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Mount Rainier Family Style

My parents came from Indiana to visit me in Seattle, and since they had already seen the major tourist attractions around town, we decided to step it up a notch. We started up from Mount Rainier National Park on Saturday, panting in the sun with our packs as children frolicked in the alpine meadows all around us. Pretty soon we hit the Muir snowfield, a sustained haul to Camp Muir that got progressively windier and foggier as the day wore on.


We reached Muir just as it was getting dark and set up camp. The next day was spent getting acclimatized, taking pictures, and sharing stories with the many people coming through Muir. Dad and I also went on a survey run over the ominous scree ridge of Cathedral Gap. We were planning to go up at midnight, and just wanted to know what we were going to be up against. It was sandy but not too bad, and we returned in high spirits to some more lazing about, melting snow, and watching party after party stumbling down or crawling up to the camp.

Around midnight, Dad and I were off, following the faint twinkle of headlamps in the distance. The night was clear and cold and perfectly quiet. First was the now-familiar stretch to Cathedral Gap. The sandy pile of rocks was a bit harder to navigate at night, and for the first time we had to work around a bottleneck of slower groups. This was going to become a common problem as the night wore on, with large guided groups stopping to rest, anchor, gear up, and pep talk. Eventually we reached and climbed the imposing Disappointment Cleaver, a large rock outcropping that lets you avoid the broken up glacier by climbing above it. Visibility was pretty poor by now, and if it wasn’t for guided groups and their markers, we surely would’ve spent a few extra hours scrambling up the ridge. As we reached the top of the cleaver, we were in for a new challenge. There was a small technical section of vertical climbing. A large guided group had bottlenecked it, taking a while to get everybody properly belayed past the point. It must’ve been close to an hour, and I had gotten bored and cold. But the blood started pumping when my turn finally came. It was my first time on vertical ice, and I was reminding myself that centuries of trial and error had made crampons a pretty safe tool, and that a well sunk axe really could hold me. This whole time, my dad remained completely calm. It gave me confidence to know that with his decades of mountaineering experience, he didn’t see anything to worry about. And so I led out into the black, kicked, kicked, picked, picked, and seconds later I was belaying him in.

By this time the sun had started coming up. The sight was savage and beautiful. Below us were enormous crevasses, giant icebergs, entire castles of ice. Above were a slope and a trail. This was the longest, most strenuous part of the climb. My lungs felt tiny, and I was starting to lose my breath easily. I looked at my dad to see how he was doing, and he looked like he was taking a Sunday stroll through the park. The daylight showed us greater and greater sights, and I was looking back and forth – now at the mountaintops below us, now at the next flag. The guides’ markers were a great help in gauging distance. Without them it would have seemed like an endless gruntfest. Then I saw something that raised my spirits. A group was coming down our trail, the first one we’d seen in hours. Looking tired but satisfied, they told me that we had a few hundred meters to go. If they can do it, I thought, so can we. And so we did.

Rainier is a volcano, and so the top is an actual crater. When we got up to it, the wind was really starting to push us around, and so we left our packs in the crater and crossed it to get to the high point. By then I was feeling pretty tired, so after a few celebratory pictures we went back to the crater for at least some protection from the wind, ate some energy bars, and headed down. Now I was the smug one, telling oncoming parties that they were almost there.

As we reached Disappointment Cleaver, the fog had really set in and the visibility was terrible. Flags now seemed to multiply in every direction, without any clear path to the bottom. We played the guessing game, followed another group, guessed some more, followed some flags, and after a lot of blind frustration in the fog finally came down to Inghram flats. We were still being particularly careful, since this part of the glacier had large and frequent crevasses. These seemed ominous enough during our nighttime approach, but now they were completely invisible in the white. We found the path, and I was relieved to know that Muir was only a couple hours away. We had stood on the top, and now this snowfield was not about to stop us. By the next time we saw a guided party gearing up and anchoring down to cross a three-foot-wide crevasse, we had enough of waiting in line, and excusing ourselves, hopped over it and were on our way.

Though I was once again friends with oxygen and could all but see our tent from the top of Cathedral Gap, there was now a new problem to deal with. A strong wind had picked up and was throwing sand, ash, and pebbles at us from all directions. There I really felt like we were a couple Hobbits, taking the One Ring to Mordor. I was spitting dirt and pitying my poor rope as we scrambled down the giant pile of dirt to the blackened snow. We got back to Muir, where Mom was ready for us with a delicious meal. We told her about the ascent, swapped some stories with the arriving hopefuls (now more on the telling than listening side), packed up, and headed down.

The hike down from Muir proved longer than we had all expected. The snow was wet and slushy now, and we half walked, half slid down to the Paradise meadows. I wish we could have stayed on the snow though, since the paved trails of the park really put a hurting on our already sore feet. Eventually we stumbled down, piled into the car, and as we were driving back, I already had trouble believing that we really did it.

Pictures from this trip 

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