Gettin’ High in Washington – The Climb Part TwoBy
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.
Sleeping in the Gombu is similar to sleeping at summer camp. Impossible, especially when you start trying to sleep at only 7:30 PM. Last time I went to bed that early I was in diapers. The sun is still up as everyone crawls into their sleeping bags. Within minutes of laying down, I am overwhelmed by the urge to pee. Of course. My year of training on airplanes to ‘hold it’ has failed me. I gotta go.
Trying and failing to be quiet, I disturb everyone as I walk out to the bathroom shack. Inside, I have one of the singularly most olfactorly unpleasant experiences of my life. The overpowering aroma of ammonia and other bathroom odors nearly knocks me down.
I have a real dilemma when, thirty minutes later I have to go again. I decide, for the first time in my life, to try using my ‘pee bottle’. A pee bottle is exactly what it sounds like, a convenient way to relieve yourself if you are stuck in a tent in the middle of the night on a mountain during a sub-zero raging storm. Or, if you just peed and the experience was far too traumatic to even imagine going back again. I’ve recruited my empty Gatorade bottle for the task. Having never actually used a pee bottle before, I spend an indeterminately long amount of time thinking about the various things that can go wrong. I don’t want to be the guy that gives the entire Gombu a golden shower, but I sure as hell don’t want to go back to the stink shack either.
It’s quite a quandary, but since sleeping at high altitude is next to impossible anyway, at least this dilemma occupies some of my sleepless night. I congratulate myself on being so well hydrated. I wonder if I should stand up to use the bottle, or kneel, or just what the hell I am supposed to do. The guides were very thorough in all aspects of backpack packing, efficient hiking, and everything else, but for some reason, proper pee bottle technique never came up.
Finally, before my bladder pops and kills me, I decide it’s time to just go for it. Nervously I grab my Gatorade bottle, remove the cap, ‘plug in’ and let ‘er rip. It’s dark, so I can’t see what I am doing, but by the sound of things this pee bottle trick is actually working. I’m proud of being able to tick off yet one more accomplishment on my way to true mountaineer status. Then, a thought hits me… “How big is the bottle, anyway?”
All I can say is next time I will bring an extra large Gatorade pee bottle. The rest of the night is spent in a restless semi-slumber. I try to force myself to sleep by solving quadratic equations in my head. When that fails, I compose the world’s filthiest haiku. Then I try to remember the names of each of my teachers, starting with Mrs. Lightboun in kindergarten.
Nothing helps. Because the mountain is so quiet at night, every time anyone in the Gombu rolls over or moves, it sounds like a freight train. Some people are enjoying Cheyne-Stokes breathing, which is basically sleep apnea brought on by high altitude. It sounds like they are being murdered in their sleep. Other people get up to go and enjoy their own wilderness bathroom experience. Another group camping with us at Muir gets us early for their summit push, and it sounds like they are either square dancing or fighting as they clomp around and shout to each other. Someone else in the Gombu fills what sounds like a three gallon pee bottle. People fart. People snore.
Nobody sleeps very much.
I brought my iPod along, figuring the little bit of extra weight would be worth it to have some music to distract me at night. I am proud of my last resort secret weapon, and finally, when I can take no more, I plug the headphones in, fully expecting to be serenaded to sleep.
But, of course, only the left earphone works, which is pretty much an audio guy’s worst nightmare.
At 5 AM, having maybe slept ten minutes since laying down, I finally snap. I am tired of working hard to breathe, tired of listening to others breathing hard. Tired of not sleeping. Hell, I’m just tired. I am stuck in the world’s loudest sleeping bag, and I can’t move without waking up the entire Gombu. There is nowhere to go, no coffee to drink. I have nothing to read, nothing to do. I have a mono-only iPod that I want to smash, a full bottle of my own piss next to me, and I just can not sleep. When I tally all of those things up, without waking any of my neighbors, I completely yet quietly lose my shit.
Highs and lows, all part of mountaineering I guess.
Then, after my breakdown, I get out of my sleeping bag. I brave the bathroom again. One of the others from our party is up too. We exchange glances that say, “Well, that completely sucked, didn’t it?” Then we stand in cold silence watching the sun rise over the mountain.
Devon and company have coffee ready at 7 AM. accompanying this coffee is Bob Marley and a wonderful breakfast of eggs, blueberry pancakes and best of all, bacon. Bacon! at 10,000′! I devour everything in sight, piling the bacon high on my plate. I drain one coffee pot, and wait for more. I have at least seven pancakes. Damn, I am hungry.
Craig informs us that if we all agree, we can head for the summit now, after some brief instruction on how to use our gear.
We all agree.
After breakfast, we begin our mountaineering basics class. We learn how to put on our harnesses properly. We learn that crampons, which are basically ten metal fangs attached to our boots, are the devil’s own torture implement. Crampons will do their best to snag and rip pants, tripping you at the worst possible moment. We learn how to carry our ice axes, how to use them for support in steeper terrain, and how to use them to save our lives in the event of a fall down that steep terrain. Awkwardly, our group trudges around, trying to absorb as much as possible. Finally we put it all together and take our final exam – roped team travel. This is serious.
