The thing about mountains is that they continue to be there, on the horizon. Two years ago I summited Rainier in a scary year with an amazing team. At the end, I was wrecked and exhausted and closer to tendonitis in both Achilles than I realized at the time. Earlier this year I sat next to Peter at dinner after a WAC class and he said, “I’m going back, and you should be on the trip.” “Ok.”
So I kicked in to action. I reached out to Audrey Sneizek and got a training plan that seemed much more possible before I started to travel for work. Still, I did my best. Sticking to her plan meant I ran at dawn in Sydney and watched the sun rise over the opera house. I took a train out of the city and did a bushwalk to the songs of birds that sounded like children crying. In Brazil, where I didn’t feel comfortable running alone, I skipped team dinners, found the gym, and put the treadmill up to its highest angle. I got very familiar with the stairs at Golden Gardens and I convinced any of my friends that wanted to climb at Exit 38 that we should go all the way up to Bob’s Spot and that I should carry all the gear. When my tendinitis flared up after climbing Kangaroo Temple I set up a PT appointment and worked with the great folks at Go PT to rebalance and strengthen. On Thursday, two days before leaving for Rainier, Andrew said, “You’re good to go, good luck, and if something happens we’ll put you back together.” I counted days and calories and put my food together. I was ready.
We start with two rope teams – 8 climbers in total. Peter, as always, will be in the lead, with Dana, Brandi, and Damon on his rope. Erin, Michael, Stephen and I are on the second team, with Erin in the lead. Out of our party, only Erin, Dana and Brandi haven’t summited. The guys (besides Peter) have all done guided trips up the DC, and everyone is excited to try the Emmons route. At White River Campground we check group gear and use Brandi’s pack scale to see what we carry, coming in around 50 lbs for most of us. The smoke from the BC fires keeps everything hazy and Peter starts us at a decent pace. We get to the campgrounds at Glacier Basin without incident. Past the campgrounds the trail opens in to sun drenched trails and it already feels different from two years ago. Hot but not sweltering. Completely possible.
As the trail drops down towards Interglacier the scent changes from dusty to floral, with small white streams dropping through verdant ground cover. Spikes of Indian paintbrush and lupine add bright color to the green. We stop at the edge of the snow and switch to boots, some folks stashing their approach shoes. On to the snow and up. I keep trying to place where we were compared to last time. At one point, as we take a break on a patch of rock, Peter looks down and finds a wand with his own name on it. The orange tape is sun bleached and we realize it must have been from two years ago, something we marked to show where to cut back to the trail. (Last time we returned via Mt Ruth and couldn’t come back for the wand). Peter puts the wand with the others in his pack and we keep going.
A little while later Peter asks how we were all doing and I think I must be confused—from what I remember, we are at our first camp. We are all fine, and he laughs. “Good, because we’re here!” he says. It is like I remembered, but not. The first camp at Interglacier is on a tongue of rock, but this year the area of rock is so much smaller. Two streams still run along the rocks, but above us is snow, not the ridge of dirt I remember. We set up camp, fill our water from the stream, and sit around talking and recreating our own version of the Happy People of Mountain House. Peter has cognac like last time, and I brought whiskey. We pass around both flasks and watch the sun start to set through the smoky haze. I sleep soundly, with the sound of the stream and Stephen’s light snoring for a soundtrack and the light wind bringing cool air into our tent.
In the morning we make breakfast and watch climbers descend from the ridge, rating the glissades like Olympic judges. We can see a few crevasses above us and make a note for our own descent a few days from now. Peter turns on one of the radios to see if we can reach some friends we know are on the DC route. “Peter to Rob, come in?” “Rob here!” Rob and his team have successfully summited and are heading back down. The joy in his voice is palpable and Peter keeps the radio on while I whoop in celebration. Rob and his team have also run into Max and Kayla, two other friends on the Emmons route. After their summit Max and Kayla are headed back down and we knew we’ll run in to them along our way. With so many friends on the mountain it feels almost festive. After breaking camp we rope up and put on crampons to head up to Camp Curtis and back down to Camp Schurman. Nearly at the ridge we pass a small patch of rock with camp spots and then climb on to the dirt and rock. Last time, this was all dirt and scree and we had to jump from unstable rock, over a moat and on to a crevasse filled glacier. This year the snow and ice meets the rock firmly. Below us, instead of blue and black ice, it is snow. I feel a little giddy. What a different year, what different conditions. What felt so impossible and scary then is so within reach now.
