One of the many perks about living in Seattle is the proximity to big mountains. Last year when I climbed Rainier it was months of training, planning and praying for a good weather window. Now it’s “oh the weather is nice so lets go climb Rainier” and so I am. Yesterday I took someone up on an invite to climb Disappointment Cleaver, today I’m packing and tomorrow I’ll be climbing. Crazy.
Oh, and I went to REI today to pick up some fuel and that place is a zoo with their Labor Day Sale going on. Besides picking up fuel I also picked up my new secret weapon, Hammer Gel. $20 for 26 servings is considerably cheaper than buying the individual packets.
Training for mountaineering and training for Rainier in particular is an expectations game. If you don’t know what to expect you fret over every little detail and want to make sure that your training regime is the “right” one for mountaineering. If you do know what to expect especially on a climb like the standard Disappointment Cleaver on Rainier you know that you need to have a solid base conditioning level and a propensity to suffering. Acclimatization is often the weak link, not fitness, and unfortunately almost everyone, even locals, can’t do anything about it.
My girlfriend’s brother wants to climb Rainier over Labor Day weekend. I found this out about a month ago and even though the beer and pizza diet has caught up with me I am not too worried. My base level of conditioning when I found out was I could jog, albeit slowly, for about an hour. Not in good shape but I’ve certainly been in worse shape. To prepare and whip myself into condition, for the last few weeks I have bumped it up a notch and added hill work and heavy backpack slogging. I added these two types of training for very different reasons and I think they will each payoff.
Hill work is always good. If you’re trying to climb Disappointment Cleaver you’re essentially climbing a big snowy hill with crevasses. Undertaking a Rainier climb is not something to be taken lightly but on a nice day the standard route is fairly safe. I added hill work because I can push myself to exhaustion relatively easily, recover and then do it again. I have a very steep hill near my house, steep enough for my little Honda Civic to have a hissy fit going up it. I do a quick warm jog and then do three reps of this hill at 80% walking down between each. Very conveniently at the top of the hill is a dirt running trail that loops for 3/4 of a mile and has a few pleasant ups and downs. This is my recovery loop and it gives me a chance to get my lungs under control. All in all this set of 3x hills and then trail jog takes 20 minutes. I do three sets of these and then about a mile cool down. By the time I am done I have burned out my lungs, burned out my legs and am all around spent. If I didn’t have a trail run in between sets of hills I think my hill work would be considerably less effective. By jogging between sets I recover enough to push myself on the next set, I keep my heart rate up for much longer and I can really focus on recovering my breath while still moving. All of these things are important while climbing.
I have also added heavy backpack work to my training. I am lucky enough to have Mt Si close by which allows me to hike about 3500 vertical feet with a 50lb pack but when I lived on the east coast I did just fine on the stairs of a nearby parking garage. The key is to start light and go for as long as you can with an hour being the minimum. I like to be able to feel relatively ok with a 50lb pack on my back for a couple of hours but that is just me. Now that I have Mt Si to train on I do about 3500 vertical feet in two hours and then take a little over an hour to get down for a grand total of three-ish hours. While heavy backpack work is mind-numbingly boring it builds that run-you-like-a-rented-mule endurance that is crucial for mountaineering.
Will this training be enough for Rainier? I’m wagering yes because I know what to expect. On the hike to Camp Muir I am going to start early in the AM and take as much time as I need. There is no rush and the longer I am on the mountain the longer I have to acclimate. This is the only day that I will have a heavy pack and I can rest as much as I need. On summit day I’m going to leave early for safety reasons and my pack will be next to nothing. I’ll pace myself and take decent breaks where it is safe. I know I have the endurance and suffering capability to move through the objectively hazardous sections quickly and that is the only place where true speed matters.
I also have a few tricks up my sleeve this time. This time I am ditching my heavy Koflach Degre plastic boots and will be sporting a much lighter pair of La Sportiva Trango Alp GTX boots. They are similar to the La Sportiva Trango S Evo GTX but a little less technical. Another very similar pair of boots are the Scarpa Charmoz GTX. All said I should be rockin and rollin all the way to the top. I’ll let you know how leather boots on Rainier go.
Part II of my Mt Rainier climb up Disappointment Cleaver is really a completely separate trip report from Part I. Earlier in the week I missed the summit of Rainier because the altitude knocked my climbing partner on his ass. To add insult to injury, Mt Shuksan had repelled me due to sloppy snow conditions. So I was halfway through a week long climbing trip and I had yet to tag a summit. The summit of Rainier was going to be had and that was that.
Despite the bad luck of the first half of the trip, I was actually feeling pretty good about this time. My mindset, as well as Ben’s, were rock solid and we were ready for some mountaineering punishment. I had a little chat with him about the “rest step” and the “mountaineers pace” and I was confident that slow and strong was the way to get to the summit.
