Summit 4 Angelman
Our high point was just above Disappointment Cleaver. It was an ironic name to where we ended our Summit Attempt of Mount Rainier. One of our lead guides Brent, who is about to break the world record for the most Rainier Summits, stood in front of the 9 climbers still on the mountain hoping to make it to the summit even though there were some serious concerns about the conditions and consequently the dangers associated. Those of us still climbing didn’t object to our guides decision to turn around. I sat there with my rope team and thought about how disappointed I’m going to be when I get off this mountain. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. We experienced some of the worst summer weather anyone could have on Rainier and still be climbing. Well below zero temps, 50+ MPH wind gusts and 12+ inches of blowing snow. We started the climb with poor weather hoping for the best but unfortunately it only became increasingly worse. Our RMI guides did their best to get us to the top. In fact, the small group of us were the only ones on the entire mountain above high camp. Very rare on one of the most popular climbing mountains in the United States. The other Rainier guide service didn’t even leave high camp that day because of the poor climbing conditions. We met up with their 20+ climbers at Camp Muir on the way back down the mountain and it was at that moment that I realized even though we didn’t summit we did something pretty special in the face of some pretty serious climbing challenges.
The mountain is the great equalizer. It can humble anyone on any given day and we were lucky enough to go face to face with its power. I guess that’s why experienced climbers always say, “respect the mountain.”
During our post climb meeting at base camp one of our guides told us something I won’t ever forget. “You all should be proud of your efforts today. Yes, we didn’t summit but in some ways accomplished more than many that make it to the crater. I’ve guided many people up this mountain in much better conditions and it’s a huge accomplishment but what you all did was go out on that mountain and experience the power of Mount Rainier. You got to experience that force and see how the mountain can humble anyone. Remember, it’s your choice to climb but it’s mandatory we bring down safely.”
Our first day up the snowfield took about 5 hours to high camp and it was pretty uneventful. The temps were cold and it was snowing the whole way up but we made the trek without much issue. We carried up all of our own food and gear so our packs were pretty heavy. There were 20 total climbers and day one gave us all an opportunity to check out our gear during the trip up. We also took advantage of that time get to know the other climbers and guides a little better. Little did I know we were all “trying out” for one of the guides rope teams. As we hiked to Camp Muir, at 10,188 feet covering about 5-6 miles, they were watching every one of us closely. Looking at our gear, coordination and most importantly our fitness level. That night they had two private conversations with a couple of the climbers and told them they would not be joining us the following day for our summit attempt. They didn’t meet the fitness requirements. They did it discretely so not to embarrass anyone. Lucky for them they were a couple more climbers the next morning that didn’t want to even attempt the climb in the conditions we had making it difficult to know who didn’t make the cut vs. those just not willing to endure the poor climbing conditions.
The first night at Camp Muir (high camp) we had a quick bite of whatever dinner we brought up with us. I had freeze dried teriyaki chicken. Not good…but it contained the calories needed. Food really loses it’s taste and enjoyment on the mountain and instead it becomes just fuel. During the climb you burn at least 200 calories per hour. After dinner we were told lights out at 530pm and instructed to get as much sleep as we can before our estimated midnight summit attempt. The departure time could fluctuate depending on the weather. I tossed and turned most of the evening and probably got a total of 2 hours of sleep. I used the restroom around 11pm and when I opened the door and was hit by snow and 50-60 mile per hour winds. I immediately knew that we might not even get a chance to climb at all. I tried to get back to bed and watched midnight come and go. I dosed off and woke up at around 130am when our guides woke everyone up to tell us that the weather is pretty poor but we’re going to give it a try. I was pretty excited to hear that we were going to still try to summit but also a little nervous of the conditions we would have to climb in. The first time attempting any type of technical climb you want optimal conditions. Even then, the lack of experience makes me a bit uneasy.
