As is true with most out-of-towners, Joe, Thom, and I met at baggage claim in the Seattle airport on Saturday afternoon. Joe and Thom came from Nashville and I from Los Angeles both low elevation originations. Joe first proposed climbing Rainier in August 2002. Thom quickly agreed and the nucleus of the team was formed. Potential team members came and went but no one else could squeeze in the time and commitment. Finally, in late March, it was apparent I needed some quality mountain time and an escape from LA so I joined the team.
Joe and Thom are in their mid and late 40's, respectively. I reached the half-century mark last October. Thus, DeOlBoiz Expedition on Mt. Rainier.
Rather than properly considering our age and taking the logical route from Paradise, we elected to do a non-standard route starting low so we would have more time to acclimatize. We allocated a full week so we could go slowly, enjoy ourselves, and have a cushion for the infamous Mt. Rainier weather. As it came to pass, we definitely went slowly and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. However, sometimes there can be no adequate cushion for the weather on Mt. Rainier.
We chose the Kautz route - the original line taken by Lieutenant August Valentine Kautz in 1857. Holding true to our desire to start low, we began our climb Sunday morning at the Comet Falls trailhead. According to my GPS, the elevation was 3,626 feet.
Four skiers headed up the trailhead while we finished the final packing ritual. Their plan to ski Van Trump Park was serendipitous for us. We followed their ski tracks throughout all of the first day and much of the second.
A hazard of climbing in May is soft snow. By the time we reached the 4,000-foot level we were postholing up to our knees. We postholed for eight hours through the deep snow in the trees and stamped out a platform for the tent at 5,669 feet. Not a huge elevation gain for the first day but it felt like being on the Stairmaster for eight hours with a seventy- pound pack.
Deep sleep and cool weather recharged our legs and we were ready to move up the mountain the next morning. Unfortunately, the snow was no harder than the day before. We were well below the freezing level. Soft snow meant more postholing up to the next camp located at 7,510 feet on a ridge between the Kautz and Van Trump Glaciers. Monday was like being on the Stairmaster for eight hours with only a sixty-eight pound pack. Progress.
We awoke Tuesday morning to colder weather and snow hard enough to require crampons. It was almost like being a spider dancing on the snow to be able to move without sinking. A couple of hours moving up the mountain and we had to rope up. We were beginning to feel like mountaineers again rather than bellowing mules.
A late lunch was called for at the bottom of the Turtle the steep snowfield that runs from 9,800 to 11,000 feet. The snow softened significantly during lunch. We began to sink again as we trudged up the mountain. Not quite postholing but sinking enough to make climbing more difficult.
Soon we came upon a platform carved out of the slope with a single rock placed horizontally for cooking. For a moment we considered camping there but the platform was not large enough for Joe's new Terra Nova three man expedition tent plus it was early enough in the day that we wanted to gain more elevation before stopping for the night.
We continued up the slope our legs exhausted from two days of postholing and another of cramponing. Around three o'clock we found a spot on the ridge where we could carve out a campsite. It was steep and a bit exposed so we pushed farther up. Fifteen minutes later we found a more attractive possibility but there appeared to be better sites above us. We dumped the packs and meandered along the ridge looking for more protected spots. Ten minutes later we found our campsite for the third night. It had a large semi-flat spot for the tent that was next to a ten-foot high rock formation where we could carve out a little shelf for the kitchen. We retrieved our packs and set about clearing a platform for the tent, building a snow wall to deflect the wind, and carving a bench behind the boulders for the kitchen.
The usual camp chores erecting the tent, laying out the pads and sleeping bags, melting water were done quickly. We clipped our water bottles into a sling placed around one of the boulders above the kitchen. The posthole gods had claimed two of our water bottles during the two previous days so we could not afford to lose more.
Our campsite lay along the spine of the ridge so there were a few feet of relatively flat snow where we could walk safely. After that, the slope fell off sharply down the Turtle. A midnight excursion wearing down booties could easily result in a fast two or three thousand foot slide to the rocks and ice below so we fixed a rope using a snow picket as an anchor. Anyone going out of the tent alone at night used a bowline to tie into the rope. We cooked a meal of freeze-dried food and ate in the sheltered lee side of the kitchen.
