Wednesday, August 18, 2010
I saw Mount Rainier for the first time when I summited Mount Baker last May. I had thought I had reached the top of the world but when I saw 200 km away the size of the Seattle volcano, I realized that I had only started a mountaineering quest.
The mountain struck me again when I climbed mount Hood in July, this time I was much closer and this made me realize how much more massive this mountain is compared to its` sisters. The most astonishing view I had, was on my way back to Vancouver, on the I-5, just at the SeaTac Airport level, where I looked behind myself and saw Mount Rainier calling me.
I contacted my fellow climbing partner including my life partner Bonn-Tien. I had a week off in August, we looked at the Mount Rainier conditions blog. All the stars were in line, great snow conditions, great weather, everyone is available, we have no other option than attempt the “Mother of all Waters”
I picked up the car on Thursday at noon precisely and went back to my apartment to pick up mighty Bonn-Tien and our 100 kg of gear (including road-trip goodies), afterwards I went to pick up Len on Main and Todd at UBC. As soon as we were all four in the car, with no rear visibility at all with the 200 kg of gear stacked in the hatchback, a Washington car pulled in front of us, and our eyes just looked at the license plate, where Mount Rainier appeared to us for the first time that day…
The border crossing was smooth, and the officer was almost interested in what we were attempting, he asked us if we were professionals… which made us all laugh a bit as we consider ourselves more novices than anything else. He wished us good luck and let us go.
The trip went fairly well all the way to the national park, we quickly got our views of the Mountain on the way, which got us very excited but also slightly nervous, realizing that we were attempting something…BIG.
We were planning to sleep at Cougar Rock camping, however when we arrived there, a big sign said “Full” and we were like “Fu..”.
But with our great taste for adventure, we decided to still go inside (it was already 22:00 and pitch dark) and see what we could find. It turned out there was plenty of empty camping spots but all of them had reservation signs on them. Careless, we went by the “you snooze, you lose principle” and installed ourselves on the biggest empty lot with it s big “Reserved” sign. Because we were not too sure of what was going to happen, we decided to sleep tent free, just with the Therma-Rest, no bugs, trees to protect from the dew, we were going to be fine. We quickly fell asleep.
The early summer light woke us up around 6:00. It was Friday, the day to head to camp Muir. We stashed the sleeping bags and the air mattresses in the car and headed to the trailhead at Paradise meadows.
It was a great feeling to be there early, taking advantage of the morning calmness to focus on our objective. We spread all the gear in the parking lot, taking over 4 spots. Bonn-Tien started some breakfast cooking and we were meticulously going over all our gear. With food and water we were all above the 20 kg, but we knew it would be heavy till Camp Muir, after this it would be Assault mode. We each got our $30 permit and blue bags. After a good breakfast and Gatorade in our veins, we were ready for Camp Muir. The climb started really easy on a paved road in the middle of beautiful meadows. We quickly arrived on the dirt trail and started a steeper ascent towards the Muir Snowfield. At about 2200 m we hit the snowfield and put on the gaiters. The snowfield is easy but the slog is long, with an elevation gain of 800 m gain, it was a long walk in the desert. We had left at about 8:45 and I made it to camp at 12:30, which seemed to be a good timing.
Camp Muir is very special, solar toilets, several runned down cabins and lots of tents. Since we were among the first ones to arrive, we had prime choice. At first we decided to set up camp on a big snow ledge above some Guides. After spending a good hour flattening our spot, a guide came up to us and said that the Rangers don t like people to camp there because this was where they get all their water….thanks for telling us this just now….
So we had to go to the lower stinky section with tons of sun cups. Too tired, we just set up the tent on a very uneven part. We made the mattresses even by putting the rope and gear under them.
Once camp was setup, the long process of boiling 4 litres of water each started, 2 litres to drink before going to bed and 2 litres to drink during the ascent. While the Whisperlite was full blast, Todd, Len and I went to refresh our crevasse rescue skills. This was extremely useful as we had live conditions to practice. The backpack was the victim and we worked on our 3:1 system.
After the training, a ranger came to our tent and briefed us on the mountain. He told us the dangers and gave us some recommendations. He said something that really marked me, “the way up to the summit is just a trail”, just a trail…I have done so many trails… I had a quick bite and managed to go to bed by 19:00 with the alarm set at 23:00. I went into deep sleep thinking about nothing…
At 21:30, I woke up sweating, the tent was moving all around, there was crazy winds going outside. The first thing that came through my mind is that once that we will be out of the tent, with most of our gear and water, what will hold the tent down?! So instead of trying to go back to sleep, I pulled out some pickets and started looking for rocks all around camp. The wind was brutal and it was actually very chilling. By 23:00, my tent was now bomb proof, but it was time to get ready for the climb, but I had just slept 90 min and was feeling already tired. As any Frenchman for my breakfast, I had a croissant and forced myself to drink water.
