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Backpacker Magazine – August 1999

Climbing: A Higher Calling

In every backpacker's life, there comes a time when you stare awestruck at a mountain and wonder, "What's it like to climb that sucker?"

by: Jim Gorman


"Listen up, gang. Now we're going to climb. Everything up to this was backpacking."

Jason Tanguay shouts to be heard over the wind and the absorbing silence of 36 square miles of compressed snow. He's standing at 10,000 feet on the fringes of the Cowlitz Glacier, a dirty-white river of ice tumbling down the east flank of Washington's Mt. Rainier. Jason is one of three guides leading our group of aspiring mountaineers in a five-day "Expedition Seminar" conducted by the climbing school, Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI). Like the other guides, he is energetic and unfailingly upbeat, but, if I'm not mistaken, I detected a hint of condescension when he said "backpacking."

I suppose that if Jason considers the relentless 5,000-foot climb in 4 miles from Paradise Visitor Center to the Cowlitz Glacier while wearing heavy plastic boots and a 65-pound pack to be backpacking, then no wonder he wants rid of it. Amen to that. While Jason and I might quibble over the definition of true backpacking, there's no mistaking that here, beside the Cowlitz, we're poised to cross a threshold from the familiar into an icy realm known to me and most of my classmates only from magazine photos and adventure specials on television. Just the other day, I was looking up at this very spot while backpacking in the nearby Tatoosh Range. From such close quarters, Mt. Rainier consumed fully half of the sky. Through binoculars, I could make out small black dots traveling up and down Muir Snowfield, which would be our group's route to Camp Muir and the Cowlitz Glacier. That'll be me tomorrow, I thought. Abandoning those sun-warmed rocks for the white world visible in my viewfinder struck me as both daunting and challenging.

What's it going to be like? Can I make it to the top? Would backpacking, which at root would appear to have much in common with mountaineering-lace boots, strap on pack, hike uphill-prepare me for what's ahead?

Let me say up front that I have no desire to climb Everest; K2 holds no allure. Even Alaska's frigid Denali, which I'm told I'll be perfectly capable of climbing at the conclusion of this course, holds no interest. Yet, like a lot of backpackers I know, I have a fascination with high places. I've never passed up an opportunity to clamber to any high point in sight. Which is why I found myself looking skyward from atop a 6,500-foot Tatoosh peak, feeling humbled. As I was about to discover, Rainier would be a very different mountain experience.

Each year, 8,000 people attempt the summit of Mt. Rainier. Half make it; the others are turned back by foul weather, dangerous snow conditions, altitude sickness, exhaustion, poor planning, or some combination of the above. Rainier is an imposing mountain that can turn mean in a hurry, yet in climbing circles it's rated as a "walk up." In other words, via the most heavily trafficked routes, like the Disappointment Cleaver route our group would take, an ice axe is more walking stick than lifesaver. No death-defying vertical climbing is called for. Just a few falling rocks to dodge, bottomless crevasses to cross, and physical limits to push. Easy, y'know?




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READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star Star Star
international mountain guides
Jan 12, 2013

can you tell me apporx how many pounds ur willing to carry for your layering system bcause it seems heavy this seems more geared for expedition climbing vs alpine i mean ur the pro but im reading about guys climbing the whites in the dead of winter using a base layer/s, driclime wind shirt from marmot, as their wind layer a light insulation peice for added warmth (micropuff) or equal then there shell if needed then like a patagonia das parka this seems like it would weigh in at far less ..
ww.mountaingurus.com/

Stu in Colorado
Jan 06, 2011

I disagree with the premise that peak bagging is a natural part of backpacking. As an avid hiker/snowshoe/camper and landscape photographer I would rather hike into an alpine lake and watch the sun rise and set over the mountains than climb to the top for a 'been there' ribbon.

I know a lot of great people that peak bag as a hobby, but it seems a little self serving to climb a mountain just to say that you have done it.

Stu in Colorado
Jan 06, 2011

I disagree with the premise that peak bagging is a natural part of backpacking. As an avid hiker/snowshoe/camper and landscape photographer I would rather hike into an alpine lake and watch the sun rise and set over the mountains than climb to the top for a 'been there' ribbon.

I know a lot of great people that peak bag as a hobby, but it seems a little self serving to climb a mountain just to say that you have done it.

Stu in Colorado
Jan 06, 2011

I disagree with the premise that peak bagging is a natural part of backpacking. As an avid hiker/snowshoe/camper and landscape photographer I would rather hike into an alpine lake and watch the sun rise and set over the mountains than climb to the top for a 'been there' ribbon.

I know a lot of great people that peak bag as a hobby, but it seems a little self serving to climb a mountain just to say that you have done it.

Stu in Colorado
Jan 06, 2011

I disagree with the premise that peak bagging is a natural part of backpacking. As an avid hiker/snowshoe/camper and landscape photographer I would rather hike into an alpine lake and watch the sun rise and set over the mountains than climb to the top for a 'been there' ribbon.

I know a lot of great people that peak bag as a hobby, but it seems a little self serving to climb a mountain just to say that you have done it.

Ralph Kolva
Jan 06, 2011

A couple of years ago our party of three were on the Kautz Glacier route and ran into a group being guided by RMI. One of the guides was friendly but two of RMI's guides were total jerks. Summit morning they rappelled over my friend while getting to the Kautz. The previous day I asked if the ice fall would accommodate 2 parties, they told me no but summit morning they started climbing behind us (we were about halfway through the ice fall) so we took a diagonal line to avoid kicking ice on them. All day we were moving well ahead of the RMI party and caught sight of them several times. On our descent of the ice fall, close to the bottom but still on the steeper ice the RMI party prepared for their descent. Surely they knew there was still a party below them but rather than check they started preparing the upper part of the ice fall for their parties descent, all the while knocking ice down on top of us. We had a couple of other small issues with the RMI group as well, I know this is only one group and one of the RMI guides seemed like a really decent guy but overall they exhibited really un-professional behavior. 15 years ago my wife and I took a mountaineering class with American Alpine Institute and while on Baker we met guides from Alpine Ascents, everyone we met from both schools I would happily climb with. RMI on the other hand has really tarnished their reputation with the action of the guides we encountered.

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