Rainier Trip Report
Where: Mount Rainier, Washington
Goal: Camp Muir – solo to train for Denali
Last Friday, I started my drive from Vancouver heading down the Cascade mountain range to Rainier. A work trip had allowed me the opportunity to go play for the weekend. My cousin Jorge Vela, and my friend Ryan Benefield, were going to join me for this trip but unfortunately it didn’t work out for them. I was disappointed at first, but decided that I was just as excited to have this new adventure to myself. On the way, I could see her looming in the distance wearing her dress of white snow while the feathered clouds on the West slope bathed her in a gentle light. Silly emotions of excitement caused my thoughts to wonder of if she would remember me, and if she would be as forgiving as the last time or perhaps she would reveal new secrets to me. Of course, none of this mattered to the cold stone mountain, it was just that giving it human thoughts and emotions comforted me knowing that I was about to attempt a solo Camp Muir climb in the dead of winter.
I arrived at Whitaker Bunkhouse around 7:00 p.m. that night. The weather was perfect, clear skies, no wind, and a seasonally mild temperature. The office was already closed, so I grabbed my room keys and passed by the peg board to check on the weather forecast. It was not good. A storm was headed in from the West dropping snow at 2,000 feet with projected 40-50 mile per hour winds above the panorama point. This was crappy, fate was not on my side but the thought of not going was no a possibility. I realized that my earlier expectations of making it to Camp Muir might not happen, and I decided there and then to set some criteria for myself. The first – Extreme Whiteout Condition – turn around; the second – Heavy Avalanche Conditions – cancel climb.
That was pretty much it, I had made up my mind that the cold (4 degrees F) and wind (50 MPH) were all manageable and could be dealt with if I mentally and physically prepared myself. I did not even consider going solo in whiteout conditions as one slip too far East or West on the Southern slope would take you off the cliff into glaciers. Even though I had my GPS with the exact route, I did not trust it as much as I trusted myself. Avalanches were another story. With the storm coming in from the West, it would blow drifts up against the Western cliff of Rainier and loosen snowflakes on all leeward slopes. This loose buildup of snow, near the top of the slopes could trigger a cataclysmic avalanche. After pondering these thoughts, I knew I needed a little loosening up so I headed down the rode in search of a drink or two and some sage advice. I devoured a beast of a meal along with several beers then headed back to the bunkhouse. My sleep was troubled, and I was excited as a kid on Christmas Eve.
Morning arrived and I was up at 5:00 a.m. eager to pack. Packing is a lot of fun for me, it’s like fine-tuning something but with clothing and survival gear. You have to consider where best to put things, thoughts like – altitude gloves left side pocket makes them easy to grab because my hands are always the first thing to fail or water containers should be pressed against my back inside my pack on top for easy accessibility. Wait! will the water freeze if it’s too close to the fabric? All these things have to be configured like putting together a puzzle. Overall, I packed light around 40 – 50 pounds. I had enough food and water to last me three days in case of emergency.
Around 7:00 a.m. hunger kicked my belly and I went in search of a hot meal; but the only thing opened was that old bar that I had visited the night before. Luckily they served me a breakfast fit for a king, some hash and eggs with deer meat, delicious. I then drove the Kia up to 4,000 feet arriving at Paradise Park. The snow had just started, a good sign because it would mean that the buildup on the slopes wouldn’t be too deep. I hunted down a park ranger and he took me into his small office and had me fill out a camping permit. We talked about the weather and he interrogated me to determine whether or not I was capable of hiking to Camp Muir under less than perfect conditions. This time it went a little better than the first time I climbed with my friends. That guy had put the fear of God into us by introducing himself with the following question. I want all of you to imagine your Death Report and what it would say, “Inexperienced climbers die on Rainier after falling into a Crevasse.” It had stunned us all into silence, but this time I knew what to expect and I was ready.
After finishing up with the ranger, I started to gear up. There were lots of families tubing down the first 100 feet of the climb, great fun. Other families were training their kids by taking them out for a weekend of winter hiking near Paradise. It was exciting for me to imagine that one day I might also be teaching my kids to love this sport, and it brought a smile to my face. An hour later, all geared up, I started my trek. The first 300 feet were tough. I was out of breath and feeling like crap, typical of the emotions that I had anticipated. This was a transitional time in which my body had to get used to the suffering and adjust itself to saving energy. It’s a wake up call if you will.
