Dates: March 6 – 16 2014 (Climbing Dates: March 8 – 15)
Mountain: Rainier, WA (In Winter)
Elevation: 14,410 (9,100 Gain)
Distance: 16 Miles
With a Denali expedition just around the corner, I needed some extreme winter mountaineering experience so I signed up for this 8 day course on Mt Rainier by AAI and it did not disappoint.
Day 1 of 8
We had a casual meet-n-greet and gear check at the Alpine Ascents International office. Stuart Robertson was the lead guide and Sam Hennessy his backup. Both were were professional but laid back and not in any great hurry. This would be the general attitude throughout the climb and was a welcome change from other drill sergeant style guides I have worked with.
In the afternoon on we arrived via the AAI van at the Paradise trailhead in the Mount Rainier park. It was raining and we suited up in the bathroom. Later we learned that Stewart was considering taking us to a hotel and trying again the next day. We hiked up to 7,200 feet in driving rain, wind and cold. My total load was 113 lbs and this was my first time to pull a sled. The bulk of my training had simply been to walk on a treadmill (modified for more incline) with a 90lb pack. Having no sled training I was expecting it to be harder, but found the 113lb load split between sled and pack to be much easier than the 90lb pack I had been training with.
We arrived at our campsite in the dark and it was still raining and the wind was doing its best to rip the tents from our grasps. We helped our neighbors pitch their tent expecting some help with ours. Yet they went inside as soon as theirs was complete leaving us in the rain for another half hour as we fought our tent into submission. Everyone was in their tents and all was quiet by 10PM. It got down to 34 degrees and rained most of the night.
DAY 2 of 8
It was cold and sleeting this morning but my hyper diligent tent mate was up early this and everyday following. Before the bleariness had cleared from my eyeballs, he had me melting snow for water.
I began calling him “The Water Natzee”, but later learned that he was Jewish so I let that sobriquet go and never managed to come up with another. I was surprised that it took a couple of hours to melt everything we needed for cooking and drinking this first time. We did however get faster.
Most of or our gear was wet from the previous days rain so we had a real mess to deal with.
Later in the morning the freeze line moved below us and it began to snow lightly. The guides finally emerged from their tent and got us focused on some camp maintenance such as re-rigging tent anchors and erecting a mess tent with a footwell dug out of the snow so we could sit along the two long sides. This would be our meeting hall as well while we were at low camp.
In the afternoon we practiced climbing knots which I am very good at and can tie most with my eyes closed. To establish my dominance as the alpha knot tier, I proceeded to tie knots behind my back which didn’t seem to impress anybody. Nor did anyone ask for my help with knots in the subsequent days when they were having trouble, but would walk clear across camp to ask the guides even when I was close by. By now, I’m beginning to think these people don’t like me.
Stewart tends to say what is on his mind, and told us several humorous stories about how this got him in hot water.
One of the other climbers told me about drying things in my sleeping bag. I started by drying my socks, which worked but made my bag feel clammy and smell like wet socks.
Day 3 of 8
Rainier is one of the snowiest places on the planet and our campsite was sitting on snow that was 50-60ft deep. When we awoke, our tents were half buried requiring considerable effort to dig them out. This became a constant chore as it continued to snow.
We gathered once again in the mess tent, and discussed navigation using maps, compasses and GPS.
In the very snowy and windy afternoon, we tied into 2 rope teams with sleds and practiced coordinated movement. I have a fair amount of rope team experience and tension between climbers is a challenge in the best of conditions. The climber behind me lost his temper because I didn’t keep the rope tight on a steep powdery hill, then when I tightened it up, he fell and nearly pulled me over.
Accustomed to the flapping tent and howling winds, the absence of it woke me at 3:00 AM. Hoping for some clear skies I went outside and took some night photographs. The clouds were slowly clearing and the moon and stars were partially obscured which made for a dramatic scene.
Day 4 of 8
We awoke to find the previously concealed Mt Rainier towering majestically above us. The sunrise was dramatic and awe inspiring. It was one of those mornings that makes all the pain and discomfort seem worth it.
We first worked on building anchor systems for rappelling, utility and rescue. And then we climbed to Panorama Point and worked on snow skills and crampon techniques and then made our way back down to low camp.
Day 5 of 8
Convinced the clear weather would hold long enough for us to make it to the safety of the Camp Muir storm bunkers we broke camp. It is a long steep climb and Stewart didn’t not want us all to have to fight sleds in heavy winds on the way down, so we cached sleds and gear at low camp. The lack of personal sleds meant we all had heavy packs and two very heavy sleds. We then took turns pulling one of two group sleds.
It was snowing and windy especially towards the top. The tracks of the hiker in front of me were gone in seconds requiring me to break trail creating much more friction on the sled. Our average speed up the mountain was a paltry .475 MPH. Some of the climbers were having a great deal of trouble with the sleds and we even had some wipe-outs.
One of the climbers collapsed on the way up unable to climb any higher. Sam took him back down the mountain and rejoined us the afternoon if the following day.
We arrived at Muir late and piled into one of the thick stone walled storm bunkers. It was well below freezing inside (note the ice covered interior walls), but gave us secure quarters out of the intense wind. The vault like door was small and 3 feet off the ground to prevent snow from trapping occupants and was quite a challenge to navigate with crampons, snowshoes, packs, ETC.
A second climber had become very ill at this point, and most of the rest were exhausted. My tent mate took charge and saw that the sick were tended, the hungry were fed,and the able were assisting.
