Day 7: Base Camp on Rainier.
We had to get to AAI office by 6.30 in the morning and things got to slow start when we got there but we got moving pretty quickly since there was no gear check or anything involved. Couple of people dropped out for the Rainier part so we were only 5 people now. Phil and Tom joined us as two additional guides since its AAI policy to have a client guide ratio to 2:1 for expeditions.
We made couple of stops for gas, breakfast and by the time we got to the parking lot of Rainier it was almost noon. We distributed all the group gear, myself, tony and chris were going to share the 3 person tent so we divided that among us and my pack was back to the usual weight now which was around 50-60 lbs.
I knew it wasn’t going to be easy making it to the summit or for that matter even to the camps with my already sore legs and this heavy pack but i wasn’t planning on giving up so easily. I had to take it one day at a time, hour by hour and step by step, it had been and was going to be my mantra for this whole course.
For first couple of hours we didn’t gain much altitude and just crossed the Nisqually glacier, during this time i had pretty interesting conversation with Phil, not that i didn’t enjoy talking/interacting with Matt or Victor. Phil had just been to indian himalayas where he did some ski mountaineering around Manali region and it was great to talk about his experience, someday i will get there too.
Break on Glacier
We reached the part of Rainier called the fan and it was time to gain some serious altitude, Victor was leading his rope team and since there wasn’t much room to traverse the steps he was making were little bigger. Those big steps were killing my calf muscles and i was having a hard time keeping up, by the time we made it to the top of that small section i was totally exhausted.
I was hoping that we would setup camp out here and call it a day but then it would have mean’t tomorrow would be a longer day. We decided to continue for another hour or so, gain another 1400-1500 ft so that our base camp would be at around 8400-8500 ft. This would make tomorrow a short day i.e. hike for couple of hours and set up advanced camp at around 10,500 ft for summit attempt.
Instead of going around, Phil decided to take a direct route up the glacier. It would mean less walking but at the same time it mean’t walking on a much steeper terrain. He was going for it at a pretty good pace and i was already tired so couple of times i had to ask him to stop so that i could take a breather but that didn’t last for long since that breather was less than a minute. I had to push through, Tom kept on egging me which was great. We finally made it to the area where we would setup camp.
Even though i was completely pooped, I did my part to flatten the campsite, help put in the tents etc. We had Pad thai for dinner along with some hot chocolate. It was not going to be a long day tomorrow which was great and those EAS protein shakes which i was carrying helped a lot, maybe its psychological thing about them helping a lot but i didn’t/don’t care :).
Day 8: Setting up Advance Camp
We got up, had breakfast, packed the camp and after couple of hours of continous ascent we got to advance camp. It was going to be lot windier out here and since we were planning on being at this spot for a while we had to make sure that we secured our tents really well. Even though it was windy the weather seemed fine and was definitely lot better than Mt Baker. We had really good views of Mt Helens, Mt Adams and Mt Hood in the distance.
The plan for next day for summit attempt was to wake up at mid night, have some breakfast or late dinner (whatever you want to call it) and then head out. Since we were going to go directly under some ice fields and lot steeper snow than baker it was imperative that we got going as early as possible.
We had our lunch at around 2 and then dinner at around 6, i couldn’t believe how much we were eating but at the same time we were using a lot of calories too. I tried to get some sleep without any success, must have slept only for maximum of couple of hours. There was a lot of tossing and turning around going on and it wasn’t just me.
Some people also floated idea of going back down all the way tomorrow itself and not spending an extra night at advanced camp. I wasn’t exactly thrilled by this idea because of the obvious effort it would entail but we decided to make a final decision after the summit climb and play it by the ear.
Day 9: Summit and back out.
Phil was in charge of the kitchen, it was a lot of work melting all the snow, cooking for 11 people, cleaning etc. and since there were 4 guides on this trip he decided not to join us for the summit. I was on the rope team with just Tom for the summit attempt. We got going by 1.30 and the weather was just awesome. It was almost full moon night, our path was really well lit and we could see the stars, i was excited to do some climbing in the moonlight but unfortunately my excitement didn’t last for long.
I was already sore and tired, the extra rest yesterday helped but it wasn’t enough, so as soon as we got going, i immediately got in the zone and had to keep pushing myself all the time. After couple of hours we reached the section called turtle where we had to be on belay and down climb on some rocks and traverse across to get to the snow field. It wasn’t super tricky but still we had to be careful with the ice axe dangling and backpacks since there were rocks over us.
