Mt. Rainier is the home to American mountaineering, and the epicenter is Rainier Mountain Guides (RMI), an outfit started in 1951 by Lou Whittaker and his twin brother Jim. As a kid I had read about these guys, in National Geographic, recounting their first American climb of Everest in 1962, and subsequently guiding Bobby Kennedy up Mt. Kennedy in Alaska after the assassination of his brother. This spring I finally gave in to temptation, picked up the phone, and wrangled a couple of slots in their 3 day climb for my old friend Stan Spencer and me. I was psyched.
Mt. Rainier (Tahkoma)
Mt. Rainier is the highest mountain in the Cascades, and 82 feet short of the tallest in the lower 48, Mt. Whitney in California. The mountain was named by Captain George Vancouver for his boss, Admiral Peter Rainier in a classic suck-up maneuver of the truly obsequious. Rainier is a major composite volcano, with a typical mix of basalt, andesite and rhyolite rock. The mountain is only about 500,000years old, and lies within 30 miles of Mt. St. Helens, a very bad actor which exploded in 1980.
Rainier also catastrophically exploded about 5,000 years ago, losing about 2,000 feet of height in the process and releasing a wall of mud that made it to Tacoma, 50 miles away. Rainier has 35 named glaciers, and dozens of minor ice fields and snowfields. These glaciers are constantly in motion, with crevasses opening and closing all the time and major ice falls of serracs a daily occurrence. Like most major glaciated composite volcanoes, it is heavily scarred by faulting, explosions, differentiated rock types and glaciations forming a climber’s paradise. When it comes to climbing, geology is destiny.
RMI and Whittaker’s Bunkhouse
When it comes to RMI, think professional, very professional. The guides are young, bright and incredibly fit, with women making up about one third of the staff. Physical capabilities and injuries are the rate limiting factors for these folks, and few make it beyond ten years service. They are very poorly paid, and survive on tips and dumpster diving at Panera’s, if they don’t have a winter job. They revel in poverty and in the mountains. There are currently at least three Dartmouth grads in their ranks. Our guides were a fourth year medical student at Tufts, Kate, and a freshly minted college professor, Mike. These were some really talented, smart and personable folks. I can’t say enough good about them.
The facilities at Whittaker’s Bunkhouse were really old school, all wooden structures in various states of repair. The rooms in the bunkhouse run from $150 per night, to $35 per night for the real bunkhouse floor plan. We chose the $35 beds, in keeping with the theme of enjoyed poverty with the guides. The entire place had the juxtaposed smells of decaying and desiccated wood, typical of heated wooden structures in cool damp climates – I loved it.
The complex has about 20 building, two circular climbing walls with 6 routes each, and a bar and grill run by an incredibly muscular, middle aged Austrian rock climber named Erika. The place is festooned from end to end with some of the most interesting climbing gear and posters/maps from the Whittaker’s careers. Finally, they have some of the best ice cream in America. It is simply one of the most authentic and charming places I’ve ever visited.
Our group had 14 people in total, 9 were a bunch of business buddies from Fort Lauderdale (a noted climbing hot spot – but an engaging and funny bunch), one was a Cuban from Georgia that they invited at the last minute named, Juan, two were late in life refugees from the airline business, Roberta and Daryl, and us.
I’ll take a minute to re-introduce Stan Spencer. As I said in my day five blog from RTR,”… In terms of colorful characters today, I’m joined this evening by Stan Spencer, a friend since 4th grade, and a co-conspirator in most of the more colorful transgressions of my youth. Stan is self-described as “a fat, one-lunged diabetic”. Most of this is at least partly true. He is diabetic and lost half (not all) of a lung in a skiing accident in A Basin a few years ago. He is skinnier than me, and therefore not fat, at least on a relative basis. We compete, among other things, on the basis of excuses prior to any athletic undertaking.” I did not mention that Stan is a terrific mountaineer, and has climbed all over the world. This was Stan’s first trip to Rainier as well, and I wanted to see what he thought of this mountain relative to the others he’s climbed.
