After dinner, there’s not much else to do in Camp Muir. We have a short meeting with the guides about tomorrow’s plans, and the idea is floated that if conditions are perfect and the entire group agrees, maybe we will be summiting mount Rainer tomorrow! The original climb plan for our three day expedition was to get to Camp Muir on day one (check). Day Two would be spend with mountaineering school in the morning, followed by climbing to high camp at 11,000 feet for a day of acclimatization. We would go to bed super early, get up at midnight, climb to the top of the mountain, then climb all the way back to the parking lot.
That sounds like a long day. I like the new plan much better.
Thursday at 9AM. It’s go time. Chris and I are in a van with six strangers making nervous small talk. Since leaving Seattle, Mount Rainier has dominated our view, and the longer we drive, the bigger the mountain gets.
As we were on final approach to Seattle the day before, I was pretty excited to get a glimpse of Mt. Rainier from the plane. I snapped a quick photo as we flew by.
“Look! Mt. Rainier!” I said with a measure of relief to my seatmate. “Doesn’t look too bad!” He ignored me completely.
“Actually, it looks a bit, I dunno… small.” I blathered on as he continued to ignore me, “I’m climbing that tomorrow. I got this.”
A few minutes later, my smirking seatmate tapped me on the shoulder.
“Uhh, hate to say it, but you were looking at Mount Adams earlier. That’s Mount Rainier right there, son.”
I exhale forcefully and, as I was taught, imagine I’m trying to blow out a candle three feet away. At thirteen thousand feet above sea level, the air is thinner, and something as simple as breathing requires concentration. Mechanically one foot moves in front of the other. I’ve lost all focus except getting that next lungful of air in, forcing that next foot to move upward a little bit more, blowing that next candle out. I’ve forgotten why I am here, way up on the side of this mountain, staring at a route that keeps getting impossibly longer; impossibly steeper; impossibly higher. Nothing makes sense anymore. The lazier part of my brain is pleading with me to stop.
The other part of my brain screams, “This is stupid!”
It’s 3 AM, and the rain that had been hammering the thin roof of the tent most of the night seems to have mostly stopped, at least for now. Mostly exposed at High Camp, a little over 11,000 feet on a mountain in a bad storm, there isn’t much opportunity for sleep, especially when the lightning is so close that the flash and boom happen at exactly the same time. Earlier, I’d asked the guide what we should do in the event of lightning. The answer was short and sweet: “Try to sleep through it, because there ain’t anything else you can do.”
Easier said than done. I’ve been awake most of the night. So has Cole. Everyone in camp is probably awake. If the thunder didn’t do the trick, if the nervous anticipation of a summit push didn’t do the trick, I’m pretty certain the echoing crashes of rocks falling in a frightening landslide did. I start to question the wisdom of my decision to try this mountain thing again…
Four months ago, I was invited to climb a mountain with John Layfield and Michael Cole. Until that day, I mostly considered mountains something that planes fly over, or maybe motorcycles ride through, but never something to climb. I had no idea what I was in for.
To get myself ready for the rigors of the climb, I trained – or as John and Cole constantly claimed on the podcast – I “cheated” by climbing every mountain near my Southern California home. I climbed each of the ‘Six Pack of Peaks‘ and found out that mountain climbing was something that I really enjoyed.
The months flew by, and the training, teasing and text message taunting were non-stop. I constantly gave Michael Cole a hard time about his workout regimen, which consisted mostly of walking on a treadmill with what I teased was his Hello Kitty backpack on. The night before our expedition began, I decorated Cole’s backpack, because that’s what friends are for.
When you travel every week to earn your living, time tends to turn into a blur. Monday turns into Wednesday, and June blurs into August. Four months blurred into the night before the climb, seemingly in the blink of an eye. The day before our expedition on Middle Palisade mountain began, John and Cole worked Smackdown in San Jose, California then drove six hours through the mountains to the expedition’s starting point in Bishop, California. Fortunately for me, I was assigned to cover the Summerslam press conference in Los Angeles, making my drive to Bishop significantly easier. I arrived in Bishop at 8 PM, and got a good night sleep.
John and Cole arrived in Bishop around 3:30 AM.
We met with our guide Rick Poedke at 8 AM.