All day Tuesday we had clear skies and incredible views of the mountain plus Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, and Mt. St. Helens. The winds had been steady all afternoon. Steady, but not so strong as to cause any difficulty in putting up the tent. We chose to anchor the tent with a couple of ice axes for security. Snow stakes were used for the remaining corners and to anchor the fly. As the sun began going down, high clouds moved in. Thom pointed out a lenticular cap off the summit. As a precaution, we tied the packs into the rope before retiring to the tent that evening.
Sometime during Tuesday night the winds picked up dramatically. Sleep was fitful. By early morning, we estimated the winds were gusting to 50 mph. We sat with our backs to the tent wall to take some pressure off the poles. A quick trip to the packs and back produced a couple of dead mans to use as anchors for the fly.
The winds abated somewhat during the next day, Wednesday. They were strong enough to keep us in or close to the tent but we welcomed a rest day for our tired legs. Our plan was to move up the additional 800 feet in elevation to Camp Hazard during Thursday, then go for the summit early Friday morning.
Around seven o'clock that night, the winds became fierce. There would be a short lull lasting perhaps thirty seconds followed by a huge crash of wind scouring the tent with ice. It was like being in the ocean with waves crashing against a boat. The sound was deafening. Joe remarked that it must be what the Apollo 13 crew experienced upon reentering the atmosphere. We began to seriously question whether the tent could stand up to that kind of wind. But, it was a new expedition tent purchased within the last couple of months, used only once, and we believed it would hold.
The rain fly succumbed to the winds about nine o'clock and was flapping like a bat wing when Joe crawled out to see if he could secure it. There was no way to put the fly back on in the wind so Joe used his pocketknife to cut the guy lines. He crawled against the wind and showers of flying ice to bring the fly back into the tent. We considered our options and decided that our best chance of survival was in the tent even without the fly. Thom and I supported the tent poles as best we could while Joe checked his bowline, grabbed the shovel, and went thirty feet down the slope to dig a snow cave as a backup for the tent.
Joe dug in the wind packed snow for about a half hour. The cave was just large enough for him to slide into up to his waist. Exhausted, he climbed back up to the tent to recruit Thom or me for the next round of digging.
By the time Joe returned, Thom and I had our boots on and all the clothing we could find just in case a quick exit was necessary. Joe flopped down in the tent utterly spent. Then, Thom noticed a tear in the tent. Everyone looked at each other and knew the tear was disastrous. A catastrophe was looming and we could feel that it was close. We had some duct tape wrapped around a water bottle inside the tent but Joe had better tape in his pack. He retrieved the tape and tried to apply it to the outside wall but the tape would not adhere. The wind was pounding the tent so badly that nothing would stay in the inside pouches. Headlamps, bowls, cups, knives, cell phones, etc. were constantly being thrown out of the pouches and scattered about the tent. We identified and found the most critical items - headlamps and a cell phone - and crammed them in our pockets. Sleeping bags were stuffed so they could be carried out of the tent easily.
Thom felt the corner of the tent give way. He yelled for more weight in his corner. Joe scooted over next to Thom but the entire tent slid forward about six inches toward the slope. There was only one place for the tent to go if the other corners gave way straight down the Turtle. Still roped, Joe made a couple of shuttles to the kitchen area in the lee of the rocks. Thom and I couldn't move until the last possible second because our weight was the only thing holding the tent in place on the ridge.
The tabs started coming free from the tent in a zipper-like fashion. As soon as the tabs broke loose the poles lost their anchors and the tent began to lose its shape. Thom and I raced out of the tent. A couple of seconds after we were out, the tent collapsed, somersaulted once, and slipped down the dark abyss of the slope carrying all sorts of small gear with it. Somehow, Thom's sleeping bag and Joe's pad went over the edge in all the chaos. Joe grabbed the one dark object left in the space the tent had occupied Thom's camera.
The three of us squeezed onto the three-foot long shelf while sitting on my pad and using Thom's pad as a backrest. Our packs were still tied into the rope but the wind had blown them down the slope and we could only see the rope trailing into darkness.