Tom was constantly pushing me and i was doing my best to keep up with the pace he was setting but there were couple of times when i had to catch my breath. the weather had started to turn bad and the clear skies were soon replaced by dense fog. I didn’t have the energy to really think about it since my focus was completely in keeping up the pace and making sure i followed in footsteps of Tom.
We were soon on the hardest section of the climb, the 500-600 ft long 55 degree snow section of the Kautz glacier. Matt had earlier planned on using belays on this section of the climb but i suppose everyone was doing just fine and the snow conditions were good enough for us not to worry about it. We just kept chugging along without worrying about it, i didn’t even realize this until later. I was thinking to myself that soon we would hit this steep section and belays would be setup but that didn’t happen. We did come across other climbing party which was using running belay.
On this steep section of the climb with all those high steps it wasn’t easy for me at all and it was a constant struggle which i was determined to win. Things got little easier with the slope becoming little gentle but the weather got nastier, it was windy and starting to snow. The snow wasn’t heavy but the wind made matters worse, i was glad that we didn’t have to use glasses yet since i was sure mine would fog up.
Soon slowly darkness was fading away but the fog wasn’t, i was surprised how quickly time went by. We were on the final stretch of the climb and the wind was picking up too. I was beyond exhausted but there was no choice, i had to make it now and the summit wasn’t that far either. Indeed before i knew it we made to the summit crater which provided us with protection from the wind. My backpack was completely frozen along with its contents.
With all those layers on i didn’t really bother to check what time it was but my guess is that it was around 6 am when we made it to the summit, we went to the true summit which was minutes away from the crater and the wind made our life miserable out there so we stayed there only for couple of minutes. It was now time to head back.
On our way back, the thick fog made it little tricky for us to find the way. It was time to use the glasses and i had hard time preventing my skiing goggles from fogging up so i decided to try out my regular glacier glasses without much success. I continued on without using any glasses, squinting and protecting my eyes as much as i could but then ultimately i had to get my glasses on.
Luckily the wind died down little bit as we got to lower elevation and i managed to put on my glasses without letting them fog up. It was easy going till we reached the steep wall. I was leading the way down short roped to Tom and the soft snow kept on collecting in my crampons, i didn’t think it was a huge problem but Tom did and he continously asked me to keep on clearing my crampons/
The only way to clear soft snow from the crampons is to hit them on the side with ice axe. Doing so would mean that i would have to use my already tired mind to balance myself on one foot on a 55 degree slope with bad run out and then hit the side of boot with my ice axe to clear the snow. ummmm i don’t think so and i tried to delay clearing my crampons as much as i could but tom kept on insisting that i do it, it was starting to get little bit frustrating specially because i was comfortable with some snow stuck on my crampons.
I don’t blame him for asking me constantly to do so because both of our lives sort of depended on it, i think this fact made him nervous. If i took a fall chances are i would also pull him off and take both of us tumbling down into the valley unless either one of us arrested the fall. One team comprising of Tony, Chris and Matt were going at a really good speed where as us and other team of Victor, Jonika and Ryan were taking our sweet time. Tom suggested to Victor that maybe we should setup anchors to speed things up since he had pickets etc but victor didn’t want to. I slipped little bit once and even though it wasn’t exactly a fall n i wasn’t going anywhere, tom told me to that i should have got into self arrest position etc etc.
At this point i had enough, i could have continued to go at snail’s pace and with every step making tom nervous or just ask tom to setup belay and lower me down. I chose the latter and asked tom if it was ok for him to setup anchors so that he could lower me down this steep section. It took a while for us to setup anchor since uncoiling the rope was turning out to be huge problem.
Not that i was in any danger but there were few times when i wasn’t clipped onto anything and just relying on myself to prevent me from going down the slope, it was totally fine with me but i just thought during this whole process of trying to get rope untangled tom could have asked me to clip into anchor or something just for extra safety.