Compared to Part I, the hike to Camp Muir was perfect. Just look below.
The weather was perfect because a high pressure system rolled in from Canada the day prior to our attempt. I like high pressure systems because they usually provide cloud free skies and good climbing conditions. On our summit day the sky was cloud free but the weatherman predicted some pretty windy conditions.
High winds are nothing new to me. After a Mt. Washington winter ascentwith 98 mph gusts, I thought a windy day on Rainier would be no problem. So we started off with our slow but strong pace.
The climb went without a hitch all the way to the top of the Cleaver. I was climbing in a light fleece and the breeze was just enough to keep me from breaking a sweat. As we started to get to the top of the Cleaver the wind was picking up and just about everybody in the Rainier summit train stopped to add a layer. I put on my hard shell and grabbed my gloves and hat in preparation for what I knew was going to be a windy climb.
As an aside, the OR windstopper gloves that I recently bought rocked my world. Even in some ridiculous winds they kept my hands warm.
At this point nobody seemed to want to be first in the train to the summit. It was dark and windy and I guess there is a false sense of security in seeing head lamps in front of you. I think that kind of rubbish gets you killed. So off I went into the darkness.
I couldn’t tell you how long I slogged but there is a natural ledge a ways after the Cleaver. It’s like the mountain said rest here please. So I pounded a GU, drank some water and enjoyed the sunrise.
At this point the wind was really picking up. I’m about 200 lbs and the gusts would push me around. It was a gentle reminder that I was on a big mountain and even though the altitude was wearing on me I had to stay alert.
After what seemed like forever I could see the rim of the summit crater. There was a certain point about 100 meters from the rim that the wind became utterly ridiculous. I was basically leaning 45 degree into the wind just to not be blown over and Ben who is only 155 lbs literally got airborne. There is nothing quite like planting your ice ax to keep your buddy from flying like a kite.
The wind made me fight for every step. It was a battle and all I could do was laugh at how strong the wind was. As soon as I cleared the rim though and went into the crater the wind died. I was relieved to be out of the wind, but I literally had to tow Ben into the summit crater. Now that is some strong wind.
Not many people can say that they have had the summit of Rainier all to themselves. But since we were the first party in the train and all the sane people had turned around, the summit was mine for that moment.
I make this sound kind of peaceful when in actuality Ben was giving me a seated hip belay as I crawled my way up there.
The wind was absolutely ferocious to the point that I couldn’t even hold my head up and look into it. Comparing the wind to the 98mph gusts on Mt. Washington, I would say the wind was easily 100+mph. Just look at the way the rope is flying and the snow is blowing off my crampons. It was intense.
The summit was not a place I wanted to hang out long and Ben agreed. Once we were back down in the crater it was relatively smooth climbing. There were a few other parties that were battling the wind on the way up but most reasonable people had turned around.
On the way down I actually paused to take a few photos and I think some of them turned out pretty damn good.
When we got down to the rest ledge I got the show of a lifetime. On the day prior, Camp Patriot had taken a few disabled veterans to the summit of Rainier. Camp Patriot is actually a pretty cool program. They give wounded soldiers the opportunity to enjoy outdoor adventures like climbing Mt Rainier. To celebrate the soldiers successful summit bid, Camp Patriot had arranged for two F-15 fighters to fly over Camp Muir at exactly 8AM. I think I had the greatest Rainier descent ever because I got to enjoy a F-15 flyover from above. I cannot describe how cool it was to see these jets break through the clouds below me and hit their after burners. For about 15 minutes I watched our military celebrate its finest. Here is a link to a story about the flyover. (link)
After the jets flew off into the sunrise the climb was uneventful and soon enough I was boiling some chicken flavored Ramen at Camp Muir.
I recently climbed Mt Rainier via the Disappointment Cleaver with a pair of REI Taku softshell pants and I have to say they absolutely rocked. I’ll admit that I was a little nervous about only taking softshell pants on Rainier. The mountain is known for strong winds and fierce weather after all and this was my first trip with this particular pair of softshell pants.
[singlepic=41,320,240,,left]The first day on Rainier is a long slog up to Camp Muir. If you look at some of the pictures in my trip report the weather was absolutely miserable. It was a combination of rain, sleet and mist with a steady wind that was less than pleasant. I was seriously impressed with the performance of the Taku pants. I stayed dry and comfortable and best of all the wind didn’t penetrate the pants.
My climbing partner that day was wearing a pair of Outdoor Research Furio pants over a pair of Patagonia Mixmasters and he was soaked from the outside in and the inside out. The hardshell soaked through as did his ‘Pata-gucci’ pants while my basic REI pants rocked my world.