Max and Kayla are coming down from Camp Schurman as we head up the glacier. They stop briefly to talk to Peter and then continue moving. Kayla is first, followed by Max in a Hawaiian shirt, high fiving each of us as he passes. We get to camp without incident, set up our tents, and start to melt snow. With time to kill, we decide to head up a little way and do a z-pulley refresher. Erin’s team stays close to camp and Peter’s team travels up above Emmons flats. Afterwards we make dinner and talk about the climb. Our plan is to get up at 11 pm and leave around midnight. The smoke hangs low in the sky and hazes out much of the view, but it’s still beautiful. We prep our packs, put our headlamps on our helmets and turn in for whatever sleep we can get.
At 11 we all wake up without prodding. The moon is nearly full and the ice glows with its light. We make breakfast and warm water. I remember being silent and scared last time—this time I just feel excited. We are going. This is happening. As we get ourselves together two other teams leave camp. We can see their headlamps progressing up and up. We will gain the corridor and stop near the top for our first break, and then every hour or so after that. Peter and his team start out, followed by Erin and our team—with me in the back. I watch our team snake out across the ice, the moonlight on everything. Left foot, right foot. Here we go.
The first crevasse crossing is between Emmons flats and our camp, followed by a snow bridge that we step over instead of weight. As we pass the Emmons flats two more climbers are getting out of their tents and getting ready. Right past their camp is a large crevasse that takes me by surprise and I have to pause for a second before jumping. Michael, ahead of me, turns back. “Nice job, that was probably kind of far for you, huh?” he says. “Yup! Short legs!” I reply. But I am across it and it everything is ok and we keep going. The trail is well worn and almost a gully between the edges of snow cups. About an hour and twenty minutes in we take a break and let the team behind us pass. Under the moonlight the mountain looks like something extraterrestrial— peaks of sun cups glinting and seracs in the distance slightly more than a suggestion. It is beautiful. We keep going, the pace slowing down. Then I hear Erin on the radio. “Erin to Peter, when is our next break?” “5 to 10 minutes” “I’m having trouble breathing.” “We’ll stop now.”
When I get up to the group, Erin is sitting in a sun cup, covered in her puffy, completely silent. “Here’s the decision,” Peter says. “Erin needs to go down. We either all turn around or we divide and 5 people go up and two go down with Erin.” I sit for a moment. I feel strong, and I trained and I want to see what this mountain looks like on a decent year so badly. But it isn’t a question. “I summited already,” I say, “I’ll go down.” And after I’ve said it my stomach hurts with sadness but every part of me knows this is the right decision. I can’t imagine being Erin, feeling sick and knowing that instead of leading up the mountain, she’s coming back down with two other people who want to summit, and I want to do anything I can to bring her down safely. Everyone else sits quietly. It gets colder. “We need one more person to go down or we all go,” Peter says. Everyone wants to summit, no one wants to give up their spot. “Let’s pick randomly.” Peter picks a number and everyone except me calls out numbers until Brandi says “5” and that’s it, and she’s coming back down with us. We rearrange ropes. Erin short ropes in front of me and Brandi leads us down. I take the stove from Michael and hand my camera to Damon and we start descending.
