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Assault on Mt. Rainier

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Posted: Wednesday, September 5, 2001 10:00 pm

If the stars had not been so awesome, if the headlamps of the climbers high above us weren’t so eerie, if the wind whipping up the 10,000 foot ridge weren’t so icy, I'd have laughed at myself.

I’d have laughed at thinking I could cut corners at the gym and skip some of the weekend training walks I had a chance at. And I’d have laughed at thinking that because I climbed a mountain higher than Mt. Rainier years ago, that this would be easy now that I’’m 49.

At 1:30 a.m. on summit day, you become serious whether you started out that way or not. Even Tony Coyne, the loquacious Australian army vet, who summited Kilimanjaroa five years ago, was serious.

“It’s going to take pure determination, Marty,” he said. I took a couple of pressure breaths to combat the altitude and looked up into the dark where the top was supposed to be.

It didn’t seem so intimidating last February when Phil Felde invited me and Tom Shock to the Butcher Shoppe to plan a mountaineering trip. We started out talking about Pico Orizaba, Mexico’s highest mountain and the third highest in North America. I had climbed the 18,000-foot volcano in 1978 when I lived in Mexico City.

While I munched on a corned beef sandwich, Phil suggested we try Mt. Rainier first, as a warm-up. Rainier’s is “only” 14,410. To me, the idea sounded — what shall I say? — responsible. That’s it, cautious but smart.

Is it possible I was overlooking something? Like 23 years of aging and 25 pounds of poor decisions about eating? Decisions like corned beef sandwiches for lunch? Or perhaps I forgot that Mexico City is 7,000 feet and I was much more used to altitude back then.

Hey, I work out regularly — three or four, well, two or three times a week. All I'd have to do it pick it up a little, right?

It didn’t go smoothly. Tony’s summer trip to California’s Matterhorn fell victim to the demands of his contracting business and a skiing accident. I missed Doug Gerard’s trip to White Mountain because of work. By mid-August, my training schedule was in tatters and what fitness improvements I’d made, came on the machines at the Fitness Works, altitude 54.

But by then we were committed.

The group was contractor Tony Coyne the Australian veteran; Farmers & Merchants downtown branch manager Phil Felde, who’s been up Whitney and Shasta half a dozen times; teacher Joe Barber, who has a modest start on his aspiration to ascend the highest points in each state; podiatrist Tom Shock, my exercise buddy who is a walking advertisement for Stair Master; and me, the once young adventure writer with many years now of desk jockey experience.

Phil got us hooked up with the busiest and most experienced guide service in the area: Rainier Mountaineering Inc. We signed up for the three-day Summit Package: The first day was training. The second day was climbing from the Paradise parking lot at 5,400 feet to Muir Cabin, a cramped, tar paper shack with a triple tier of bunks that has little more to recommend it than a latrine and warmth. The third day’s itinerary was from Muir Camp at about 10,000 feet to the summit at 14,410 feet and all the way back down to Paradise. Summit day would last about 14 hours.

On Aug. 19, we were on a snow field, 6,500 feet up the side of Mt. Rainier. Gray-bearded RMI guide Michael “Murp” Murphy was teaching us to power breath, use an ice ax and not to step on the rope with our crampons.

Pressure breathing entails breathing in through your nose and blowing out hard through your mouth. The harder you blow, the more pressure you build in your lungs, helping to compensate for lack of oxygen on our way to 14,000 feet.

Crampons are fierce metal spikes that make baseball cleats look like Hush Puppies. Keep your toes pointed out or fall head first when you catch them on your cuffs.

The all-purpose ice ax is a deceptively simple-looking tool, essential to the “self-arrest” maneuver. Bring the ax to your chest, grab the shaft and roll. If you learn to do it reflexively, you can catch yourself from slipping in the steepest terrain. Fail to master this basic mountaineering skill and, well …

Murph and the others at Rainier Mountaineering Inc. culled two cimbers from our expedition during mountaineering school: one heavy-set 30 something whose training must have been worse than mine and a runner in his 60s who could ascend like the wind. The trouble was his artificial knee impaired his ability to descend.

