Trip Report: Mt. Rainier, WA

"You need to be in the best shape of your life."

For month's RMI's fitness warning haunted me. I knew I wasn't in the "best shape of my life," not out of shape, but no where near my shape in 2009 (when I training for the bike racing season). Based on that, and my performance on Long's Peak, I figured I had about a 60% chance of summiting.

Team Varmit - the Long's Peak team - arrived a couple days early to sneak in a few acclimatization hikes before joining the rest of the team. We asked around for hike recommendations - the most obvious (which we hadn't considered) came from Paradise's Climbing Permit Ranger who suggested hiking to Camp Muir. What better way to prepare than to hike what you are going to have to hike?

We, as a group, were a little apprehensive about tackling such a large prospect on our first day in the park. We talked ourselves into doing a lesser hike, to Panorama Point, and continuing onto Muir if we felt strong.
On the mountain that plan was quickly discarded. We set a fast pace, easily out pacing the RMI teams on the mountain, and blitzed past the Panorama Point turnoff. In no time we found ourselves on the Muir snowfield.

Throughout the hike to Camp Muir (we would turn back about an hour away from the camp), I felt good. I was never out of contact with the lead hiker, oftentimes setting the pace myself, and I never felt winded, a complete turn-around from Long's Peak. My 60% estimate was beginning to seem overly conservative.

We had signed up for RMI's five day Mt. Rainier summit program. The first day serves as a gear check, the lead guide verifies you have the necessary equipment to survive the mountain (if not rental gear is available). The second day is a skills school, where the team is taught the skills necessary to survive the mountain. The third through fifth days are the climb/descent days.

Our group's lead guide, JJ Justman had (at this point) climbed six of the fourteen 8000 meter peaks, including K2 and three trips to Everest, and summited Mt. Rainier 183 times.

The other members of our team were nearly as impressive. Two had just returned from Kilimanjaro. Two were from Colorado and had hiked many of the 14ers. I was definitely on the lower end of experience with these folks.

During the skills day, it was readily apparent that this was a team that came prepared to summit. Everyone quickly grasped the skill being taught, from the rest step to team arrest. At the end of the day, the guides were happy to report we all easily passed the skills portion.
All that was left was the climb.

I don't recall much about the march to Camp Muir. Our team rather quickly established a rhythm and the miles just evaporated away. I recall noticing that this ascent to Muir was easier and required much less energy than Team Varmit's acclimation hike (nearly) to Muir. A testament to efficient (American-style) hiking.

When we reached camp, JJ broke the news. 60+ MPH winds were predicted for our scheduled summit day. If they materialized, we would have to forgo the summit. If we felt strong, and were willing to lose our "rest/acclimatization" day, he was more than willing to attempt the summit a day early. No one said anything. Two members inadvertently said, "Yes!" before catching themselves - no one wanted to push "weaker" climbers. JJ gave us until 5pm to voice reservations in private.

By 5pm, the decision was made: We would attempt to summit a day early. Furthermore, the rope teams were also set. I would be on the second rope team, in the third position (the team of 12 was broken into three teams of four - a guide followed by three clients).

I didn't know what to think about my position assignment - I felt good, but interpreted the position as a sign the guides saw weakness. (The events of the next day would prove this to be an incorrect interpretation).
By 6pm, the entire team were in their tents trying to sleep before our 11/12ish wakeup call.

At 11:45pm, JJ woke up the team - after a quick breakfast, we started our ascent.

The first hour of hiking is a blur - I remember feeling tired and altering my step to increase my Rest Steps, but no definitive moment stands out. At our first break, I discovered my dietary plans for the day were not going to work - I couldn't stomach the sandwiches I brought. Not good - given I had restricted my food to the bare minimum, there was very little margin of error. Not eating one portion of my allotment, had unfortunate (potential) consequences.

My dietary anxiety was cut short by one of the guides - he needed to remove one of his rope team - and that was me. Self doubt raged inside me - "What weakness do they see that I don't?"

The doubt vanished when I was paced as the lead rope team's anchor. The lives of two people were now in my hands. The lead rope team sets the pace and finds the route - if there are hidden dangers, we will find them first. The anchor position is a rope team's last hope - if everything else fails, and the team starts to fall, the anchor MUST stop the fall.


With my new responsibilities we headed out. As we reached Disappointment Cleaver, we paused and two of our group turned back. Neither seemed pleased about it, but both knew they were not 100% and turned around willingly.