In addition to Rick, we met Matt and Andy, both were along to help carry equipment and look after the rookie climbers in the group. After a quick briefing about all the many frightening ways we could get in trouble on the mountain, we drove to the trailhead, and our long-awaited journey began.
The first hours of the climb weren’t too bad. We ambled through lush green meadows, sounds of burbling streams and chirping birds surrounding us. I thought to myself, “If this is as bad as it gets, this will be a piece of cake.”
Sometimes I am so dumb.
Our guide Rick is a former Navy Chief, and kept us on a pretty rigid time schedule. If Rick said we were taking a five minute break, exactly five minutes later we were back on the trail. As we would all learn, time scheduling is important to the overall success of a trip such as this.
At one point on the trail, Rick suddenly stopped, intently looking at the ground. He announced to us that there were definitely bears in the area, as evidenced by the freshly dropped bear scat decorating the trail.
With this comforting thought in mind, we continued the trek. After our lunch break, the climb became more strenuous. So much for an easy walk in the mountains! We started ascending on steep switchback trails, gaining about two thousand feet of elevation in a few hours time.
We marched on, passing rushing rivers of melted glacier water, pausing occasionally to refill our water bottles in the pure mountain streams. Rick assured us that the water was tested regularly, and no purifying was necessary. I watched as he drank down a whole bottle, and when he didn’t keel over, I drank my bottle as well.The climb became steadily more difficult, with smaller then larger rocks covering the path. Each boulder was an obstacle that required total concentration to get past. Seven hours after leaving the trailhead, we arrived at our campsite, a small patch of flat ground surrounded by towering peaks on all sides.
Rick and company cooked up a fantastic dinner, and soon it was time for some sleep. There were two tiny tents for the three of us. After some careful consideration (John is a giant, and Cole snores like a chain saw) I decided to sleep outside under the stars. As the sun set, I gazed at the stars, watching the occasional meteor or satellite streak across the sky. I have to admit, I didn’t get the most restful night of sleep, as the temperature dipped into the low forties, and the nagging threat of wandering bears kept going through my head.
Sleep is over-rated anyway. Rick had our group up at 4:30 AM to make our assault on the summit of Middle Palisade mountain.
The climb started out tough and only got more difficult. Gigantic boulders covered the ground. We had to hop from rock to rock, hoping what we were standing on wouldn’t shift or fall on the climber below.
The exertion of the climb was compounded by the rapidly thinning air. Around 12,000 feet, I started to feel some effects of oxygen deprivation. Every step became an effort, and my head started aching a bit. I popped a few ‘mountain climber candy’ ibuprofens and continued toward the imposing summit of Middle Palisade mountain.
Pictures barely do justice to how difficult this part of the climb was. Four hours later, the summit was still pretty far off. Rick, who I am convinced is an alien, was far ahead of us. Cole stayed close to Rick, while John and I climbed together.
Finally, after grueling and punishing hours of boulder hopping and dodging, our party arrived at the base of the hardest part of the climb. The summit of Middle Palisade mountain towered a thousand feet straight above us. Realizing that after the arduous journey we’d just completed that the hardest part was yet to come, I let loose a nice string of choice curse words, a string so colorful and profane it nearly made our Navy Chief guide blush.
Rather than blush, Rick gave us some bad news. Since it had taken longer than anticipated to reach the point we were at, summiting would be nearly impossible. It’s hard to imagine at 11 AM that we were too late to get to the top, but the fact is, the summit is only the halfway point. Factoring in a few hours for the hard climb, then a few more for the hard decent, then even more hours to climb back down through the boulder strewn wasteland to get back to our camp, the hard decision was made to save the summit for another time.
As John said, “This mountain will always be here. I’ve climbed some of the biggest mountains in the world, but I have never had a climb as hard as this.”
Was the climb a failure?
I don’t think so. Though our group may not have stood atop Middle Palisade, we gained confidence in ourselves and abilities, and had a lot of laughs and fun in the process. Cole and I learned what it really takes to climb mountains. As Rick said in our briefing, “Getting to the summit is optional, but getting down is mandatory.”
I am already preparing for a return to Middle Palisade mountain, and getting ready for other new adventures we have planned.