I was getting dressed, double checking my equipment and I made small talk with one of the other climbers that was attempting his 4th Rainier summit without success. What he told me made me a bit more nervous about what were about to do. He said he’s been on this mountain in weather not even as bad as this and didn’t summit. So he decided not to even leave high camp. At that moment I began to question the entire climb. Then I looked around and everyone but 2 other climbers were getting ready. So I shook off the negative thoughts and geared up. We started lacing up our crampons and getting our ice axes in hand. The guides gathered us up one more time for some additional direction. They told us they would take us as far as safely possible. They were hoping that we would climb above the weather at some point. They said anyone not feeling 100% or having second thoughts should not leave Camp Muir. They did one more gear check and emphasized the seriousness of the next 14 hours as we made our way out of camp. The rules were simple, let the guides know if we weren’t feeling well or if there was any issue whatsoever. They would do “well checks” at every break and they will let us know what our expected energy level should be at. With the conditions we were climbing in, if we weren’t at the appropriate guide designated energy level were instructed it was critical that we let them know and they would have one of the guides take us back down. They emphasized that under no circumstances would we stop between breaks during the climb. The weather was too iffy and stopping during the climb in between breaks increases some of the inherent climbing risks. They did not want to stop between breaks for any reason. They instructed us if you commit to making it to the next break on the mountain we must have the energy to get to the next stop which was usually about 60-90 minutes apart but with the elements could be 90+ minutes.
With that pep talk we started our climb. We were now down to 16 climbers. We turned on our head lamps and walked out the door at 230am. Crossing the Cowlitz Glazier, we couldn’t see much with the blowing snow. Which in some ways made the climb easier. It helped me concentrate on the foot print in front of me. There were 4 people on my rope team including our guide Nick Hunt. I was in the 3rd position. After about 90 minutes we reached our first break. On the side of the mountain, I kicked in a place to anchor my crampons and sat on my backpack. I took my parka out and put it on. Even though it was well below zero with dangerous wind chills I was still sweating a little. Crazy I know. It’s critical we put on our parkas on at every stop to stay warm. Even though I was pretty hot I quickly found out I can go from sweating to freezing in seconds. During our first break I took off my gloves to get my food and water. In less than a minute my hands were frozen. Literally. Total rookie mistake. It took me at least 20 minutes to warm them back up.
The guides start making their way around their rope teams doing a well check. Everyone, I’m assuming, was second guessing things a bit. We were all very cold and what seemed like a fun climb when we signed up months earlier took on an whole new meaning. We lost 4 more climbers during that 1st break. One from my rope team. As I watched this large group of climbers getting roped up with a guide to head back and the guides stressed if there is anyone else that isn’t feeling 100% they should turn around now. I was 5 minutes into trying to warm my frozen hands and I was concerned. The seriousness of their words made me think that I should consider going back. I thought to myself, “what if I can’t warm my hands up and hold my ice axe or rope?” Not good, but I had a feeling that if I continue to move my hands around things would warm up quickly. Thank goodness I was right…
We took off for the summit again. I’m guessing it was around 4am and believe it or not I looked up and saw some stars. The wind was blowing so hard that it seemed like we were still in the middle of a blizzard but I was optimistic the weather would turn for the better. First the clear skies then the wind relief. That’s what I told myself. We climbed through “Gap” next. You can’t see much of anything, which in my opinion is a good thing. I have plenty to think about without looking down at the dangers and playing out in my head what a fall would mean at this moment. The next section was more steep terrain and snow. The snow drifts were very tiring but I still felt pretty good physically. We were trained to take these really deep “pressure” breaths and they helped a lot when I found myself need some extra oxygen. Which was often. At this point my rope team was the 2nd in line and we were at a really steep section when Nick stopped us and got on his radio. The 4th rope team behind us was having a problem. One of the climbers from San Francisco was having some altitude problems and also dropped his goggles. When you drop something on the mountain you don’t get a 2nd chance to pick them up. They are gone. And if it’s something like a water bottle or something heavy it can seriously injure someone below. At this point Nick was very upset with our other guide. He instructed the other junior guide to come up the trail to him. He yelled into the radio, “we shouldn’t be stopping here. We must make these calls before or after break.” Then to ensure she and her rope team understood he angrily said it again when she got her team up to him, “We must make these calls before or after our breaks. Never ever between them.” She was clearly annoyed with the climber because she told Nick that the climber said he was fine during break. Then one last time he reminded everyone. He then spent about 5 minutes rearranging the rope teams and instructed the junior guide and her climber to turn around. I later found out that losing one guide for only one climber is not ideal in any conditions, let alone what we were climbing in. As we stood there waiting for the climbing teams to get rearranged we all started to get pretty cold. However, I really didn’t mind, it was nice to get a little extra time to catch my breath. One thing I learned on this trip and being introduced to rope travel is that the guides lead the rope teams and pick the pace based on many factors including terrain and potential hazards. Sometimes that pace can feel like a slow jog and when you’re tied to people in front of you and behind you there isn’t an option to stop and rest. Nick was also very clear that if he started to feel consistent “water skiing” he would turn us around. Water skiing is when you’re struggling to keep up with the pace and the climber in front of you on the rope team is always pulling you up the mountain. We are working hard enough that no one can afford to pull someone else up the mountain too. Plus, it’s a constant fitness test for the guides to judge how their team is doing physically. The rope doesn’t lie…
Finally, we got to the base of the most technically challenging part of the mountain. It’s also the most physically demanding section of the climb. Disappointment Cleaver. At break we did the same thing as every other break, (minus taking off my gloves) sat on my pack, got out my parka, water and food. Got my 200 calories in and made sure my layers were correct. Again I went from sweating to shivering in a couple seconds. Nick did a wellness check and to be honest I started to lose track of people that turned around. I think we were down to 10 or so climbers after that break. It was interesting because our guide asked us if we were ok but didn’t stress turning around like he did at the previous 2 breaks. I’m guessing it was a combination that he knew that the 3 of us still on our rope team were keeping pace and he didn’t want to talk anyone out of continuing because they were down a guide. But that’s just a guess. So sitting at the base of the Cleaver we couldn’t see anything. Which again was probably a good thing. I’ve heard stories and have seen pictures. It looks way more challenging than anything a guy from Minnesota should be doing.
