Saga of a Summit Climb Part 2 of 4


Sunday morning we had waffles again and started out on high spirits. It looked like the clear weather was going to hold for a few more days and we had allowed plenty of driving time so we wouldn't be late. When we arrived at the guide house, we went to the counter to rent our ice axes and crampons. I noticed they gave us much better quality equipment than we had gotten for our one day school. Still though, based on my previous experience, I checked the length of my crampon straps and sure enough, one of them was short. This was one minor stroke of good luck; I got a good strap here rather than discovering it in the cold and dark at 10,000 feet the next morning.

I also had one minor stroke of bad luck. When they asked for my driver's license to hold as security on our rented equipment, as they had done on the one day school, I couldn't find it in my wallet. I sort of panicked inside and Dave and I both tried to recollect the last time we had seen it. We both sort of remembered that after the one day school Dave had picked up the license when he turned in our gear and then had given it to me. I vaguely remembered that but couldn't remember beyond that. RMI checked all their files on the chance that they still had it but no luck. Rather than let the incident bother me, I gave them my American Express card instead and tried to put the license thing out of my mind for the next two days; at least tuck it far enough back in my mind so that it would only vaguely nag at me.

When we all had had our equipment checked by the guides, we had a short meeting in the guide house where we were introduced to all the guides, introduced ourselves, and generally tried to psyche ourselves into a positive attitude for the climb. Among the guides that we met was Nawang Gombu. He is a Sherpa who accompanied Jim Whittaker on the first American climb of Mt. Everest. He looks just like his pictures in National Geographic. There were about six guides who would accompany the twenty four of us on the climb. Roger Kacmarcik was to be our chief guide.

The first objective was to reach Camp Muir by some time early in the afternoon. Camp Muir is a sort of ugly little collection of wind-swept stone and wood buildings perched on a rocky outcropping at the 10,000 foot level on Mt. Rainier. One of these was the 12 by 18 foot bunkhouse where the 24 of us would spend the night.

Our starting point, at Paradise, is at about 5400 feet and Camp Muir is about halfway from there to the 14,400 foot summit.

We started out at about 10 AM wearing shorts and no shirts. This meant that most of our clothing was in our packs. This, along with our sleeping bags and food made our packs weigh about 35 lb. apiece. Fortunately the packs would be quite a bit lighter on the actual summit climb.

At the first rest break, Dave and I both decided to try to get as close to the front of the group as we could so as not to be slowed down by slower hikers. I think this proved to be a smart move later because I think it had something to do with us getting picked for the first rope team later on.

We stopped for lunch at Pebble Creek where Roger told us to fill our water bottles because there would be no more water until Camp Muir. I wondered a little whether Pebble Creek was safe from Beaver Fever but since Roger wasn't worried, neither was I and I filled my bottle along with the rest of them. I would wonder later about how smart this decision was.

Most of the climb to Muir was a long straight hike up a rather steep snowfield which gave us plenty of practice rest stepping and pressure breathing.

When we started this stretch, I got to talking to a young guide named Phinjo Gombu who is the son of Nawang Gombu. Phinjo was only going with us as far as Camp Muir and then he was going back down to Paradise to attend his own going away party that evening. He was going back to his home in India within the next few days and they were giving him a party.

When I found out he was from India, I asked him what he thought of the movie "Ghandi". This really got him started talking about his own personal philosophy. He said the movie was smooth. When I asked him did he mean that it was well done or that it was slick, he answered that he meant whatever I thought it meant. He proceeded to give me his views of the hypocrisy of the west in giving honor and credit to Ghandi and then not paying any attention to the ideals he represented. We had quite a long discussion from there all the rest of the way to Camp Muir which was far too involved to go into here. At one of the rest stops, he wrote down his name and address in India for me so that I can write to him and I wrote down the names of a couple of books that I recommended to him.

He characterized his own philosophy as pessimistic and I gave him some suggestions which I thought might give him some reason for optimism. Dave was hiking just behind us during this time and heard the whole conversation. Afterward Dave told me he thought the guy had quite a negative outlook on life and the he, Dave, didn't agree with his philosophy.

Somewhere along this stretch, we met the previous day's climbers on their way down. I saw Lee and asked her if she had made it. Her indignant answer of "Why does everyone ask that?" told us that she hadn't.