It was still very windy outside and I was getting worried about the windchill factor at higher elevations. However, the ranger told us not to be impressed by the wind at Camp Muir, because he had had terrible winds at 3000m but dead calm sea on the Cleaver.
Although it was hard to believe that it was going to get warmer and calmer, I motivated myself to get ready and ascend the beast.
It was a moonless night so we put our headlamps on. And started going up the Disappointment Cleaver Route. As soon as we hit the glacier, we started stepping above small crevasses. The first tricky part was a small rocky trail up to the Ingraham glacier. Once we hit the Ingraham flats we caught up with lots of climbers who had just spent the night there. At this point there was a train of head lamps in front and behind us. I use to be an Adventure Racer and I had a similar feeling where we are all together in this madness to make us suffer for an orgasmic result of endorphin and vanity…
After the Ingraham flats which is the high camp comes the scary part. As a horrifying entry gate, you have to literally jump a one meter wide, cold deep crevasse. Barely have you got your adrenalin down that you have to quickly walk under some threatening, unbalanced seracs. While we were running like the devil was chasing us, we could here rocks fall onto the trail from the Disappointment Cleaver ridge. When we felt that nothing above us would fall on us, or nothing under us would swallow us, we took a break in order to wait for the ones in front of us to clear the “bowling alley”. Once it was cleared, we ran to the beginning of the Cleaver. Of course we kept our crampons and got into the line to climb this long, rock loose ridge.
10 min after leaving the bowling alley, an ENORMEOUS sound shook us up. It seemed that the whole glacier was collapsing. At this point we could see lights on the Ingraham flats and lights in front of us, but no one just behind us. I was convinced people had just been taken away by a seracs fall, and that I had just “barely” cheated Death. My stomach turned around just by the thoughts. I looked at the train of lights on the glacier below and could already see people turning around. I was already thinking about how hellish it would be to turn around and go back through this death zone.
Fortunately, 10 min after the noise, a group of 2 climbers caught up behind us. I immediately asked them what happened. It was actually not that bad, a major rock fall but just a few debris making it to the trail, one climber got his ankle probably broken and those 2 climbers had just bruised their helmets and packs. More fear than pain….
This made me feel a bit better that nobody had been killed, but 2010 had already been a bad year for Mt Rainier with 2 deaths, first ones since 2005.
After a long unpleasant slog we finally made it up the Cleaver onto a safe spot. It was dark, cold but hot with all the layers, I was just feeling miserable, could not see a thing, I was not enjoying myself and questioned my climbing career 15 times…
After some mini cinnamon rolls and lots of water, we started the long route up the Glacier, we were only at 3600 m…. 800 m to go….OMG….
I actually felt better, we were just following a trail dug into the snow, we didn’t t realize at this point but we were surrounded by massive crevasses. Sometimes, a wand would warn us of something but it was too dark too actually see the huge cut we were crossing. We traversed towards the east and arrived on the Emmons Glacier. From there it was a 30 degree slope for about 300 m high; it seemed like a fast way to the summit. Around 6:00 we took a break at the summit of the slope and watched the sunrise. It felt good and warm to see some light, but the brain was not fully functioning, although not very cold, I was convinced I was going to freeze at higher elevations, however, the Ranger had been right, the wind was dead calm. We started to traverse back east and crossed some massive crevasses, perhaps 30 m deep. Their blue colours were hypnotizing and their depth terrifying.
While traversing, I felt tired, unfocused and had a bad headache. I asked to stop one more time before going on. We sat down on a safe spot; I ate a whole bunch of sweet rolls and had a good sip of very cold water. Of course that woke me up and gave me energy to continue. But I had a look at my GPS and realized we were at 4150m! My wrist altimeter had been off 200m! This gave me a boost as only 250 m remained d to climb! We packed up and continued our ascent.
At about 4300 m we arrived to this ladder crossing a major crevasse. I let Bonn-Tien cross first, ready to self arrest in case she lost her balance. She passed fine. I went for my run, it was simply amazing and terrifying. A normal human being would not want to look down, but the ladder was so narrow and it was so unnatural to be on it with crampons that you had to look where you were putting your feet. Just looking under where you could not see the bottom was shivering. Once I landed on the other side, I felt much better. We started to see some people going down and telling us the summit was around the corner.