Shortly after we start down we see two headlamps pointing our way. They’re moving down faster than us and we let them pass. The woman high fives Erin – they made it halfway up before she got sick and she and Erin are equally nauseous. Team vomit party. Brandi sets a great pace, moving as quickly as we can. We stop regularly so that Erin can dry heave into sun cups as the sun starts to rise. Dawn is beautiful and sad—with each step we are closer to camp Schurman and getting Erin into bed, but each step down is a step away from the summit we wanted. I check in with Peter as we descend—the summit team is doing well. As we get towards Emmons flats we have to jump back over the large crevasse again. In the early dawn light it yawns open and looks much larger. Brandi jumps it successfully and sets a picket to protect us. Erin takes a few starts before jumping and clears it easily. I’m nervous and it takes a few false starts before crossing. I try to high five Erin and she puts out her fist and then we switch and switch again and end up just sort of holding hands, laughing. I radio to Peter when we make it back to camp. Brandi and I make sure Erin is warm and has water and tea and a blue bag in case she needs to throw up. Brandi and I sit, looking up the mountain, and both cry a little, and then curl up back in our tents to nap. I radio back and forth with Peter a few more times, check in on Erin, and sleep on and off.
I wake up to hear Brandi and Erin talking with the other team that descended, Pam and Brad. Brandi has traded a burrito for anti-nausea medication and Erin is feeling slightly better. The five of us lounge near the ranger hut, stretching on the flat rocks. It turns out that their teammate fractured his ankle at the summit and a rescue helicopter will be coming in to bring him down. Pam and Brad both work for REI and we all chat easily, trading stories, talking about climbing, tossing sunblock back and forth. Brandi offers to help them break down their tents, Brad offers up his seat and no one takes it. I give Pam one of the chocolate mints I had for the summit. From where we are we watch our teams descend from the summit, checking in on the radio periodically.
Brandi starts melting water for our summit team as we can see them get closer to camp, and as they step off the snow they seem tired but happy. Brandi, Erin and I could be ready to hike out tonight, but it’s quickly obvious that the team that summited needs sleep. With fresh water they slowly disappear in to the tents. The three of us make dinner and as we’re eating everyone starts to wake back up. It’s getting dark when we go to bed, and we plan on being on the trail around 8 the next morning.
Erin still feels sick in the morning. It’s hot and the snow is already soft. We leave camp roped up and climb back to Camp Curtis where we unrope and prepare for glissading. We plunge step down below the crevasses we saw from our first camp and get ready to take the glissade chutes down. It’s a fast track and we go quickly enough that my watch beeps in warning from the quick change in elevation. At the edge of the glacier Erin tries to throw up again and we take her pack and distribute as much of her gear as we can without letting her stop us. Michael, Erin, Peter and I hang back and take it slowly while the others push ahead. Erin and I talk about the decision to she and Peter made to have her lead the climb on summit day. Given the circumstances, I would have made the same call. She tells me that the other option they discussed was for her to stay back at camp and to ask me to lead the team. At 11 pm, on summit day, I would have had to switch from sweep to lead. I can’t say with certainty that I would have agreed. While I’m sad about not summiting, I feel that we made the right decision at each point.
When we get to the cars Brandi hands us each a beer and squirrels jump in the cars and it’s hard to know how to celebrate a summit I didn’t actually achieve. Brandi wants to head home and I grab my gear from her car and pack it in to Peter’s with Dana and Erin. It feels like a road trip as we head to get food – we sing along to Johnny Cash and Beyoncé and Dana reads us facts about snow from Freedom of the Hills. When we get to Naches Tavern the guys are already there and have pitchers of water and beer waiting for us, with an order of fried pickles and nachos on the way. They talk about the climb and I pass around my camera for everyone to see how the summit shots turned out. After lunch we all walk across the street to Wapiti Woolies. We are sunburnt and a little giddy. Peter picks out hats for us and I buy postcards and the hat despite the 90 degree day. Everyone gets ice cream. We hug the guys in the other car and head back to Seattle.
Peter has now attempted Rainier 13 times and successfully summited 12 of those attempts. I’m 50/50 for attempt and success, and that’s ok. The work I put in doesn’t go away, and I am walking around this morning without pain in my Achilles or full body ache and exhaustion. Our entire team came down safely. I have a new hat and a secret awkward handshake and I’m curled up with the dogs, writing about a trip some people only get to imagine. I can try again, and I will.