Saga of a Summit Climb Part 3 of 4


We assembled in teams and connected up to our loops in the rope. Our guides had wrapped each of our waists with a few turns of some kind of webbing and tied the ends so it was snug. Two carabiners snapped around the webbing and the loop in the climbing rope to attach us to it. We were each wearing a battery powered headlamp which shone a nice spot of light wherever you aimed your head.

As soon as we were hooked up, Roger started off to cross the Cowlitz Glacier. When the loop of rope between us had been taken up, I took off behind him at the nice steady pace he was setting. Karl was behind me, followed by Rick and finally Dave who was at the end of our rope. There seemed to be 30 or 40 feet of rope between each of us so by the time all 26 or so of us were under way, we stretched out a long ways. It was quite a sight from near the front where I was looking back seeing that twisting row of lights winding down the mountain getting closer and dimmer as they stretched almost out of sight.

I really didn't pay too much attention to details like exactly how many rope teams or people were in our party. Nor did I pay a great deal of attention to the awesome beauty of the mountain, its glaciers, the incredibly dense starry sky, or the meteor shower which just happened to coincide with our adventure. No, most of my attention was on my stomach and I was trying to assess my situation to figure out how to make the summit in spite of the trouble my stomach was giving me.

After about a half hour on the Cowlitz, all of a sudden my attention was yanked off my stomach and riveted on the trail which I used to see in front of me. My headlamp had suddenly dimmed to orange and then gone out altogether. Fortunately, the trail was fairly uniform at this point and I didn't have too much trouble with footing and I could see Roger's light ahead so I knew which way to go.

I called out to Roger and told him what happened.

"I don't know what to tell you," he called back in his slow John Wayne style, "your eyes will probably get used to the dark after while."

The steady pace didn't change at all and as I kept going, my eyes did get used to the dark. Karl, who saw my problem, helped me by aiming his light a little higher so that the trail and rope in front of me were being lit occasionally as his light would flit back and forth around my feet.

As I got into this routine, my attention was divided between my stomach and my feelings toward Eddie Bauer. I had bought my headlamp and batteries at Eddie Bauer's in Seattle and since the batteries were new, I expected them to be fresh. I had always had some vague notion that that store was in business more for fashion than for function and this experience confirmed that notion in my mind. The thoughts going through my mind were that I would probably have gotten fresher batteries buying them at Pay n' Save where the turnover rate is probably high as a result of kids and their transistor radios, than at Eddie Bauer who is ostensibly in the survival business. The conclusion I reached in my mind was that Eddie Bauer had seen the last of my business.

In a half hour or so, we 'coiled in' to our first rest stop. This is done by walking at the normal pace right up to the person in front of you as he coils up the section of rope between the two of you. When you reach him, you stop and begin coiling the rope between you and the next guy until he reaches you.

At the rest stops, it is important to first put on a warm parka, then drink and eat a little, and take care of feet, equipment, clothing, or what ever needs attention. My attention, of course was on my stomach. It was literally pressuring me to go behind a ridge and relieve myself but I was quite sure, from some episodes during the last half hour, that the pressure was due to more than gas. Against the advice of Roger, I decided that diarrhea represented body fluids that I couldn't afford to expel and so I decided to hold on as long as I could. I think I needn't belabor the consequences of this decision in any more detail.

As the rest break drew to a close, I tried my lamp again, which I had switched off as soon as it had gone out. the batteries had rejuvenated some in the interim and the light came on. I turned it off again to save juice and as we got ready to take off again, I asked Roger to tell me when we were approaching a particularly dangerous part so I could turn my light on only when it was really necessary.

His slow reply was "You better turn it on as soon as we start."

He was right and fortunately, the batteries held out for another 20 minutes or so. We were climbing through the Cathedral Rocks, a ridge which separates the Cowlitz from the Ingraham Glacier. We didn't let the rope stretch out here, but instead we each carried a coil of the rope and walked just 6 feet or so behind one another. When my lamp did go out again, it wasn't too bad because the lights behind and in front of me were closer.

When we reached Cadaver Gap, we went out onto the Ingraham Glacier and my light wasn't working at that point. Traveling on glaciers in the dark seemed to be easier than traveling on rocks because the footing was more predictable. I got quite a fright a couple times though.