“Making the summit is optional,” Murph explained. “Coming back down is not.” RMI granted these two customers immediate refunds. This was not a cautious warm-up to anything.

On Aug. 20, the five from Lodi and 17 others set out on a six-hour jaunt from Paradise at 5,400 feet to Muir Cabin at about 10,000. Although we arrived at the “cabin” about 4 p.m., there was little time for photos or other dawdling. We unpacked, ate a dehydrated dinner, had our crampons checked and were sent to bed at 6:30 p.m.

Given that it was broad daylight and difficult to sleep, the cramped bunks were deathly quiet. I had achieved a light doze when the gas lights flickered on at midnight.

The summit stage began in the first minutes of Aug. 21. Brent Okita, the team leader, said a storm front was due before noon. We would hike up in fleece pants but we were directed us to keep Gortex shells and pants handy for the snow.

By the time I had my sleeping bag stowed on my second-tier bunk, every square foot of floor space was swarming with climbers scrambling into polypropylene long johns. There were two women among the group of 22 and we were expected to avert our gazes in gentlemanly fashion. Nobody had a spare second to peek anyway.

A guide came in with three coffee pots full of steaming water for instant oat meal, soup, etc.

“Don’t let it get cold,” he shouted to the crowd. Down the hatch with the oat meal. On with the plastic climbing boots and three layers of upper body clothing. Outside into zero Fahrenheit weather to finish suiting up.

We were able to lighten our packs by the weight of our sleeping bags. That helped a little. Each of us wore a helmet, to protect against falling stones and ice, and a headlamp. After we got crampons on, we cinched ourselves into a nylon harness with a two-inch metal ring, called a caribinier. This is where the rope went that kept us tied together in groups of five or six.

Joe and Tony were on the first rope headed by Brent. Murph headed my rope which included a Southern Californian named Jim, me, Tom and Phil.

Oh, sh-, where were my over mittens?!

“Murph, I hate to say this, but I can’t find my mittens in my pack,” I said. “They must be back in the cabin.” The first group was about to head out and we were to be second. Murph was not thrilled.

By the time I got roped up again, we were a few hundred yards behind the other group. As the stars shined on Cowlitz Glacier, Murph marched us at a catch-up pace. Later it would become apparent how important it was to keep the groups together.

With little to see, I kept focused on the three-foot circle of light created by my headlamp. Twice or three times, the snow on either side of the path disappeared as we crossed a crevasse on a snow bridge. There was not nearly enough light to see the bottom.

As the climb became steeper, I concentrated on pressure breathing, trying to combat the thinning air.

Within an hour we came to the scariest part of the climb, a one boot-width path up a sheer ice cliff. We kept our left hands wrapped through a38-inch nylon rope while our ice axes waved uselessly out over the precipice.

Crampons are not optional equipment on Mt. Rainier.

Next came Cathedral Rocks. The volcanic soil is a mix of monolithic stone, boulders, rocks, pebbles and sand. We expended the most energy on these rocky parts, slipping and scrambling to keep up the pace. Everybody's power breathing became louder and more frequent.

There was no time to stop so we left the crampons on. I snagged them on jagged rock and struggled to dislodge stones that got caught in the tines.

Our first break was at the top of Ingraham Glacier. With the temperature easily below zero, our sweat turned to ice, and in less than a minute I found myself shivering. The day before I cussed having to rent a parka, but the fluffy down felt positively tropical on the moonless snow.

An energy bar and a half pint of water hit the instant oatmeal in my stomach like lead balls. As we sat on our packs taking pressure breaths, Murph asked each of us for an assessment. Jim, the 20ish Southern California guy who ran marathons, was struggling some.

“You've got to commit to making it to the top of the cleaver,” Murph told him. The top of Disappointment Cleaver was the make it or break it point of the climb. Okay, said Jim. The rest of us tried to appear eager.

Murph told Brent our group was “in pretty good shape.” In just ten minutes, it was time to jam the parkas and overmitts into the backpacks and set off for the cleaver.