Talk about a lonely feeling. It was 10:30 p.m., the temperature was 15 degrees, and the three of us were huddled on the little shelf behind the rocks with the wind roaring all around us. Not good.
The anchor for the rope had been set on the north side of the tent and the kitchen was to the south. We could not reach the rope from where we sat and therefore could not retrieve the packs. Thom scrambled along the ridge unprotected in the wind to get the anchor. As he neared the kitchen Joe and I grabbed the rope and hauled the packs back up to us.
We sat on the bench and regrouped to take inventory of our equipment and to decide what to do next. Our first thought was to place our feet in the packs and wrap the two sleeping bags around us to stay warm until daylight when we could go down. However, fifteen degrees with high wind is COLD and the moon was one night away from being full so we had plenty of light to go down the mountain. Two hours passed before we were fully packed, had our crampons securely in place, climbing harnesses buckled, first anchor set, roped and ready to descend. It was 12:30 Thursday morning.
After the first couple of pitches we dispensed with the anchors but remained roped. We were more protected from the wind as we moved down. The moon was so bright and the skies so clear that we had an incredibly beautiful walk down the ridge. It was almost like walking down a ski area with the lights on. We could see a solid layer of clouds closing in the valley below. If the situation had not been so serious, we would have marveled at what a magnificent experience we were having.
Water was a major problem. We had maybe one-half liter of unfrozen water between us. The other water bottles were lost in the tent. The next source of water would be at Comet Falls some 6,000 feet in elevation below us.
Quietly moving down the slopes we made it to our campsite of the second night around 3:30 a.m. and took an energy bar break. Not much water to wash it down with but we managed. Soon after, we entered the fog zone. No wind but pea soup fog. Up until that time we had easily followed our old footsteps down the mountain. Now the footsteps had been scoured by the wind and obscured by the fog. We wandered back and forth for 15-20 minutes before finding our tracks again and confidently moving down.
Daylight was less than two hours away so we pushed on dreaming of seeing the rental car. Around 6,500 feet we reentered tree line knowing that we were becoming more protected and could bivy if absolutely necessary. Being in the trees also meant soft snow again. Crampons and the rope came off and the postholing began again in earnest. The lack of sleep, worsening dehydration, plus soft new snow led to soaring levels of frustration as we sank more deeply than ever. One step on crust, the next step plunging to mid thigh. Our packs remained heavy despite the lost equipment especially now that all the climbing gear, rope, and crampons were on our backs.
We stumbled our way through the trees past the campsite of Sunday night. Reaching Comet Falls meant crossing over the plank bridge covered with three feet of rotten snow. Reaching Comet Falls also meant WATER. We drank thirstily from the creek although not as much as you might think. Our advanced dehydration prevented us from absorbing too much water too quickly.
Slowly we traversed the steep icy slopes along Van Trump Creek. We had come too far to lose it by sliding into the cold rocky creek. Ice axes were sunk for every step. Somehow the three zombies crashed and stumbled the last two miles to the trailhead where we celebrated at nine o'clock Thursday morning with a WE MADE IT DOWN ALIVE picture!
What to do at nine in the morning after surviving a harrowing trip down Mt. Rainier? Three thoughts pop up instantly: beer, hot shower, and greasy food. We had beer in the rental car so that need was immediately met. Driving out of the park into Ashford revealed Lou Whittaker's Bunkhouse the best lodging deal in the park area for mountaineers. We checked in, lugged our stuff into the bunkhouse, and found none other than Lou himself working on some trim in one of the bathrooms. Lou is not only a living icon but also a truly fine mountain soul. We spent two nights there as I waited for my flight home and Joe and Thom waited for their wives to join them for some playtime at the Paradise Inn. Greasy food? The Highlander Caf next door to the Bunkhouse is the place! We had many good meals and libations there.
The tent? Joe salvaged a tab attached to an ice axe and miraculously found another tab 1,000 feet down the Turtle as we were going down that night. He sent a picture of the tabs to the designers at Terra Nova so they could see how the stitching unraveled under pressure. After a few e-mails and telephone calls the company offered to sell him a new tent at wholesale cost. Caveat emptor.