Three Sisters and deal with the snow there after climbing Hood. In a decisive moment, I ditch the whole plan and sleep long and hard.

Saturday I wake up, fully charged and decide to drive to Mt Rainier on a reconnaissance mission. My goal for the summer is to solo climb Rainier, so why not go up there and get to know the mountain?

I leave Portland around 8:30, and arrive at the southwest entrance of the Mt Rainier National Park about three hours later. There is a huge line of cars and Harleys waiting to get into the park. It's okay, I tell myself, many of these people will not stray more than 100 feet from the road. A day pass is 15 dollars per car, and an annual pass is 30 bucks. I spring for the annual pass; I plan to spend some quality time here this summer. The ranger that takes my money is the cutest ranger I've ever seen. She's got that Nordic goddess thing going on. Maybe I'll see her again, not that Nordic goddesses really take to me, but whatever.

As I drive into the forest, I'm impressed by the size of trees and the lushness of the moss and ferns. I'm glad this land is protected even if it has become somewhat of a spectacle. It's overrun by tourists from all over the world on weekends and holidays, has gated entrances, and costs money to see -- but at least it's here at all. At least it hasn't been razed by the timber industry, hundreds of years of growth destroyed in weeks, for a quick buck. At least it hasn't been crisscrossed with ski lifts and party lodges. I hate that I have to pay to see an ancient forest. I hate that I have to wait in long lines to enter it. I hate that I have to fill out forms and fuel a bureaucracy just to climb above ten thousand feet. But, I understand why it has to be this way. And it'll never get any better. It's only going to get more and more crowded ever year. Someday we'll probably have to buy tickets weeks, months, years in advance to even enter the park, or any National Park. I'd pay to keep this place safe from us.

It's quite a drive up through the forest on a narrow two lane road to Paradise, the highest drivable spot on this side of the mountain, complete with a visitor's center and a huge parking lot. The entire mountain is visible from Paradise, and it is huge! It makes Mt Hood, Mt. Adams, and every other volcano in the Cascades look small by comparison. I'm humbled by the power and energy this giant exudes.

After gearing up, I leave the parking lot at 5400 feet, and start climbing around noon. My plan is to climb for three hours, then turn around. It's very warm, and I realize immediately that this presents a big problem. I've always been able to stay on top of the snow above timberline without snowshoes, but it's so warm that I sink in up to my knees with every single step. It takes a great deal of energy to cover even the shortest distance without snowshoes, but I push onward. The standard route up Muir snowfield is hard to miss. There are dozens of groups of climbers scattered along the route. But Rainier is so big that even with this many climbers and day trekkers, it doesn't feel too terribly crowded. There are moments where I'm half a mile from the nearest cluster of dark human dots on the super white slope above me. We're all separate, yet all striving toward a similar goal.

Looking out over some of the lower peaks that I quickly transcend, Mt Adams standing stoically the distance:

As I make my way up the Muir Snowfield, I hear a deep rumbling that sounds like popping fireworks followed by an earthquake. I look at the massive upper slopes of the mountain, and see a large avalanche rumbling down an unpopulated glacial cliff. I'm far from its reach and in no danger, but it's impressive and intimidating. I feel like Rainier is shouting to everyone, "Welcome to the gun show, puny humans. I own your sorry asses now!"

Over the course of three hours, I climb almost three thousand feet. I try to utilize the tracks of others for harder packed snow. I'm starting to feel the altitude, and I'm running out of water. I toy with the idea of boiling some snow to make some tea, but it seems like a lot of work and it's really hot, so I just resort to eating snow. Because the snow is so soft, sinking me up to my knees, my boots are getting soaked through. Plastic boots are good on the higher Cascade volcanos, but I usually use my Italian leather mountaineering boots and have no problems. Today, my boots have failed me, and my wool socks are soaked through, and my feet are growing numb. I find a rock outcropping in the middle of the snowfield. The rocks are actually very warm from basking in the sun, so I take off my boots and socks, and stand barefoot on the rocks, and feeling slowly returns to my toes. I spread my socks out on the rocks and they begin to dry. I take this time to eat a bunch of nuts and berries and greet a couple groups of climbers that pass while I have a little one-man party on this three foot rock adrift in the cockeyed sea of snow. My energy vibrates at a high frequency. I'm almost dancing as I stand still. Another avalanche crashes down a distant cliff, far from the standard climbing route, but still raises the hair on the back of my neck.

After a while my socks are warm and almost dry. I meet a man that has climbed Rainier three times and says that Muir camp at 10,000 feet isn't too far away. It's over a ridge line so I can't see it, but it seems doable. I gear up, fully charged and blaze up the snowfield. The problem is that even though my socks are dry, my boots aren't, and I continue to sink into knee deep snow. After a valiant one hour effort, my feet are growing numb again, and I face the reality that I still have hours of descending to get back to the car. I pull the plug on this exploratory mission at 4pm, an hour later than I'd planned to turn back, and bolt down the mountain. My gps says I've reached about 9200 feet, almost 4000 foot vertical gain from Paradise, but still about 800 feet shy of Muir camp at 10,000 feet. The summit is still well beyond reach at 14,200 feet.

The descent is a combination of fun and misery. I find some great glissading chutes and slide down the mountain on my ass for hundreds of feet at a time. Then I have to hike down, through ever softening snow. Numbing painful feet. After an hour or so of this I'm completely exhausted. By the time I can see the visitor's center below, I am stopping and sitting in the snow every few minutes.

At 5:30 I am back at the car. I immediately take off my boots and socks and stand barefoot on the warm parking lot asphalt. I can feel pain in my toes as they slowly come back to life. I pack up my gear, and hit the road back to Portland by 6pm.

I'm glad I did this test day on Rainier. It exposed the types of issues I'm going to run into when I go for the summit. I will bring gaiters with me next time to keep snow from creeping into my boots. I usually bring extra socks, but I didn't today. I will bring extra socks from now on, even on a short day climb. I will invest in a pair of snowshoes. If I could have stayed up on top of the snow, I would have expended far less energy, and I doubt my boots would have soaked through. I'll rent or maybe even buy a pair of plastic mountaineering boots when I plan to summit. Cold feet will terminate a climb before I even reach basecamp. I should consider buying a pair of retractable trekking poles. I've never liked using them, but my ice axe was ineffectual as a stabilizer in such soft snow, and poles would have made the soft snow way easier to negotiate, at least on the lower slopes.

When I get back, I load my gps data into Google Earth:

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