It begins with an idea: to stand on the top of the mountain. A simple idea, instantly understandable and visceral. A grand idea that grows and evolves over time, resolve strengthening as it turns into a plan and then, almost imperceptibly, it becomes inevitable.
Around these parts, everybody knows what you're talking about when you mention the Mountain. At 14,411 feet, Mount Rainier is the signature landmark of Washington State. It seems that, no matter where you are on either side of the Cascades, you don't have to travel far to catch a glimpse of Rainier. It dominates the landscape, it captures the imagination and it can't help but give rise to grand ideas.
I haven't conducted a formal study and all my evidence is anecdotal, but I have a suspicion that many of these ideas and plans are put together as New Year's resolutions. Every January, I see a spike in phone calls from people who want to know if I can guide them up the mountain. (I am a kayaking guide and instructor, but the phone book doesn't make a great deal of distinction between one kind of guide service and another. Here and there, I get calls about guiding Mount Rainier and llama-packing in the North Cascades; I have to assume that somewhere a bungee-jumping outfit is fielding questions about sea kayaking in the San Juan Islands.)
I have climbed Mount Rainier, but it has been a long time. My climbing accomplishments, such as they are, all took place at least 15 years ago. I am, you might say, a little rusty. When people call to ask me if I would be able to lead them, I am instantly reminded that it has been too long. Too long since that last true alpine start, since the last time I had to melt snow to get water. Too long since I donned crampons in the pale light of a headlamp, since I saw the dawn exploding in orange and red across the eastern sky. I remember mornings in the Olympics, on the flanks of Mount Hood, Mount Whitney and others. Scenes from those long-ago climbs stick in my memory, high-country history that I skim though from time to time.
And then - I'm not sure of the exact moment, but somewhere in there - I am hit with an idea. A grand idea.
I call Ned. Ned Randolph worked for years as a guide on Mount Rainier and has stood on top more than 75 times. I worked with him in outdoor retail for about ten years and I used to run rivers with him on occasion but I haven't climbed with him before. I call to ask if he would be willing to give me a climbing refresher, help me bring my skills up to the point where I'll be ready to climb the mountain next summer.
We meet for dinner and beers at a little tavern in Tacoma on a rainy night in October. I tell Ned of my idea, variations of which he has undoubtedly heard a million times before, and he tells me about a climb he is planning on leading for some family members, most likely in early summer. There is room for me if I want to join the group. I do, and as quickly as that, the idea begins to solidify, to take on heft.
I'm not alone in this grand idea, this resolution. In 2009, according to the National Park Service, there were 10,616 summit attempts, 6,438 of which were successful. That's a whole bunch of dreamers, each of them with a similar notion. In 1994, the first year I tried to climb it, 9,220 others had the same idea, and 4,711 of those made the top (I was not among them - my first successful summit came in 1996.)
There are several choices for would-be summiteers, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the trip. There are three officially sanctioned guide services that operate summit climbs and for a fee, they will put you on one of their ropes. Or you can take on the logistics of the climb as well as the effort, and put together your own summit bid. The former method will cost you more up front while the latter relies on an understanding of climbing skills and the necessity of sound mountain judgment.
Regardless of which approach is chosen, each climber, at some point, is responsible for getting himself up the mountain. It is undeniably work and it is a task that begins long before the actual summit day arrives. Ned and I take a couple hours to go over the training realities and some of what I will need to do to get ready for the July climb, and somewhere in there, the idea turns into a plan.
We're looking to ascend via the Disappointment Cleaver, up through Camp Muir, the most popular route on the mountain. The exact date has not been cast in stone, but we're figuring on somewhere in late June or early July. It seems like a long time but I know that it will pass at the speed of thought and there is much to do to get prepared. In future installments, I hope to document some of the training that I will be doing, the gear that I plan on using and the various stepping stones - training climbs and skills practice - that will lead, hopefully, to the top.
It begins with an idea.
- Ken Campbell