Going up the mountain, Part 2

travel writer

The sky was dark and clear, and on the horizon I could see the soft glow of lights from Tacoma and Portland. Luckily for my heart rate, I couldn’t see much else–not the steep, thousand-foot drop off below me, or the various other dangers lurking.

The first crevasses were fist-wide cracks in the glacier, but they signaled a change from the packed snow of the Muir Snowfield. I’d heard Rainier alums say they were glad they did half of the climb in the dark. On the way down, seeing the route in full sunlight, was unsettling enough that they were thankful for prior ignorance.

After a short, flat traverse of the Cowlitz Glacier, we shortened our ropes for the rocky ascent of Cathedral Gap, when the route leaves the glacier and threads around a fist of earth called Cathedral Rock. Ascending what is essentially a pile of loose gravel and large chunks of volcanic spew in crampons is about as much fun as it sounds.  Walking confidently degraded into stumbling, and every footstep either sunk into loose debris or scraped off a big boulder with a sound like nails on a chalkboard.

An hour later, out of the gap, we took our first break. I had packed my sandwiches and snacks near the top of my pack so I could get to them quickly and easily. Our breaks were a strict 15 minutes long, just barely enough time to grab my puffy down jacket, sit down on my pack, drink some water, and force down a handful of energy blocks, or a bite-sized Butterfinger. Mountaineering pros will tell you to take food that will appeal to you even with an unhappy stomach, thus the Butterfingers. And it’s true: My nausea crept back as soon as I rooted around for food, and about all I could force down were the most unhealthy of my snacks. The closer I got to the summit, the less I ate anything other than Butterfingers. They taste good at any altitude, turns out.

The next glacier, the Ingraham, passes under a tumble of seracs called the Ingraham Ice Fall. This section of the route is fairly straightforward: you walk on flat glacier at a reasonable pace. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about it in the dark, except for the fact that historically it’s a pretty deadly spot.

In 1981, a 29-climber party passed under the Ingraham Ice Fall, just as I did that night. A large block of ice broke free and careened towards the climbers as they took pictures. The fall initiated an avalanche that engulfed the party, killing eleven in what was the most deadly climbing accident on the mountain. The climbers were amateurs, like me, and led by a professional guiding service–the same guide service I used.

The guides had told us the night before to move steadily through the Ingraham Flats, below the Ice Fall. No dallying, no picture-taking, just move. Moving also meant stepping and jumping over several crevasses, which seemed to get bigger the farther we went up the mountain. Crossing one crevasse involved walking over a ladder, in the dark, with crampons. Weighed down with gear and connected by rope to the climber behind and in front of me, I’m still surprised I managed to leap over cracks several feet wide and who knows how deep. I didn’t look down to find out.

The next and toughest section of this route is the Disappointment Cleaver, a long stretch of rock that is, like the Gap, consisting alternately of loose debris and big rock chunks. It’s also very steep. The Cleaver takes quite a while to ascend, and it’s often the breaking point for many climbers. If you can finish the Cleaver and the next steep section of ice and still have gas in the tank, you can likely finish the climb. It would be my final test.

There was nothing graceful about my climb through the rock-and-sand-pit of the 45-degree Cleaver. From start to finish, I stumbled and slid. The sound of crampons scraping rocks and ice axes clinking stone echoed in the darkness as we slowly made our way up. When I wasn’t stumbling, I was high-stepping onto waist- and chest-high rocks, gripping other rocks to pull myself up. I had used only my legs until now, but the Cleaver demands the arms and upper body of a short climber like me.

Once the rocks end, the steep glacier to High Break stretches endlessly. I choked up the grip on my ice axe, using it like a hammer and jamming its sharp point into the shoulder-high wall of ice on the high side of the mountain. The pace was reliably slow, but the angle of the climb meant I was often struggling to put one foot in front of the other without falling forward, my free hand grasping for something in front to pull on. Endless streams of expletives raced through my thoughts. I exhaled sharply through clenched teeth, concentrating on not busting ass or yelling in frustration. Below me, the sun slowly crested the horizon, gradually raising the dimmer on the steep, icy world surrounding me.

I wasn’t out of breath or particularly tired, just frustrated. I felt like my height was a detriment, making the act of walking on the steep slopes much less efficient and much more aggravating. I felt foolish, and glad for the darkness to hide my gracelessness.

Finally, instead of going straight up, we began to crisscross the glacier, traversing it in switchbacks that made the task much easier. And then, after five hours of climbing some 3,500 feet in the dark, we broke at High Camp and watched the sun rise over the endless stretch of mountains.