I will start at the end, or, the just-this-week. On Thursday I received an email from my mother. “There is often that hollow feeling left by a fulfilled goal,” she wrote. I feel anything but hollow.
I signed up for the WAC Basic class because I had to climb Mt Rainier. I hadn’t expected what I found there; the people, the skills, the joy. I was just doing something I was doing to be safer, to understand how to use an ice axe, to have a reason to buy crampons. As the course progressed I hadn’t forgotten about Rainier, but there was Baker, there were the Enchantments, there was Liberty Bell. There were so many things to do, so many people to climb with. When Peter emailed a list of us asking about Rainier, I said sure because that’s what you say when someone asks you if you want to do this thing you’ve been talking about. You agree, you sign up, you make your schedule work. I did this almost without contemplation. Almost.
This is a low snow year and a dry, hot summer. Rainier from Seattle looks barren and brown. Up close it is a mess of blue crevasses and broken snow fields. Worried, I emailed Peter. Will it still go? I wrote, thinking no, it won’t. This is not the year. It will go, he wrote back.
The last days of July found me running to REI one last time, grabbing more food from Second Ascent, and spreading out my gear in the living room. It will go, he said, so we will try. There are 10 of us, some on our first attempt, some with several summits under our feet. We have two teams of three and one of four and we distribute skill sets. Cy, Ira, Peter and Adam are our leaders. All but Ira have several summits beneath them, and several attempts. Roman is a late joiner and has also summited, but is newer to Peter. Then there are those of us who are more new to the mountain—Adam’s wife Suh, myself, Jodie and Angie. This is a big trip, and Peter has planned immaculately. When we meet a few days before departure he hands us pack lists and we fill out emergency contact sheets. He emails everyone our itinerary and backup plan. He lists elevations and distances, he tells everyone there is no cell services within two hours of the trailhead. We leave early on Saturday morning and drive towards the mountain.
Rainier is one of those ubiquitous Seattle sights that still manages to take me by surprise. On this morning it glows huge and luminous on the horizon as we leave the sparkling city. I have a moment of panic. I’m trying to stand on top of that thing? What am I thinking? It’s massive. Cy is driving and the car keeps hurtling along the highway, headed to White River.
We meet the other cars at the ranger station and Peter talks to the rangers while we fill out our climbing pass numbers and repeat our emergency contact information. They’ll have more information at Camp Schurman we are told. It’s cool with a tinge of heat and it’s clear that the coolness will burn off quickly. We park, distribute ropes and make sure we have the right number of stoves and fuel canisters and other group gear, and then hit the trail.
White River is beautiful. The trail snakes through the woods, following the river, and it is cool beneath the shade until we reach Glacier Basin Campground. This is the end of the “maintained” trail. The trees open and the sky bears down. It is hot. It is very hot. Adam looks at his watch. 91 degrees. I am drinking water whenever possible but still feel myself start to stagger and my pulse feels like it’s racing entirely too fast. I stop and try to slow my breathing and Angie stops next to me, chatting. She tells me about an earlier summit with other WAC folks and how heat exhaustion hit them. We felt awful on our hike too, but after a night, we were all ok she says. You’ll feel better tomorrow. I nod and drink some more water, glad that she’s hanging out with me while I calm my pulse down. This makes me nervous—we haven’t even reached our first camp, and already I’m slow and falling apart. The mountain looms. What am I doing here?
The trail moves off of dirt and on to rock and the lowest tongue of the Interglacier. We boulder hop and slide in kitty litter up to the snow. Jodie and I switch approach shoes for our boots and we all strap our crampons on. The snow is a welcome relief—crampons crunch in to ice and the ground is finally stable. We have a short hike up the snow field to another island of gravel. Peter pauses. This is usually snow he says. There is a small stream running down the middle of the island and we divide and set our tents up in flat patches on either side.
