Into the night and up the mountain

Rainier summit day

Today felt like days but really it was just over 12 hours. We made excellent time on the descent so we were back into our tents before long.
After waking around 1:30am we got on our way into the snowy darkness around 3:15. We had on a lot of insulating layers, our mountaineering boots with gaiters and crampons, harnesses, and helmets with headlamps affixed.
As we walked through the darkness, the only sounds were our ice axes sheathing in the snow and our trekking poles vibrating gently as they pierced the snow up to the snow baskets. There were clouds above us and below us on the mountain, so there wasn’t much to see – I had been hoping to be dazzled by the stars but the clouds overhead made me focus down on the snow sparkling in my headlamp’s beam of light. It’s very disorienting, being above the clouds on a mountain with nothing but snow surrounding you. You know there is a steep grade beneath your feet but the baseline is fluffy gray water vapor below you, so you feel somewhat like you could float up and away from the mountain. At times like this, I focus on where my feet are supposed to go and make sure my ice axe properly anchors each time I connect it with the snow.
After some time climbing the sky sandwiched between cloud layers began glowing playfully with the awakening sun and cheered us along as we continued our ascent. We clambered over rocky moraines and were belayed through difficult traverses. We traveled in 3 rope teams, efficiently picking our way through deep crevasses in which we could find no bottom. We had a couple sections where we short-roped because of the high risk of slipping, and conquered 3 pitches of ice climbing (not vertical although it certainly felt like it!) before we found ourself nearing the summit. We saw no one else along our route; the Kautz glacier is not known for bringing the summer masses due to its inherent danger and technical portions of the climb. After the last couple segments our group began to fragment. Two of our climbers were ascending with such difficulty and at a slow pace to warrant our lead guide to send them back down the mountain with Lhakpa. Peter and Lee, our two remaining guides, continued the ascent with Phil, Hunter, and I. Our luck continued to decline. Those that know me well know my stomach doesn’t always travel as well as I would like, so to no one’s surprise I had the distinct pleasure of a bathroom stop at around 12,500ft behind a rock kindly located on the steep glacier nearby. After continuing onward, the upper cloud layer that had previously hidden the stars from us became ominous and more menacing with each passing moment and began descending down from the summit above us. We had no choice but to descend. Given the technical nature and the isolation of the route, it would’ve been too dangerous to try to descend in very poor conditions. Luckily for us, our guide Lee turned us around so that we scraped through the worsening conditions. We were rappelling down the last of the 3 technical areas just as the snow and ice cold wind began battering us, encouraging us to quicken out pace down the mountain. The last section of the climb was known to be without crevasses (as it was on the turtle snowfield and not the glacier, itself) and so we followed our guide’s lead in glissading down the slope (basically sledding without sleds, on your behind and using your ice axe as a break). It definitely expedited our descent, allowing us to retreat into our tents before the storm was truly and fully upon us.
Although I am, of course, disappointed not to have summited (turning back no less than 900ft from the summit, which is 14410! We were ~13600ft), I am so thankful for the skills I have learned, the friends I have made, and the experience in general. We have had extremely enthusiastic and experienced guides and each group member contributed in a unique way that allowed us all to flourish and enjoy our trip to the fullest. We’ve endured horrible blisters, black eyes, tumbles and scrapes, horrifyingly bad riddles, whiteout and thunderstorms, and -ahem- relieving ourselves in bags together. I can’t imagine having this experience with anyone else.

As an aside, I strongly recommend Alpine Ascents for any future outdoors endeavors, as their support staff, gear gurus, administrative services, rental equipment, itinerary, and of course the guides have all been sublime. I cannot wait until I have another opportunity to get into the backcountry with them!
Here’s their website, check them out! Www.alpineascents.com
The four guides I had the pleasure of learning from were Michael Horst, Peter Moore, Lee Lazzara, and Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa. You can find their bios here: http://www.alpineascents.com/guides.asp

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