The rocky spine on this portion is steeper than Cathedral Rocks. Each slip of a boot was followed by three, four, five pressure breaths. We sounded like a whole train of little locomotives.

At this point, Jim began to complain of headaches, an early sign of altitude sickness. Murph paused grudgingly. The first group was gaining again, but I was grateful for the chance to catch my breath. It came back quickly, but there was a raw feeling in my lungs to accompany the ball in my stomach.

Fifteen minutes later, we were back on snow, but that was no relief. The path seemed as steep as a ladder and my ankles were jammed at an acute angle to keep the crampons anchored in the snow.

Tom, who was fourth on the rope, lost his footing. “Tom,” said Murph. “Tell me what’s happening.” I was surprised when Tom, the guy who always beats me up the hills and pushes me to pick up the pace of a run, sounded a note of doubt.

“I'm at maximum heart rate,” he said. The group ahead of us was too far ahead. The group behind didn't have room for two. Did I hear the guide on that rope say he might take one of us?

“Marty. How are you doing?” Murph asked. "I'm pressure breathing a lot, but my breath comes back quickly. I’m okay.” Then I paused. “I came here with a group and I'll support whatever they do.”

“Phil?”Murph asked. For months, Phil had been a most excellent host, but now it was time to be honest.

“I don’t feet the same. I want to go to the top.”

In an instant, Murph seized on his decision. We let the party behind us catch up and Phil roped on to the end. Jim, Tom and I labored to the top of Disappointment Cleaver where another climber was waiting to come down. It was Joe.

Tony was still going strong with the first group and Phil reached the top of the cleaver in time to take Joe’s place on the first rope. They were gone by the time we reached the top of Disappointment Cleaver.

Someone said we’d reached 12,000 feet or so. We were at the end of our climb. I cast a look up the mountain and decided it was best to enjoy the spectacular sunrise. Then it was time to head down.

As the sun rose higher, we took in the magnificent expanse of volcanic spires. Three- to eight-foot crevasses cut up the blinding white glaciers as if they had been raked by giant shark's teeth. The scrambling and scraping over the rocks was less exhausting now, but the pace was no less constant.

We retraced our steps acorss vast snow fields and saw that they were littered with rocks and boulders fallen from above. Murph urged us not to linger. Now when we bridged the crevasses we got a clearer look at them, but still the bottoms of many were indiscernible.

By 8:30 a.m. we had Muir Cabin in sight and the storm began to close in. We were pelted with sleet and rain, signifying snowline was here at 10,000 feet. Since safety dictated that the 22 of us descend through the clouds together, we had to wait for those who were just then making the summit.

The seven of us who didn't make it repacked and talked about our lives. There were runners and cyclists — balloonists, motorcyclists and aviators. If there had been more to celebrate, we’d have had lots to say to each other.

Murph told us about the guy in his early 50s who had died of a heart attack ascending Disappointment Cleaver just a few weeks previously.

We quietly put our packs outside to make room for those who would be down from the summit soon. We showed our respect by making sure they were not inconvenienced. Before long, most of us were catching up on lost sleep or grousing about wanting go down before the storm go worse.

The talk was more animated when the others arrived. It was easier after the cleaver, they agreed. But one fellow overestimated his strength and had to give it up between the cleaver and the summit. There were no groups going down, so the guides left him wrapped in two sleeping bags and told him to do sit-ups until they returned. But he made it.

The descent from Muir Cabin through the rain wasn’t cold, but it was difficult to see and it worked up some sore knees and more blisters.

As we sat dripping in the shuttle bus back to our rooms, those who had made the summit were kind enough to rebuild some camaraderie. It was worth it just to be here, we all agreed.

I noticed that I was not as whipped as most of those who had made it. And so I began to wonder if I had tried hard enough. Then Murph’s words came back to me:

“Good mountaineers make good decisions. Sometimes those decisions get you to the summit, sometimes they don’t. Going to the top is optional. Coming down is not.”


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