Friday morning I woke up calm, cool, and collected. And that feeling lasted five minutes until I rolled over to see my 80 liter backpack all ready to go staring me in the face. Oh. Shit.
Once I got myself together, I headed over to my parents house where the 4 musketeers, Patrick, David, Holly, and myself, all met up to carpool to the International Mountain Guide Headquarters.
As we started our drive I felt relatively calm. I had my traveling companions, I was all packed up, my dad was driving us in his maroon mini van. It was great – like going to soccer practice. Two hours later as we pulled into camp, I let out a panicked SHREAK. This was no soccer practice and there was no turning back.
Enter Chris – our head guide for the trip and my new bestie. Chris had that great leadership quality where just being next to him made you feel calm and safe. He patiently spent the next 3 hours checking every single piece of gear we were bringing, teaching us all how to pack our bags, how to put on crampons, how to poop in a bag, and how to not fall off the side of the mountain and die.
That night we stayed on site in tents. I was surprisingly able to get a lot of sleep despite the sheer terror I felt for the coming morning.
Saturday morning the whole crew (8 climbers and 4 guides) met up at 8am to begin our journey. It begins with a 45 minute car ride up a windy road to reach Paradise – aka the base of Mt. Rainier.
As some of you know, I previously hated hiking with an insatiable passion. To combat this, over the years I developed several coping techniques. In the past these were my sure fire way of getting through a horrible day hike. Alas, Rainier took every one of those coping mechanisms and shattered it into little bitty pieces until my poor poor brain could only mutter one phrase: one foot in front of the other.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves – at this point (the parking lot) I was still trying to use my techniques. The first of which was:
1. The first mile of any hike is always cake.
False – my first step off the parking lot pavement was at an incline…on snow. The only change to the terrain for the following 3 days was a steeper incline…on ice.
Our destination on Saturday was Camp Muir. For a lot of people (not me) this is a great day hike. We happened to get the most gorgeous Saturday for hiking so there were a lot of other people out there hiking and smiling. It actually rubbed off on my a few times and I found myself enjoying this activity and my surroundings. I was LIKING hiking for periods of 5, 10, even 20 minutes at a time!
We hit Camp Muir around 4 in the afternoon, and headed into a “bunkhouse” where we would be sleeping for the night. Luckily for us our guides provided breakfasts and dinners so we got a great hot meal that night and were in bed by 8. I am notorious for being able to sleep under any circumstances so I got a great night’s sleep while my other musketeers struggled through the night dealing with their nerves, the fact that it was still light outside, and 5 other people moving around and snoring.
Sunday was a pretty easy day for us. We woke up around 7 and had a fantastic breakfast of pancakes and bacon, then headed outside for some training exercises. We went over different crampon walking techniques for different steepness levels, how to walk when roped in with your rope team, and the most fun of all – ice axe arrest positions! This consisted of pretending to slide down the mountain, flipping over, and digging your ice axe into the side of the mountain to stop yourself. Ironic that this was the most fun because having to do an ice arrest as you fall down the mountain for real would have been not fun…at all.
After our lessons it was on to the next camp. It’s required that any glacier travel be done roped into at least one other person. Everywhere beyond Camp Muir is a glacier so it was time to pick our teams and rope up! Holly and I knew we were about the same pace and worked well together so we banded together and took stalk of the leaders. Peter and Nick – both great guides but newbies to the biz. Chris – our lead guide – was in high demand and already snatched. Which left Craig – a quieter guide we didn’t know much about other than that he had 25 years of experience – DONE. Turned out to be the best decision we ever made.
We roped in and headed up to Ingraham flats. It was an elevation gain of about 1,000 feet in under a mile so a pretty steep incline. At this point the altitude is high enough that it can affect your breathing and thus can cause head and stomach aches. We learned a breathing technique called pressure breathing. The technique simulates breathing at a lower altitude so you are able to provide your body with more oxygen.
We also employed a stepping technique called the rest step. It’s a rhythm you have to get yourself into that allows one leg a split second of rest at every step. This and the pressure breathing are keys to making it to the top.
We reached Ingraham Flats around 4pm and everyone was assigned a tent for the night. We all met up in a slightly larger tent for some delicious thai noodles and peanut sauce, a quick debriefing about the day ahead, and then it was off to bed at 5:30.
