We were making our way up the steepest part of the Disappointment Clever Route when the worst gear issue possible went wrong; my crampon strap broke. See, had it been 15 minutes before or 15 minutes afterward on a more standard incline, that wouldn’t have been a big deal. But it did. In the middle of the night (morning?) climbing/crawling up the side of a cliff. So close to one another that our faces smashed into the butt of the person in front of us. At a 45-degree angle in the middle of the nearly 1/2 mile (what felt like) vertical climb. And that made it a big deal. In fact, the trail is so narrow and dangerous, the guide couldn’t even come back and help me strap it on again.
Being my first ever glacial climb, an INSANE amount of thoughts were flashing through my head as fast as I could process them. Picture this: You’re standing on one very shaky foot and leg. You’re on the steepest incline you’ve ever stood, snow blowing sideways with a 40 mph wind, pitch black pierced with blinding headlamps, negative 20 degrees and everything/one has stopped. The one thing they tell you NOT TO DO before you start is “DO NOT STOP ON THE CLEAVER.” Yea, no SHIT! Everyone else was starting to get a little panicky as well because they were obviously becoming exhausted/scared as well. I was scared shitless. Can’t go up, can’t go down. Can’t fix my strap. Standing on one leg that’s now violently shaking. What now? Stop. Breathe. Stay calm and fix it. I may have some of these details wrong, but thank god my buddy John Rahiya was below me to help secure the strap and get everyone moving back in the right direction. After climbing, slipping, and crawling up an ICED-OVER LEDGE that had no bottom, just blackness, I was finally able to use BOTH feet, which is a lot better than one foot. I came out of redline panic mode and focused on one step at a time.
I chose the title for this post because this climb, and everything that went with it, was a catalyst to my doing pretty much every cool thing I’ve done since. I wasn’t in that good of shape before climbing it, I had never done anything this extreme and was jumping into something I had ZERO experience in or real knowledge of. I asked my buddy, and we signed up… Then I read all the small print. I’m not going to get too technical here, but research (a lot of it) says that experiences like this (and especially my scare) can rewire your brain in a very positive way. Here’s a simple Forbes Article about travel. By doing new things, meeting new people, learning, living and merely reading about them, you strengthen your mind, body, and spirit. The biggest piece for me was reinventing myself. I all of a sudden became a guy who climbed a mountain… think about that. That led to my first sprint triathlon! SO GO AND DO SOMETHING NEW THIS WEEK… Alright, back to the mountain!
There’s a reason that Mt. Rainier got its reputation as the toughest mountain on the Continental US. It starts low, ends high and has technical glacial aspects that require training or a guide service. We started out at near sea level at the RMI HQ; it’s on the coastal side of Washington state. Aside- RMI is my first and only experience with a guide service. I’m sure there are more great ones, but they were fantastic! Would highly recommend! We took a bus the first morning from RMI HQ to the Paradise Park Rangers Station at roughly 5,000 ft. From there, you climb ~5.2 miles and 5,000 vertical feet to Panorama Point and then through the Muir Ice Field to Camp Muir. We spent the night in the small camp hut, and I think I slept about 45 minutes due to the excitement and the fact that 15 strangers were sleeping all sleeping so closely we were touching each other! An experience to say the least.
From there, we started out at 2am and climbed through the pitch black dark through the upper Cowlitz and scramble the Cathedral Rocks Ridge to gain access to the Ingraham Glacier (10,500 ft). We then crossed the glacier known as Ingraham Flats and went over a couple of ladders over the melted out crevasses to the base of Disappointment Cleaver. We had to make this part, again in the dark, looking down to our right into the black abyss, as quickly as possible due to the overhanging seracs. We then “climbed” to the top of the Cleaver where my meltdown above occurred. Once we were above that, we switchbacked until we crested the crater about an hour later. It was a surreal feeling coming over the crater’s edge. The thoughts about yourself and the accomplishment first, but then, and more importantly to me, the people that came before me. The first person to climb this mountain must have been one bad dude. And all the people thereafter. How many of their lives were changed for the better? How about the people that didn’t make it or died on an attempt? Gratitude, a massive amount of gratitude is what I felt.
The descent, which was an entirely different monster, was something I was totally not prepared for. I later learned that most accidents on mountains actually happen during descent. This is due to several factors including foot slippage, exhaustion, paying less attention, moving too quickly or like we experienced, changing weather conditions. About an hour into the descent, we got hit with a whiteout. And by white-out, I meant COMPLETELY WHITED OUT. The only thing I could see, when I could actually see, was about 6″ of the team rope in my hand. I couldn’t even see my feet. And while physically, I was in decent shape after my previous debacle, I was again, starting to have some pretty scary thoughts. One trip, slip, or misstep could send me and probably the rest of my team flying down a mountain! It took us about an hour and a half to get below is an open our vision again. The traverse down the Disappointment Clever shook me again as I realized just how dangerous this section was. But I loved the fact that I had to face that fear again. I did it, I completed it, no issues.
The second issue I had was my feet. Banging your toes into the front of your hard plastic boots (you’ve worn ski boots before, right?) for 5-6 hours causes some rough looking feet to emerge. I was missing a few toenails, the rest were bloody or bruised, and I may have had a broken toe or two. Regardless, I wouldn’t change the way it happened to me and I am fired up to try it again!
The next climb I want to make later this year or earlier next year. Mt. Kilimanjaro, The Mexican Volcanos or Aconcagua. Who’s with me? Please shoot me a message if you’re interested! GET OUT AND DO SOMETHING AWESOME!