At 7:15 we arrived at the summit crater. We unroped, unpacked and walked across those very long 750 m towards the Columbia crest, true summit of Mount Rainier. The walk was unreal, a mix of joy, stress, exhaustion lead me to the summit. The crater is full of penitents made the place look unreal.
At 7:45, we were all 4 on the summit. Most of us had pounding headaches, but we were proud of our accomplishment. We could see Baker, Glacier Peak, Adams, Hood, Saint Helen and even Jefferson from the top of the highest mountain of Washington.
Took a few summit shots and headed back down.
The way down was very hot and the snow was much softer. I almost lost my balance on the ladder and so did Len. That gave us just the right amount of adrenalin to stay awake back to camp.
It felt like we were taking a new trail going down since we could now see what was around us. I have to say, Mount Rainier landscape has nothing to envy to the Alps. Seracs tall as 20 storey buildings, massive ice falls. I was just so impressed. I was really nervous going back down the cleaver but it went much better and the run under the rock and ice fall turned out safe, although our very late return. We made it back to camp around 13:00 and that is when we could fully enjoy our summit. We collapsed in our sleeping bags and went for a 2 hour nap. We left camp around 17:30 and made it back to our car by 20:00.
We knew the only camping was full, so clueless on what to do, we decided to have dinner on the parking with the remains of our climbing food. We celebrated our victory by drinking a bottle of “Rainier Ridge” wine. Not knowing where to sleep and being in a national park, we sneaked onto the parking lot and found some benches were we set up our Therma-Rest. We watched the stars from our sleeping bags and saw at least 10 shooting stars, with one doing a flash and leaving two red tails.
We quickly fell asleep. The next morning we wrapped up and had a big fat American breakfast in a local diner. We headed to REI Flagship store to check it out, the building was beautiful but we were not impressed by the products ( I m too much of a MEC lover to say anything good about REI).
We crossed the border back to Canada and I dropped everyone home safely.
It has now been 4 days since I climbed Mount Rainier, the feeling I get from it is indescribable, I will definitely keep on climbing and live on the mountain… I m already planning a climb for after tomorrow…
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
I m French…. And to be more specific, I am Lyonnais (from the city of Lyon) which means I am from the region of Rhone-Alp, where the mighty Mont Blanc resides. My family has strong attachments to Chamonix Mont-Blanc. My Grand -Pa use to hike there when he was a young gentleman and bought an apartment there in the 1960s. My father fell in love with the valley during his young years, became a mountaineer with the French “Chasseurs Alpins” and purchased us a flat in 1997 in Chamonix so he could come as often as possible, although 800 km away from his home. Since I was born, I have spent every summer in Chamonix looking at the peaks, wondering what it felt like being up there. I always admired the climbers coming down the mountains, with all their complicated gear, their burnt faces but with that glow in their eyes that they had accomplished something that most of us could never do.
I started mountaineering when I was 16, with UCPA (an equivalent of the YMCA in France). For about 500 French Francs (1997, was about $100 Cad), I spent a week learning the basics of mountaineering, School of snow, School of Rock, School of Ice and a final Climb Eperon des Cosmiques + Arete des Cosmiques ( A south face of l Aiguille du Midi with a traverse that ends on an observation deck).
After this week of training, my father started to take me on some climbs with him (Belvedere from the Aiguilles Rouges, La Tour Ronde in the Massif du Mt Blanc must do if you’re going to Chamonix !) . However nobody ever invited me to do Mt Blanc, too expensive, too high and too long.
When my father text me happy New Year 2010 from France on the 1st of January, I replied to him “ Happy New year to you too, lets climb Mt Blanc this year!” and he replied, “Ok, let’s do it”. From that point, I knew I was going to climb the highest summit of France and Western Europe this summer.
Unfortunately, in April my father called me and told me he realized he would not be fit enough to climb, he was mostly worried about the altitude which he is not a big fan of. I knew my partner Bonn-Tien would be fit enough as she was planning to climb by herself Mt El Toub Kal (4 167 m) in early June. My father said that we could use the services of the family Guide (Yes I have no family doctor but I do have a family guide) and since he was not coming he would pay half of the climb. A bit disappointed that I was not climbing this with him but I looked at the bright side that I would now be able to bring Bonn-Tien on this peak that I have looked at since I could walk.
In order to acclimatize, we spent a week hiking the Swiss Haute-Route which included a 3300 m peak and several nights above 2500 m. We also carried 25 kg packs on 12 hour days going up almost 2000m per day, we were fit for this climb.
