Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mount Rainier, Disappointment Cleaver

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…

Climbing Mount Rainer from AdrienHD on Vimeo.

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