Being near the front of the line paid off when we reached Camp Muir because we had our pick of the bunks such as they were. We picked spots next to the wall on the second level. There were three levels of bunks. The first was on the floor, the second was about 4 feet off the floor and the third was about 6 or 7 feet up. The top level had only about 2 feet of headroom to the ceiling. We rolled out our sleeping bags and put the gear in the bunk that we would need for the next day. We had to leave our packs and other gear outside because there just wasn't room for it in that little bunkhouse.

As I was putting my gear in my bunk, I noticed that the first three fingers of each hand were getting numb. I figured it was from the cold and I decided to put more clothes on. After all it was about 4:00 in the afternoon and it was actually quite chilly up there at 10,000 feet and I was still dressed in shorts and wet with sweat. I figured that we would have dinner and then go right to bed so I decided to put on my long johns which would serve as my pajamas.

With my long johns and a wool shirt and jacket on, I felt cozy warm, but my six fingers were still strangely numb. I thought it might be poor circulation so I began swinging and rubbing my arms to get the blood flowing. I mentioned the numbness to a guide who just walked in and without hesitation, he asked me if I had ever had a problem with my neck.

This took me by surprise, but I answered that yes, a couple years ago I had my C6 and C7 vertebrae fused. He nodded and said that was a common symptom; it had something to do with the reduced air pressure in relation to the spinal fluid pressure. That made me feel better because it seemed to make sense. The feeling nerves for those six fingers comes out of the spinal column between C6 and C7. I also noticed that I was getting charlie horses in my right triceps muscle which is run by a nerve in the same bundle.

I was in my long johns and wool jacket when Dave came into the bunkhouse and said, "Come on Dad, let's go exploring." It sounded like a good idea so I just grabbed my shorts, put them on over my long johns, put my boots back on, and we went out to explore the neighborhood.

We started by looking at the scenery and going through the motions with the camera. We even took some 'shots' of Mt. Adams in the distance by holding the camera up to one eyepiece of the binoculars and using the other one for a view finder. We gathered a small crowd, while we were doing this, who marveled at our high-tech photographic style. We laughed along with them but assured them that it had worked once for us when we photographed some climbers on Devil's Tower using binoculars and an instamatic camera.

After this, we hiked over to a big rock outcrop to take some more "pictures" and to get a close up view of the glaciers just below with their big crevasses. A third climber, Pete, was with us and also had a camera. We were snapping pictures right and left and Pete suggested we shoot some "hero" pictures. That is where you pose with your arms held over your head indicating that you had just conquered the summit. We did that, but at my suggestion we traded cameras so that we would have pictures of ourselves. Little did I know.

Pete also thought my outfit was interesting so he took a posed picture of Dave and me with my long johns and shorts. This was not exactly the way I would have planned it but I grinned and posed all the same.

I think we were somehow jinxed to lose things on this trip because my driver's license was only the beginning. After we came back from the picture taking excursion, Dave asked me where the binoculars were. I pointed to the case hanging around his neck and he showed me that the case was empty. It seemed to us that I had had them last and Dave decided to go back to the rock and retrace our steps to look for them. He took off running across the snow which he later said was a mistake because he used up all his oxygen reserves and couldn't replenish them without a lot of heavy pressure breathing.

He came back saying the binoculars weren't up there. After almost giving up and after almost accusing someone of taking them, I found them on my bunk where I had put them. I think maybe the lack of oxygen impairs one's mental capability.

Next I thought I lost Dave. We had a meeting scheduled in the bunkhouse at 4:30 and when the time came, the guides came into the bunkhouse but I didn't know where Dave was. I was going to report it to the guides but I figured he'd show up in a minute and I would just remember what the guides were saying so I could tell Dave later.

They told us they would bring hot water for our freeze dried dinner when the meeting was over. They used to serve hot meals to the climbers but some petty bureaucrats from the department of health stopped them from doing that because they don't have the regulation kitchen equipment required for public food preparation. They also told us what to expect and do in the morning. We would be awakened at 1 AM to have breakfast and get ready to begin the ascent. They said that we might wake up with a headache in the night and that it would be because of a shortage of oxygen. If so, don't worry, just take a few pressure breaths and it will go away.

Sometime toward the beginning of the meeting, there was a sudden commotion in one corner of the bunkhouse. After a little confusion, we could see that one of the women climbers who had been in her sleeping bag since the moment we got to the camp, had succumbed to altitude sickness. Fortunately she had found a pot in time to avoid a much more embarrassing mess. Roger gave her the standard advice: "Just keep taking those pressure breaths."

