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[pct-l] Mt. Rainier in '77
Dear PCT List,
A couple of you asked for my recollections of an ascent of Mt. Rainier
during my thru hike in '77, so here goes from 21 years fuzzy memory
recently refreshed from my journal.
Paul Hacker, Jeff Zimmerman and I (there was a picture of the 3 of us in
the PCTA bulletin last year with Rainier in the background) hitchhiked from
the trail to Paradise Lodge and found Duane Wyman (Duane, if you're out
there, you are still remembered and forever appreciated) who was working at
the Lodge. We had all met Duane in Sth Calif. on the PCT months before
while he was doing a section hike and he had offered to outfit us and
school us on the climb when we got up to Washington. Duane put us up in
his room at the Lodge that really only had enough space for two total.
Their was packs and sleeping bags and pads and dirty socks and ice axes and
crampons and trail dirt and food and clothing scattered and packed all over
this tight space.
Duane provided ice axes, crampons, rope, harnesses and head lamps for all
three of us. He had to borrow much of this from his friends also working
at the Lodge and it was loaned without concern.
That night we stayed up late and Duane showed us on maps and described in
detail the route and strategy for the climb. The beer and tequila
certainly refined the understanding of this undertaking and properly
prepared us for the physical challenge!
The next morning we packed our backpacks with the loaned gear, other
necessary clothing, a little food, and sleeping bags and headed up the snow
field to Muir Camp. Duane had told us to get there early so that we could
reserve a space on the bunks in the shelter. The walk on steep soft snow
was easy and we reached the shelter around noon. Brilliant sun, reflecting
off of the snow had us in shorts adding to our tans.
The dirty trail in the snow wandered up from the Lodge to the shelter and
then past a sign that warned: Dangerous Area, experienced parties beyond
only (or something to this effect). A short distance beyond the sign the
trail disappeared into a crevasse that appeared to be too wide to jump
across, yet continued on the other side towards an incredible and
intimidating field of crevasses, winding around some, across others,
disappearing here, reappearing there, until it could be seen in the
distance to climb a steep ridge of dark volcanic rock.
We knew from Duane's description that we were to sleep in the shelter until
midnight, don our equipment and head lamps and head across this field of
crevasses in the depth of darkness! All three of us felt pretty
intimidated at this point.
We staked our territory out on the broad, long bunk beds that lined the
walls of the shelter. The bunks consisted of sheets of plywood and 2X4's.
We hadn't brought our sleeping pads, so the wood and our excitement and
anticipation didn't make for very good sleeping. By sundown the shelter was
completely full of several parties, most larger than our three and some of
seven to ten people. The shelter had room for about twenty people and it
was packed tight.
Midnight came soon and Jeff, Paul and I had our gear ready and on before
anyone else. We were ready to go but hesitated, thinking that maybe it
would be more prudent to follow another group than lead. So we let a group
go ahead of us and followed them. We were roped together, each with ice
axe, crampons, head lamp, parka, gloves, etc. Stars, but no moon, black
ridges looming above and ahead barely visible. In complete darkness we
head across the intimidating crevasse field we viewed that afternoon.
We knew that to cross a crevasse while roped like this two of us were to
dig our ice axes in and give the third person just enough rope to get
across. This way, if he fell or slipped, he would have a minimum fall and
we would be ready to stop it and not be pulled into the crevasse him.
The first large crevasse presented itself with a wide (maybe three feet)
gaping black mouth. I shined my headlight cautiously into it and the light
disappeared about 75 feet down in its dark recesses. Jeff and Paul
prepared and I jumped, landing about six feet beyond the edge, my
adrenaline surging. After the first one, others didn't look so bad and we
proceeded with more confidence, hopping over narrow cracks, winding around
large gaping ones, crossing ice bridges jingerly.
You start at midnight so that these ice bridges are stronger frozen at
night. It also gives you enough time to reach the summit and return before
the sun makes these so soft that they are dangerous.
We climb the ridge ahead following the first party who is now about a
hundred yards ahead and only visible by the narrow sweeps of their head
lamps. They head over the ridge and down across an even wider expanse of
crevasses. We try to follow but the trail becomes more and more obscure
and the way down the ridge becomes looser and steeper, footing becoming
more and more precarious. After several minutes of trying to find the way
we rest and happen to look back to see several teams going straight up the
ridge! With a few moments of concurring our logic we conclude that the
party we are following are either going to climb the small side peak or are
climbing a different route than the main one that we wish to follow. We
hustle back up the ridge and quickly find the now obvious main trail going
up the ridge.
Before long we drop off the ridge and wind into "The Ice Falls", an area at
a concave flex of a steep glacier. This flex causes a space problem for
the volume of ice descending the mountain and so pushes great seracs of ice
in every direction. We have been told to not hesitate or rest here as the
blocks are almost always in motion and it can be very dangerous. While
quickly winding through these sheer, ominous black blocks, some thirty to
fifty feet high we can hear deep groans and an occasional load crack like a
shotgun going off. We hightail it through and at one point the trail
disappears right into the sheer wall of one of the seracs! We back track a
short ways and find the footprints of those ahead of us veering off a
different way and so we follow.
Out of the ice fall we now begin climbing steeply up the glacier above.