We cook dinner and fill our bottles with water from the stream. As the sun sets we congregate near Peter’s tent where he passes around some cognac and we make small talk about our families and our lives outside of this place. As the temperature drops the stream slows down and by the time we’re cozied up in our sleeping bags, it’s nearly quiet. There is wind, but nothing alarming.
In the morning we make breakfast and slowly wake up. We have a short hike up to Camp Schurman and we get our crampons on, axes out, and rope up. We head up the snowfield towards a patch of dirt and rocks at the ridgeline known as Camp Curtis. It’s the tail end of Steamboat Prow and as we get to the top and look down on the Emmons Glacier it doesn’t look good. The ground is kitty litter—loose rocks and dirt and scree. The glacier is pulling away from the ground and lined in crevasses. The bridges look thin and impassible. As we’re evaluating our route two rangers come hiking towards us—they scrambled up Steamboat Prow but, for a group our size, don’t suggest it. They’re not certain of a good path on to the glacier below us, and after a few more pleasantries, they continue down the ridge line to Mount Ruth.
Peter’s in the lead with me, Jodi and Roman on his rope. He tells the other teams to hold back while we head towards what we think is the best path on to the glacier. After some terrifying slip-sliding down rocks we start a traverse only to realize—this looks bad. We pause, axes in to the dirt and rocks, balance delicate, and Peter shouts back to Ira and the other team to find a different way. They start to pick their way down to a promising looking tongue of ice. We skitter and slowly move back up the slope. We do our best to keep the rope off the ground and wherever it touches small rocks slide and fall. I take my gloves off to try to feel the rocks—if I can palm something, I can spread my weight. I won’t fall. This is ok. Peter leads slowly and we inch along, following his path. Someone knocks a rock down and shouts—it whizzes too close to the team below us as they move on to the glacier and we pause until they’re out of the fall zone. When we finally regain the trail, what felt loose just a half hour ago feels incredibly solid comparatively. The other team is out on the glacier, moving towards Schurman. We haven’t even officially started our climb. This feels impossible.
As we hike up to Schurman there are crevasses everywhere. Peter looks out in front of the camp. That’s the Emmon’s Flats. That’s usually a snow field with tents. Now it’s a network of dark cracks and ice. We cross a few small crevasses and then there’s a larger one and, when I step across, I punch through snow and down. Keep moving Peter says and I push up and out. Barely a slip in, but still. This is getting to camp, not climbing the mountain.
When we arrive at camp there are people lounging in front of the ranger hut and some of our team are stretched out, talking with them. One of the men is the very chatty and knowledgeable David Gottlieb, sitting with his friends Ang Tshering Lama and Mingma Sherpa. He talks to Peter about the weather and the route—no one is on the mountain. No one has summited from this side in a few days. A storm is coming in at midnight with wind, rain and possible thunder. Leave later, he says. 4:30. That’s when we’re leaving. There’s another team of three, practicing self arrest on a slope near camp. Peter spends most of the night looking up at the mountain. We’ll take that path, over to there, he points. And then… I’m not sure. The wind is picking up.
We pow-wow before heading in to our tents and check in to see how everyone feels. I’m nervous, and scared, and I’m pretty sure everyone can tell. Just in case they can’t, I say, I feel like this is above where I am right now, I’m nervous. Peter rearranges the rope teams; I’ll climb with Ira and Angie in between the lead team (Peter, Jodie, Suh and Adam) and the sweep team (Cy, Julia and Roman). A new weather report comes out at 3, Peter says. I’ll wake everyone up if it looks good and we’ll head out.
We curl into our tents and try to sleep. Julia and I can overhear Peter talking to Ira. I give us about a 30% chance, he says. The wind gusts in to the side of the tent like an animal trying to push inside. Sometime in the night, it starts raining. I think, there’s no way we’re doing this tomorrow.
At 3:30 Peter wakes us up. Julia and I take a few deep breathes and I’m not sure if she says it or I do. I didn’t think we were going to do it. I’m pretty quiet as we gear up. We check our teams- knots are tied, helmets are on, everyone has sunglasses and water. There’s a bit of a delay with some last minute gear adjustment but then we are moving, we are climbing this thing.
There are crevasses from the start. We head towards The Corridor, but only skirt along the side. What feels like 45 minutes in I hear David’s team coming up alongside us. Good morning! we say, like it’s completely normal to see each other on snow, stepping onward, upward. David passes, followed by Mingma, Ang, and Michael, one of the climbing rangers. The sun starts to rise and below us the White River is molten, before us the snow is caught with alpenglow.
Ira keeps a steady pace. Left, right, left, right. Every so often we cross a crevasse, or we cut left or right to follow the crack until there’s a place to step over or a bridge to carefully cross. It is terrifying and beautiful and exhausting and monotonous and spectacular. We see the team of three, headed back down from a different direction—at this point Peter is taking David’s tracks. We wave and ask where they are coming from. The top! they say and we all laugh.
There is a snow bridge and then a steep section of icy snow that we climb and, as we approach, we see David and his team coming back down. Peter talks with him about the route and asks if his route or the other team’s is better. David seems to shrug. We’re coming back the way we came- but I think their route might be easier. They traverse above us and are gone before I remember to watch where they went. It starts snowing and the sun is hidden behind clouds most of the time. Each time I think the snow might get too strong and we’ll have to retreat, it stops. We keep climbing.
I keep thinking that every large crevasse is the Bergschrund, until I look up and see how far from the crown we are. We climb and cross, slowly and steadily. Eventually Liberty Ridge is to our right, looming like another peak. Up and up. And then we are nearly there, we have to be. It feels different, we are walking in snow, I can see the dirt of the crater rim. I don’t want to ask, but I can’t help but wonder—is this the summit? A dirt pile? I thought it would look different. At the top I can see Peter’s team starting to unrope, I can hear Suh laughing. When we finally get to them, Peter tells us to unrope, put layers on and take a minute, and then we’ll walk to the summit. I’m holding it together, but I want to cry. The summit. We. Are. Going. To. Walk. To. The. Summit. I am exhausted and sore and I know we still have to get down this thing that we just came up. Camp seems so far away. I am moving slowly, putting on my puffy jacket, shoving snacks in the pocket. And then we are walking along the dirt, heading towards a patch of snow. The True Summit of Rainier.
I cry. People take pictures. We all pose. We jump. We sign the summit register. We eat snacks. At some point, Peter talks to Ira and rearranges the rope team. I’m put on the last rope, with Peter short roped behind me. Jodie looks surprised and Peter says, I like Alexis and I know he’s staying close to me because I’m tired and, if anyone is going to slip, it’s going to be me.
Getting down from Rainier is quite possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m slow, I’m stumbling, I’m exhausted. Cy and Jodie are patient and Peter is supportive, but I feel like a complete shit show, and I pretty much am one. The route continually switchbacks and at each turn I fumble switching my ax hand to hand, I trip over the rope. We down climb
some steep ice and I realize that my sunglasses slip and completely block my lower vision. At one point I back-step with crampons, my ax in the wall in front of me, swearing. I have to move quickly but not too quickly—Peter is behind me and at the picket, removing our protection. Don’t fall, don’t fall. Keep moving but don’t pull. There’s a place I have to stop on a snow bridge, weight as evenly distributed as possible, while Peter removes another picket and then we’re both on the bridge, moving as quickly as possible, and I pretend I weigh nothing, I am nothing, I make no imprint in the snow until we are back on solid ground and I can breathe again.
At another place Jodie is below us, nearly crossing a crevasse, as I downclimb another stretch and swear at my sunglasses, and then the ice pings. It’s a deep heart-of-the-glacier-and-it’s moving sound; it’s an alive sound and one that comes before movement. Possibly large movement. All around us are holes and crevasses. I’m not even sure if what I’m on is technically a snow bridge or just a piece of snow and ice chocked in the middle of a network of cracks. We need to move, now Peter says, and it’s the closest he gets to seeming worried. Now. He still has to downclimb the ice and I’m afraid to move too quickly and pull him, but afraid not to move. I point and say step down, there, you have a foot and he kicks in and I realize—the foot is the edge of a crevasse. It’s the best thing he has and he takes another step towards me and I turn back downhill and we are moving; we are off the ice. He laughs a tight kind of laugh that makes me more scared about what we just did than I was at the time. We are still hours away from camp.
