Mt. Rainier...eventually

  • Posted on 28 February 2005
  • By Tracy Sulkin

You can tug all you want. I'm not gonna move any faster, you son of a --! My friend R.J. Secor was on the other end of the rope, trying to motivate me. That is your friend up there, I reminded myself. Nothing like rope travel to bring out the worst in me.


The author's summit-mate, R.J. Secor, at 12,000 feet on the Emmons-Withrop Glacier, Mount Rainier.

photo by Tracy Sulkin

We were attempting to finish what we had started last year-then, my fourth attempt on the mountain and first time by the Emmons/Winthrop Glacier route. The trailhead begins in the White River campground on the northeast side of Rainier, at about 4,000 feet, and wanders through a beautiful forest for three miles, aside a rushing river. The trail crosses numerous waterfalls and streams, and tops out at the Glacier Basin campground--a pretty place to camp if you get a late start. The trail continues past a meadow and up a steep hill to the Inter Glacier, where you can refill water bottles. A yellow-white, shaggy-haired mountain goat made an appearance here on the other side of the river.

We roped up and headed for Camp Curtis, 8,900 feet, switching leads at intervals. Marginal crevasses blemish the sides of this seemingly benign glacier. This stretch is very strenuous with a heavy pack, however, being the second most popular route, there are plenty of rest-stop opportunities for mingling with descending traffic.

I like to guess at the success of a climber by studying his/her face. I discretely ask, 'Did you have a nice climb?' Someone else, who shall remain nameless, blurts out, 'Dja summit?'

The push for Curtis in one day was my stupid idea. The last 500 feet were pure torture, but my altimeter provided motivation. Every 10 steps, I hoped it would show significant change. We stopped on a wind-swept ridge just across the slope from Camp Curtis. During the night, the wind picked up to hurricane force, partially collapsing R.J.'s tent, but the ties held.

We had only 500 vertical feet and one mile to get to Camp Schurman, where there is an outhouse and a ranger. Skinny crevasses crossed the route; however, at about 75 feet from camp was a wider leap-across whose sides were pinched closer together about four feet below the surface. The other side of the crevasse sloped uphill. I stepped over and promptly slid backward into the crevasse, wedged in like an upside-down turtle. I managed to turn myself over by pushing my legs off of one side of the crevasse. It was an embarrassing way to make an entrance. On the other hand, it was my first crevasse fall and for some strange reason, I was thrilled.


The author, post-summit.

photo by R.J. Secor

Midnight came around too soon. I asked R.J. to reset the alarm for 2am. At 2, I gave R.J. the honor of making the go/no-go decision, secretly hoping he'd say no. The wind was blowing strong. 'Let's get this done,' he said resolutely.

Things went really well at the start-somehow, I managed 800 vertical feet per hour for the first couple of hours. We followed the route-of-the-week that some yahoo had set bloody straight up. We ascended the Emmons Corridor, then moved southwestward onto the Winthrop Glacier. At one point, I suddenly went tumbling down the slope and yelled out a desperate, 'R.J.!' He leaned back and held my fall, during which the shaft of my ice ax hit me in the face near my cheekbone. Ouch!

Three rope teams descended past; one guy asked R.J. his destination (!). I guess it was getting late. I was down to about 400 vertical feet per hour and getting tired and cranky.

'We've got an ice wall ahead,' R.J. called back to me.

'Yeah, so?' I was annoyed. Then I got to the wall.

Holy crap! The route had been reduced to a 7-inch-wide catwalk with enough room for only one foot at a time. The wall didn't take the ax very well-maybe 3 inches, and that with dislocating your shoulder just to plant it. So this was 'crossing the bergschrund.' It was worse than it sounded at camp yesterday.

About 15 feet straight down was a crevasse that resembled the mouth of a mako shark. This was not the best route choice for a two-person rope team. More yelling took place. I was too scared to place foot over foot, so I shuffled across-to R.J.'s amplified frustration. Right in the middle, I started to lose my footing and let out a scream to rival Jamie Lee Curtis.

Back on safe ground, the alternating voices of reason and illogic kicked in. This is not pleasant. You can't go back defeated again. Why are you doing this? Hurry, those clouds coming up are going to beat us to the summit.

R.J. and I proceeded to the saddle between Columbia Crest and Liberty Cap, then hung a left and followed the route to the base of a 400-foot pile of dirt: the summit. We were in our 10th hour. Clouds were swirling around the summit now and the wind grew colder. At 3pm, I set foot on the summit of Mt. Rainier. It had taken me 11 hours. The clouds receded and allowed for a quick look around. We couldn't find the register. After a Kodak moment, we hightailed it back to the edge of the dirt, where we had dumped my pack and the rope. I searched maniacally for our summit treat, a large Rainier candy bar: chocolate with raspberry filling. R.J. divided it precisely and we had a moment of silence, immersed in the desolate, glacial landscape and chocolate.

R.J. had an idea for a return route that would bypass that nasty wall and horrible crevasse. I was tickled pink as we waltzed right by. We had crossed the saddle and then stuck with the contour line all the way around, above the mangled glacier. This brought us back to the route that we had ascended. The rest of the descent was unremarkable, except that my water bottle got away. I was sure that it had bounced into a crevasse, but there-200 vertical feet below-was my water bottle resting in a ditch. Tickled pink again.

Every 10 steps, I glanced at the altimeter and groaned. My legs were shaking badly and I was contemplating collapse when faint voices in the distance made my heart leap. Could it really be the folks at Emmons Flats (300 feet above Schurman)? Words of joy echoed through my head. I'm going to be in my sleeping bag, soon, soon, soon.

Only a trace of daylight remained at 8:30pm as we wobbled into camp. It had taken five hours to descend. R.J. immediately dove into his sleeping bag, but I needed to stumble around the camp first and readjust tent ties.

Would anyone see the success of the summit on my tired face, on our way out the next day?

'Dja summit?'


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