The next thing was the assignment of climbers and guides to rope teams. Roger would name a guide and then call off the names of the climbers assigned to that guide's rope team. Dave and I didn't get called until the very last and we were assigned to Roger's team along with two other guys: Rick and Karl. Ours would be the lead team up the mountain. When the meeting was over, Dave jumped down from the top bunks where he had been all along unbeknownst to me.

Our dinner was a huge pot of warm moist freeze dried beef stroganoff. It didn't taste too bad, at least the first helping. We had four servings to share between Dave and me and it took some doing to get it all down. By the time we dished up the second and third helpings, the stuff had cooled down and our appetites were gone. Looking back on it now, I am sure that eating all that stroganoff is what enabled me to make the summit the next day.

We all went to bed as soon as we could after dinner since we were going to get up at one o'clock. But the place just wasn't conducive to sleeping. It was broad daylight for the next three or four hours and the door creaked continuously as a steady stream of climbers clomped in and out of the bunkhouse with their climbing boots on.

I got the predicted headache almost right away as I tried to go to sleep. Sure enough, a few pressure breaths would make it go away, but as soon as I would relax again and try to fall asleep, the headache would return. It doesn't seem as if I slept the whole night. I just lay there listening to the clomping, occasional snoring, and some guy who was rustling through his gear the whole night.

All of a sudden, the clomping was accompanied by a light flashing around the room. It was one AM and Roger was telling us to get saddled up and ready to go. We had been told the night before that we should put on the amount of clothing that we thought we should start out with and then test it by going outside to stand in line for the outhouse. If we were just a little chilly, then that was the right amount. If we were cozy warm, then we were over dressed. Another thing was that cotton garments were outlawed. We had to have wool garments next to the skin. Someone asked for and got an exception for shorts.

Dave hadn't planned on this last rule and didn't have a wool shirt that wasn't super scratchy. I had one Pendleton that wasn't too bad so I traded with him. If I'm not mistaken, he violated the rules and wore a cotton undershirt anyway.

As we fumbled around in our cramped bunk area starting to get dressed, we had our next 'lost item' episode. Dave couldn't find one of his polypropylene socks. These are special socks that don't soak up any moisture so they are worn next to the skin to prevent softening and blistering of the skin. Since this is the first thing you put on, he couldn't start dressing until he found it. The search for the sock stirred our already jumbled gear into a smooth consistency. Food, sleeping bags, clothing, utensils, equipment, everything was in a mess.

Finally we decided to search systematically. We cleared a corner of the bunk area and then one by one threw articles into that area until we had examined everything and still no sock. Sweat was rolling off me from the heat and cramped quarters and my stomach muscles were getting sore from maintaining that hunched over position required by a 3 foot ceiling.

When that search failed, I said "Ok, let's do it again, but this time carefully!" We did the search again, 'carefully' and still no sock.

By this time I was beginning to feel very peculiar. As I was sitting there in the bunk, hunched over and pressure breathing, wondering what to do next, Dave said "Dad, hand me that wool sock over there. " I handed it to him, and he reached in and pulled out the 'lost' sock.

What a relief. Now all I wanted to do was to sit there and rest with my back to the wall until I felt a little better. By now I was feeling waves of nausea and I found a dish that I could use in case I needed it. I told Dave how I was feeling and he said that maybe I would feel better if I ate some breakfast.

While I sat swallowing the little squirts of saliva that accompanied the waves of nausea, Dave fixed the breakfast. The breakfast menu consisted of freeze dried franks and beans. On the afternoon when we decided on and bought this stuff, we must have been hungry because it sounded awful good. Now that it was time to eat it, it sounded just awful.

I took a small bite anyway just to see if it would help because I knew I would need food in me to keep me going for the next 15 or so hard hours. The beans did not go down well. After about 5 minutes of chewing and intense concentration, I was able to swallow those two beans and keep them down. That ended the experiment and I decided against eating any more breakfast. I did drink a lot of water, which went down well. I also knew I was dehydrated from the day before and that it was important to keep up my body fluids.

When Roger found out I was sick, he of course told me to keep on pressure breathing. He also recommended I go outside and maybe the fresh air would make me feel better. I did and it was all I could do to bend over and strap on my crampons. I got the rest of my gear ready without any problem and actually, except for my stomach, I felt quite good. My headache was gone, now that I could pressure breathe with each breath, my legs and feet felt good and strong, and my attitude was positive. I was ready to go.

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