Izzy is a stupendous climber, a great writer, amazing instructor and all-around awesome person. This year she went on a personal trip with some other COBS instructors, with some support through the Staff Development Fund. Because it was such an epic trip involving ski mountaineering three Washington volcanoes, we’ll be splitting up the story into several parts. Without further ado, Part I: Mt Rainier.
There are dreams and there is reality. And then, there is the reality that your dreams don’t have to stay dreams.
When you are excited about life, dreaming isn’t restricted to the wee hours of the night or the idle moments in the day. With every photo, video and blog post of mountain adventures that floods my 21st century life, I feel the spark of adventure. I mentally photo-shop myself into the images and stories, wondering what it would be like to be there. So instead of dreaming the day away, I plan the next adventure.
For the four of us, 2 New Yorkers and two brothers from the U-P of Michigan, our most recent dream took place on the volcanoes of Washington; Mt. Rainer, Mt. Baker and Mt. Adams. Inspired by our love for the mountains, climbing up them and sliding down them on high-tech pieces of wood, we started planning our adventure.
Months passed, we were living our own lives while briefly exchanging emails, texts, videos, avalanche forecasts and weather reports. Before we knew it, the day rolled around when we had to pack to the car and drive. As Brennen and I began our drive, it was really hitting me that we were in it. I’d been day dreaming about this trip for so long and now we were counting down the miles to Mt. Rainier.
I had seen Rainier before, even hiked up to the Muir Camp (a camp for a climber’s route) but when I arrived in the parking lot with the ambition to summit and ski down, that mountain looked a hell of a lot better. I learned quickly that the scale of climbing volcanoes in the Northwest is quite big, like really big.
The parking lot at the Paradise trailhead was buzzing with people; day hikers, mountaineers, skiers, everyone here for different reasons but all here none the less. As we started skinning, I thought more about why I was here. I’ve been working the last four or five years to build a foundation of skills that would allow me to explore mountains in any way they were presented to me. I’ve backpacked, snowboarded, rock climbed and ice climbed my way across the country and it seemed to me that the next step was to start riding bigger lines and traveling on glaciers. So through jobs, personal trips and classes, I have worked my way up to this point, where climbing and skiing volcanoes was an absolutely terrifying but somewhat attainable goal to set for myself.
Taylor and I roped up under the lower Nisqually glacier and started our ascent. The colors, shapes and size of the mountain were blowing my mind and then I would remember that there are giant gouges in the glacier waiting to eat me and would have to check back into where I was walking. A light breeze took the edge off the sun as we climbed up the ridge to access our high camp, which we affectionately named “camp awesome”. Camp awesome was a small snow patch at 9,500′ looking out to Mt. Adams, St. Helens, the Tatoosh Range and of course the entrance to the Fuhrer Finger (our route to the summit). As we settled into our tents, I felt calm and ready for the adventure that would be our summit attempt. That calm feeling dissipated as my stomach started to churn (I had not full recovered from a recent stomach bug) and the wind began to whip the tent walls around in an apathetic fury.
At 1am, when my alarm rang, I was getting smacked in the face by the wall of our tent. My stomach felt awful, it was freezing and the 40mph gusts only amplified the intensity of the situation. I was convinced we would be hanging out in the tent for a few more hours or bailing completely. I was wrong, everyone around me started moving and packing. It took me a few minutes to convince myself to get out of the sleeping bag but I did.
We crossed the glacier in the dark, which wasn’t so bad since we had scouted a route the night prior. At the base of the Fuhrer Finger we un-roped and began boot-packing up the couloir. In the darkness and dim light of my headlamp I had no real idea where I was, what was around me, how steep the terrain was or how far we had to go. It was psychologically intense for me to deal with all this and not feel overly anxious. The wind cut through my gloves, my shell and my mental peace. I was getting pushed around on steep snow, trying to hold myself into the slope with each gust.
As the sun crept over the adjacent ridge, Taylor and I felt a slight sense of rejuvenation from our personal hells. The early morning light was not so helpful in warming our cold hands but definitely took some of the edge off of the climb. We carried on, still getting pushed around by the wind, still fighting the urge to puke, just one foot slowly in front of the other.
We navigated through a few snow bridges and climbed a steep headwall, bringing us to that last major slog before the summit. That last slog would entail another 1,500′ of vertical gain, navigating more crevasses and at least three more hours of walking in the cold wind. I didn’t have it in me. I had to sit and ask myself why I was here. Though it would be nice to see what the world looks like from up there, I didn’t come here to stand on top of Mt. Rainier. I came to ski the Fuhrer Finger, which would soon be turning in to tasty spring corn conditions.
Telling your partner that you want to turn around, in what seems like close proximity to a summit is no easy request. But, when you tie into a rope with someone you have to trust them. I knew Taylor would trust that I was making the best decision for myself but it still sucks.
We down climbed the steep headwall that we had just climbed and when we felt like we were in a good spot, we strapped in. The slope above the “Finger” was still pretty icy but as we worked our way into the couloir proper the snow turned to soft corn snow. We opened up, making steep turns. The couloir is huge, about 2,000′ of 40+ degree snow that opens up into a crevasse scoured glacier. As I worked my way through the Finger, I howled. When I started snowboarding in Vermont five years ago, this is not where I thought I would find myself.
We made it back to camp, packed up quickly, eager to get down and eat food, drink cold beer and you know…sleep! We descended another 5,000′, back down to the world of cars and gift shops. The rest of the night is a blur of exhaustion but sometime the next day I woke up, sore and damn proud of it.
Without wasting time or washing dishes, we headed north to Bellingham to meet up with Jack and Dan, who we’d be adventuring with for the rest of our time in the PNW. We spent the night in Bellingham and then spent the following day sorting gear, making a plan and buying food.
Check back soon for Part II: Mount Baker. Thanks to Izzy for the story and photos!