Rainier was a big trip for me.
Months of grueling preparation. Thousands of dollars of extra gear. Hours and hours spent poring over minute details. Endless meal planning. Overplanning. Then overplanning the overplanning. Maps. Spreadsheets. Calorie/ounce counts. Every day wondering if I was ready for 8 days on a frozen mountain with people I didn’t know.
The Gear Pile
I detailed a lot of the pre-trip overview already here on the blog – Rainier Page, no sense regurgitating it all here.
Thursday morning at AAI’s headquarters in Seattle was the first time I physically met anyone on the team. A mother-daughter (Jenny & Roni) combo with an impressive list of past trips and perfectly matching gear. The wacky Canadian (Adrian) whose brutal training workouts I’d been following on Garmin Connect. The New Yorker (Patrick) with a ton of outdoor experience. And a newcomer (James) that AAI never mentioned had signed up, so we missed including him on all of our email discussions over the previous weeks.
Everybody seemed pretty easygoing, well-trained, and itching to get on the trail. This was going to be a good trip.
We also met our guides (that’s Sherpas to Cody and Jareck), JP and Don, both colorful characters with years of mountain experience. Don was even on the reality TV show ‘Naked and Afraid’ in Namibia.
Everybody tore their gear out of their backpacks as JP & Don went item-by-item to ensure that we had the gear we needed. Some people discovered they had the wrong boots, some people discovered they had the wrong pants, and I discovered that the crampons that AAI recommended I buy didn’t fit my boots quite right. Nice. Luckily they have an onsite gear shop and I was able to rent different crampons, but I sure wasn’t pleased to spend another $50 because AAI screwed up. Ah well.
Gear check complete, pile in the van and head for the hills.
Most people climb up the Disappointment Cleaver (that’s “the DC” to people in the know), however we drove around to the opposite side of the mountain. Once there we added group gear to our packs and made an easy four mile hike through massive pines to the Glacier Basin Camp.
Glacier Basin Approach
We ended up spending an extra night at Glacier Basin, so we did some schoolwork while were there – land nav, knots, prussik climbing, and most importantly – how to poop in a bag since you have to bring all waste down off the glacier. Seriously.
Tied Up In Knots
The heavy packs are absolutely brutal to hike with, and on day 3 we lost 2 members of our group due to the weight. Jenny and Roni had trained hard, had a great mindset, and had plenty of experience, but the pack weight just did them in. There would be numerous days throughout the rest of the trip where somebody would comment that they wished the girls were still with us.
After a group photo, Don returned to the van with them to shuttle them back to Seattle and we made our slog up over St Elmo Pass to Winthrop Glacier.
The trip over the pass was a great example of team planning, group consensus, and good experience from the mountain guides. We all analyzed the route options, decided against a line that would take us through a rockfall zone, decided against a straight assault up the slope, and ended up with a nice traverse that got us safely over the pass with no unplanned excitement.
Glacier Basin to Winthrop
When we crested the pass we were treated to our first view of the remote Winthrop Glacier where we would be spending the next several days. The groups of people going up the Emmons Glacier route disappeared behind us, and we could really start to see just how alone and secluded we would be.
At The Pass
AAI sent another van to Enumclaw, and Don had made the 4+ mile trek down to the trailhead with the girls, shuttled them to Enumclaw, returned, hiked the 4+ miles to his backpack, then the 1,600ft vertical and 2.5 miles over the pass to meet us back on Winthrop that evening. One seriously hardcore dude.
We spent the next several days alone on the Winthrop Glacier, with nary a soul in sight. Self-arrest training (stopping yourself if you start falling down the mountain), ice climbing, crevasse rescue, and travelling as a rope team. All must-have skills for travelling on glaciated terrain.
Self-arrest is fun since you have to be able to stop yourself even if you’re on your back sliding headfirst down the mountain, but crevasse rescue is the real fun stuff.
First you pick a crevasse that looks good. By good, I mean wide enough and tall enough. The bluer the ice inside, the better it is for photos too. Don, JP and Adrian were close to the lip of one choice crevasse when all of a sudden there was a *crack* and a rumble, and they all turned and ran like mad away from the edge. A huge block of ice on the opposite wall went crashing down into the bottom of the crevasse and everybody took a minute to check their underwear and get their heart rates back down. Now we had a perfect width crevasse to work in!
