Posted September 1st, 2000
Like a bear beelining to honey, I have felt inexorably drawn to Mount Rainier. Sitting in Seattle and happily inhaling my fourth cup of double shot part-skim hazelnut latte last summer, I looked up from my perch at the downtown Starbucks and found myself staring directly at the massive ice cream cone in the sky. Sipping espresso in the San Juan Islands, there it was again: the incongruous sight of sandy beaches below, and a hazy skyline dominated by perfect snow slopes arcing up to the clouds. Even when I downed a beer, I found myself eye-to-eye-with that familiar snowy profile on the label of my—you guessed it—Rainier beer. The 14,410 foot capstone of Washington state beckoned to me everywhere I turned.
So when my friend Dennis Shaffer, the former executive director of the Green Mountain Club, now living in Washington, called this spring to ask if I would be interested in climbing Rainier in June with him and fellow Vermonter Paul Hannan, my response was reflexive. “Absolutely,” I blurted, in spite of numerous other commitments that rightfully should have taken precedence. The dye had long since been cast.
I am in good company in succumbing to the lure of Mount Rainier. Nearly 2 million people visit Mount Rainier National Park every year. With its 26 named glaciers, the mountain is the most heavily glaciated peak in the continental U.S. Ninety-seven percent of the 235,625-acre national park is designated as wilderness, offering relief from the endless miles of clearcuts that otherwise scar Washington.
Mount Rainier rates high on the dance card of countless North American climbers. About 11,000 people attempt to climb Mount Rainier annually; only about half of them reach the summit. This latter factoid is sobering: Rainier is a fiendishly difficult flirtation. Wet Cascade weather lashes Rainier with particular ferocity, and it is not uncommon to spend your would-be week of climbing stormbound in your tent. Suitors beware.
I had an ulterior motive for making the pilgrimage to Rainier: I wanted to go skiing. The large dormant volcano offers the prospect of the longest vertical ski run in the continental U.S.—nearly 9,000 vertical feet of turns, if conditions permit. The best skiing on Rainier is in June and July, long after the last snows in Vermont have washed into the Atlantic Ocean. There are no lifts and you must earn your turns, of course. With Massachusetts climber Jim Tennerman rounding out our Vermont trio, the plan was for us to ascend the mountain as a foursome. Once at the top, Jim and Paul would climb down, and Dennis and I would don telemark skis and slide down.
We chose to climb the mountain via the Emmons Glacier, which lies on the northeast side of the mountain. The Emmons is the second most popular climbing route on Rainier (the most popular routes ascend from Paradise via Camp Muir on the south side of the mountain). The Emmons Glacier, while a slightly longer route, is more lightly traveled, is famous for its sunrises, and is the classic ski mountaineering descent. The Emmons, while one of the less technical routes, still requires a good knowledge of glacier travel and general mountaineering skills.
A mere 90-minute drive brought us from SeaTac Airport to the White River Campground, the starting point for climbing the Emmons Glacier. A frantic parking lot packing job yielded the first of two unpleasant surprises: this was going to be a grunt. In spite of our best efforts to pack light, we were each toting 60-70 pounds of gear on our backs. “Nuthin’ like heading into the hills with a few tons of ultralight camping equipment,” I groaned as I heaved my absurdly stuffed pack and skis onto my shoulders.
Our second surprise came in the form of an announcement from Jim. “I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it up the mountain,” he informed us, explaining that he had a bad knee that had been acting up. We valiantly offered to lighten his pack but (thankfully) he was too proud to accept the favor. He agreed to climb with us for the next day and half to Camp Schurman, the climber’s high camp on the Emmons Glacier, and make his final decision there.
A two-hour hike on our first afternoon brought us to Glacier Basin. The snow-covered basin at 6,000 feet is a playground for skiers and snowboarders, many of whom come just to ski this area. From here, soft spring snow carpeted the Interglacier, a diamond-shaped 3,500-foot glacier that was to be our climbing route from Glacier Basin up to Camp Schurman. Climbing and skiing up the Interglacier the following day, we played turtle and hare with a group of three climbers from Colorado. They told us how they had attempted Rainier once before, but bad weather repulsed them. It is a story that we heard often. Indeed, we had little reason to be optimistic in the weeks prior to our climb, since Mount Rainier had endured six weeks of rain and snow. The day before we started our climb, rangers had graded the climbing conditions “poor,” noting that many parties were wallowing up to their waist in three feet of new snow that had fallen the previous week.
