Finally, today Peter and I get to touch the slopes of Mt. Rainier. Today we had what RMI calls ‘Snow School’! It’s basically where you learn all of the skills you will need on the mountain, but can only learn in the snow.
The day started at the DNR horse camp where we woke up around 6:45am, and immediately started breakfast. We packed our technical and safety gear, and a days worth of food.
We rolled into base camp 15 minutes early, and just hung out at the Whittaker Mountaineering shop. It was foggy and almost a whiteout at base camp, and I remember being worried that it may be that way on the mountain. Thankfully, I was wrong. Fifteen minutes went by and our team slowly formed under one of the tents in base camp. Eventually, Mike and Elias appeared with their packs packed and ready to go.
The base camp was buzzing with teams of all sizes getting ready to start orientation. Some were getting ready for Snow School like us, and some were getting read to climb!
While waiting for our bus to come, Mike introduced us all to Lou Whittaker, the legend. He seemed genuinely interested in meeting all of us. I shook his hand like everyone else, and he began to tell us a story after we told him that we were climbing the Kautz route. Apparently, when he was much younger and still guiding expeditions, a plane crashed in Ashford and when the pilot ejected, he landed on Rainier. So the aviation service asked if RMI could help with a rescue. At the time, RMI guides were the only ones with enough knowledge of the mountain to pull a rescue off. Lou was one of the first to volunteer to go up for the rescue. The climb would be short, because they would be dropped off by a helicopter as close to the downed pilot as they could get, which was in the middle of a heavily glaciated peak around Camp Muir, a small camp about 5,000 ft. above Paradise, which is the closest access point to Rainier by car. The helicopter would drop the guides off and then land to then go into stand by at Paradise. Once the guides had secured the pilot, the chopper would then fly up and extract the pilot. So they set out to find the pilot. They climbed from Muir to the top of the cleaver, or Disappointment Cleaver, which is a large band of rocks that separates two of the glaciers on Rainier’s southwest side and lies at an elevation of about 12,000 ft. They searched and searched and finally found the downed pilot alive on the glacier. They prepared the pilot for a rescue via helicopter. When they finally radioed in the chopper at Paradise, clouds had rolled in, covering everything below 8,000 ft. The helicopter pilot refused to take off in those conditions even though Lou tried to explain that the clouds broke just above Muir (10,000 ft.). Still the pilot refused to take off, so Lou and his team were forced to carry the pilot down over the glaciers and into Paradise. Lou says that the moral of the story is that when on a mountain, the only people you can trust are the ones you’re roped to!
I couldn’t believe that ‘The’ Lou Whittacker had just shook my hand, and told me that story about his past mountaineering experiences on Rainier. It was an honor to meet the man whose name was plastered all over my equipment. Finally, after spending some more time with us, more than I had ever expected, he was wrangled off on other business with RMI.
The team had to snap back to reality. Most of us were so used to hearing or reading about mountaineering, that we had forgotten we were about to climb a mountain ourselves. Mike and Elias were quick to start making sure everyone had everything, and that we were ready to go.
The van pulled up with a trailer for all of our packs so we put them in, and got in the bus to head out. Our driver was Joe Herisky. he is a mountain guiding legend in Alaska. In fact, the book ‘Alaska’ is partly dedicated to him… ‘To Joe, the quintessential Alaskan Mountain Guide.’ He was quiet, really quiet. Everyone was quiet come to think about it. Besides the fact that it was 8 in the morning, everyone knew that for the first time they were going to be up close and personal with the mountain they had been planning on climbing, some for over a year. The guides were all talking with each other, laughing about past experiences on the mountain and talking about what they were going after the season was over. Most of the guides seemed incredibly upbeat and ready for a new adventure, and while still excited, the climbers had blank looks on their faces.
I personally didn’t know what to think. For the first time, our overall fitness would be out in the open and exposed. I was worried that I was out of shape, or at least not in good enough shape to climb the mountain. There is definitely more I could have done to train, but I just ran out of time. I suppose that is one of the things I have really had to trust God with. You can bet that I will be relying on His strength and not my own to get me up and down the mountain. God created the mountains and through Him, and only Him, do I expect to conquer it.
Every once in awhile, one of the guides would turn around and point out the window and there it would be…for a split second, Mt. Rainier would reveal itself through one of the many valleys its melt-water cut through the forest. It was massive! I was in shock the first couple times I saw it up close. I couldn’t believe that I was going to be given a chance to stand on the top. Thank you, God!
