In May, my law partner, Derek Graham, and I went mountain climbing. We traveled to the state of Washington in an attempt to summit Mount Rainier, the highest point in the lower 48 states. The goal was 14,000 feet.
We made these plans in November of 2021 and we trained to be ready for the hike and climb. We were told that we would be climbing 1000 feet per hour. Derek and his trainer determined that to achieve this, we would need to train by walking at a speed of no less than two miles per hour at a 15% incline on a treadmill. Since we would be walking at a higher altitude on the mountain and were unable to replicate that here in Columbus, he and I decided to push the mph to 3 ½ during our training.
While climbing the mountain was exciting, climbing the treadmill was not. I am not a person who enjoys exercise. I like exercise (in general) because it makes me feel good, but I never seem to remember that good feeling when I am trying to motivate myself to exercise. My mind simply cannot conjure up the endorphin rush or the satisfaction I get after a workout any time prior to it. Inertia is strong in my rear end – when my bottom is at rest it tends to stay at rest!
We were very pleased that our workouts proved to be successful. Neither of us struggled too badly with the altitude or the climbing. Our first day consisted of training on the lower slopes of the mountain at a place called Paradise. We practiced walking in crampons (a traction device that is attached to footwear to improve mobility), falling and digging in so that we did not slide, using our axe to stop a slide, and walking on a rope as a team. The point of the rope is so that folks do not get lost and if anyone slips or falls into a crevasse, they are connected to others who then can stop the slide or the fall. It snowed the entire time we were training, and it was very cold.
The first actual day of the hike was beautiful. We started at 5000 feet. We had sunny skies and warm temperatures. We walked with our packs on our back, and all of our warm clothes were in the packs.
The weather remained this way until we got above the clouds – it was then that Mount Rainier’s own weather system took over. A cold wind began to blow along with snow and ice. Luckily this was for only the last 1000 feet or so and then we arrived at our stopping point for the day at 10,800 feet at a place called Camp Muir.
All the hikers were excited to determine if we would be able to submit the next morning. The plan was to get to bed in our primitive bunkhouse at 6:00 p.m. and sleep until midnight or 1 a.m., and then begin our trip in the dark up to the summit. At 6:00 p.m. the guides informed us that we would probably not be submitting. The snowstorm had turned into a blizzard with sustained winds of 40 mph and gusts of 70 mph. So, we settled in for a cold, long night.
The accommodations at Camp Muir were very primitive. The bunkhouse consisted of just that, bunks made out of flat wood. Really, they weren't bunks at all; they were simply flat boards stacked on top of each other with a gap large enough for a human being in between the levels. There was no running water at Camp Muir, so water came from melted snow. The floor of the bunkhouse was covered in ice and snow. We did not take our heavy hiking boots off until we were in our bunk.
The outhouse was 75 yards from the bunkhouse. The route to the outhouse was marked by a yellow rope that had to be followed because we could not see very well due to the wind, snow and decreasing light. Because of these conditions, going to the bathroom required us to get geared up as if we were still hiking: Gore tex coat and pants over top of a down coat, over top of a fleece jacket, over top of thermal underwear. The outfit was completed with a warm hat and ski goggles. When I arrived at the outhouse the first time, the door was snow covered about halfway. I had to shovel it out. Once inside, the wind stopped but there was snow on the ground and a very cold toilet seat.
Forty mile-per-hour winds, and gusts of 70 mph greeted us as we woke on our "summit" day. We knew we were not going to summit, and at that point we were just hoping that we would be able to get down the mountain safely. Our guides told us that we were going to perhaps wait out the storm, but after checking with various weather models and folks at 1000 feet, our guides decided that they needed to get us down.
At that time, we began traveling down the 5000 feet we had just climbed yesterday in whiteout snow conditions. My heart raced as we began. Everyone had to yell in order to be heard which added to the tension and anxiety. Our guides told us to keep close to the person in front of you and keep walking.
One aspect of the walking that was disconcerting was that our guide would occasionally stop and check his GPS and then correct himself. As a purely novice adventurer, having my guide use a GPS in a snowstorm was definitely not something that made me comfortable. The idea of the guide being lost and us walking further than we had to was not something I wanted to consider.
As we walked downward, the snow turned to ICE and then the ice turned to rain. We took just two breaks on the way down because when we stopped walking, we got cold. We had to take them because we had to keep drinking water. Turns out walking down a mountain in a snowstorm is hard work. Our equipment was doing its job keeping us warm but it was also causing us to sweat. We had to replenish fluids.
As we came down the mountain in the rain, we saw other groups beginning their ascent and found out just how lucky we were. One group that was headed up to Camp Muir that day was forced to turn around at just 6000 feet because of the weather conditions. I felt terribly sorry for those folks.
By the time we arrived back down at 5000 feet, our group was soaking wet and very tired, but there were smiles on all of our faces – including mine and Derek’s. Derek said that he may go back to try to summit Mount Rainier again, but I will not be attempting that again. I let my wife know that I was done mountain climbing – unless somebody asks me, then I may need to reconsider. Ha!