Day 1. Orientation and gear walk-through. The guides at RMI did a great job making sure we all had what we needed and walked us through the plan and approach to the next three days. The Paradise Inn at Mount Rainier is a large classically styled and gorgeous mountain lodge. The rooms were small and cozy and the food was decent, certainly better than the cold pizza and candy bars we will live off of the next few days. Wildflowers are blooming everywhere despite the snow line being right above us and the deer amble about the tourist area, paying no mind to the bustle of hikers and photographers all around. Tonight we try to get as much sleep as possible. Tomorrow is training day!
Day 2. We work our way towards the Muir Snowfield and practiced roped travel in groups of four along with self arrest techniques sliding down a little bowl full of snow all day. We were like backwards-facing-kicking otters sliding down. Only a few people jabbed themselves with their axe. I learned what my nails on a chalkboard pet peeve is: crampons on bare rock, not only is it tough to walk, but it makes a nasty sound, especially when compared to trudging along in some soft corn snow. We finish in the afternoon, more confident and nervous at the same time, excited for the big two days to follow.
Day 3. We gather just down from the lodge early in the morning and have our full packs ready to trudge up to Camp Muir, about half way up with a little shack to sleep like packed sardines. The hike was stunning with wildflowers everywhere that was not covered in snow. We really start to see more glacial features on the way up and it sinks in that today is just walking but tomorrow is crevasses, ladders, crampons, helmets and all manner of seriousness. It doesn't help that someone had died up here just two weeks prior. But as with many big endeavors in a group, none of us lets our fear be known, we just keep trudging, together.
Day 4. Summit Day! We are woke with banging of pots at 1 AM, the sky is clear, it is cold enough to have the glaciers as stable as possible, so our guides decide we can go for it. Packing up in the dark with 24+ people who are all doing this for the first time was a bit hectic but we get going quickly after a little food and bathroom time. We learn to watch out for "alpine butterflies" which is when the wind blows through the vents of the pit toilet and your toilet paper can blow back up at you. This thing gets serious right away, a ladder crossing 20 minutes in, then a group ahead of us knocks some boulders loose above us in a switchback section. We need to dodge rocks in the dark while being tied to three other people. That is no easy task and will get the heart rate thumping quickly. We were able to avoid any injuries or major impacts. As we approach the most technical section called Disappointment Cleaver, the nerves start to get to me. I feel like everyone is in their own head and not paying attention to the movements of their rope partners, we need a wake up call before we do this. Too late, someone slipped and the guide had to help yank them over a ridge with their rope. Now the acute senses are back for everyone it seems. This is a challenge in the dark in particular but we get through it. The last big challenge is a double ladder crossing, at least 25' across and you can't see the bottom of the crevasse, it appears to be 500 feet or more of sheer ice wall. I am given the task of unclipping the whole group from the rope railing half way across. As I do that, the others in front of me are rushing to get off of the ladder and nearly yank me and the whole group into the abyss. I yell out right as I re-clip the rope and they slow just enough to allow this critical task. They were completely unaware that their excitement at being safe and jumping off the ladder, literally almost killed us all. Scary stuff, but now its just more walking in the cold as the sun begins to show itself. We summit right at sunrise and can see numerous other volcanic peaks in the distance, Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens and even Mount Hood are visible. Amazing perspective to be on such a prominent peak in the early light on a crystal clear day.
Once we summit, the walk down begins, this is the toughest part in a way (at least mentally). Elated but adrenaline wearing off and we have been on our feet for 7 hours and now have another 6-7 hours down in plastic boots. Blood will be shed in our socks, butts will land in the snow (many, many times), but we make it back and are greeted like rock stars by all of the day hikers we see as we get back to the comforts of the lodge area. One of the most extreme, satisfying and challenging experiences of my life. Thank you Mount Rainer and RMI guides for letting me see the top and live to tell about it.
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