During the first 30 minutes, I met two older ladies who asked it they could climb with me as they had noticed my fancy GPS. As we walked and talked, I found out that they were from Oregon and loved to hike Rainier. They had hiked the trail to Muir a couple of times. As we were climbing, the weather began to turn, our visibility was decreasing between 20 to 30 feet. I made the decision to leave the ladies behind as they were walking too slowly and by leaving them, they might make the better judgement to turn back. Next I encountered a young girl with her father. They also noticed my GPS and asked if they could follow me. They were headed to Camp Muir as well but were more than glad to camp out until the weather cleared. At that point, we were just a little bit west of the path on my GPS and I told them that they should follow me up to Panorama Point where they could camp and be safe from avalanches. I wrongly assumed that we had already started to climb Panorama Point as I was on a steep hill and if I went just a little bit more to the left, I would be on its peak. The conditions were worsening and red flags began to pop into my head. I told myself that something wasn’t right, that I was heading too far West but that the top should be right there. We were so close that perhaps we should just go to the top and review our position. Trust your instincts, because it was a good thing that I stopped to reevaluate. I pulled out my GPS, which was difficult, and discovered that I was very far from the trail.
I looked off to the right and noticed that I had placed us on the side of a slope with a cornice formed by winds blowing snow directly above us. We immediately backtracked to a less steep part of the cliff and walked east slowly to the valley. Finally, a break in the weather allowed me to spot a team of climbers some 300 yards away. They were raising their hands and gesturing for us to follow them. This is how I learned the importance of following your compass and your GPS in whiteout condition, very important!
We came down the slope from the West and turned North arriving at the beginning of the huge climb to Panorama Point. I had forgotten how steep it was and how scary it was to look at it in a winter whiteout. Last time I had faced this damn slope, it had knocked the reserve out of me and I wondered how it would affect me this time. As it turned out, I crushed it and was on top before I knew it. Looking back, I saw that my companions the father and daughter were clinging to its side as though they were going to fall off at any moment, resulting in a harmless quick glissade into a snow bowl. Man, they were slow and all I could think of at this point is why the hell would this man bring his daughter out here. They seemed so unprepared.
When we reached the top of Panorama Point, we encountered a complete whiteout. I had been in bad weather conditions before on Rainier but nothing to compare to this. I could not see a thing, even my GPS, unless I held it an inch from my eye. It was just like being in a cloud of white beautiful nothingness. Then it occurred to me that I had lost my spacial awareness, I could not tell up from down, right from left, and the only thing I knew for sure was that I was standing on the ground. I began to panic imagining that I was on this huge slope with winds increasing from 20 to 50 MPH and that I could be standing next to an abyss. I froze and waited for my fear to subside and within two minutes it began to clear. I located the father and his daughter who were still in the same spot but had begun to move. I looked for shelter and walked over to the cliff face where I found the three guys whom I had met earlier. I also ran into another party that had turned back due to the weather conditions. They seemed pretty frazzled and told me that it got worse further up. Once I reached the three Amigos, they told me that they were on their way down as well. I then made the decision to go with them and said that I would follow shortly, so off they went. I walked back to the edge to check on the father daughter team who had gone to the far right of the slope in hopes of finding shelter from the winds, YIKES. I grabbed them and explained that there was a much better and safer spot near the left side as the rock would block any avalanches and wind.
I was still debating about whether to continue my climb upwards when I met two guys headed that way. They spotted my GPS and lit up quickly asking if I would join them. I decided that going a little further with them couldn’t be too bad so I climbed with them another 30 minutes. They turned to me and said that they were going to start seeking a good place to build a snow cave where they could dump their gear and make a mad dash for Muir. My first inclination was, COOL, a snow cave with strange guys?? But wait, who are they really, do they have any idea what they are doing and after all they had never really invited me to share the cave. Should I or shouldn’t I, well conditions were worsening, so I decided to head down. I reluctantly left the two climbers and made my way back, but wondered if sharing a cave with some random people on Mount Rainier would have been a bigger adventure.
All in all, I was proud of myself for not letting my ego get the best of me, I’d had enough adventure and got to climb up the majestic Rainier once again. I went home to my beautiful wife and Nashville the next day with a smile on my face and my life intact..