I’m just starting to doze off when suddenly the lights come on and Dave cheerful tells us it’s time to get up and get ready for the summit! He even gave us an extra 15 minutes to sleep, it’s 11:15pm! We have one hour to get ready, hot water is being brought in for coffee and breakfast, and please, for the love of timeliness, use the bathroom before putting on our harness. It’s not particularly cold, but it’s very windy, and the door to our cabin has been lightly banging all night. I slept in my long johns, so I only have to put on my climbing pants and a lightweight coat to be dressed.

As everyone is getting ready and eating breakfast, I head outside to try to take a few photos of the night sky. It’s so beautiful, and the Milky Way is visible. Unfortunately as awesome as my point and shoot camera has been, it’s not well equipped for photographing the stars. This is the only shot that really turns out alright.

Milky Way

The wind is blowing up so much dust that we all stay inside the bunkhouse as long as possible. Finally Dave tells us to get ready to rope up. Susie (the only other girl in our group) and I will be teamed with Leah, the all girl rope team! Heck yes! Out of the nine of us that started this journey, only six of us will be going for the summit. As I mentioned in my previous post, Lori and another guy were told Camp Muir was going to be their final destination, and one other guy didn’t make it up to Muir.

We set off at 12:15am across the Cowlitz Glacier. This part is not particularly challenging or technical. Plus there is a steady stream of people heading up to the summit, so we get slowed down frequently. But all too soon we reach Cathedral Gap. It’s just as difficult as I remember. Dave had told us it would take about 10 minutes to get through this, but I’m pretty sure it takes us the better part of an hour. The crampons on our feet are heavy and catch all the rocks we step on. Plus, it sounds a bit like fingernails on a chalkboard. I fight to keep up, and do a decent job, but by the time we get to the top, I’m pretty winded.

Just before we reach the Ingraham Flats, Leah asks how I’m doing. I tell her I’m tired, but want to keep going. She replies that she really wants to get me to the top of the Disappointment Cleaver at the very least. I can’t tell you how grateful I am that she’s encouraging me to go further.

We take our rest break on the flats and eat our candy bars. Sadly, another one of our group has to turn back here. The wind has picked up and I’m very grateful for my parka. We stop for about 10 minutes, just long enough to start getting too cold before we continue on. Just knowing that I made it to this point and get to continue further makes me happy. Plus, as strange as this may sound, I’ll get to do one of the ladder crossings over a crevasse and I’m very excited about it (don’t mind the f-bomb in the video, you can watch it on mute. But yeah, it’s f-bomb worthy).

After crossing the Ingraham Glacier (and that ladder), we come to the Disappointment Cleaver (the DC, for short). This is the crux of the climb, the hardest part. We’re back on rock and this time, we have some pretty big step ups. I fight for every step, telling myself the summit will be worth it, but my body just won’t listen. There are even a few times I have to move my legs with my hands to get the next step in.

Fortunately, most of the Cleaver is covered in snow, but even once we’re off the rock, I know I’ve reached my limit. I’m so thoroughly worn out and the gusts of wind keep knocking me down, using precious energy to stabilize and right myself again. As much as I don’t want to quit, I have to tell Leah that I’m done. Once the decision is made, I can feel the disappointment course through me. This is not what I wanted, not what I came here for. I worked so hard to reach the summit and my body just isn’t capable. I’m devastated.

Even after I’ve decided I’m done, we have to keep pushing forward, until we reach the top of the Cleaver. Because we are on glaciers, the risk of ice and rock falls is great, especially at this warm time of year. We can only stop in designated safe spots. Plus, if anyone from the other teams ahead of us needs to head back, we’ll need to make sure we’re there to rope up together. And unfortunately, there is one more of our group that turns back with me. This leaves only three left to head for the summit.

By now, all I want is to be back at Camp Muir, out of the cold and the wind, not moving. But it will take us a couple hours to get down. Back through all that awful rock and loose dirt. Back over the ladder. Just as we get to the bottom of the Cleaver, the sun starts to rise. I have my camera tucked into my pocket and when we get stuck behind some Italians, I snap a few shots. That sky!

Tahoma Sunrise

Ingraham Glacier sunrise

Tahoma moon

When the moon first rose, it was bright red. I so wished I could have photographed that, but there just wasn’t a way for me to get my camera out safely. But I have the memory in my head.

