I had every intention of climbing Mt Rainier this Labor Day weekend but absolutely no expectation to summit. I say this because NOAA issued a winter storm morning that called for 1-2 feet of snow to be dumped above 7,000′ and high winds.
With a forecast like that why would I even want to climb Rainier? The simple reason was a friend, Grant, was coming up from Vegas and had been training for months. Now that I am a local I can opt to pass on attempting a climb but when you buy a $300 plane ticket you and train for months you need to at least give it a try.
Knowing the nasty forecast I was justifiably nervous. I pulled out my Sub-Zero puffy, my winter gloves and my incredibly versatile Turtle Fur. I expected white out conditions on the “summit day” so I ran to Home Depot and picked up some bamboo and red duct tape to make a boat load of wands. And preparing for a worst case scenario of hanging out in a tent for a few days I picked up some extra fuel at REI. With my winter gear packed and Grant’s GPS I knew we could get up and down safely no matter the conditions.
On Saturday we hiked to Camp Muir in what started out as rain at Paradise, then turned to fog around Moon Rocks and then finally sleet on the upper snowfield. Visibility was relatively good and navigating the crevasse field on the upper snowfield was easy. IMG had wanded a route through the field but their wands were few and far between. I also saw a guided group wanding another route but they seemed a little lost and I wasn’t filled with confidence by their route finding.
Since I expected a foot or two of the fresh powdery stuff to be hiding the small crevasses on the Muir snowfield I supplemented IMG’s wanding with my own and Grant made sure to set waypoints every 15 minutes or so.
The week prior Camp Muir had been bustling. The weather was gorgeous and it seemed everybody and their brother was up there. This week, in the nasty weather, there was three other independent climbers in the hut. I say independent because IMG decided that they were not going to camp out at Ingraham Flats but were going to shack up at Camp Muir.
I have no problem with people being guided up a mountain. If that is what you want to do, who am I to judge? What I do have a problem with is some of the shenanigans that clients pull due to their inexperience. I think that one of the first things guides teach their clients is headlamp etiquette. If there are nine other headlamps turned on you probably don’t need yours to tie your boots. Or another perpetually funny thing that clients do is to put on their crampons while still inside the hut and then walk around for 20 minutes waking everyone up with their crunching.
On what was supposed to be summit day the IMG guide woke up his clients with a mighty yell at 12:30 for a 2 AM departure. They all huddled around the big thermos of hot water and took ages getting dressed and asking questions like “should I wear my liner gloves?” And of course there were a dozen high-beamed headlamps going the entire time.
At 1:30 AM I took a quick look outside and was surprised to see that I could actually see. I thought for a moment that we just might be able to climb. Grant and I were going to tuck in behind one of the guided parties to take advantage of their boot path and decided we were not going to leave ’til about 3 AM. By the time 3 AM rolled around the weather had blown in and it was pretty clear that we were not going anywhere.
If you’ve never been to Camp Muir you should know that it is on a ridge. As a result when it is windy on Rainier it is really windy at Camp Muir and with wind comes spindrift. Owing to the layout of the camp the spindrift piles up pretty quickly in front of the outhouses which creates the very un-fun task of digging out the toilet. Since it was pretty windy at Camp Muir and spindrift was piling up quickly there was a real possibility of getting stuck in the outhouse. Maybe this is too much info but after only a minute or two inside I had to give the door my best linebacker shoulder plow to be able to squeeze out.
Getting down from Muir promised to be fun because by mid-morning a foot of snow had covered the snowfield and had hidden the crevasses. This was in addition to it being semi-whiteout. I could have said it was epic or gnarly but in actuality it was quite boring. With adequate wanding, regular GPS waypoints and a little common sense it went without a hitch.
Nasty weather is not something I take lightly especially on a big mountain like Rainier. I refuse to become a statistic in Accidents in NA Mountaineering especially by getting killed due to something stupid like hypothermia. With a little forethought and a bit of common sense this little adventure was just a little adventure and not a full on epic.