After about 15 minutes we were starting our assent of Disappointment Cleaver. It was straight up at a 45-degree slope. We were the 2nd rope team behind Brent’s team and about 20 minutes into the assent Brent’s team slowed at a less steep part of the Cleaver and asked Nick how his team was going. He replied, “they’re strong!” Nice compliment at 12,000 feet. He asked Nick if we wanted to take the lead. Nick of course didn’t even answer him he just turned to all of us short roped in and said we would be “cutting trail” on the Cleaver. I said great and had no idea what that meant. I soon found out. Brent Okita has summited Rainier 500+ times and will soon hold the world record. He’s climbed Everest and was also part of the search team looking for George Mallory’s body on Everest. He is one of the most accomplished climbers in the world. He was the most experienced guide and he was supposed to cut trail up the cleaver. But he had some struggling climbers on his team and thought he should fall back. So then Nick, equally talented guide, and our team took over. Now I had only 2 sets of footprints in the snow to follow. Without those well-defined foot prints the climb gets a lot more difficult. Normally the Cleaver is almost all rock and scree with very little snow if any. This can offer challenges in crampons. Nick told us during our pre climb meeting that the conditions might actually make the Cleaver a little easier. While cutting trail as the first rope team up the cleaver we found out that we had so much snow accumulation that yes the snow gave us better footing but it also created 2 foot drifts in some areas. When you’re cutting trail these drifts are really taxing. It also makes the climb much slower. After what honestly felt like 2 hours, it certainly might have been that long, we reached the top of Disappointment Cleaver. I felt like I had summited the mountain. With very little technical climbing experience this was by far the most demanding climbing activity I’ve ever done. I honestly felt at one point, how much harder could Everest. I know…that’s pushing it. But at that moment, the wind blowing 40-50 mph, snow flying and we are breaking trail for the other climbers it felt like there couldn’t be anything more challenging that this in the world.
Right as we started walking off the top of Disappointment Cleaver and onto a small flattish spot to take break the sun started to come up and the clouds started to break. The wind hadn’t let up at all but it looked like the worst of the weather might be behind us. Because we were the first rope to team up the 4 of us were already into our parkas when the 2nd and 3rd rope team made it up. We were nearing the end of the break when Brent got everyone’s attention. At that moment I could tell what was about to happen. Considering Nick hadn’t done a wellness check and was just coming back from a quick meeting with the other guides. Brent told us all that unfortunately this was going to be our High Point on this trip. We wouldn’t go any high. Even though we were only 1800 vertical feet from the summit the top portion of the mountain is even more exposed than the cleaver and the weather hadn’t turned enough. The wind was still as bad as ever and if we keep going he thinks the risks will be too great. I looked at that sun and little bit of blue sky and thought, “but it’s just wind.”
