Mount Rainier Climb - September 6, 7, 8 2006 - Kurtiss Stecker and Ramon Ebert climbers.
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The plan was so simple... Load the RV on Saturday, head out on a leisurely drive up I5 to Rohnert Park to stay at a RV Park in wine country...
Well we loaded and left okay. That was about the last event that stayed on schedule. Going through LA a chair was right in the middle of our lane. An RV trailer on our right and the car in front of me nudged the chair to the left side of the lane. Didn't leave me many options at 65MPH. I got as far right as I could and hit the chair on the left side of the motor home. It was a glancing blow and only left a smudge.
Somewhere north of Bakersfield on I5 in the San Joaquin Valley in 107 degree heat the turbo in our Mercedes Diesel engine decided to spin down. Turbo diesels without a turbo don't run nearly as well as you might think... After many useless calls to Winnebago and Dodge we resolved to limp into Oakland and stay with Mandi's brother and then sort out our situation. We cruised along at a stately 50MPH until late late...
The next day we got on the internet and had our problem diagnosed in less than 5 minutes. Our Turbo Resonator had failed. Apparently due to a design flaw or poor workmanship it's a common failure in Mercedes Turbo Diesels for the PLASTIC Turbo Resonator, which resides in the EXHAUST of the turbo, to break down and start to allow hot gases to flow over a sensor which in turn turns off the turbo thinking it is suffering a catastrophic failure. Of course nothing of the kind was happening, just a plastic part was getting too hot!
We found a Dodge dealership that handled our vehicle within 20 miles of Oakland and dropped the motor home off there. It was Sunday and of course the service dept. was closed so we left detailed information has to our situation.
Then we went and found an Avis to rent a car to continue our journey. We decided Kurtiss and I would drive up and do our climb and Mandi would fly to Seattle a couple days later to visit with her aunt and meet us when we came down.
Finally in Ashford WA. We checked into Whitakers Bunkhouse and checked out the lay of the land. We devoured a pizza and went to get gear ready for Snow School the next day.
Snow School was interesting and fun. People were kind of sizing everyone else up, getting a feel for peeps experience and fitness level. Some folks looked fit and ready and some didn't.
We went through snow school losing our first member. We learned how to walk, fall, slide and stop sliding on snow, in roped teams, and on rock in crampons. It was pretty fun.
We headed back in the early afternoon and were back down in Ashford by 5PM. After some lecturing on food and duration of climb Kurtiss and I went to a grocery store and loaded up on junk food!
We got packed and had another pizza... We weren't in bed terribly early but we did sleep well.
We both got up early and got a shower in the one bathroom in the bunkhouse, for 30 people but hey, it was $30 a night...
We were the first ones outside and stood around in the cold like over-anxious mountain geeks. We also were the only ones with our plastic boots on already...
Eventually the teams formed and we stood around with some of the same people from the snow school. Right on time Brent Okita, Leon Davis and Billy Nugent (no relation to Ted) came out. Our head guide and his two assistants. Brent is an exceedingly friendly gentleman. I thought his disposition was in contrast somewhat of his chosen vocation, but he certainly looked fit. As did his two assistants. I'd spent snow school under the watchful eye of Leon so we had a bit of a report early on.
We loaded up the busses where Kurtiss and I once again took up our customary positions in the back. Up to Paradise where we repeated the previous day's process of getting ready and heading to the trail head. We started from the parking lot and spent some time on sidewalk before we hit paved trail. Quite a few miles in good trail till we hit snow at which point most folks changed from their lighter hiking boots to the their plastics and got crampons on. We also ate a short lunch here.
This process was consistent through out the climb. Generally walk an hour to an hour and half and take a short, 15 minute, break to eat and drink a little, then back at it. The pace is very reasonable, bordering on slow, but it was a pace most everyone could manage. We lost the second member of our team on the march to Muir Camp.
The last snow field before Camp Muir is pretty melted and wet late in the afternoon so that was a little chilly. Beyond that the hike was easy, comfortable and a nice little walk on a beautiful mountain. Camp Muir sits a little over 10,000 feet above sea level and you can start to feel the effects of the thinning air.
We headed up to the hut and got our spots picked and our bedding ready somewhat. We ate and drank a little and waited for some more lecturing. After about an hour Brent sat us all down outside, since it was such a nice day, and gave a detailed rundown our the coming climb. From that information we all prepared our gear, practiced getting harness, helmet and avalanche beacon on and off. Then we ate a little dinner, tried to use the facilities and then hit the sack early. Pre-sundown early...
