I can hear the sound of rock fall off in the distance. Off to the west somewhere, maybe above the Kautz Glacier or over near Success Cleaver. It's hard to pinpoint the source of the noise since most of the time, the sound doesn't get to me until the rocks have stopped tumbling. Each time I hear it however, I'm glad it's over there and I'm over here.
Our group is on its way up to Camp Muir, on sort of a shake-down hike, an opportunity for Ned, a fellow climbing partner, to assess his rebuilt Achilles tendon and for the rest of us to see where our training has gotten us. The route from Paradise to Camp Muir is the same one we'll be taking on the lower part of the mountain when we come back for the climb, so it's a good chance to get familiar with some of what we'll see then as well. We're carrying light packs and with a big late-summer sun blazing above us, the excursion feels less like climbing and more like a walk in the park. Literally.
Once we're off the trail and onto the snow, however, the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other reality sets in. It's a fairly straight-forward process, but it does give me a preview of what is still to come. There are a variety of other travelers out here, large contingents from the various guide services that offer climbing trips on Rainier as well as individuals and private groups spread all over the lower flanks of the mountain.
As far as Rainier climbing routes go - although there are many - our planned route is the most popular. Start at Paradise, climb to Camp Muir and then on up to the summit via Disappointment Cleaver. (We're actually planning on spending an additional night at Ingraham Flats, but the overall route remains much the same.) On the East side of the mountain, the Emmons route is the most common. Starting at White River and continuing up to Glacier Basin and the Inter Glacier, this route goes through Camp Schurmann, then climbs directly up the top of the Emmons glacier and on to the summit from there.
There are a multitude of other routes, some more technical than others, but these two are the most attempted year after year. Overall, the ratio of successful climbs to attempts usually hovers in the 50% range, and the majority of those summiting manage to do so the same way we are planning to do it. The big difference between our attempt and most of the others will be the timing; by going during the first week of October rather than sometime during the July - September range, we're taking some chances with the weather.
The timing can't be helped though... the wait was necessary in order to give Ned's tendon time to heal. As we hike up the snowfield below Camp Muir, we discuss what the later attempt means with regard to the gear we'll need to bring. Because we're expecting colder temperatures than we might have experienced in August, for example, we'll need a few more layers of clothing, along with the usual camping, cooking and safety equipment.
Actually, when you get right down to it, it's all safety equipment. Food, with its precious calories, will keep you alive in a hostile environment. The tent and sleeping bag you choose will make the difference between a comfortable night and a painful one, while the clothing you bring can literally provide the margin between life and death. Not to put too fine a point on it, but everything that goes with you on your journey up the mountain is there to help you get down again safely.
Gear can be divided into individual items and group equipment. There are some things, like boots and sleeping bags, that each climber needs to provide for himself. Other things, like stoves, tents and ropes are shared among the group, thus reducing the weight that each climber has to carry. There are lists of recommended gear available from a variety of sources; books, websites and climbing outfitters all have similar checklists of required and optional items. (Ned's summary of gear that we'll be expected to have is below).
We make it up to Camp Muir in a little over four hours. Not bad, about what we'd expected to take, although we did it without the weight we'll be carrying the next time. Ned's pleased with the way his leg is holding up and the rest of us feel pretty good as well. We sit for a while on the warm rocks near the guide shelter and eat some lunch before we start back down.
The next time is for real.
- Ken Campbell