First was when I thought our trail was on a nice flat part of the glacier until Karl's spot of light moved past me and disappeared into a huge abyss which dropped off just to the right of the trail. I wasn't sure at that point whether I would rather know about those crevasses or not.

The next was when my pack struck a huge ice overhang which I didn't know was there. I started to lose my balance as a result of the impact, but I was moving slowly enough that I kept it. I wondered though if there were another crevasse below me which I couldn't see that I might have been knocked into. Later that morning, on the way back down I saw that indeed there was a huge crevasse below that overhanging ice.

At the next rest stop, we had crossed the Ingraham and Roger announced that what we had done up to now was 'easy'. At least compared to what was ahead. We were at the foot of the dreaded Disappointment Cleaver. This is a huge steep ridge of rock which separates the Ingraham from the Emmons Glacier. We would be going for an hour or so with no break up the steepest part of the climb.

This was a rough pitch which was some rock trail and some snow and ice but all of it steep. I hypnotized myself into a rhythm of three pressure breaths per step and tried to maintain as steady a pace as that set by Roger. By this time, the sky was turning a beautiful red to the east and we no longer needed our headlamps. I kept my eyes glued to the trail one foot in front of me and concentrated on exactly where my next step was going to be and exactly how much energy I would need to swing my foot up into it so it would seat itself firmly in the snow. It was amazing to me how perceptible the energy and oxygen consumption was. If a particular step were just a couple inches higher than normal, the difference was immediately noticeable in muscle fatigue, or shortness of breath or both.

It was also amazing to me how after a while the trail I was concentrating on seemed to be almost level, or at least it seemed to be only a very gentle slope. I would realize how hypnotized I was when I would glance ahead of me where I thought Roger was and instead of seeing him, I would see the mountain. In order to see him, I had to look what seemed to me to be straight up. This would demoralize me for an instant when I realized that was where I had to go. After a few times of that, I quit looking up - or down - and just kept looking one foot in front of me and got back into the rhythm of rest-stepping and pressure breathing.

At the top of the cleaver, we lost a few climbers who decided not to continue. Two people had decided to call it quits and Roger said that if two more would decide to quit, then he would send a rope team of four people plus a guide back to Camp Muir. If not, the two people would be 'bagged'. That is they would be put in sleeping bags and secured to the mountain to wait until the rest of the party came by on the way back down.

I felt like Roger was giving me a personal invitation to go back down and take care of my stomach, and later Dave told me that at the time he was entertaining the notion that if he and Dad both quit, they would have the full rope team to send down. Neither of us spoke up though. We were both determined to continue.

From there, we went out onto the Emmons Glacier which we stayed on until we reached the summit. There was no improvement in my condition all the way up and at each rest stop I had tried to eat something. I tried nuts and candy, bread, peanut butter and jelly, and an apple but I couldn't eat more than one bite of anything without bringing on acute nausea - except the apple. It tasted good to me and I ate three bites before the nausea stopped me.

The wind was blowing pretty hard and I did get colder and colder at each rest stop. In fact before we reached the summit, I had put on all the clothing I had brought along except for one sweater. I realize this is a pretty risky situation but since I wasn't getting any food, I considered it to be an emergency situation and kept all those clothes on to conserve my heat.

Attaining the summit actually took me by surprise. Roger had told us at the last rest stop that that was the last one so as we trudged over the crest of the crater and began coiling in, I said to Roger "I thought we weren't going to stop again."

He grinned and drawled back to me "This is it. You made it. Congratulations."

We were on the east side of the crater and Roger had told us that in mountain climbing protocol, that if you reach any point on the rim of a volcanic crater, you are considered to have reached the summit, even though some other point on the rim might be at a higher elevation. This was the case on Mount Rainier. On the west side of the crater is the highest point on the mountain known as Columbia Crest.

Roger said that if we were feeling good and strong, bearing in mind that we still had 9,000 feet to descend today, we could go over to Columbia Crest if we wanted to. It was about 150 feet higher than where we were and we would stay here about an hour to allow time for those who wanted to go. I think about 4 or 5 people went over there.

I could only think of going off somewhere over the ridge, digging a hole in the snow, and getting some relief. I did that, which was quite a miserable memorable experience and then I just sat down on my pack and shivered trying to keep warm.

Dave explored around the crater and took some "shots" with the camera but about now he wasn't feeling too well either.

We reached the summit at about 9 AM and an hour later when it was time to leave, I was more than ready to start down.

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