We were all disappointed but no one objected. We were all pretty tired and very cold. When you’re that uncomfortable it’s easy to go along with the experts without objection. I would be lying if there wasn’t a sense of relief there too. I know I would have kept going and I’m confident I would have summited, God willing, but I was a little concerned about coming back down what we just went up. If I was twice as tired as I am now and if the weather doesn’t turn around it really could be more risk than there should be. I want to be clear even though there are times of concern and times when I was a bit scared our guides with RMI were always ensuring we were safe. I tried to keep that in mind every time I grabbed a hand rope and had to climb past a sheer cliff or step over an endless crevasse. They did a good job taking care of us. One of them said, “it’s your choice to climb with us but it’s mandatory for you to come down the mountain.”
Brent explained that we should all be proud of getting to the top of the cleaver and he acknowledged that there is Disappointment there too. He emphasized that safety comes first and we can’t go any higher without sacrificing some of that safety. He told us to enjoy the break in the clouds, fuel up and we would be heading back in 15 minutes. Nick came back to our rope team and gave us all high fives for “crushing the cleaver.” I don’t know if we crushed it but he helped us understand how important the first team up the cleaver is in that much snow. It’s a big deal. We talked more about its significance during our post climb meeting. Now that I understand what that means I will tell you I’m as proud of that as I think I would be of submitting the mountain.
Then we started our descent. The sun was coming up and it warmed the air a bit. I’m guessing it was still below zero but just a little warmer now. The wind didn’t let up but the sun still helped. The sun also revealed everything we just climbed through. Every steep cliff, endless crevasse and overhead ice fall. I think I prefer climbing in the dark. Ignorance is bliss. Climbing down past all of these dangers made me thankful I was tethered to our guide and 2 other climbers doing whatever that guide tells us. I’m pretty sure if Nick told us to jump off a cliff because it’s the fastest way down the mountain I might have done it. As I stepped past one really hairy section of the Cleaver I thought to myself I’m really glad I’m not climbing down by myself. Not just because the rope protects everyone if there is a fall but because if I wasn’t roped to everyone else I might not walk along that edge or step over that crevasse. On the rope you just do it. Without much thought. I’m pretty sure without the rope I would have questioned some part of the climb along the way. Which would create dangers and other issues for the whole team.
Finally, after hours of descending we reached Camp Muir. Right next to our Bunkhouse at high camp there were about 10 tents with climbers just getting ready to start climbing. After we past the tents Nick told us that they were from the other guide service and they didn’t even leave their tents. They were preparing to go down the mountain. I thought how disappointed they all must have been not to even have tried. The weather kept every single other climber off the mountain that day. I’m not sure how many days a year there are only 3 rope teams that make it past Disappointment Cleaver. But on a Friday in August I can’t imagine there are many…if any.
As we walked up to the bunkhouse we saw the rest of the climbers and guides. I couldn’t believe how many there were. I didn’t realize we had lost so many along the way. But it was great to see them all again and they welcomed us back like we had conquered the summit. They all spent the day napping and telling stories. I was a little jealous and it reminded me of how tired I was. We then shared our war stories and all that we experienced. We were also sensitive not make anyone feel like they failed that day by turning around. Everyone had their reasons and they were all the right reasons to come down. A successful climb is a safe climb. The mountain isn’t going anywhere and we can always try to climb it another day. I’ve heard this anecdotally but until facing it I didn’t really understand what it meant. Mountaineering has inherent risk but those risks can be contained. It’s impossible to avoid all risk but there is a line that you can’t cross and RMI did a great job to ensure we don’t overstep that line of risk.
The mountain didn’t want to be climbed that day but we experienced its power and learned a lot about climbing big mountains. We respected our guides decision and also learned first-hand what is meant by “Respect the Mountain.”
I climb for my son Madden. He has Angelman Syndrome and every step I take is for him. I climbed Kilimanjaro for him and I tried to climb Mount Rainier for him. He struggles every day to do things we all take for granted. I try to honor him by struggling through things that most people don’t want to do in the first place. Being at high altitude and sacrificing all the comforts of home is something most people don’t want to do. I get it. I question my motives every single time I’m reminded of how hard this sport is but Madden never gives up and neither will Madden’s Crew. Climbing requires commitment, sacrifice and most importantly determination to make it to the top of the mountain. Regardless of how challenging that might be. That’s my son in a nutshell. He climbs a mountain every day and if I’m lucky, with the support of my wife, I get the opportunity to feel what that’s like a couple times a year. This expedition was a good reminder that even with all of the right training, gear, and determination there are forces out of our control that can keep us from hitting our goal but it doesn’t keep us from trying again until we reach the Summit.
To learn more about Angelman Syndrome and my son Madden please visit Summit4Angelman.com