Its now about three o'clock in the morning and we stop for a break. A
black mass above, the ice fall illuminated in faint star light below. A
tall, vertical, laminated volcanic ridge to the right. Nothing visible in
the distance, but way down below the ice fall off to the left barely
discernable are the tiny head lamp lights of the first party. Who knows
where they are going and glad we realized our error when we did.
The legs feel great, the lungs are beginning to suck and have trouble
keeping up with the pace my fully conditioned legs want to keep. The going
is simple, just straight up, hardly any obstacles. The three of us power
up and pass the leading group after about an hour. They hail us and ask us
how the hell we can be moving so God Damn Fast (with a smile)? Paul
informs them of our origination and destination. The leader of this group
thinks we will all be able to summit today. He has tried to climb Rainier
six times. Twice he has been blown off his feet by high winds, twice he
has been chased off by rain and snow. Twice before he has succeeded.
A deep orange glow is spreading low on the eastern horizon and as we climb
now it begins to cast an orange glow upon the white ice all around us. As
the sun rises it appears to rise below the horizon and we realize that a
dense layer of smoke from the numerous forest fires has caused this. The
orange glow is now brilliant and bathes everything in beautiful amber and
orange tones. Details of our surroundings are visible and the expansive
view below begins to take shape. We turn our head lamps off and gladly
turn our backs on the darkness of night to embrace the illumination of day.
The angle of the glacier, and the climb, is gradually diminishing. We know
we are close but can't see how far the summit is. Climbing we come to a
deep crevasse near the top of the glacier. It is only about four feet
across but is hundreds of feet long and deep. Its far side is also about a
foot higher than the side we are on. The depth of this crevasse is truly a
frightening thing and we examine this crossing with hard respect. Now four
feet isn't very far to jump. The foot up makes it a little bit harder but
still this is not something that even my eight year old boys would think is
difficult! But the depth, the depth is ssooo intimidating. I guess it is
like walking on a curb, balancing there and walking along is simple, partly
because the street is only a foot or so down and the sidewalk is even. If
you make a mistake the consequences are not even of concern. Now walking
along a similar width steel beam a thousand feet above the Klamath River is
no harder to balance on, but, oh, the consequences are so much more severe
that the effort seems so much more intense.
We jump across with an abundance of adrenaline and no mishaps and great
respect. We rest here and the former party catches us. The leader says
the summit is at least another 500 to 700 feet up. The trail in the
softening snow proceeds now between long narrow seracs, across one into
another. Over the last I can see the small crater on top! It's only about
200 feet up! I disconnect from the rope and start to jog in my enthusiasm
to the highest point on the crater summit. As I run my legs feel great
still and are more than ready to go faster but I am held back by my
inability to breath fast enough and deep enough. The adrenalin surges
anyway and now I'm on top!
The forest fire smoke obscures all but the highest volcanoes. Mt. Hood is
visible in the distance with Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens (pre-big boom)
near enough to touch. I think I can even see Mt. Jefferson barely visible
in the haze to the south. The immediate valleys around Mt. Rainier are
fairly clear and are lush looking and deep in color and rich in detail.
Steams wisps from the ice caves on the lower edge of the small crater. A
legend says that the first white man to climb the mountain got caught in a
snow storm on the summit. Having no shelter he survives the night in the
ice/steam caves, flip flopping, alternately freezing one side and burning
the other. I don't know if this is true or just some good natured hazing
by the locals.
The interior of the caves, as viewed from outside, are beautifully
sculptured by the steam that issues from the depth of the volcano.
We gaze, congratulate, take pictures and then begin the race down. It is
now about 6:30 in the morning and the sun is steadily climbing and heating
all the snow and ice on the mountain. As it warms through the day the
glaciers pick up speed and move, opening new crevasses, pushing up new
seracs, breaking some off, destroying or softening ice bridges.
Duane has told us to not spend alot of time on top and hustle down. After
10:00 or so the ice bridges are not safe and the Ice Fall can be treacherous.
Coming down is easy, of course. The snow on the surface of the glacier was
ice hard on the way up, but now is so soft that it is slippery even with
crampons on. Slipping and sliding we drop all the way to the Ice Fall in
just an hour. The Ice Fall is moving! The movement of huge blocks of ice
is barely perceptible and awesomely audible. We have been instructed to
run through the Ice Fall on the way down and now we know why. Watch you
step, move fast and pay attention.
We reach Muir Camp a couple hours later and slide on our butts down the
snow field, the temperature now in the 70's.
As I approach the Lodge, a pretty woman in the crowd ambling around the
lodge comes up to me, "Hi, you're Greg Hummel, aren't you?" I confirm, not
knowing how she knows me, "You're hiking the PCT, aren't you?" again I
confirm. She went to a lecture I gave at U.C. Santa Barbara before
starting the hike about the history and logistics of the trail. She is
flabbergasted that I have walked on foot this far and "You know that the
Canadian border isn't that far away?"
Of course I knew exactly how far the Canadian border was away. I had been
aiming for it for two years!
Thank you Duane Wyman, wherever you are.
Greg "Strider" Hummel
PS (I apologize for any inaccuracies that anyone more recently familiar
with the mountain may recognize. After all it has been 21 years.)
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