Lionel is our family guide and has been for about 10 years. He has brought my father and looked after his safety on many climbs such as the Matterhorn. I had climbed with Lionel before and his experience and knowledge is simply immense, over 60 years old, he has climbed every single summit of the massif du Mt Blanc and many around the world.
Originally we had planned to do Mt Blanc in a day, but the current conditions did not allow it, beautiful weather in the morning, thunderstorms in the afternoon and clear in the evenings. This would force us to spend a ½ night in the refuge, wake up at 1 Am summit by 7 and be off the mountain as fast as possible.
We met Lionel at his chalet at 11 am on the 30th of June 2010, we had met the day before to discuss about the logistics and the food. How it works in Chamonix is that you pay a flat rate for the guides and you have to buy their food (and carry it), pay for their nights in huts but not pay for their lifts as they have special passes. Although we were going for two days, our packs did not weigh more than 10 kg, and the guides `bag with all his gear was also under the 10 kilograms. We headed towards the Aiguille du Midi lift which starts at about 1030 m and brings us to the modest altitude of 3840 m ! The one way ticket to the aiguilles, which is packed with tourists, cost me about 37 Euros, about $45, thank God the loonie was so strong. It took us less than 20 min to ascend the 2800m, a real turbo too the alpine. Once we arrived at the top, you go through a tunnel and arrive on a tiny platform, the entrance to “La Haute Montagne”. There we put on the crampons and roped up. To get off l aiguilles du Midi you go down a steep ridge. As soon as I stepped on snow, I pushed of a small pack that started going down the south face. It quickly grew to a size 1 wet slab and went tumbling down at least 200m. It was about 13:00 so the sun was hitting hard. It was a bit embarrassing for me to have started this wet slab since I had just arrived on the mountain. But this did not seem a concern at all for my guide. Going down the ridge was fun but exposed as the north side is a 1000m drop, but the rope and the guide made us feel safe and comfortable. Once we arrived at the plateau or Mer de Glace, my guide stopped and started talking with another guide about the conditions. Meanwhile I started talking to some other clients, they felt miserable, they had just done what we were planning to do, they felt tired and they had felt the altitude. They admitted to me that they had not been exercising at all lately.
I had been in this area several times during my life as a climber, but this time I had a whole new vision since I have been mountaineering in the remote coastal mountains. I felt that I was in a giant temple of alpinism as there were climbers everywhere. There was several team on the South face of aiguilles du Midi, others on the Arêtes des Cosmiques , a tent village not far from refuge des Cosmiques. We traversed the area roped up, it was really a quick walk no more than 15 min. However the sun was extremely bright, although we had our Julbos Level 3 on, we felt the brightness deep in the retinas.
The refuge was splendid; the rooms were cosy with giant bunk beds. We enjoyed a late lunch with Lionel and went for a nap at 3300m high. The nap was interrupted by people going in and out of the room but we still managed to get some rest. We woke up around 19:00 for dinner and enjoyed some amazing skies from the observation deck. It was cool but not cold.
The dinner was ok but with a delicious apple crumble. I spoke to a Swedish Aspi Guide who used to be just like me a banker; he had quit everything to follow his passion of climbing. It was an inspiring story, from finances to freedom…
We went to bed around 21:00 but with much rawkus around, people hoping into the bunk beds, getting out, fixing their gear. It was not very easy to close an eye, especially when you know you will be climbing a mountain you have looked at since you were born. With my few power naps, the clock finally rang at 1:00. We took our packs and put on the climbing clothes and headed downstairs for breakfast. I think the whole refuge opted for the 1am breakfast as there was some risk of thunderstorms in the afternoon.
As I walked among the crowd, I noticed some worried faces. It turns out it was slightly raining outside!!! A total surprise for everyone! I went up to Lionel and ask him what he thought; he was a bit concerned but tried to stay optimistic. “we are not in a hurry, we are not in a hurry” What he kept saying to me.
Lionel asked about the conditions to other guides, and went out on the refuge patio. Around 2 am, everything had cleared up and we were good to go.
We put on all our gear and roped up immediately. We were actually the last rope team to leave camp. But that was fine as we had a cool vision of a train of head lamps going up the first part of the climb “Mont Blanc du Tacul”. We were going at a slower pace than usual but this was a good thing as I usually go too fast and end up too tired at the summits. We were short roped and Lionel was leading. Although the early weather had been rather bad, now it was simply amazing, very clear sky with almost a full moon.
The first part is Mont Blanc du Tacul which is a 30 degree slope with a good trail broken into the mountain. It is not exposed and is not considered technical but the seracs above are constantly threatening to fall. Lionel told me that last year, two Swiss guides and their customers were blown away and that their bodies will only come out of the glacier in 40 years…. chilling thoughts.