I'd brought my iPod loaded with Beethoven, and Mozart for just this purpose. This music helped me relax and eventually get a few hours sleep. I felt very strong that day and had little to no nervousness about our climb. My biggest problem was keeping my stuff out of Kurtiss' way and dealing with the Moonlight coming from the window I lay next to. We'd purposely planned our climb around the full moon thinking it would make the glaciers pretty at night...
Midnight clicked and the guides came in with hot water turning on lights and waking everyone, well, those that were asleep anyway...
We got our gear situated and all harnessed up and were on the glacier by 1:15AM. It was a stunningly beautiful night. Words truly can't capture how it felt in the moonlight on the glacier. The only sounds were the crunching of ice under crampon and my own breathing. We only had four on our rope at about 30 foot spacings. Our rope was led by Brent up front followed by Doc Dan Albert, then Kurtiss in front of me and I brought up the rear. Our rope team was followed closely by Leon's team and Billy's team was third.
Not long into the early part of our climb we lost one or two members. I didn't know they'd turned around or stopped, just that we were fewer at our first break. There was a moment of excitement early on when we heard shouts of “ROCK” from behind then the tell-tale cracks of rock hitting solid objects. Turns out a sizable rock tumbled down and passed right between two members on Billy's rope. Might have been why some folks decided they'd had enough.
At first it was flat but we quickly moved up onto the Disappointment Cleaver. Through this first section I felt like a yo-yo as the folks in front of me went up and down rises in the path. They'd slow down going up the take off on the other side. But I still had 30 feet to go to get to the top of the rise... It was fun though and I felt strong and happy.
The Cleaver pretty much sucked and since we couldn't really see what we were doing we had no idea of any exposure. From time to time I could feel a distinct emptiness off to one side. I usually leaned in as much as possible when I had those feelings...
At the top of the Cleaver we took another break and we lost a couple more team members. At this point they couldn't go back on their own so they were set up with a sleeping bag and ensured they had food and were left for a while. Truthfully I bet they had a great seat for an amazing sunrise a few hours later.
The trail from this point is strictly snow, the Cleaver being all rock, and pretty straight forward in terms if technical climbing. It's just pretty steep and you're starting to get some pretty good altitude going. It's mostly long switch backs with a seriously airy feeling off to your east. You can't see anything yet, it just seemed a little blacker over there. Soon the eastern sky started to lighten.
Around 12,000 feet the sun came up. We could try to sneak peaks from time to time but the trial, 6 inches wide in places, demanded attention. At times it felt like walking a tight-rope with crampons on.
As the sun came up my world got larger. In the dark, at the tail end, with only my headlamp provided light I felt very much like I was in a bubble. I could see the back of Kurtiss up ahead but couldn't interact with him. When we stopped we talked a little but the work to done on a break needs attention and you need to try to eat and drink as well. But with sun-up I could now see Doc and Brent up ahead and on switch backs could see Leon and his team behind us. And I could now see the glacier and the upper parts of the mountain.
Perhaps the dark was better... I could see where we were going and how we were going to get there and I was starting to suffer a bit... My stomach and head were starting to protest a bit. Interestingly Kurtiss got stronger in this section.
Our final break a about 1000 below the summit. At this point Billy's entire team has stopped and he with them. Leon, down to two climbers on his rope loses one more and is forced to turn around with him. His remaining climber gets on our rope behind me. When we started with only 4 on a rope made for 5 I was given about 40 feet of slack to coil around my upper body and carry. I gave this to Rick behind me and off we went.
The interesting thing for me now was that I hadn't really needed to pay much attention to the rope other than to not step on it when we turned corners at switchbacks. Now I had to manage the rope behind me to keep it out of Rick's feet as he turned these corners as Kurtiss had been doing ahead of me.
Quite soon, though seemingly not soon enough, we popped over the crater lip and into the caldera of Mount Rainier. This was the top. We'd made it... It was 7:45AM and took six and a half hours to get here.
Well, sort of. While the guides would count this as having summated the true high point is across the crater a scant 100 feet higher than the point at which entered...
As we stopped and pulled off packs and put on parkas, it was freezing cold and windy, Brent asked who wanted to tag the tippy top. I was in and so was Kurtiss. Nobody else was interested. However after I got up and took about 20 steps I could tell this was a bad idea. I didn't seem to have anything left. Starting about half way through the climb that day my neck began to cramp up. So much so that I started to not be able to look down. Looking down is fairly critical when climbing mountains...