After this hour of class, I have less confidence than when we started. It must show because Devin says, “Don’t worry, you’re about to get a LOT of practice.” Finally, Craig, Devon, Tom and Jangbu deem us as ready as we’re going to get. Chris and I elect Devon as our rope team leader, mostly because everyone else was afraid of him. Devon knows what he is talking about, but his delivery is curt, abrupt, and very direct. These are qualities I appreciate more than other people might. With Devon in the lead, Chris tied into the middle, and me towing the rear, we rope up and begin our final ascent to the summit of Mount Rainier.
An hour later, we stop at high camp, where one of our group who had been dealing with a previous calf muscle injury decides to stay. The previous day he’d lagged behind, and knew he probably wouldn’t make the top. Though it was the right thing to do, it had to be a hard decision for him. The group congratulates him on getting as far as he did. Six of us with three guides leave high camp on our bid for the summit.
We crampon our way through the Ingraham glacier, crossing bridges over deep crevasses. I wasn’t able to stop and get a picture of the bridges, so I found this one on the internet that is very similar to what we crossed, and I stole it:
Soon we are past the worst of the crevasses and are on the aptly named Disappointment Cleaver. Devon shortens the rope. Now there’s only about three feet of leash between Chris and I. We are still in our crampons, but now instead of fun snow, we are climbing up terrifying rocks and dirt. My crampons clank and bang off the rocks as I stumble to keep my balance. We never stop moving. I feel like a dope on rope as Devon and Chris drag me higher. We have to march in sync, or our rope train will derail.
There is no stopping.
Halfway through, Chris mentions how fun Disappointment Cleaver will be to come down.
Devon replies, “Ah, it’s not as bad as you think.” He leaves out the part where he should have said, “it is much, much worse.”
Climbing becomes more of a psychological than physical battle. My sole purpose is to walk. I breath, step, breath, step. I follow the rope. There is nothing else. Occasionally, I look at the scenery, but then the rope gets tight, jerking me back into the rhythm of the team. For hours we go up. At 13,000 feet, I start to feel the distinct lack of oxygen. With each step now I have to power breathe, forcefully exhaling in order to make room in my empty lungs for as much air as possible.
Jangbu leads the rope team behind us. Nothing at all intimidating about having a Sherpa right behind. He corrects the way I am walking several times. “Maaaahhk! Ressst-steeep!” While I wheeze away like a chain smoker, he reminds me to breathe, all the while whistling a tune to himself.
At every rest stop, I pound down a Gu, which is a 100 calorie shot of energy. I feel its restorative help immediately. Jangbu wolfs down Pringles, popcorn and gigantic cookies, with a huge smile permanently affixed to his face. I don’t think he has taken a breath since we left high camp.
Fifteen feet of ascent a minute now seems impossible. The slope is insanely steep. The next slope even steeper. I power breathe. I rest step. I am a machine. My brain screams it is time to quit, but I carry on. Everything else vanishes, just me and the mountain. In a way, it’s kind of cool to be so focused.
I realize now why people do this.
Finally, Chris reaches his breaking point. “I don’t think I should go on anymore, I am tired, sore, and we still have to go back to high camp.” Devon turns on Chris and doesn’t hold back. In his unique way Devon encourages Chris to keep going, because the summit is only twenty minutes further. He promises at least a forty-five minute rest before we have to climb down.
Chris keeps trudging.
Eventually, there is no more up. We crest the rim of the crater, and, just like that, we have made it!
We’re on top of Mount Rainier!
I say almost, because like everything else, the mountain always has another surprise in store. Though standing in the crater of Mount Rainier counts as summiting; Columbia Crest, which at 14,411 ‘ is the ‘true summit’. Chris opts to rest, the rest of the party walk the half mile over to stand on the top of the top of the mountain.
The climb down is exhausting. People forget that the summit of a mountain is the halfway point.
Disappointment Cleaver should have been named Ass-Kicker Cleaver. Whatever the measurement of sucking is, descending Disappointment Cleaver rates high on it. In less than three hours we reach high camp, undoing over five hours of climbing. The altitude and exertion has gotten to me. I know this because I am barely able to eat a bowl of soup, and the thought of adding Sriracha makes my stomach flip. I go to the tent, and though it is below freezing outside, I soundly sleep through the night.
The next morning, we pack up, and a few hours later we’re back in our comfy shoes on the gentle trails of the lower park. Something has changed though. We don’t just look like mountaineers, now we are mountaineers. People on the trail give us the right of way, some asking how far we went, and whistling in approval when we tell them ‘all the way.’
In the van on the way back to ‘real life’ that familiar melancholy sets in. I’ve done what I set out to do, there is no more Mount Rainier to train for. When I finally get signal, I absent-mindedly check my email. I have an email from my friend Alex that says, “Mark (he always spells my name wrong) I am thinking about climbing Pico de Orizaba in Mexico this spring. Interested?”
I send a one word reply: Yes.