As we are walking, in the area just behind the rock on the left of the photo below, a massive ice avalanche occurs. It sends huge amounts of snow and ice up into the air and the sound is explosive. Even Leah, our guide exclaims “Holy crap! HOLY CRAP!” (I cleaned up the language for you, mom). I don’t have my camera out and it happens so quickly, but it really was incredible!

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It takes about 45 minutes for us to get back to the Ingraham Flats where we stop for a snack and water. I pull out my camera and start snapping away. The light is amazing right now!

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Aside from Camp Muir, the Ingraham Flats are another spot to camp out for the night. Some guided services do the mountaineer school on the way from Muir to the Flats, then go for the summit the next day. The upside of this is that you are 1,000ft closer to the summit on summit night. The downside is that it’s very exposed, cold and windy, and you aren’t likely to rest very well. Both options have their pros and cons, neither is really better than the other.

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Looking back up at the DC. I got to the highest chunk of rock at the top there.

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This is the route we took. We hike up the glacier, drop down below the ice fall which requires moving quickly through. Then up the rocky part of the Cleaver (out of site in this picture) until we hit the snow again. It seems so small and easy, but the distance is deceiving.

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As we’re heading down, just before hitting Cathedral Gap, Leah shouts back up at me, asking if I have my camera handy and do I want to stop to take pictures of the sunrise? Um, HECK YES! It’s all I’ve ever wanted in life! I pull my camera out and start clicking away. This sunrise just keeps getting better and better.

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That pointy peak is called Little Tahoma. The Native Americans believe Mt Rainier (known as Tahoma) is the mother and Little Tahoma is her son. You can also climb Little Tahoma, though the rock is very unstable.

As the sun comes up, the alpenglow turns the mountain from white to rosy pink. It’s stunningly beautiful.

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I could stand here all day and take pictures, but that won’t help us get back to Muir, so I take one more shot and put my camera away. It’s my favorite photo from the whole trip.

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When we get back to Camp Muir, Leah can tell I’m disappointed and gives me a pep talk. She tells me that I just did the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life (by far), that is something to be proud of, no matter how far I got. I know she’s right, but right now, I just need to go lie in my sleeping bag and cry about it.

I lie in my sleeping bag for a couple hours, resting. Eventually I crawl back out to talk to Lori and take some photos. Not that I haven’t already taken these photos a thousand times. These are different, of course.

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It’s so peaceful at this time of the morning, but soon climbers start coming in from their summit. Around 11am, the rest of our group returns. Of the nine of us that started, only three make it to the summit.

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They are even more worn out, and when I ask Susie how it was, she seems a bit unsure of how to feel about it. Was it worth it? Yes. But it was so cold and there wasn’t a lot of time for photos, and it was so much harder than expected.

They spend an hour getting everything packed up and just before noon, we head out. It’s a bit sloggy going down, so we decide to slide down on our bums! It’s a much quicker and incredibly fun (if rather wet) way to get down.

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So worth it.

We stop for a break at Pebble Creek, our only break on the way down.

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I snap this photo of the creek and have no idea why it came out with all the rainbow colors around it, but I think it looks kind of cool. Probably I managed to freeze the camera and it didn’t like that very much.

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It takes us about two and a half hours to get back to Paradise, and we are back at basecamp by just after 3pm. My parents are there waiting for us, and surprisingly, so is Lori’s husband and two of her kids! It’s such a nice surprise for her.

We return our rental gear and load the rest into the car, then meet our guides at the grill for a final drink. Of course one drink turns into more as we listen to stories from Dave’s extensive mountain climbing career. He has lived a fascinating life. I ask him what got him into mountain climbing and all this other crazy stuff. He replies saying he wanted to be a writer, and figured if he was going to have anything to write about, he better get out and start doing things. I couldn’t agree more, and it’s exactly how I want to live my life.

On the Road Again...Honduras and El Salvador
Rainier Day 3: Paradise to Camp Muir

2 thoughts on “Rainier Day 4: My Personal Summit

  1. Those pre-dawn and sunrise photos are stunning. Congrats on making it to your summit! That sounds so much harder than Kili. And that crevasse ladder crossing video is nuts! What an accomplishment all around — great job!

    1. Thank you! It is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done – much harder than Kili. But worth it, for sure! One of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen.

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