The climb starts with an approach hike from the National Park facilities at Paradise at about 4,500 feet, and goes up to Camp Muir at 10,300 feet. We did this with full weight expedition packs, and it takes the better part of a day. We hit the Muir snowfield at around 7,500 feet, and were on snow and ice the rest of the way. The snow was firm and crampons were not required. We hit camp Muir at about 3:00, and immediately went to work making dinner, as we were starting the climb at 1:00 the next morning following an 11:30 pm wakeup call.
Muir is absolutely delightful, although the accommodations were a bit sparse. There are 6-8 permanent building made of stone and wood, and 10 seasonal tents used by the other guide services. In the RMI shelter, there are beds slots for up to 18 on three triple level bunks which sleep 6 on sleeping pads. The snoring and flatulence provide a background noise as pleasant as the vuvuzelas at the World Cup; earplugs are mandatory, nose plugs recommended.
We had our first casualty, Carol, on the approach. She had real trouble with the approach, and bagged going any higher. One other member of our team, Daryl, had leg cramps, and what appeared to be a bad case of nerves. I had little faith we’d see him on top.
On our rope we had Mike, the guide, Stan, Juan and me. We left Camp Muir at 1:00, crossing the Cowlitz glacier and moving across a basalt dike to the “bowling alley” where 11 climbers were killed in a terrible accident in 1981 by falling ice from the Ingraham Glacier. Here we lost Daryl, and one guide, as Daryl decided he could go no further. As a bonus we got Daryl’s companion, Roberta added to our rope. If we lost any more climbers, we would all have to abandon the climb. Stan I made sure that all our teammates understood that if they had any worries at all, it would be best to retreat at that point with Daryl, because we were going to the top, come Hell or high water.
After a brief break, we moved up to the Disappointment Cleaver. A cleaver is a rock outcropping which separates two glaciers. This was a tough part of the climb, both steep and lots of loose rock and ice. From here to the top was pretty straight forward, with 6-8 crevasse crossings, which are usually more colorful than dangerous. The day before, however, a member of a rope team caught a crampon jumping across, and pulled the whole team in, killing one of four.
At this point, altitude and poor diet started to take its toll. There were ubiquitous headaches, some high altitude nausea, and one poor guy from Florida had terrible diarrhea. He had decided that a diet of dry fruit would provide all of the energy needed to make the summit. He failed to take into account that dried fruit is also a great laxative. On the mountain (outside of Muir Camp) there is a “blue bag policy” regarding human waste, requiring the provider of the waste to pack it out in triple sealed blue bags. This poor fellow seemed intent on filling up his pack with these blue bags.
We arrived on the summit at 7:00 am, and spent an hour, took a bunch of pictures, jumped around, sang a couple of songs, recited one or two inspirational poems, and generally tortured our teammates. It really was beautiful, and the attached photos don’t do the views justice, but I was glad that it was not 6,000 feet higher – the height of Denali.
The down climb to Muir was long, and everyone was tired and cranky. We short roped through the tough sections, and that made it tough for Juan and Roberta who were both really tired and a little unsteady. By this point, however, we had great sunlight and views and some great chances for photos.
The trip down from Muir to Paradise was a gas, with a lot of glissading – wet butts and big smiles. Post climb was a party at RMI, with pizza, beer and a visit by Lou Whittaker. He is really an engaging guy, and it was great to get a chance to meet a living legend. He bought a round for the house, which is a lot easier if you own the house. The guys from Florida were extremely expert in partying, and it went on long after we left, as we had a 3:00 am wakeup call to go to the airport.
Epilogue & Next
Stan rated this as a great mountain and a fun climb. He didn’t say so, but I know that he wished that the pace was faster and less variability in rope mates. I would not have wanted to see some of the folks in our group try to catch a fall.
We are off to the Salmon River for five days in August, and doing Mt. Whitney in September. Stay tuned for future postings. Please note that after a spring and summer of fun, I seem to be making some progress in getting a new company up and running – PCD Partners LLC. I have a large group of great partners who are counting on me showing the same diligence in getting this thing going that I have shown for outdoor fun of late. This will be a very busy month for PCD, and if things work out, my blogging career will be severely limited for the foreseeable future.