“Welcome to Camp Schurman!” bellowed Dee in a southern twang. The cheery climbing ranger who lives in a stone hut at the 9,500 foot high camp asked, “Did you bring this good weather all the way from Vermont?”
Dee’s good mood was due to the miraculously good weather that had finally arrived. After weeks of foul weather, Mount Rainier towered above us with barely a cloud to obscure our view. The hint of what the mountain was capable of came in the form of the 30- to 40-mph wind that blew steadily, and the thin mountain air that we gulped.
Dee spotted our skis and informed us that the summit cone was not skiable thanks to the fact that it was plastered in cauliflower-sized chunks of rime ice. Sensing my dismay, the avid snowboarding ranger offered, “You can carry your skis to the summit if it’s important to you to say you did. But I suggest you stash your skis at about 12,000 feet, which is where the good skiing starts.” It turned out to be excellent advice.
Hours before we started our climb, Jim pulled the plug on his summit bid. “My knee is not going to make it. You guys go ahead—I don’t want to ruin your chances.” It was a tough decision for him, but the right one. He headed down that day and hitched a ride back to Seattle. The Vermonters would press upward on their own.
Summit day on Rainier begins in the dead of night. It takes about 12 hours to climb and descend the Emmons Glacier, and you have to be down by mid-day to avoid having to cross crevasses on sun-weakened snow bridges. Paul Hannan, whose day job is director of conservation programs at the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board, awoke at midnight and brewed the requisite strong coffee that lured Dennis and me out of our sleeping bags. By 2:30 a.m., we were roped up and climbing the Styrofoam snow by the light of a nearly full moon. It was a magical feeling to be creeping up the side of the giant snow cone in the silver light. The lights of Seattle twinkled off in the distance like sparklers. A relentless wind buffeted us, but the sky was clear, the snow firm, and we all buzzed with excitement knowing that these were perfect climbing conditions.
By 5 a.m., we watched the eastern sky turn orange, red and gold as the sun rose. I was relieved to lighten my load by stashing my skis at the base of an icefall at 12,000 feet (Dennis did not take skis in order to climb down as a roped pair with Paul). We crossed the bergschrund at 13,000 feet on steep snow bridges, and then began our climb up the long, rounded summit dome. The dome was stunning: glistening in rime ice, it sounded as if we were climbing on champagne glasses as the ice shattered underfoot.
The final 1,500 feet seemed interminable. My head and heart pounded from lack of oxygen, my pace slowed dramatically, and I felt desperately nauseous. Suddenly, a rope team popped over a lip ahead. “It’s just over there!” shouted the lead climber, pointing his ice axe to a sharp horizon line. Minutes later, we crested over some rocks into a lunar landscape. The summit of Rainier is a large snow-covered volcanic crater ringed by smoking steam vents. We embraced in a euphoric hug on a crunchy, lava encrusted summit plateau. I struggled valiantly to keep my Cliff Bars down, the unspoken price for this enchanted view of the highest peaks of the Northwest.
Skiing the upper mountain was challenging. Thin air, gloppy snow, and the runneled surface kept me working hard, but I enjoyed the ride. As for speed, the skier and the climbers were about tied: the altitude slowed my descent, and the glissading (butt-sliding) sped their’s, until we got low enough on the mountain where I could breathe and ski easily. They arrived at the tent and found me prone, feet sticking out the tent door. I was snoring soundly.
The next day, the descent of the Interglacier below Camp Schurman made for hero skiing: the forgiving ball bearing corn snow gave rise to numerous whooping high-speed turns. One fall was enough to keep me from doing it again, as my heavy pack helped leave a detailed impression of my face in the soft snow.
There was one turn that was more memorable than any others: the turn back to peer at the massive snowy flanks of Mount Rainier. Even though we had just climbed it, the allure of this magical and imposing mountain had not dimmed at all.