The rest of the climb to the summit was without incident - not easy, but not incredibly difficult. Pressure Breathing and efficient stepping proved incredible - I felt more rested at the top of Rainier than I had on 7k Alpine passes!


Without the adrenal push of the summit to encourage you, the descent becomes a slog. The snow is much softer and slipping is a very real (and often indulged in) danger. Any relaxation of focus, to admire the view for example, results in a slip or stumble.

But our group did well. Well enough that we often paused to perform trail maintenance - fixing a ladder, flagging crevasses, and closing routes. 14 hours after we started, we arrived back at Camp Muir. A day later we would return to the trail head and then back to our lives.




Trip Report: Long's Peak, CO

After I signed up for the Tour du Mont Blanc trip, I was surprised to discover I was disappointed the group would not attempted the summit of Mont Blanc. I had never done any outdoors climbing, nor had shown any serious inclination towards summit bagging. And yet, I felt incredible disappointment that the tour was only going to hike around Mont Blanc.

I mentioned this to a co-worker, prophetically suggested "perhaps I should sign up with RMI and see what mountaineering is really about." Not three weeks later, the same co-worker told me of a Mt. Rainier trip that  was short a participant back out. I immediately signed up.

The team had a range of experience, so we arranged to meet up for a training climb up Colorado's Long's Peak, a 14,000 ft peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Long's Peak (including final Boulder Field) as seen from base camp. For scale, note the tiny human figure on snow field near the middle of the picture.

The five and a half hour hike to base camp was not easy. 3000ft elevation gain (9k to 12k ft) at altitude with a hefty pack makes one annoyingly slow.

After we set up camp, I crashed - moving and motivating was very difficult, I was beginning to think this whole mountaineering thing was a massive mistake. The rest of the team set of to recon the next day's route, but I stayed at base camp to try and recuperate.

While they were gone, I rested in one of the tents. Sleep and forcing myself to eat (something I had neglected on the hike to base camp), ultimately fixed the problem. After a few hours, I felt like a human again - not 100%, but easily capable of pulling my own weight.

The night was EPIC! Heavy winds, rain, and small hail (or loud snow) battered the tent. The night was so rough, I began to have trouble sleeping WHEN IT WASN'T STORMING! I'd wake up in a start, hear nothing and not be able to fall asleep until the wind pulled at the tent. After that I'd be out like a baby.

I woke the next morning feeling like a real human - perfectly normal. My apatite still wasn't there (only ate half of my breakfast), but I was able to slowly navigate the bolderfield with the group.

Snow field leading to the Cable route

After the boulderfield we faced the snowfield - a >30% grade of mixed depth snow. This kind of traversal is very difficult - Every step must be secured: Stab the ice ax into the snow, check resistance. Kick step with right foot, shift weight. Kick step with left foot, shift weight. Lift Ice ax - repeat.

As you get tired, you start to get lazy - maybe I only need to kick once to make the step (normally I kicked three times per step). Any time this happened, I would shake my head to regain focus. Your life, and the life of your team, depends on the quality of your steps - getting lazy is a good way to get dead.

Mike, Mike, and Me on the snow field (Photo by Chaz Wendling).

The toughest test of the snow field came at the end. Chaz, who had the most climbing experience, was tasked with securing us to the rock face - a task that took at least 45 minutes. During that time we were stuck, roped together, in our last foot holds. Imagine standing with one foot on a step for 45 minutes without being able to move more than a few inches.

After securing the ropes, Chaz skillfully climbed the face (to the second pitch) in his plastic boots and crampons - a feat I was not able to replicate.

The rest of us followed, sans crampons, and by 11 we had all reached the second pitch.

Unfortunately, at this point clouds had started to form on the horizon - we knew the day held a 50% chance of thunderstorms, something we didn't not want to experience on the exposed summit. So, we turned around and returned to base camp. To quote Ed Viesturs, "Getting to the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory."

Despite not summitting, this trip was a major eye opener for me. The combined impact of altitude and nutrition torpedoed my first day. I corrected this on the second day and felt incredibly strong when we turned back (so strong in fact, I lead the snowfield descent).



Updates or How plans change...

Every January, I sit down and plan out my year. Where I want to visit, what I want to accomplish, and what training I would need. Then, like clockwork, every March I throw out all those plans and do something completely different.

In 2009, injury torpedoed my racing schedule and training.

In 2010, work obligations wildly changed my plans.

2011 has continued this tradition. I started the year planning a massive 14 state road trip - centered around a bike ride in Georgia. For hiking, I planned on spending weekend after weekend in New Hampshire White Mountains. My goal was to save money for a large trip in 2012.

