Friday, September 04, 2009

I love the mountains. I love looking at the mountains. I love climbing mountains. Earlier this year I signed up with a group called IMG (International Mountain Guides) to climb Mt Rainier. At the time, I was in need of a challenge that had a definitive goal. What better goal than to climb...summit....climb back down. You can look back and say, "There! I've done it". Here's what I was up against...being out of shape, and an all-time high weight of 205. I have to hand it to my wife, who got me in touch with Herb Sayer. Herb owns Valley Park CrossFit gym. He has Himalayan climbing experience and knows what it takes to get whipped into shape for this climb. Long story short, his 30-minute sessions were designed to wipe me out in a good way, in order to get me to the top of Rainier.

I was a bit nervous prior to starting the climb on August 26th. You see I tore my left hamstring while on vacation the month before. It was the single-handed worst pain I had experienced. I did not work out too much between that incident and heading to Seattle...not to mention spending 8 days in Ghana, Africa for Touch A Life. I arrived at the IMG headquarters in time to take a test-drive on my leg up a mountain trail. I told myself I'd climb an hour, evaluate, then turn around. An hour clicked by (and about 1,000' vertical) without pain. I was in spirits were soaring...nothing was going to stop me now!

Our climbing group was comprised of 8 clients and 4 professional guides. Our goal was to start at the Paradise Lodge on the first day and climb up to Camp Muir. We each had 40lb backpacks strapped to us, then set off. 6 hours later, we made it to this beautiful perch in the Washington sky. It offered a beautiful view of the summit, as well as stunning panoramas all the way to Mt Hood, Oregon. After a fairly good nights sleep (compliments of ear plugs...8 in a single room, mind you), we spent the next day learning the essence of roped, glacier travel, belays, self-arrest with our ice axes, etc... It was a great classroom setting with great teachers.

We then packed up our bags, strapped on the crampons and climbed across the glacier and over a rocky ledge to Ingraham Flats. This is a beautiful location sandwiched between 2 beautiful rock features (Gibralter Ledges and Disappointment Cleaver), just above some major crevasses at the glaciers icefall, and at the lower edge of a steep snow field. This was to be our "high camp". The final campsite before our summit push. Once we settled in at Ingraham Flats, we had dinner and prepped for the summit. The weather was turning. It was getting colder, the winds were starting to whip, and the clouds were slowly filling in the evening sky. By the time we went to bed at 6pm, it was starting to pelt snow on our tents. Privately I am sure many folks were wondering if we were actually going to get a shot at the summit.

At midnight-thirty, Chris, our lead guide started waking everyone up for breakfast. It was amazing. The wind died down and the weather seemed least for now. We had breakfast, then got prepped on the condition of the trails above us. They were definitely sketchy at best. We ate our breakfast, got roped up, and started on our journey. This was it. No turning back now...slow, steady plodding with the crunch/crunch/crunch sounds of 12 pairs of crampons making their way through ice and snow, illuminated only by our mountaineering headlamps. I had a smile on and was in bliss, or so I thought.

Our first obstacle was to go up and over Disappointment Cleaver. This is a rocky spine that rises 1000' and separates 2 glaciers. It looked fairly straightforward, but kept going and going and going. I can see why it's named what it is. At the top we were rewarded with a biting cold and windy ledge. It was there we tried our best to warm up (with our "puffy jackets"), choke some nourishment down, then get some water in us. After 15 minutes, it was up and at 'em again.

Directly after the Cleaver, we encountered the greatest patch of mountaineering I have experienced up to this point. The trail had deteriorated enough that we had some significant exposure. Oh, there were a few cracks in the glacier (bottomless-seeming) that we had to jump over, but we soon hit areas that required us to use fixed lines and belays to navigate through. The issue wasn't our ability to navigate through these was the consequences if something happened. The slope below was extremely steep, with major crevasses in the glacier at the runout. You could literally throw a bus down some of these cracks....and not know when it would hit bottom. The stakes seemed pretty high, but manageable if you took your time. Crossing the ropes were slow. One mountaineer at a time, you clip on to the rope and yell "CLIMBING". At an anchored area, you have to stop the process, and yell "ANCHOR", letting the others on belay know you're unclipping and re-clipping on the other side of that particular break in the line. You yell out "CLIMBING" when you have re-clipped. At the same time, you need to evaluate your footing and the position of your ice axe. Always have your ice axe in position to save yourself or help save someone else, in the event you need to self-arrest on the icy and snowy slope. One by one, all 4 roped teams managed to cross the exposed ledges that stuck out from the mountain face.

I thought the ropes were an incredible confidence builder. Our next obstacles were comprised of 3 sections of 10' ladders laid across deep crevasses. I was pumped. They were all tricky and dangerous in their own right, but we had had great training. Here I was, in the night at 12,500' doing things I always dreamed about, but thought I'd need to go to bigger mountains to experience. My heart was racing. I got a lump in my throat, and just wanted to cry like a happy baby. We negotiated these ladders and finally made it up to our last rest stop before the summit push. My guide was Eben Reckord and my roped partner was Sarah, a 19 year-old college student from Colorado. Eben reminded us about Michael Jordan. With 10 minutes to go in the game, he stepped it up a notch...not just for himself, but for others around him. It was GAME TIME!! I got it and was pumped, but Sarah never saw Michael play...she just nodded and got roped back the way, she is a climbing machine!

800' to go. Sounds easy, doesn't it? After all, we have climbed 8,200' by now!

It was dark, the wind was whipping at @ 30 mph and driving the temperature down to below zero, it was spitting snow and was foggy, and I was in pain. I rubbed some major blisters on my heels on the way to Camp Muir on day 1. My cure was to slap layer after layer of Duct Tape on my heels and sucked it up. Ironically, my feet weren't hurting. With 1.5 hours to go uphill, my left leg was killing me....compliments of my torn hamstring 5 weeks earlier. I simply left the Advil in my car, and hadn't taken it in 2 days. This was just a painful stretch on the climb.

So there I was, walking the best I could. I'd alternate my walking from the "French Technique" to "Duckstepping". Whatever would not hurt at the time. I also kept my head down and pressed on. At 7:17am, we finally made the summit! I was bushed, but felt at peace and fulfilled. All in all, we spent 15 minutes on top before heading back down 9,000' to the Paradise Lodge. I felt emotional about the summit only after we started back down. It was still cold, but the daylight was there to reveal the snowy expanse of the slopes we were trudging down.

It's funny. Hours of preparation in St Louis, hours climbing the 9,000' vertical feet on Rainier's beautiful slopes and hours trudging back down. All for 15 minutes on the summit? Do I consider this a success? YES. If we couldn't have made the summit due to weather, it would still be a success. I did everything in my power to prepare for this task, and I enjoyed each step of the process. It has been great being whipped into shape (and losing 20 pounds). I missed my family, but now have some great stories to tell our kids. Maybe they'll want to climb with me one of these days......naaah. So far Everlie is my only hope. Benny likes the warm, beachy excursions. Delaney is doubtful, since sisters are rarely alike.

I still have a burning desire to keep climbing. My sights are set for Cho Oyu one of these days, but there are many miles and milestones between now and then.