The clutch aspect of these pants is that they are a combination of hardshell and softshell. The front of the thighs and the back of the calves are softshell which is great for breathing but the seat and the shins/knees are a hardshell material. This combination works out perfectly because the hardshell is only where you need it and the rest of the pant can breath. They also have a thigh vent which is a feature I haven’t seen on any other softshell.
I have to say that these pants are among my all time best buys and I would highly recommend them.
For full disclosure I was wearing a capiline baselayer underneath the REI Taku pants which definately helped these pants rock out. Also, check out my full Rainier gear list if you want to see everything I brought.
I just got back from my nine day Pacific Northwest climbing trip. The first mountain on the agenda was Mt Rainier via Disappointment Cleaver. I envisioned this as a straight forward climb that would go fairly smoothly and for the most part it did and yet my attempt ended in failure.
From North Carolina my climbing partner Ben and I landed about noon in Seattle. After collecting our massive bags we hit up REI for some fuel and food and headed to the park to set up camp. We arrived at the Paradise visitors center right before close and took care of the climbing permit. It was late so we set up camp down at Cougar Rock where we could sort our gear and prep for climbing the DC route on Rainier.
When we woke up the pleasant weather of the day prior had turned to a nasty heavy mist that soaked everything and chilled me to the bone. The forecast for the next day good so we figured we’d tough it out and head to Camp Muir.
That hike was one of the most miserable hikes of my life.
When everything is perfect the Muir snowfield is a pleasant snow hike. When conditions are nasty the pleasant snow hike turns into a death march through nightmarish slush.
After entirely too many hours of death marching we arrived at Camp Muir and snagged a place in the climbing hut. It was the Sunday of the Fourth of July weekend and everybody and their mother was hiding from the weather in the hut. It was kind of cool to shoot the shit with everyone holed up there but nothing smells worse than twenty wet climbers in a poorly ventilated hut.
The hut basically shut down somewhere a little after 6PM because just about everyone was waking up around 11PM and trying to hit the trail by midnight.
The overarching theme of the Disappointment Cleaver is slow, monotonous uphill hiking. There is a clearly beaten path all the way to the top and that if you stay on trail the crevice danger is minimal. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that DC is safe. There are many objective hazards on this route that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Rockfall is a real and ever present danger and you do pass in the fall path of numerous seracs. Don’t be fooled into thinking that because the Disappointment Cleaver is popular it is safe.
Ben and I took this route seriously and moved cautiously and deliberately. From Camp Muir you traverse your way over to Cathedral Gap which is by far my least favorite portion of the climb. I would describe the Cathedral Gap as walking up a huge gravel pile while trying not to dislodge toaster sized boulders that will surely maim the climbers below you. Now somehow make that nastier and you have an idea of Cathedral Gap. It should come as now surprise that I hurried my sweet ass through there.
Once past the rockfall of Cathedral Gap you are on the Ingraham Glacier which presents another objective hazard. In order to get on to the Cleaver proper I had to pass beneath a huge serac that seemed to want to shower down ice blocks on unsuspecting climbers that pass in the darkest hours of the night. My little headlamp is bright but lucky for me I couldn’t see the ominous looking serac as I was going up and only on the way down did I realize what a present danger this little passage was.
To get on the cleaver proper you have to traverse around its steep base. It is steep but it isn’t run out. I say it isn’t run out because there is a man eating crevice that will swallow you in a heartbeat if you fall. In order to protect this section for the hordes of sloppy footed climbers that RMI drags up the mountain every year they place fixed ropes and beat a flat but narrow pathway. I would liken it to walking the plank but without the whole pirate thing going on.
After hopping off the plank I got the distinct pleasure of climbing up Disappointment Cleaver. This little chunk of climbing is probably the closest thing to ‘real’ climbing the route offers. I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t get a little nervous climbing 35 degree snow and rock in the dark. I kept doing switchback after switchback, hopping up boulders and over broken snow.
It was fun for a while until I realized that my partner was struggling bad. Ben was huffing and puffing and moving at a steady one step, two step, rest, rest, rest pace. I could tell that he just wasn’t there mentally and he was getting confused pretty damn easily. The final straw was when he nearly bit it after snagging his crampons on a rock. I was completely cool with him toughing out the huffing and puffing, and the headache and nausea are just part of altitude climbing. But when I am tied to someone they absolutely have to be solid on their feet.
Turning around was the hardest decision of the entire trip. I gave up the summit, not because the mountain said no, but because Ben’s body said no. It was the right decision but that is little consolation to a summitless climber.
On the way back to Camp Muir I took my sweet time and tried to get some great pictures of Little Tahoma, Ingraham Flats, Cadaver Gap and all the other cool features.