In all honesty, this was not a climb I was originally looking forward to, I am not a fan of guided group climbs, plus this route is a bite “easy” for my usual taste*. International Mountain Guides uses this climb as an application for other more challenging climbs, so I signed up. I am happy to say that I really did enjoy this climb. It reminded me that so much about climbing is about the people, the style, and the experience as a whole. This was a whole lot of fun!
*No climb is easy.
I made the decision to drive in directly from Seattle the morning of the climb. I think there is something nice about being able to spend the last night before spending a few days out in the mountains doing everyday life things. In a way, it makes me appreciate those things so much more. One of my favorite things to do the night before a climb is to order a couple pizzas and watch TV. (Pro tip: I usually order a bit extra to eat on the drive.) (Pro tip 2: Don’t forget to bring the pizza like I did.)
The plan was to meet up with the group at 8am to split up group gear and drive to Paradise. The group would be me, Clyde, and Andrew, guided by Andy and Erik. We all hit it off the day before, so I was pretty optimistic that we would have a fun few days ahead of us. Initially the weather was predicted to be pretty bad for essentially the whole week, but the day before, the forecast turned around with mostly sun. However, there was the slight (but daunting) chance of lightning on Wednesday night. The original plan was to spend Wednesday night at the Eagle’s Nest, a stunning Ama-Dablam-Camp-2-esq high camp. However, a perched high camp is pretty much the worst place to be when lightning strikes, so we knew our plans would have to stay flexible.
With our very chill schedule, our first camp would be relatively low on the mountain just around 8500’. Getting there was pretty easy and took maybe just a couple hours at a casual pace. We all figured it was probably one of our easiest days in the mountains, but the extended schedule would give us a few nice summit options. We set up camp, hung out in the sun, chatted about plant based diets, ate a bit, and called it an early night by 7pm.
We got a nice late start at 5am to begin our approach up to the base of the Fuhrer Finger. We had blue skies overhead, but the weather forecast upgraded our possibility of storms from “slight chance” to just regular “chance”. Across the horizon, Mount Adams and Mount Saint Helens were already covered with storm clouds as well. Taking a chance on the “chance”, we made the call to move up. If a storm did start to come in, we’d just have to figure something out.
Moving up through the Fuhrer Finger mostly consisted of tedious post-holing for a few hours. We wanted the sun to bake the snow just enough to slow down the falling rocks down the couloir. That worked well, but it made for a lot of trail breaking. I made the note to bring some sour blue raspberry snow cone syrup for the next time.
Post holing wasn’t the problem though, it was the rocks firing down the couloir from overhead. Every few minutes something on the team would yell “rock!!”, and we would all duck for cover. The rocks seemed to generally all follow a predictable pattern to the right of the couloir, so we held left. Andy took a direct hit on the Crand Couloir of Mont Blanc the previous year breaking his arm, and I could tell he didn’t want to have that happen again.
After a couple hours of moving, we managed to find shelter behind a small rock pinnacle for a much needed break. More than tired, I needed to take a #2. We were roped up short, so we all became better friends from that moment onward.
Holding down the tent
As we were getting closer and closer to the top of the Finger, we could see some ominous looking clouds rolling in just a few hundred meters behind us. The mountain below was already enveloped. It looked like the “chance of storms” was about to become “storms”. The sun was beating down on us and we were all worked, but we knew it was no time for a break. Between the falling rocks overhead and the storm clouds behind, we kept moving upward. We needed to find somewhere reasonable to set up shelter ASAP.
As soon as we popped out of the couloir, the clouds were now very close behind us so we quickly dug out a couple (almost) flat platforms and pitched up our tents. I had never actually experienced such a predictable storm where we could watch it come in at us like that. We popped into our tents just minutes before the dark storm clouds engulfed everything around us. Thunder, lightning, all that good stuff began to crackle around us. Andy yelled over to us from his tent to remember to inflate our sleeping pads and get rid of our metal gear.
Me: “Guys, did anybody remember to move our metal gear away from the tent?”
Andrew: “Dude, our ice axes are holding down the tent.”
We had all the fuel in our tent too, so I moved it away from my head area and said a little extra prayer for us not to get hit. I figured there was really nothing we could do about the situation, so I passed the time boiling snow into water. The storm proved to be temporary though, and after a couple hours we popped out, took some photos, ate dinner, fell leg deep into a couple snow motes, and called it a night.
She makes me weak in the legs
We woke up at 4:30am, for another late alpine start to finally top off the route. The plan was now to finish off the moderately steep snow climbing to the summit and camp in the crater. We knew from a few sources that there would be a major hurdle though- a big bergschrund guarding the gentler upper slopes of the mountain. We had already seen a couple parties turn around, but we figured we would give it a look in person. After all, summiting and descending the Ingraham Direct would be a lot easier and safer than backtracking our route peppered with falling rocks.
Moving over the now hard frozen snow posed a different challenge than the postholing of the previous day. Now we had a few thousand feet of French stepping ahead of us, which can get tiresome eventually. I find that my French-step-calf muscles don’t really develop fully until the middle of the climbing season, and I’m yet to figure out how to maintain them in the gym. That always frustrates me a bit, but we all kept on moving, everybody breathing hard. We knew that if we wanted to have a good shot at crossing the bergschrund we would need to get there before the sun baked everything out.
