Scroll to the end of this blog entry for a video of Camp Shurman, a few of my photos and a link to Joe’s photos.
About 2 months ago Joe Heitzeberg called me up and asked if I wanted to climb Mt Rainier. I said yes (and gulped) and we both started fairly intense training immediately. We started hiking Mt Si (4 miles to summit, 8 miles round trip, 3000 ft elev gain) with a group of guys and Joe (being the smart one) started out carrying about 20 pounds on his back. I thought I’d give my knees a break and start off with no weight and gradually ratchet up the load.
About a month in we hiked up to Camp Muir on Rainier which is one of the base camps for summit attempts. I hiked up on skis and Joe carried a snowboard and we skied down which was unbelievably fun!! It was really hard work though and I think this trip gave our chances for the summit a huge boost.
Shortly after Muir we graduated to a hike called Mailbox (4000 ft elev gain and 3 miles to summit) which is a lot steeper than Mt Si. My knees were feeling much stronger and we were both feeling quite fit at this point. I was carrying around 20 pounds and I think Joe was up to about 40 pounds.
Last Thursday the 24th of July we drove out to Rainier for our summit attempt. (!!!) We spent the night at the White River camp ground. The next morning we were up at around 6am and after breakfast we were on the trail by 9am.
Our rope team was Tom Romary (very experienced and our fearless leader), Chris Rodde (experienced), Dan Pingree (experienced), Joe Heitzeberg (newbie) and me (newbie).
I put my pack on to start the hike and I couldn’t believe how heavy it was. I instantly regretted not training with more weight. My pack weighed around 60 pounds.
The trail from the white river camp ground was blown out by a major flood, so some of it was clambering over river boulders and tree trunks. We hit glacier basin and stopped for a snack. I was doing the approach hike in my (new) ice climbing boots and they had already started eating away at my heels. Chris was kind enough to give me some mole skin to put on my heels and that helped for a short while.
After our brief stop we started hiking up a gravel moraine that runs alongside the white river and started gaining some elevation hiking on the gravel ridge. My heels were at this point killing me. It was a combination of new boots and not training with a full pack to condition my feet and build up callouses. I had a conversation with Tom about actually bailing out at this point. We were just a couple of hours into the hike and at this rate my heels would be worn down to bone by the summit. Tom in his experience suggested I wait until we hit the snowfield to make the call because ice boots generally perform better on snow and Chris and Dan said my heels would go numb.
So we trekked on and hit the snow field a few minutes later and Tom was right. My boots almost instantly improved and I was good to go.
As we hit the snow field at the bast of the Inter Glacier we roped up so we could start practicing working as a team. I started seeing some black ice and then later our first crevasses which was a real thrill.
The hike up to Camp Shurman was a long one and as we gained altitude I started rest-stepping and pressure breathing which (when I remembered to do it) worked great to increase my endurance.
As we were arriving at Camp Shurman there was a thin path leading into camp with a slope on the right side and a crevasse at the end of the slope (about 30 feet from the path). I tripped and fell and started sliding down the slope. I self arrested immediately. The rest of the guys probably just saw it as a quick fall and recovery – but that was a real adrenaline shot for me and I think it built my confidence too with the knowledge that I now knew how to self arrest in a scary situation.
The hike from the White River camp ground to Camp Sherman took around 7 hours.
At Camp Sherman we pitched our tents – Tom pitched his rather luxurious North Face three man and Joe and I pitched our 2 man bibbler rental that would fit quite comfortably on a narrow ledge with room to spare. (It was light though – thankfully because I carried it up)
We hit he sack at around 7pm and planned to wake up at 11:30pm for our summit attempt. I woke up at about 10pm and lay there staring at the stars through the tent thinking about the hike ahead. I saw a shooting star and wished for the obvious – a safe and successful summit attempt.
Tom came around at 11:30 and got us on our feet.
We put our crampons on, donned our helmets, grabbed our ice axes, strapped on our much lighter packs (we were carrying warm clothes, water and a few snacks – about 15 pounds total), and tied in to our positions on the rope. Tom was leading and I was second (newbie position).
As we started up the mountain I felt awesome. We were hiking under a beautiful moon-rise and could see the Seattle city lights in the distance. We immediately started crossing a few big crevasses and the combination of hiking at night and seeing big 50ft+ holes in the ice really got my adrenaline going.
The first part of the hike out of Camp Sherman was fairly easy and I thought to myself: “Self, if we keep up this pace and this gradient, it’s going to be a walk in the park”
Ahem. About an hour into the hike the gradient increased from about a 15 degree slope to about 30 degrees. That, combined with a rapid gain in altitude, and I started feeling really bad.
At this point in my narrative, any members of my rope team reading this are wondering how much detail I’m going to go into in my retelling of our little story. Part of the reason I was feeling really really bad was because I REALLY had to go. So I had a brief discussion with our team leader, decided I’d rather have cover of darkness to do the deed, and pulled off to the side of the path on a 30 degree slope. I dug a makeshift toilet seat with the adze of my ice axe and sat and contemplated life, the universe and the beautiful seattle city lights from my lofty throne – while another rope team hiked past us just 5 feet away from me.
You have to give the other four guys on my team credit for their patience and good nature.
…and yes, a freshly carved out snow block the size of your fist feels a little different from the soft and luxurious paper at home.
We continued hiking.
We watched a beautiful sunrise and kept on our path to the summit. As we gained altitude I started feeling nauseous. I tried walking slower and pressure breathing and nothing helped. I asked Tom to hold up, sat down and puked – over and over and over. Until there was nothing left in my stomach. I instantly felt better and told Tom “lets go”. I think at that point I knew I was going to make the summit.