At the last two breaks before the summit I was having a lot of difficulty getting my parka out of my pack and getting it on. I couldn't look down without extreme pain in my neck. It got to the point where I had to put my hand under my chin to support my head when I looked down. I could do this okay but the pain was rather stunning and surprising. Add to that the fact that above 13,000 feet I got more and more nauseas. I didn't puke but sure felt I might at any moment.
So after my 20 steps across the crater I knew that I would go no higher that day. I confirmed with Brent that where I was in fact did allow me to state that I had summited Mount Rainier then I sat down. If Brent had said no I would have gone on up there despite pain and potentially puking...
We were allowed about an hour to rest and eat and try to stay warm. It was very windy and sitting still get you cold in a hurry. Even with down parking, mountaineering gloves and fleece and thermal layers I was shivering and my teeth were chattering.
Kurtiss and Brent got back and they took a short break then we packed up and headed down. Of 9 climbers and 3 guides that started out in our team 4 climbers and 1 guide topped out. Since it was obviously that Kurtiss was now the strongest client he was moved to my position on the back of the rope. I was put in front of him, Rick in front of me and Doc again second behind Brent.
We went down at a pretty good clip. While going up is obviously tough, going down is nearly so. I was already worked pretty good and now we turned around to finish off the 9 miles back to Paradise, nearly all of which is downhill. And I still couldn't look down.
The cool part about this was that we could now see what was pitch black during the ascent. Turns out there was very little exposure. What there was mattered much less in my state of exhaustion. I was in a constant state of agony going down, my neck was killing me and now my feet and calves began to really complain as well. I was wearing brand new double plastic boots and they dug into the back of my calves. Eventually my calves went numb. Interestingly I believe I suffered some nerve damage because now months later the areas that went numb on my legs are still numb.
It was all fine and dandy until we got back to Disappointment Cleaver. We took a different route down and that reduced some of the exposure but basically you go down in crampons on scree and some solid granite. And you are still roped up but you have coils of rope in your hand so that you don't drag it. Now separated by only a few feet each time a rope-mate dropped down a 2 foot step you were pulled down almost on top of them. Added to this fun was a whipping wind that kept blowing dirt and sand into our faces, in our eyes and up our noses...
This hell lasted less than an hour and we were back on the glacier for the last mile to Camp Muir. Camp Muir was both a blessing and a curse. We reveled in congratulations, and we thoroughly enjoyed taking a break. But our main purpose at Camp Muir was to get all our gear packed eat a little, drink a little, and get back on the trail. We were there less than an hour.
Once packed up and loaded we started out. Immediately I could tell something was wrong. My legs didn't seem to want to work. My quads couldn't keep my legs slightly bent as one does in a normal walking stride. I would just collapse. After falling down several times I ended up having to walk straight-legged like a robot. Needless to say this was slow going. My teammates took off ahead of me. I didn't mind this since the route was obvious but Brent kept stopping everyone and waiting for me. I didn't like this at all. I'm usually the one waiting on folks in the mountains.
But this kept up. I kept my robot walk up and Brent kept stopping everyone. We got into a slightly steep mostly melted snowfield that was just ridiculous for me to try to get down. I kept falling while my teammates easily boot-skied down. Eventually Leon, who'd stayed behind to clean up a bit, caught me and asked me for my backpack. I argued with him a bit but I knew I was holding everyone up. I finally relented and he split my gear with Billy. I was completely demoralized... I've never had someone take gear from me, but have many times been on the other end of that transaction.
Once we got off the Muir snow field and on trail I changed from my plastic boots to my light hiking shoes. I then asked Leon for my pack back. He kept some of my items but at least he wasn't carrying my whole load and I was still carrying the 12 pounds of plastic boots in my pack too. I thought he was going to ask for those so I quickly stuffed them in my pack after I took them off.
With dry socks and comfy shoes on I moved a little better but I still couldn't support my weight on anything but locked straight legs...
It was about 3PM when I finally got to the parking lot at Paradise and thankfully the team didn't have to wait only for me as a couple others were struggling as well and actually came in behind me. I don't mean this in a competitive way, only that others were suffering on this epic day besides me.
Kurtiss however looked like he was ready to go back up! Unknown to me at the time at the first break at 2:30AM Kurtiss had puked. He'd swallowed it back down so that the guides wouldn't turn him around. He really struggled in the first few hours of the climb but as it went on he really did feel better and get stronger. Kurtiss was a mule that day!
The rest of this story involves lots of driving and motor homes getting repaired and us getting home...
Damn... When I first got back from this trip I was pretty down on myself and mountaineering in general. But a few months later, it's now early December, I am looking for my next mountain.