I was so tired that I fell asleep with a Mountain Hardwear Absolute Zero parka on and my legs halfway in the bag. I awoke legs freezing and sweating up top. The parka certainly works.
Day 5 of 8
It was a rare calm and clear morning and we spent about an hour climbing through thick powder up to Ingraham Glacier for crevasse rescue. We could not find any open crevasses so we moved to the end of the glacier in the icefall or serac zone. There we found a 100′ vertical drop that was perfect for our purposes. There at the edge of the precipice Stewart instructed us in what has to be the coolest classroom ever. When finished, I volunteered to leap over the edge so we could practice some real world rescue.
Dangling off the edge of this massive glacier, I found myself with a very dramatic view and snapped some interesting photos.
We made the picturesque down climb in the late afternoon with the sun just poking over the mountains. This was one of my favorite parts of the trip.
Sam rejoined us as did the furious weather. We were thankful for the stone walls of the storm bunker that protected us. Tents would have been in constant danger of being swept off the mountain.
My hopes of a winter ascent of Rainier were dashed with the return of the foul weather. If we had gotten one more good weather day, we would have made a push for the summit. That would have been a worthy prize, but it was not to be this time.
Note: Apologies, but photos from this part of the trip are scarce as photography took a backseat to survival.
Day 6 of 8
We were greeted this morning by what this Texan would categorize as a proper blizzard. The storm bunker was deceptively quiet and often I would think the weather had calmed only to be blasted back with ice and wind when I opened the door. With our options limited, we relaxed and got some extra rest in our fortress of solitude.
Sam and Stewart joined us in the bunker and did a very informative lecture on altitude and avalanches. In the late afternoon we went outside for short time to practice ascender use. This was the first time I had spent any extended time out in the blizzard and it was frustrating as the moisture between the twin lenses of my Smith I/O goggles froze effectively blinding me. As usual I ran hot and needed to drop some layers.
Day 7 of 8
Still held down by Blizzard, 11.5 degree temp plus 50MPH winds yielded a -15 degree temp with windchill factored in. This is the coldest weather I had ever seen, and also the windiest.
Based on the weather reports we had to get off the mountain, lest we get stuck for several more days. Not having the provisions to stay that long, it was decided we would leave the next morning and fight through the snow storm.
Eager to thin out our loads, we combined the last of our food and had a rather impressive pot luck dinner. I was amazed at the culinary creativity on display. There were tortillas, various deli meats, fish, salamis, sausages, exotic cheeses, assorted nuts, various berries, and even a can of Pringles. This was the only night I didn’t wake up hungry.
Day 8 of 8
Despite my mettlesome medial moniker, I was apprehensive about down climbing in the storm but Stewart assured us it was manageable.
Once we started moving it occurred to me that I had seen this on a national geographic special. You have probably seen it too; it’s the one with sturdy men, leaning into fierce winds in bright colored suits of down moving slowly though white out conditions.
The accursed goggles fogged up again and I tried removing the goggles, but the needles of icy snow stung my eyes causing them to involuntarily close out of self preservation. Exposed skin could have been frostbitten anyway so it was just as well. I was forced to down-climb with the frozen goggles on and nothing more than the ability to detect contrasting colors directly in front of me. So I found the brightest pack in the group and followed it through the whiteness that was my world. I made it through the worst of the storm without incident, despite being unable to see my own feet. I was of course praying all the way.
Once we dropped a couple thousand feet, we were below the worst of the storm and I was able to get rid of the goggles. It was liberating being able to see even though visibility was still very limited. As we descended even lower we suddenly had visibility out to the horizon and found ourselves in an open space between the furious winter storm above and the more benign clouds of a different system below with the mountain impaling the two indifferently and the sun feebly trying to find a way through. It was a scene characterized by fierce beauty and power.
By the time we reached the cache to retrieve the sleds and gear we buried the snow had all but stopped, and we had only a brisk wind to keep us cool while digging. The rest of the descent was enjoyable and uneventful finding us all safely at the base in no time.
Having climbed Mount Rainier in the summer of 2012 I felt an unexpected kinship and enjoyed experiencing her stormier winter personality.
Hailing from Texas where God doesn’t send much snow, this was by far the snowiest, windiest and coldest weather I had experienced. The challenging conditions not only gave me the winter camping experience I sought, but revealed quite a number of problems in my gear which I will correct before leaving for the Denali expedition in May.
I would have liked to bag a winter summit of Rainier, but the weather said no. Regardless, I consider the trip a great success and am richer for the experience.
With love and admiration I thank my wife Susan, for her patience and support with my mountain madness mid life crisis. Also a big thanks to Rick “Crapshoot” Overholt my good Freind and EO forum mate who introduced me to mountaineering and high pointing. I also want to thank my friend Allen Wilson for the gear loans which have saved my thousands. And of course the sponsors who are partnering with me; Grab the Gold, Beko, Goal Zero and of course Truewater. And most of all I thank God for giving me the physical and mental constitution to experience some of his most impressive creations up close. His world is a truly amazing place full of adventure and awe.
Stuart Robertson – Lead
Sam Hennessy – 2nd
Robert Danger Byrd (That’s Me!)
[Not a valid template]
From the Alpine Ascents Course Web Page
The Denali Prep/Winter Mountaineering course is specifically designed for those who want to embrace the challenges of climbing Denali and/or develop winter mountaineering skills in extreme conditions. It offers comprehensive training to prepare for the challenge of The Great One. We are fortunate to have the best training area in the lower 48 states to simulate the conditions found on Denali. Mt. Rainier (14,410 ft.) during the late winter early spring months provides similar conditions as those found on Denali. More…