Tom, in his experience, kept bugging me to eat Gu or a Cliff bar or something and eventually I managed to force down some Gu. Later he kept bugging me again and I forced down another packet. Getting that crap down my throat and Tom’s encouragement are probably the two main reasons I made it.
The rest of the journey to the top was slow rest stepping and lots of water breaks. As we approached the summit I felt tired, but better. My head started clearing, the nausea was completely gone and it was just patience and distance in front of us.
Eventually we crossed from the snow onto a gravel area where everyone was gathered. Joe and I thought we were a few feet from the summit but then realized that we had to hike another half mile up a gravel hill, down through a snow field saddle and up to the main summit covered in snow. Once there it was awesome. We were looking down into Rainiers crater and felt (and were) on top of the world.
We started our hike down at about 11am and were the last team to start the journey down from the summit. It was a hot sunny day and we realized we’d left it too late and the Emmonds glacier was now turning soft and dangerous in the heat of the day.
We agreed to travel as fast as we could down the mountain, but the path was slipery and Joe and I kept falling down, being less experienced at plunge stepping. Eventually we got the hang of it and were making good time. I remember the scariest moment being when we passed through a small field of giant Seracs with a soggy looking snow-bridge in their midst. One of the seracs actually creaked a greeting as we passed.
We made it down to Camp Sherman in about 4 hours, rested for a short while (caught a 10 minute nap) and headed down the Inter-Glacier. The trip down the Inter Glacier was awesome. We were glassading on these well used glassading paths that looked more like olympic luge runs. I think Joe broke the world glassade speed record while shooting up a huge rooster tail of snow heading down.
The hike from the Inter Glacier’s terminal morraine to the car park was unbelievably long and it even had Tom cursing the distance towards the end.
But we made it. Our total time from leaving the car park, to Camp Shurman, the summit, back to camp, down the Inter Glacier and back to the car park was 36 hours. During that time I lost 11 pounds (5 kilograms) of body weight and drank a total of 7 liters of water (almost 2 gallons).
Tips to remember if I do this again:
- Train with a full 60 pound pack hiking mailbox or another very steep 6+ mile hike
- Train at altitude above 10K ft for conditioning and to avoid AMS. (I said this after I hiked Kilimanjaro and I obviously didn’t remember my own advice). Hiking up to Camp Muir a few times would work – or even better, doing Pikes peak in CO.
- Wear off-road running shoes for the approach hike – even if they are extra weight to carry to base camp, they’ll save my feet a few inches of skin.
- Break in both my off-road running shoes AND ice climbing boots by hiking with a FULL 60 POUND PACK starting at least 1.5 months before the summit attempt. That way I’ll have plenty of time for the blisters to heal and callous.
- Carry a bladder with insulated tube instead of a water bottle because fishing out the water bottle from the side of my pack is a pain. Sipping from the tube is effortless – and staying hydrated is super important.
- Wash out new Nalgene bottles with copious amounts of water to get crappy nalgene chemical taste out – preferably run them through the dishwasher.
- Figure out how to lock the keypad of my Garmin Vista Cx GPS so that it doesn’t turn itself off and I lose my track.
- The Gu that Cliff Bar makes tastes like shit. And Cliff bars taste better than Gu but freeze about 2000 ft from the summit. They’re fine to get to base camp though.
Things that worked well:
- The crampons, 65 cm ice axe (I’m 6’1″), and helmets that REI in Seattle rent are awesome!
- The Bibler tent that I rented from Marmot in Bellevue was a little cramped, but very light and quick to set up which made it awesome!
- The two 1.5 liter nalgene bottles and 1 sports squeeze bottle of water (about 700ml) for a total of 3.5’ish liters of water for each leg were exactly the right amount.
- The Gregory Palisade 80 pack I used was the perfect size and very comfortable even with the 60+ pounds I was carrying.
- The 4 liter lightweight pot I used and MSR stove with 22 Oz fuel bottle was great for 5 guys. At base camp I threw a pack of 5 serving fast cooking pasta, drained the water, threw in 2 cans of chicken and the juice, and a pack of powdered chicken soup, stirred it up and viola! instant chicken noddle with sauce.
- Studying Freedom of The Hills (the bible) before we left was an excellent idea. Specifically the chapters on glacier travel and on knots. Knots I used were the double fishermans knot (to join a sling), figure eight on a bite (to create the tie in loop on the team rope), figure eight follow through (to tie one end of a rope to my harness), prussik knot (to attach my hand prusik and texas prusik’s to the team rope). Also knowing how to tie a texas prusik was helpful.
- Even though they ripped my heels up on the approach hike, the La Sportiva Nepal Evo’s that I was wearing are excellent ice boots once you’re on the snow. I recommend getting sole inserts and wearing liner socks with thick expedition hiking socks. Also carry mole-skin for blisters and if all else fails, duct tape your feet. (Thanks for the suggestion Eric from Marmot)
This video is a 360 view of Camp Shurman. The tiny yellow triangle at the beginning of the video is our two man tent. Panning left you’ll see tom’s yellow north face tent. The video does a 360 and then looks up towards the summit and down towards the rangers hut at the camp.
Looking from Camp Shurman up towards the summit of Mt Rainier (5000 vertical feet away) along the summit route we took, with our little Bibler tent in the foreground with Chris sitting outside the tent:
Looking back down the route we came to get to Camp Shurman:
The Rangers hut at Camp Shurman. Yes, those are pink flamingoes on his porch:
A closer shot of our bibler tent with Chris outside: