Lessons Learned by an Early Season Summit Attempt on Mount Rainier
Two first-time mountaineers battle unpredictable weather in a bid to summit the 14,410-foot icon of the Pacific Northwest
Kodak Ektar 100, Portra 400
The guides on Mount Rainier lovingly referred to these early few weeks as June-uary. Summer is just around the corner but storms and below zero temperatures still blast the upper mountain with disconcerting frequency.
It was our first foray into mountaineering. A spontaneous idea the previous fall lead to months of stuffing every heavy object in our apartment into a pack and huffing up every hill available around Boulder. Summiting the 14,410 foot icon of the Pacific Northwest wouldn’t be easy, but if some 10,000 climbers make a summit bid each year, we figured why not us too.
"It was an appetizer to everything that's possible in the mountains if you're willing to put in the work."
The first day on the mountain was simple. Hike up to around 5,000 feet from Paradise to Camp Muir, where we'd spend the night luxuriously in the Gambu hut huddled together on wood benches.
The most dangerous area of the mountain that day seemed to be at Camp Muir in front of the public outhouse. Strong winds and an ice covered step up lead to constant falls and a lot of colorful language.
We spent the night eating cold leftover pizza and grapes frozen on the windowsill, listening to the wind howl and squeak through the cracks in our shelter. The weather had been on and off the entire day, and a stormy night left us wondering if we'd get a chance for the upper mountain.
The next morning we waited through lunch to hear if we'd head up to the Ingraham Flats, make a summit attempt from Camp Muir, or have to head back down. We passed the time with skills training and around 1 PM got the call that we were heading to upper camp at just over 11,000 feet.
The first time I walked on a glacier was special. The hues of blue, the seemingly never-ending abyss below, the quiet. It was a quick hour up to Ingraham Flats where we were met with whiteout conditions. Other than the glacier a couple hundred feet below I had no clue what surrounded our camp, visibility was minimal.
After dinner the plan was to go back to our tents and sleep until a hopeful alpine start for the summit the next morning. As soon as we zipped our tent shut and got settled down the mountain woke up.
It proceeded to storm on us through the night. Howling wind and snow filled our tent vestibules completely covering our gear. We were in and out of sleep throughout the night, hoping to wake up to silence and a weather window, but it never came. Once 3 and 4 AM passed we knew our chances for a summit attempt were gone.
Though the mountain did give us one consolation prize. At about 6 AM we emerged and found a clear morning with views of Little Tahoma peak and the glacier above us.
While not getting a summit attempt was definitely a bummer, just being on the mountain was an experience in itself. It was an appetizer to everything that's possible in the mountains if you're willing to put in the work. For a kid from Indiana, every mountain experience is worth working for.