The guides set up backup safety anchors in the snow to hold you in case your team’s anchors don’t, then you tie up to their ropes and the team’s ropes and jump off the edge of a crevasse. I think you have to be a little bit of not-right-in-the-head to jump into a crevasse, but it’s pretty neat once you’re in there.
The idea behind a 3-man rope team is that if the first person falls through a snow bridge covering a crevasse, the 2 other people on the rope team are far enough away that they can fall down and by self-arresting they can stop the lead person’s fall into the crevasse. The middle person holds the fall and the last person checks on the fallen person, then sets up anchors buried deep into the snow to take the load off of the middle person. Once they’ve safely setup anchors they use their carabiners and rope to create a pulley system and hoist the other out of the crevasse. Fun! And while the lead climber is dangling in the crevasse, they can use their prussiking skills to haul themselves out.
Great fun, great experience and skills to have, and nothing but high praises for our guides for their skill, ability to teach, and utter professionalism.
As we sat on the Winthrop we kept a daily watch on the weather and watched a system moving in. Of course it was going to hit right on our summit day, so JP radioed back to AAI HQ to see if we could move our summit forward a day to miss the weather. The permit that AAI had gotten us for our climb wouldn’t allow us to spend an extra day at Camp Schurman, so that plan was axed. I feel confident that somebody at AAI could have contacted the park service and gotten the days moved around but didn’t want to expend the effort. Between not letting us know of our extra group member, not having a good handle on what gear people needed (James has horror stories of the climbing harness they recommend), and not putting forward this extra bit of effort that would have let us summit, I ended up pretty disappointed with AAI as an organization.
Winthrop to Schurman
When we finally ascended from Winthrop to Camp Schurman, the weather had already begun to set in. The wind picked up and we watched the cloud banks moving in from the coast and covering Seattle and the Puget Sound.
Because we were expecting such high winds, we really dug our campsites in – Adrian and I dug deep enough that the top of our tent was level with the snow, and built a massive wall on the downslope. We also dug a snowcave deep enough that I laid inside for photos, but we ended up tearing it out to make extra room for our tent vestibule.
The weathermen did not disappoint – Mother Nature came along and brought the wind with her. We watched two tents from IMG, another guide group sail hundreds of feet into the air and end up deep in a crevasse. They hadn’t dug them into the snow for weather protection and they weren’t careful while they were tearing them down, and they paid the price.
Schurman to 12k
Since we knew that we wouldn’t be summiting with 60mph winds at the top, we decided to take a ‘stroll’ up the mountain for more glacier travel time and experience. Several times the gusts almost knocked me over, and I was glad for my oversize goggles as I could feel the icy snow pellets pinging off my hardshell and goggles.
By the time we finished that climb we were all exhausted, but group consensus was to tear down camp and head back down to Glacier Basin instead of waiting until the morning. The snow is softer in the afternoon sun and easier to dig out the tent stakes than they would be buried under early morning ice. We loaded up and headed down the Emmons Glacier route.
Watching the Parade
One of the fun things about the Emmons route is that there is a super-long glissade that knocks a ton of vertical and distance off the downhill hike. Use one of your trash bags as a makeshift diaper over your hardshell pants, sit on your butt, and slide down the mountain, using your axe to stop you before you fall into a crevasse.
AAI had sent up a summit guide, and he ran down ahead of us looking for crevasses, and radioed up to have us all move 100 yards laterally along the slope to miss a yawning opening. That would be no fun, since the clouds had moved in and we had limited visibility.
Schurman to Glacier Basin
Once we were down to Glacier Basin it warmed up slightly and we were out of the wind, and everyone’s spirits improved noticeably. We woke to a fresh inch or two of snow on the tents, but that didn’t stop us from a quick pack up and we beat feet down to the van with promises of a big lunch and beers at a local favorite in Enumclaw.
Glacier Basin Exit
We didn’t make the summit, but the mountain isn’t going anywhere. We all learned very valuable skills, learned how to function as a team, and enjoyed ourselves despite the weather and the grueling packs. I look forward to the next trip out!