Going up the mountain, Part 1

Travel writer

I sprang up and kicked off my sleeping bag as soon as the guides turned on the lights–in part because I was thrilled we’d be heading for the 14,411-foot summit of Mount Rainier, and in part because I’d spent a restless six hours trying to sleep next to 16 men crammed into a bunkhouse that grew hotter and smellier the longer we languished inside. I glanced at my watch: 12:05 a.m. My heart raced and I felt a little fuzzy as I pulled on a pair of soft shell pants over the long underwear I’d slept in. Across my chest I strapped an avalanche transceiver–a device that would help rescuers find my probably-dead body in the event of an accident–and headed down a wooden ladder to avail myself of hot water for my oatmeal breakfast.

The evening before, as I organized a massive pile of gear into my backpack, nerves clawed at my confidence: I don’t have to do this. I don’t want to do this. What am I thinking? There’s no way I am doing this. I’ll just quit now, quietly bow out, and head home in the morning. I barely slept that night in the motel room I’d rented.

Mount Rainier’s white dome looms over Seattle’s skyline, impressing visitors and locals when it makes an appearance on rare sunny days. The mountain may not be as high as others in Alaska, or in the Colorado Rockies, but its steep rise from the sea-level communities around it make it one of the most prominent peaks in the country–and in the world. Every time I glanced its peak, I imagined hiking among its big blue glaciers, stepping over crevasses, and, of course, standing in the wide summit crater on its apex. That night in the motel, though, I wasn’t sure my nerves would let me complete what I had long craved.

But now that we had climbed from the base to Camp Muir, perched at 10,000 feet above the broad expanse of the Muir Snowfield, I felt confident again. I had trained hard for six months, climbing stairs with a heavy pack, hiking tough trails in the Cascades, spending hours lifting weights and cycling, and now I was ready.

As I started eating, my body began rebelling in a new way. Each swallow of oatmeal turned my stomach. By the time I had finished half of the meal, I was certain I’d puke. I choked down as much as I could, then stored the rest next to my sleeping bag to retrieve later that afternoon, on the way down. I packed the rest of my gear and waited outside in the calm midnight air for the start of the climb.

I had spent much of my summer reading stories of other Rainier climbs, and many of them recounted horror tales of losing toenails, of puking the whole way up the mountain, of struggle and anguish. I really, really didn’t want that to be me.

I attributed my nausea to a night of breathing through my nose in thin air. My body, deprived of the oxygen it’s used to at sea level, was unhappy. Outside, waiting for the group to assemble, I concentrated on pressure breathing, a technique mountaineers use to force air into their lungs and oxygenate the blood more readily. By the time my rope team tethered our harnesses together and stepped onto the Cowlitz, our first glacier of the day, my nausea had faded, and the tingle of adrenaline in my chest took over. I pointed my headlamp towards the ground in front of me, and the summit bid began.