The end of February brought an opportunity to hike the Tour du Mont Blanc with friends from last year's Glacier National Park trip. After some considerable introspection, I threw away my previous plans and committed to the hike. My 14 state road trip was replaced by a 15-day backpacking adventure in the Alps.

May offered another opportunity - a climb up Mt. Rainier. A friend of a friend had meticulously planned a Mt. Rainier summit trip. Unfortunately, one of the participants had to cancel, leaving the trip one short. Our mutual friend knew I was hoping to book a climb in Washington state for the early fall. When she mentioned this opportunity, I immediately seized it.

So there you have it, 2011 has gone from a year with no truly epic trips, to a year with two once-in-a-lifetime trips:

  • Tour du Mont Blanc - 15 July - 30 July 2011

  • Mt. Rainier Summit Attempt - 15 August to 23 August

Wish me luck, and look forward to the upcoming stories and pictures!


Trip Report: Glacier National Park - Huckleberry Mtn & Piegan Pass

Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

The aptly named Huckleberry Mountain is famous for the huckleberry bushes found along its trails. Unfortunately, besides hungry hikers, bears also frequent this area. So much so that, Backpacker Magazine named this hike one of America's 10 most dangerous hikes ( October 2008).

For us, fortunately, the hike was an uneventful, unending, ascent which culminated in a great view and an even better Huckleberry cobbler at dinner.

the trail to the summit (as seen from Huckleberry Mtn's summit)

Ptarmigan on the Huckleberry summit

The next day was the "worst" day of the trip; the one day where the weather didn't cooperate. The plan was to hike Piegan Pass and learn about animal tracking, however we had to truncate the hike due to the weather (rock scrambling + rain = trouble).

Fortunately, damp ground makes animal tracking much easier, so the guide was able to easily show us and challenge us to identify tracks.

Midway into the hike, we happened upon a couple from Seattle heading down the trail. They had found bear scat and, not knowing how recent or whether it was from a Grizzly or Black bear, decided to retreat.

Our guide offered to help them identify it, and after a few minutes of hiking, we were all gathered around the bear droppings.

The guide went through how to differentiate bear scat (large volume, like a gallon, is generally Grizzly), how to avoid surprising bears (keep talking to each other or yourself), and why they needn't worry today (you have bear spray and the wind at your back, so your scent will prevent you from startling the bear).

Shortly after this lesson, the weather turned for the worst and we voted to abandon the hike. On the return trip, however, we spotted a goat over a mile away

Can you spot the goat? (click for zoomed image)

In the end, the decision was a very good one. Despite the weather initially clearing, as we drove past Logan Pass this was the sight we were greeted with.

Jammers in the fog at Logan Pass

Trip Report: Glacier National Park - Logan Pass

Every year the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) working in conjunction with The Glacier Institute organizes a major excursion to Glacier National Park in Montana.

The tone of the excursion was set pretty early. After our welcome dinner, the manager of the Glacier Institute's Field Camp took us on a short hike around the camp. Not ten minutes into the hike, we happen upon a young Black bear.

We were walking in tall grass between the Flathead river and a road; we had just stopped to see if there were any coyotes among the horses in an opposite field, when a large four legged animal jumped up and ran through the grass, not 20 feet from us.

It wasn't until the animal stopped running, and stood on its hind legs that it became obvious (to those bear neophytes in the group, myself included) the large animal was a Black Bear. The bear stared at us for a little bit, before running off (encouraged by the noise the guide was making).

Not five hours into our trip and we had our first large animal sighting. The encounter changed the group somewhat. It is something to be told to be "bear aware." It is quite something else to actually have an encounter. The later guarantees you will take any bear tips very seriously.

The next day, we headed out early, for our "real" introduction to the park at Logan Pass.

Logan Pass sits on the Continental Divide and is the stopping point for most visitors traversing the park by car.

Two trails originate from this Pass, the southbound Hidden Lake trail and the northbound Highline trail. We started the day by heading south to see the Hidden Lake.

Hidden Lake

Hidden Lake

Almost immediately we were beset by wildlife: Goats grazing, Long Horned Sheep relaxing, and Pika foraging.


Wild Goat "admiring" the trail's flowers

On the Highline trail, in contrast, there were fewer animals to be seen; however a chance sighting of a Golden Eagle (and the view) made the trek immanently worth while.

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle

The view from the Highline Trail

I had signed onto this trip to just see Glacier National Park and maybe some wildlife. In the first two days this trip exceeded all of my expectations.