In the end, it takes us seven hours to summit and five to come back down. I want to collapse as soon as we are at Schurman, both because I am tired and because I can finally let loose the breath I was holding deep within my chest the entire time. We just climbed Rainier. We made it up and down and everyone is still here. Holy shit. Peter hugs each of us. I’m not sure if its adrenaline or exhaustion, but I have no idea what to do now; I walk towards camp, I sit down, I take my crampons off. My neck is sore from looking at my feet for hours, my quads are beyond screaming. I need food, or water, or sleep.
That night the wind howls. If I thought the wind sounded like an animal before, this time it’s a monster, trying to tear into our bodies. The tent fabric whips back and forth but somehow does not tear. Julia and I barely sleep and, every so often, we check to make sure our packs are secure outside. We hear another team leave around 2 am and then shouting before they come back, drop off a teammate, and head back up the mountain. In the morning the man brought back to camp paces back and forth, asking if we’ve heard anything. I discover that a mouse has chewed into my pack and eaten all the mixed nuts that I saved for the hike back.
We break camp and decide to avoid the glacier and scramble up Steamboat Prow to the Mount Ruth trail. Before we leave Peter talks to David again. He comes back, shaking his head about the music David is playing. I asked for Johnny Cash. I don’t know what this is. As we start shouldering our packs, the music switches, and there it is, Johnny Cash sweeping over camp. Michael, the young ranger, takes Mingma’s hands and starts to spin her around. She laughs and tries to follow his lead. We go in small groups and as soon as we start walking I can feel the pure exhaustion in my body. We have about six miles to hike back to the cars, and, if we stay on this trail, we’ll have to ford a river. Alright. Bring it. Because there isn’t really another option.
In all my years of racing cross country and track, I’ve never hit the point of complete exhaustion and been able to push past. Perhaps this is why I was always decent but never great. Hiking back to the car I find that my body can, in fact, keep going. We slide down scree and it might not be pretty, but I keep going. David is hiking out shortly after us and, while we are taking a break, we see him glissading down a snow field, standing up, whooping. As he reaches us he laughs you were probably all pointing out how dangerous that was, how that’s not the proper way, no ice axe! He talks with us for a while and, as we’re chatting, Ang and Mingma join us. They continue on and some of our team races ahead, chatting with David’s team. Down the path, switch backing in scree, until we reach the White River. The trail is on the opposite side and when I take my shoes off and step into the flowing water, I gasp at the cold. But there isn’t another option. This is what we do. Julia shares some gummy worms, we put our shoes back on and we keep moving.
The last part of the trail is beautiful, easy, and wooded. I walk with Ira most of the way, chatting about climbing and trips and mountains. We joke everything is an hour away because I don’t want to think about how far we are, how far we have to go. We pass a man huffing along the trail and he asks, did you go all the way to the lake? We laugh—we went all the way to the top! And we did, oh my god, we did. And then we are back, we are walking through the White River campground. There are cars and tents and our packs are huge on our backs compared to the day hikers.
In the parking lot there is David and his friends, sharing beers with our team. Cy opens his car and Julia grabs beer that is, miraculously, still cold. We change in to dry clothing and join the crowd in the parking lot. I’m not saying much, because I’m not sure what to say. Peter has now attempted and succeeded ten times on Rainier. A perfect record, and yet I know that he would have turned around if we had to. But we didn’t.
So, I climbed Rainier. And I climbed it because of my friends, because of how skilled they are, because of how strong they are. And I know I’ll be back, because I felt anything but strong and skilled, and so there is no hole, like my mother thought there might be. There is a mountain, still waiting to be climbed.