As we approached the obstacle at hand, we ran into a couple of skiers headed down. We stopped and asked them how they managed to cross the bergschrund. According to them, they climbed up the Ingraham Direct and were descending the Fuhrer Finger. There were a few “pretty sketch” snowbridges, but nothing they felt was safe enough to climb. Out of a little bit of sheer badassery and a lot of sheer desperation, they jumped the bergschrund on their skis. They said they wouldn’t choose to climb up it, but it was only about 500 feet above and we could see for ourselves. We decided to see it for ourselves.
We got closer and could see that it really was massive, cracking from one side of the mountain to the other. It is the exact point where the entire Nisqually glacier pulls away from the cap of the mountain. There was one obvious floating snowbridge at maybe 60 or 70 degrees that looked super sketchy and did not fully connect to the upper glacier. It would involve some sporty moves and maybe a little jump to get across it. We could see a few wandering bootpacks hopelessly leading to nowhere. Andy was not ready to call it a day though, or maybe he just really didn’t want to descend the route, because he began to inspect the bottom of the bridge. We confirmed that it would definitely require some sporty ice climbing, with a failure resulting in a massive crevasse fall. A fall could also trigger ice to calve off, which could potentially lead to some pretty bad things. Falling was a non-option.
With a lot of inspecting from above and below, Andy grabbed his two ice tools and slowly began leading the pitch. After a few easier moves, he was out of sight. A long pause, and a minute or two later, we could see his red helmet emerging as he pulled onto the upper glacier. He had made it!
Andrew was next, and a few minutes later, his helmet popped out on the other side too! It looked that this was happening. Next it was my turn. Andy threw a rope down and I clipped in and yelled “climbing!”. After a few awkward sequences and the ol’ alpine knee, I pulled up onto the upper glacier as well. I was thoroughly impressed that Andy led this without falling. Erik and Clyde popped up next, and we were all up. We all high fived. Summit time!
At this point, Erik told us that he didn’t want to make a big deal of it, but now that the summit was going to happen, this would be his #100 summit of Mount Rainier. What a pro!
We made our way up and around the gentle snow slopes for the next couple hours, crossing over the impressive glaciers below. As the rocky summit peaked into view, we knew that we could rest for the night soon. At that point, the summit represented a place for us to sleep as much as a point of success. Getting onto the summit was awesome, made a little more dramatic by the hard work, the heavy winds, and especially by it being Erik’s big ONE-ZERO-ZERO. We took a few photos that he live posted to Instagram, and we dropped down into the crater hoping to escape the weather.
Dropping into the crater, the winds didn’t stop. We set up our tents and huddled into our sleeping bags. We boiled water and forced each other to drink. It was a good climbing day.
Sleeping at 4000m is always a challenge for me on the first night. What also didn’t help was that I opted to bring an ultralight 30F bag to sleep on the summit of Mount Rainier. When I type it now, it actually sounds pretty stupid. But, that is what I brought so I had to live with it. The night was mostly a shiver-fest, made more exiting by relentlessly howling winds, freezing water bottles, missing headache pills, a poorly stuffed pillow, and my stomach not agreeing with my not fully rehydrated Santa Fey Black Beans and Chicken meal. I ended up wearing my Gortex gloves on my feet to keep them warm- it looked pretty weird.
As the morning came around and the sun came out, I had at least a few hours of sleep under my belt- plenty for getting down the mountain. As we all unzipped out of our bags, I could tell that I wasn’t the only one who had a bad night. The wind was still going hard, but we had the comfort knowing that we would probably be a lot warmed as we got down the mountain.
We made our run down the mountain taking the Ingraham Direct, stripping our layers and encouraging groups on their way up. Even though we were a bit short on sleep, food, and water, the idea of a big burger down in Ashford powered us.
Arriving back to the Paradise parking lot is always a relief for me. The word “safety” is what goes through my head as I step onto the pavement. We unlocked the IMG van and busted out a cooler filled with sodas and chips- how nice that was! We stopped by the IMG office, dropped our gear off, and headed out to the famous Wildberry Restaurant for some burgers and beers. Erik shared his story of climbing Cho Oyo alpine style from scrap ropes when the mountain was not fixed. Andy shared his stories of being on Everest and taking a fall during the 2015 earthquake.
After saying goodbye to new friends at the airport and arriving back home in Seattle, it was amazing to think that just a few hours before we were waking up on the summit of Mount Rainier. It was a four days well spent.
International Mountain Guides really impressed me with this climb. I have climbed with other Rainier guide services (to remain unnamed…) in the past and never walked away fully happy. IMG’s support was really fantastic through and through. Andy and Erik, our guides, were both just awesome. They absolutely knew how to navigate the expedition in a responsible fashion while also keeping it fun. George Dunn’s pre-climb communication was solid and I have no doubt that was a driving factor towards putting together a solid climbing team. IMG easily gets my #1 recommendation for guided climbing on Rainier.