This night marked one of the only nights in history that I have ever had trouble sleeping. I think I maybe got an hour in. Chris came around at 12:30 am Sunday morning to wake everyone up. I’ll never forget what he said: “Good morning girls – are you ready to summit Mt. Rainier?” I replied (in my head): “Gee Chris – you know I really don’t think so – I’d like about 3 more months to train and at least another 5 hours of sleep so if you could come back later I’d appreciate it.” But obviously I mustered up a huge “YES” to trick him…and myself into believing it was true.
We started our summit climb around 1:30 AM. Everyone summiting does so around the same time because there is a limited window of opportunity to summit while it’s still cold enough to ensure the snow and glacier are cold enough to not shift. It’s also pitch black out since the sun is still down and there are no natural lights for miles. The result of this is as you look out onto the side of the mountain you just see a line of about 100 bobbing head lamps – a pretty surreal and amazing scene when it’s coupled with the rhythmic noise of muffled heavy breathing and stepping.
As we joined the line and started up, I took into consideration my mental state: I was feeling nervous but excited, tired but exhilarated, terrified but pumped.
2. Just look around at the beautiful surroundings to take your mind off the horrible pain in your legs
We quickly came to a point where the path was about a foot across with a snowy cliff to our right. We clipped into a line already anchored into the side of the mountain so that climbing would be a little safer. I pointed my headlamp down the cliff once and then quickly determined it was in my best interest to just keep looking down at my feet.
With darkness surrounding me I went into my own little trance. My silent mantra I repeated over and over: just put one step in front of the other. One in front of the other.
For the next 4 hours we hiked as the sun rose. Looking out at the surrounding mountains with nothing but the sounds of crampons digging into the snow as a soundtrack was spectacular. Every hour or so we’d take a break and the guides would ask if we were good to go on. Holly and I both admitted later that at certain points we both doubted whether or not we could make it. I knew that if I chose to go back down, I’d have to come back and try again some time. That didn’t sound fun so I knew there was no way I wasn’t getting to the top.
I was at breaking point when I asked Craig if we could stop for a second just so I could take a layer off (my secret ploy to get a little break). Craig turned around and said: “Ten more minutes girls. We’re almost there. I can see the crater ridge.” I started to cry.
That last ten minutes seemed like the longest of my life. As I crested the crater ridge and saw my brother and the rest of the team I completely lost it. This was the moment. The moment when a stupid bet, 4 months of training, 3 days of climbing, and 14,411 vertical feet collided. I had never felt more proud of an accomplishment, more proud of my brother, more proud of Holly and David, or more proud of myself in my life. As I hugged Patrick he said “Good job Noland. You did it.”
They say that if you reach the crater you have had a successful summit…but in order to sign the book and reach the “true summit” you have to cross the crater and hike up another little hill. This was about the last thing I wanted to do after getting to the top but there was no way I wasn’t signing that damn book so off we went.
3. Once you reach the top you’re done – coming down is easy.
False: Coming down is equally as hard as going up.
We stayed at the top for about 40 minutes and then it was time to head back down. The total trip down takes about 7 hours. As we came down I just couldn’t believe I had actually come up these insanely steep hills. I will say I was really glad it was dark out while we were summiting. Had I been able to see what I was doing clearly I would have been scared out of my mind. We’re talking crossing ridges with vertical cliff falls on either side.
We made it back to the parking lot around 4pm. I have never been more excited to see a slab of pavement. I was so excited I felt I needed to have a closer look – aka within 3 steps I tripped and face planted into the cement. Perfect way to end the trip.
All in all this was an adventure of a lifetime. At one point on our descent Chris asked me if I wanted to climb another mountain. I laughed. I told him that at about 13,000 feet, with another 1400 feet to go, I told myself to “remember this. Remember how much this sucks. Don’t talk youself into this again.” The problem is, the mind has a funny way of forgetting the pain and suffering and just remembering the glory moments. And this particular glory moment was pretty unbelievable. So while I won’t be climbing anything but the stairs to my bedroom any time soon…I won’t rule out climbing another mountain completely.
I also thoroughly enjoyed discussing with Patrick what his future tattoo will be…
P.S. Of course there’s a video! So glad you asked!