Mount Rainier (14,411′)

I suppose turning back 300m from the summit due to 70 km/hr winds and -25 degree temperatures is an honourable way to retreat, but it was pretty heartbreaking. Mount Rainier showed its uglier side to us despite the incredibly beautiful highway of ice we were walking on. Still, the 14,411′ peak has its share of dangers and challenges and isn’t a place to fool around. Not when your lips are purple, your water tube is frozen shut and the only food you can bear to eat are Dora the Explorer fruit chews.

Two members of the group managed to fight the winds and cold temperatures to the summit, finding shelter in the crater at the top among vents that gave them the same feeling as those fancy seat warmers my parents have in their cars. The rest of us retreated back to Camp Schurman, where the winds were almost just as strong but warm sleeping bags and comfy thermarests awaited us.

The ridge overlooking Little Tahoma and the sea of ice below.

The adventure started at 8:30 in the morning on September 3rd when we departed for the hike and glacier walk  up to Camp Schurman. This was terrain we were used to, having come from the Canadian Rockies, but more deciduous trees lining the trail made things a bit different. Eventually we crested the moraine to access the Interglacier, which gave us a highway all the way to another ridge overlooking the sea of ice that cascades down Mount Rainier and its neighbour, Little Tahoma.

Camp Schurman

The Emmons glacier led us to Camp Schurman, where we arrived around 4:30 pm and quickly downed a Backpacker’s Pantry. An early night gave us a few zzzs before our midnight alarm went off, beckoning us to get geared up and on the glacier. We woke up to gusty winds, which didn’t subside until we reached the valley below 20 hours later.

We hiked up the glacier through the night, crossing over small crevasses and past large chunks of ice that looked like small houses by the light of our headlamps. And the winds only got stronger and colder as we ascended. I waited for the sunrise for what felt like an eternity. When it did finally come up, I seemed to enjoy basking in the warmth more than the incredible colours rising above the clouds below us. At some point, I turned back to see the views, but in my state of exhaustion hardly registered the incredible sight. With my camera put away until our descent a few hours later, I tried to take a mental picture before it was too late. I was in the front of the pack and the string of five other people dotting the rope downslope looked otherworldly.

Little Tahoma rising from the clouds.

Eventually we were climbing in full daylight, high above the clouds that had gathered over Washington State. Six hours into the climb, the winds were gusting so hard I was literally getting blown off my feet. Thank goodness for crampons. Fingers frozen, I changed my ice axe from one hand to the other, bringing my fingers into the warmth of a fist for a few minutes before switching again. The winds blocked out all sound, which lead to a strange sense of isolation. At times I had to look behind me to see if Greg was still following ten metres behind me on the rope.

All of a sudden, I felt a tug around my waist. I braced for an arrest, thinking perhaps Greg or Paul had fallen. But when I turned around to look, they were simply signalling to me to pull over and seek shelter from the wind next to the wall of a serac just off the route. The whole team pulled over and as soon as we did, I started shaking and so did Rachel. She clumsily pulled out her Nalgene bottle and with a shaky hand unscrewed the lid only to find the surface of the water totally frozen over. It was nothing for the ice axe, though.

And this is where we turned around. Four of us walked down the three hours back to Camp Schurman while two ventured for the top. They arrived at the bivy a few hours after us and after a brief snooze amidst howling winds we all packed up and left, eager to escape the gusts. By late evening we were back at the parking lot, exhausted, elated and absolutely starving. A late night pizza never tasted so good.

Six people, all our gear and one Suburban = giant puzzle.

© Meghan J. Ward, 2010.

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