When we arrived at Paradise, we were instructed by Mike and Elias to put sunscreen and lip balm on. They insisted that ‘if you are lazy down here, you’re gonna be even more lazy at 10,000 ft.’ Taking care of yourself on the mountain comes first. You can’t take care of your teammates if you haven’t taken care of yourself. And on a mountain, if you don’t take care of yourself, you WILL get sick, and if you’re sick, you’re stupid and lethargic, and that’s when accidents happen.
With our sunscreen on and lip balm applied, and our glacier glasses securely attached to our face, we were ready to go and protected from the sun, which can be deadly on a mountain. In fact, there have been cases of sun burnt inner nostrils and roofs of people’s mouths because the sun bounces off the snow or reflects straight up into the underside of your face. Not to mention, ‘snow blindness’ due to lack of glacier glasses and a case of sun burnt retinas. But our guides were on top of making sure were all protected.
We headed towards the mountain using park trails in our big fat clunkers for boots. The tourists looked at us with funny looks. Most of the time we would just walk past, but every once in a while someone would say something like, ‘Going to the top?’ to which we would reply, ‘Heck yeah!’ knowing full well that we would just be doing snow school today.
After about two miles of hiking, Mike, who was leading the hike through the foothills of the mountain, deviated off the main trail and onto a snowfield that led to a deep valley filled with snow. This was to be where we would learn how to be efficient and safe mountaineers.
Mike and Elias gathered around, and Elias said, ‘Okay, first lesson, how to sit!’. ‘Take the pack off and sit on the back panel, which creates a nice seat, yeah? And when you put it back on your back, it won’t be wet.’ he followed his lesson by sitting on his back, leaning back and exlaiming a classic, ‘Niiiice!’. He loves to say that when someone does something well…Niiiice!
Elias’ lesson was followed by a quick snack and some water. We were told by Mike that if you didn’t consume at least 100 calories at every break, you were hurting your chances of staying healthy. The snack was followed by Mike and Elias teaching us how to walk in the snow. It sounds simple and it is, but there are several techniques that can be used to make you much more efficient. One such technique is the ‘rest step,’ which involves leaning back, locking your back leg, and transferring the weight in between steps up the mountain.
This is also where we learned several wrong techniques that Elias had a lot of fun demonstrating. The first was the ‘flamingo’ which involves a climber stepping and then transferring his/her weight to their ice axe, and keeping on foot in the air. It’s incredibly inefficient and actually costs you energy rather than regaining any. The other wrong technique was brought about by a breathing technique we learned called the ‘pressure breath’. The pressure breath is a quick exhale through pursed lips which, when breathing hard, helps create a back pressure in your lungs, which helps you breathe more air on the following inhale. In essence, the pressure breath helps reset your breathing and relaxes your muscles. The wrong way to do this, or the ‘unicorn’ involves a climber leaning over his/her ice axe, and trying to catch their breath, which actually constricts their breathing.
Following the breathing and walking lessons was ‘self-arresting’, which is stopping yourself if you find yourself sliding down the side of the mountain uncontrollably. There are several different versions for each type of fall. They all end the same though, with the ice axe firmly against your chest, pick in the snow, butt in the air and feet dug in with big bucket steps.
It took us awhile to really get the steps right, and Mike had to start getting a little firm with some people about not ‘half-assing’ it. This could save your life, but more importantly, it would save the people on your rope team. Finally, after a little coaching, we all had effective self-arresting technique, and it was time to rope up and learn how to interact as a rope team. The first lesson was that in the event of a fall, the rope and the rope team doesn’t get shock loaded, which is what happens when the rope has slack and then is put under tension. This was followed by other basic techniques such as keeping the rope on the down hill side of the mountain, and your ice axe on the uphill side, short roping to move quickly through dangerous terrain, and tending the rope for the man behind you. This concluded our day of training, and we headed back to the bus, proud and feeling ready for tomorrow, when we will actually get to put our skills to the test.
When we got back to base camp, I felt like a pilot who had just gotten his wings! Tomorrow is it! We finally get to climb Mt. Rainier. I concluded my night by having dinner with Peter, David, and Robert. Once again, we all talked about where we were from and what we did there. Robert seemed especially excited to start the climb…we all were. After dinner, I packed my pack and went to the bunkhouse where I took a shower, then crashed in bed, where I am now.
God, thank you for amazing teachers and a sense of absolute calm that I can’t quite explain. I know that you have everything to do with all of it. Please keep all of us safe for the next couple of days as we climb, and allow all of us to get a good night’s sleep tonight. We love you, Lord, thank you.