There was a small Bergshrund to cross but it was still very closed and did not represent any danger. At the top of the Mont Blanc du Tacul slope, two climbers were coming down, Lionel yelled at one of them since he had inverted his crampons, a huge risk when this increase the chances to get a strap caught in one of the claws. At the top, of the slope we took our first break, beautiful views, L Aiguille du Midi seemed so below and the valley was still sleeping, 3000 m below me, it was just extraordinary. At this point of the night, it was still very dark but the moonshine led the whole mountain up. From there we had a long traverse to go all the way under Mont Maudit. Mont Maudit starts with the crossing under some crazy huge ice blocks. Once that is passed you have to go up a 30 degree slope through several zig zags. At the top of the slope there was a steep section (45 degrees) with some fixed rope. The snow was very hard but the conditions felt right and being roped up with a guide made me feel very comfortable.
Once we arrived at the Mont Maudit Col, the sun was almost out and the views were spectacular. Towards the North East we could see Mont Blanc du Combin, Weisshorn, Matterhorn, Dom etc. And of course our South view was a beautiful close up of Mont Blanc. From this col, it was another traverse to a col and then the final ascent to the summit. We traversed and could see the climbers from refuge du Gouter making it to the summit. Although I was at 4400m at this point, I felt just great no signs of altitude sickness or short breathed, the Haute Route Trek was paying off. However we did take a final break just before the final ascent which is just a long 400m ascent 20 degree slope. I would have thought that this would have been easy but it was not. It was just a long painful slog. At this point, I felt the altitude hit hard, the good was that we were in the sun and we were quickly warming up. Sadly, the summit was completely clouded up, and I was hoping for it to clear up as we were ascending the final meters. Unfortunately, as we arrived on the last 50m, we got into the fog and it was a complete white out… However, we quickly arrived at the summit of Mt Blanc, I was overwhelmed with joy and emotion. I took Bonn-Tien in my arms and hugged her tight. I was on the top of Mt Blanc, the mountain that I had been looking at since I was a little boy.
We took a few shots, it was not cold but we had to rush down as we arrived around 8 am, a bit late on schedule. Instead of heading back the way we came, I asked to do the traverse. I was a bit disappointed to have arrived on a clouded summit, but since we got to be on both sides of the mountain and the fog was only at the top, we didn’t t really miss any views. The south route towards refuge du Gouter was very different than what he just had done. It consisted in a ridge with some fair exposure. I still felt comfortable on this part of the route although we were still in the fog for the first 15 min. I was surprised to cross a few solo climbers towards the summit as a bad fall would mean deadly consequences. After the ridge it was a succession of nice easy snow slopes all the way down to refuge. Once we arrived at the refuge, I thought the hard part was done…. I was so wrong. The worst part had yet to come… Under the refuge there is a 400 m slope, a mix of rock, ice and snow. In the beginning there was a fair amount of ice and I appreciated the fact that we kept our crampons on, however, Lionel made us keep the crampons on the whole way, where most of it was large rocks. The terrible grinding noise was almost unbearable. I asked 3 times to remove the crampons but Lionel knew we would have to put them back on a small snowy traverse (le couloir). I believed that this was slowing us down way too much and would have made us save some time. Not only was it difficult to go down the slope but we had to be roped up and being short roped on this kind of scramble was just hell. It was important to stay high on the trail as rocks were falling on the side, pushed by other climbers going up or down. After 2 ½ miserable hours going down, we made it to the “couloirs” a notorious deadly zone of the climb. It is a traverse of about 75 m where you are a pin and the mountain in the bowler. The goal is to traverse as fast as possible so you don’t get hit by a flying rock. Bonn-Tien and I prepared ourselves, and we basically ran through the death zone. After that we finally made to a giant snowfield where hundreds of climbers were preparing themselves for the “Sh..tty” part. However, it was a good thing we had roped up, as a week later I found out a polish climber had just killed himself in this section.
From the snow field it was great glissades all the way down to the snow free alpine. We went down 600m in less than 30 min, a huge contrast with our earlier hours. From the grassy alpine it was a short walk to the nid d aigles train, a small touristy train that bought us to a lift all the way back down to the valley. While we were waiting for the train to pick us up, the glacier spat a huge about of ice and water which generated a huge amount of noise, a good reminder of the forces of the mountain.
We finally made it back home by 4 pm, it had been a very long day but myself and Bonn-Tien where extremely happy by what we had just accomplished. I called my parents to let them know what we had just done and went to sleep with my childhood smile.