Finally it was time for me to get lowered but it wasn’t fun. The speed at which i was being lowered was too fast and my crampons kept getting stuck in the snow. I would have preferred to rappel down rather than being lowered but oh well, i wasn’t going to argue or anything at this point. I got to the end of the rope and Tom just walked down the slope but he didn’t ask me to untie myself from the rope. I was using ice axe to pseudo belay him and if he had slipped and taken a fall there was no way i could have held him and he would have definitely pulled me off the slope.
We still had about 100 ft or so to go down this wall and tom asked me if i wanted to be lowered again, i said no and we slowly kept on going. We made it fine under the ice field and over the small descend/traverse. I knew the hardest part of the climb was over and from here i could be my lazy self in descending without having to worry too much about the snow sticking to my crampons etc. The snow was still sticking to my crampons and giving me a hard time but since the slope wasn’t too steep it wasn’t a huge deal and i cleared it once in a while.
I finally made it to advance camp at around 11 am and we had decided to pack up and descent all the way down today itself. I wasn’t too thrilled about it but i figured with the weather not being that great it didn’t make sense for us to stay so i just had to suck it up and go for it. We decided to leave at around 1-1.30 pm so it would give us about couple of hours of rest.
The good thing about this descend was that we were going to glissade for the most part so it would make things quicker and lot easier. I wanted to learn proper glissading technique as it is so now i was totally onboard with this plan 🙂
We packed up and were ready to head down at around 1.30 or so, glissading is nothing but a fancy word for sliding down the snow slopes only thing is that we had to be careful about the runout and the speed at which we were sliding. It was pretty fun but i had little difficulty maintaining my stability since the backpack wasn’t helping. I did take a couple of tumbles and ate the snow, it wasn’t pretty but i didn’t hurt myself so it was all good.
There were certain sections of the descent where it wasn’t possible to glissade and with the snow being so soft there were some bridges being formed. I was traversing in this section which had soft hard snow on top but there were thin layers in other sections . I had to step on this hard snow to avoid falling into a hole but i slipped i got myself stuck pretty bad. I had to ask Victor to remove my backpack so that i could dig myself out, it was tricky and tiring.
Once we got past our base camp there was a final glissade, Matt went in first and then phil followed him but he was skiing on his shoes. Yes you read it right, the slope was steep enough for him to be able to ski down just on his shoes, i was totally speechless watching him do that. On this part we had to be little careful of our speed since it was a steeper slope, i went in after tony and chris but couldn’t really control my speed. I tried to arrest using my axe but it didn’t happen and i lost my axe somewhere on the slope.
Luckily, Ryan saw my axe not too much above him so he volunteered to get it, i also started to walk up the slope without my backpack and i was reunited with my axe thanks to ryan. If i had a leash on me i might have not lost my axe but there was a chance that i could have injured myself. The weather this entire time wasn’t great at all and i had couple of layers on but as soon as we got to the final glacier crossing i was really sweating since the sun had come out. Once we crossed the glacier and i took off my soft shell jacket, the weather again got little colder but i wasn’t going to stop again and put on another layer.
It was time to go over the final hill and Tom for reason took us in a different direction than what we had used to get to the glacier, while walking up this slope me, victor and matt got seperated from the pack and ended up taking different route. Matt went back for the main group where as me and victor just kept on going to the parking lot. We walked for what seemed like couple of hours but it was another hour and we made it back to the van at around 5 pm.
This time around i was smart enough to carry my sandals and an extra pair of clothes to change into and after a sumptous dinner at local restaurant it was time to head back to seattle. We finally made it to seattle at around 11 pm and boy did i sleep well that night 🙂
It had been really tough nine days but a lot of fun and provided me with great learning experience, i pushed through and managed to make it to the summit which at times did seem unlikely.
I was really happy with this entire course and learn’t a lot. I have been to 20,000 ft in himalayas, been part of expeditions while being in india but the climbing culture, gear etc is so different here than that i am used to, i got a lot out of this course. It was first time that i spent a significant amount of time training for something, even though it wasn’t ideal it helped a lot and i am glad that my mentality has changed with regards to training. One important thing that i learned in this course is how to plan meals, for the first 6 days we had to carry our own breakfast, lunch and dinner so going through the whole process of planning my meals really helped me. I probably ate healthier on this trip than i usually do 🙂
Next goal would be to climb Denali or some himalayan peak but the thing stopping me is getting enough vacation i.e. 3-4 weeks for it. Maybe not next year but in future i definitely see myself standing on summit of some of the big peaks.