Saga of a Summit Climb Part 1 of 4

On August 15, 1983, Dave and I climbed to the summit of Mount Rainier. Among the misadventures of the day was the fact that we didn't get a single picture of the climb. This was in spite of carrying our new camera to the top and going through the motions of taking about twenty pictures. What we didn't know until a week later was that the film was loaded improperly and wasn't advancing as we wound it.

Since we didn't get any pictures to preserve the memories of the adventure, I have decided to write this paper. That way we will at least have something we can look at later and also share with other people if they're interested.


We can't remember exactly when or who first came up with the notion of climbing Mount Rainier but last year Dave suggested the idea to me. I was still recovering from surgery on my neck so climbing that summer was out of the question for me. It did seem like a good thing for the two of us to do though before Dave left home for college. As winter came, neither of us was sure that the other was serious about the idea. As spring came, though, we talked more about it and our enthusiasm picked up.

I think it was in June when we both bought new climbing boots and with that much money invested, we both knew that we were committed to making the attempt. The first order of training was to break in those new boots. I started wearing my climbing boots on my two mile run which I try to do four times a week at 5:00 AM. The first time I ran with those boots on, I was in oxygen debt the whole two miles - gasping for breath the whole time. Within a few weeks though it was just like running with running shoes. Dave's schedule was different from mine so we didn't run much together but we both got our feet and our new boots used to each other.

The next step in training was to strengthen our legs, lungs, and wills. For this, we used a hillside in our neighborhood with a rather steep trail on it. We would either run up and down the trail over and over again, or we would carry a pack with three or four one gallon bleach bottles full of water and walk up and down the trail. This built up our leg strength and our lungs and it also toughened our feet. Both Dave and I each overdid it once and raised blisters on our feet. Fortunately they both healed in time for the climb.

When we finally got around to calling the guide service for details, we found that we had almost procrastinated too long. There was only one opening for two people before Dave had to leave for college and that was less than a week before he had to leave. We sent in our money to reserve those spots and hoped that the weather would be good on those days. If the climb is aborted due to bad weather, as about 20 or 30 percent of them are, you don't get any of your money back so it's $170 apiece down the drain.

In addition to the summit attempt, which takes two days, you have to attend and pass a one day climbing school on the mountain some time before the attempt. The only day I could schedule the school was the Friday before the Sunday of our summit attempt. This would give us two nights in our own beds between the school and the climb and it turned out that was okay.

Along with the schedule, we got a list of required equipment which we had to buy. It cost us almost $300 to get all that stuff and we already had quite a few of the expensive things on the list like boots, packs, parkas, and sleeping bags. We had to buy rain gear, wool mittens, wool socks, headlamps (flashlights that strap onto your head), gaiters (things that wrap around your ankles and lower legs to keep snow out), super dark sunglasses, sun screen, food, etc. With all this expense, we really were committed; but we were also getting psyched up and eager to go.


On the Friday morning of the climbing school, we got up at 5 or so and had waffles for breakfast. We underestimated the driving time to Paradise and were about 15 minutes late to the school which started at 9 AM. It turned out not to be a problem since the starting time was kind of loose and there were several other people who were even later. Knowing we were late, though, made us, or at least me, a little anxious toward the end of the drive up.

The group of people who were later than we were, were a bunch of stockbrokers and lawyers who I think were from Tacoma. They showed up with sleeping bags in their packs which were not needed in the school so we all waited for them to take their bags back to their car. Then we had to wait for them to change from wool pants to shorts after they saw that all the rest of us were wearing shorts.

It was a super beautiful clear day and we hiked in shorts and no shirts up the mountain to a snowfield where we were to learn climbing techniques. This was both a school and an evaluation by the guides of our physical condition. To check us out they set a rather brisk pace for the hike to see if we could keep up. We worked up quite a sweat and were breathing hard but our training had paid off and it was pretty easy for both Dave and me.

Everything is relative, though. While we were relaxing on our first rest break, feeling pretty good about our conditioning, we saw a guy come running up the trail. He ran past us and kept on running right up the mountain. We watched him run back and forth up the switchbacks until he was way out of sight. This humbled us a little and made us realize what a wide range there is in the physical condition of people. Some of the guides knew the guy and said that he is a cross country skier and this was one of his usual training routines.

I really do have to commend the guide service at Mount Rainier - Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI). They do an excellent job of training and leading climbers. I was surprised at how much I learned that day and how effective and useful the techniques were. Prior to the school, I wouldn't have believed that someone could teach me new ways of breathing and walking and that they would be noticeably effective, but that's just what the guides did.

The breathing technique is called pressure breathing and it means that when you exhale, you restrict the airflow with your mouth or throat and then force the air out by blowing hard against the restriction. This causes the air in your lungs to be pressurized and it literally forces the oxygen into the blood. Our lead guide, Roger Kacmarcik (catch march ick) kept telling us, in his John Wayne speaking style, "If ya start gettin tired, just take a few of those pressure breaths."

The walking technique is called rest stepping. This is for climbing up a steep trail using the minimum amount of energy and keeping the maximum amount of footing and stability. The idea is to be able to maintain steady progress for an hour or so at a time in spite of being on the brink of exhaustion at each step. The technique is pretty simple but it takes a little practice before it comes naturally. You start in a rest position where you are standing still with your downhill leg locked at the knee. The first thing you do, is stick your ice ax in the snow to provide a solid rail to hang on to. Next you pick out your next step and with one motion, you rock your body forward to begin moving your center of gravity and then you quickly put your weight on your uphill leg. pick up your downhill leg and swing your downhill foot into the step you picked out. You have to judge how hard you have to swing your leg so that it has enough energy to kick a firm foothold but not too much energy so as not to waste any. As soon as the foot is planted, you lock your downhill leg and rest motionless for a fraction of a second before starting the process over again for the next step.

