Story captured by Anita Gray
Our women's team headed up Rainier's Emmons Glacier on July 21-22. The week before the climb was a little bumpy. Despite a beautiful weather forecast, there were a couple of reports about rapidly deteriorating conditions on the Emmons route. Late season conditions arrived a little earlier than usual this year, and crevasses were open with weakening snow bridges. A friend recently reported one of their climbers punching through a snow bridge just outside of Camp Schurman. So, we discussed our options: is the Emmons within the team’s ability and comfort level? Do switch over to the DC and hope that we can get permits last minute? Do we postpone and try for the DC later? Do we bail? Or do we go ahead with the Emmons, which will have a potentially high probability of a turnaround?
We met for a pre-climb meeting the Thursday prior to the climb for an in-person discussion and decided to go with our original plan. Forrest ended up needed to join this climb as team-lead, turning it into a mostly women’s climb. He did bring a dress, and became an honorary woman for the weekend!
Our team of five met (Anita, Christina, Kara, Eve and Forrest) at 7:30 am at the Ranger Station on Saturday morning, where Anita arrived laden with banana bread for everyone. Forrest made coffee for the group while waiting in line waiting to secure an overnight permit, and by 9 am, the group was heading out on the Glacier Basin Trail.
By the time we hit the Interglacier, I (Anita!) was hitting my stride and only suffering from the sweltering heat of the day. We put on crampons and headed up in a much more direct route than I had taken previously – luckily there was more of a boot-made staircase this time around, which makes steep ascents on snow much smoother.
Steamboat Prow crept closer, the last 30 minutes or so of that long steep trudge was a challenge, and I was very thankful to finally sit and take a break and eat some food. We were making good progress time-wise, we were just now going to need to rope up for the final hour’s glacier crossing up to camp.
The crevasses were wide and open and Eve (with whom I was on a two-person rope team) applied her climbing experience to route finding our way up, over and around the gaping holes in the snow. By the end of this climb, I was getting used to stepping over these wide cracks that led to deep dark blue ice of unknown depth.
We arrived into camp six hours after starting out, and discovered that we needed to barter some gear for a fuel canister. It turned out our supposed ‘full’ fuel canister was in fact rather low. After making camp, we ate dinner and tried to get in what sleep we could.
All too soon the alarm was sounding, and adrenaline took over. I packed my gel shots loaded with caffeine that I knew I’d need (thank you Eve!) and warm layers including my summit jacket that only gets used on climbs like this. Gaiters, crampons, ice axe, helmet and headlight on.
Ok…deep breath…here we go.
The next few hours were kind of a blur. We were keeping a quite brisk pace up solid snow that had a steep incline to it such that you often had to duck or French step with the points of your crampons to ascend. We would stop every 90 minutes or so to drink fluid and take in snacks. Christina would take a power nap. I would just keep the thought patterns in my head spinning in a positive direction as best I could. I felt strong, but the mental fears of needing to turn around perhaps, again, kept creeping into my consciousness.
We deliberately slowed our pace when we realized we would top out before sunrise if we kept going the way we were. The trail edged up, relentlessly. I was breathing hard, wondering just how much longer this steep gradient was going to last.
That’s when Forrest announced that things were “about to get steep” as we hit the section of the trail that was the ranger re-route. “What?! Steeper than it’s already been?” It involved a far-left traverse followed by a far-right traverse to reconnect with where the original trail goes to the summit more directly.
Every time we got to a section of the re-route that a stumble/fall could produce a team pulled off the mountain scenario, Forrest would place a picket and a running belay as we moved through. One section was quite a vertical climb of snow with steps kicked in nicely. This sort of turned a corner and it felt like we were finally within an hour or so of the summit.
I started to get excited. The sky was glowing amber as the sun rose and there is that wonderful and albeit surreal visual of the stream of people with headlamps in front of you getting ever lighter with each passing minute – and it is just so beautiful it takes one’s breath away. I had a feeling that we were going to make it!
The final push to the summit presented a challenge to me that I could not have imagined. Penitentes. These are extremely sharp snow formations that stick up like thousands of ice picks. That last section required us to walk on top of these Penitentes and it was by far, the toughest physical and mental challenge of the ascent so far. Each step, your body weight was only distributed through about 10% of your foot as you had to balance precariously with your crampons.
I cursed those penitentes of death under my breath (and out loud) the whole rest of the way which seemed like the longest hour of my life. We finally got to a rocky scree slope that Forrest told me led all the way to the summit. This was where we could remove our crampons and head up without packs.
Then the summit of Columbia crest was in sight! The air was thin, my heart was beating out of my chest. I was the last one to clamber up and when I finally stood on the summit, I became overwhelmed with emotion.
Disbelief, pride, exhaustion, accomplishment, a sense of “Finally! I have made it!” 8 years after my first attempt – I was finally atop Rainier.
Most of all – I had this overwhelming relief that I would never have to put myself through this again. Ever!!!!
We took our obligatory summit photos and posed with the Peaks of Life Banner. I cried tears of joy and took a video expressing my gratitude to Forrest and Eve for their help getting to the top of this monster of a mountain, unfortunately, the playback is almost inaudible due to the wind howling. All you can see is my facial expression and tears – and that will be enough when I look back on it in years to come. We were the only ones out on Columbia Crest at that time – 8.5 hours from when we had left camp the night before. We later learned that the DC route was out and that was why we were lucky enough not to have to share our photo spot with a large group of other climbers.
By 8 am we began our descent, and it was a long, long slog down the steep snow back to camp. This time, however, we could actually see what we had walked up during that long cold night. We ended up accidentally going off route, which turned out to be a short cut and basically eliminated about an hour of extra traversing. Unfortunately, this also meant that Forrest had to run up ~1500 ft to retrieve our snow pickets, which we had left for other teams to use.
We ended up fully plunge stepping through the soft snow down the final stretch to camp, where we packed up camp and re-roped up to head down the Emmons over to Steamboat Prow. Everybody got off the rope at this point and it was each man for himself.
The team glissaded down some chutes on the Interglacier, and then began the painful trudge back to the cars. The team made it out by 7:30 PM, and headed to Enumclaw for some much-deserved burgers.
We had done it. We had gotten to the summit of Mt Rainier. Though I still couldn’t feel my feet, I fell asleep with a big grin on my face.