This might really sound silly, but believe me, on the climb when energy and oxygen are both precious commodities, this kind of technique makes the difference between success and failure. To give you an idea, on the steeper pitches of the climb, I maintained a rhythm of rest stepping while taking three full pressure breaths with each step. I must have sounded like a steam engine but I was able to keep it up for an hour at a time.

If memory serves me correctly, we just worked on breathing and walking techniques before lunch. We took our lunch break on a big rock outcropping and I figured that the group of us on the rock would be a good subject for a picture. On this day, we had taken the old instamatic camera with us just to shoot up the last four pictures on the roll. The plan was that this would retire the old instamatic and we would take our new 35mm camera on the climb where we would get the 'good' pictures.

I spotted a lady class member on the uphill edge of our rock and asked her if she would take a picture of the rest of us with my camera. She agreed and as she was looking over the camera she said, "What do I push? This thing?". Click, she shot a picture of the sky. "Oops, I guess that's it." she said. The next time she did get a shot of us having lunch, but we had now shot up half of our film.

When we started getting our lunch out of our packs, we learned that the late bunch from Tacoma had remembered to bring their water bottles but had forgotten to fill them with water. The morning workout and the hot sun had left everyone super thirsty and most people had brought only a single quart of water. I had brought two quarts with me, which was plenty, so I offered some to Lee, who was the lady member of the Tacoma 5. She thanked me and I poured about a half pint into her water bottle, which I noticed also had her knife, fork, and spoon in it. Strange.

In a couple minutes, I heard Lee say, "Oh no, you won't believe what I just did." Evidently, she wanted her knife, fork, and spoon and so she tipped the bottle upside down to dump them out and she dumped out all the water I had just given her. Worse than that, she had done it over her pack so the water all went right into her pack all over the clothes and whatever else she had in there.

One thing she didn't have in her pack was food. That was the next thing we found out. Lee was responsible for bringing the food for the Tacoma 5 and she had brought the freeze dried food which would be needed for the climb but she had forgotten to bring the lunch. We didn't have five loaves or two fishes but they did manage to collect an apple, a handful of nuts, and so on from the rest of us. I contributed an extra peanut butter and jelly sandwich that I had and they tore it into three pieces and shared it among three of them.

After lunch, we strapped on the crampons which we had rented from the guide service and got ready for crampon instruction. Crampons are hard steel contraptions that strap onto the bottom of your boots for climbing on snow and ice. Each one has 12 sharp steel points a little over an inch long sticking out the bottom.

When we were learning how to lace them on tight, I discovered that one of the straps on one of my crampons was too short. I called Roger over and he simply took a strap from one of his crampons and traded with me. Before we started our crampon training, Roger told us how on the ascent of summit climb, a climber in front of him had lost a crampon without realizing it. Roger picked it up and hollered at him asking if he had lost something. The guy said no so Roger just kept it until the next rest break. When he gave the crampon to the guy, the guy said "J---- C-----, no wonder I couldn't get any traction with that foot!"

Most of the time in the afternoon was spent learning self arrest techniques. This is the technique of stopping yourself if you fall on a steep snow slope. It is amazing haw far and how fast you slide when you fall on a 30 degree snow slope.

Before we learned self arrest, while we were working on crampon walking techniques, the guide told us to spread out and try out what he had told us. We were all standing on a steep slope and I spied a clear area where I wanted to go to practice. I no sooner moved one muscle to begin to walk over to the area when I found myself zipping down the mountain spraying snow into the air trying to stop myself. I must have slid two or three hundred feet in just a couple of seconds. It gave me an appreciation of the importance of knowing how to stop myself.

The main tool of self arrest is the ice ax, which we also rented from RMI. The guides stressed the importance of this tool and the importance of treating it with respect. For example, there are only two ways that the ice ax is ever carried and we would get reminded instantly if any of us should ever hold it another way. One of the guides, John, had told us so many times that the way to hold the ice ax was with the "thumb under the adze, fingers around the pick" that towards the end of the day it sounded like he was saying "thumunerthadze, frrzarethepick".

The arrest practice consisted of each of us taking turns deliberately sliding down a steep pitch in various positions like head down on our backs, feet down on our stomachs, etc. When we had gained enough speed, the guide would holler "falling" at which cue we would begin to arrest our fall by sticking our ice ax and the toes of our boots in the snow in a special way.

We split up into three groups for this drill and Dave and I got separated. Dave went with John high up on the snowfield and says that John with his drill instructor technique was an effective teacher. I on the other hand was stuck in a group with the Tacoma 5. Most of our guide's attention was spent trying to get Lee to remember the difference between right and left and to get her to quit screaming so she could hear the guide. That part really didn't matter though because she never did wait for him to call "falling" but started her arrest the instant she started sliding downhill. I got all the practice I needed at this because I had sore muscles as a result for the next two days.

After this, we learned the techniques of climbing in rope teams. As we were practicing this, I got Roger to take the last two pictures of us with the instamatic.

As we hiked back down to Paradise at around 4 o'clock, Dave and I both felt good about the climb. Neither of us had any trouble keeping up with the pace; neither of us had to use moleskin on our feet - there were no signs of blisters; and it was evident that we were easily in the top half of the class as far as conditioning went.

Most of the people in our class were going to make the summit attempt the very next day, Saturday, including the Tacoma 5. We were glad ours was scheduled for the following day to give us a day of rest, two nights in our own beds, and a chance to dry out our boots and socks. I had asked the group at the lunch break if any of them was scheduled to make the summit attempt on Sunday and none of them was except for Roger the guide. I felt this was a good stroke of luck because I was very impressed with Roger as a leader.

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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