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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


The truth about climbing a mountain like Rainier is that anyone with a strong pair of legs, good lungs, and iron-headed will can do it. Be prepared for a heck of a workout, too. Classmates of mine who had run marathons and participated in Ironman competitions ranked the Rainier climb on a par.

A thick wallet helps, as well. You'll want to sign up with a world-class guide school like RMI or the American Alpine Institute in Bellingham, Washington. Both run beginner mountaineering courses on Rainier and other icy volcanoes up and down the West Coast, from Mt. Baker near the Canadian border to Mt. Shasta in northern California. Expect to pay around $750 for a five-day trek, roughly $300 for a two-day short course. Rental fees for helmet, crampons, boots, and ice axe add another $75. Scrimp at your own peril. Mountaineering is one activity in which "self-taught" can equal "perished in a crevasse."

The hazards associated with mountaineering cannot be blithely dismissed, but as Matt says, "At least the risks are obvious, which is a part of why we're all out here. People lead their lives trying to control risk to zero, then die in a car accident going to the grocery." We quickly find walking while roped to be more of a challenge than it first looked. Softened snow clumps onto our crampons, requiring a quick knock with the ice axe to dislodge. Our team of four lurches and surges like a conga line. Barely have we gotten the hang of roped travel than we face our first test. After crossing the Cowlitz Glacier, we leave the ice to climb Cathedral Rocks, a crumbly ridge of volcanic rock several hundred feet high. Rather than pause to remove crampons, as I'd expected, we charge uphill in a cloud of choking dust and the clang and spark of metal on rock. On the back side of Cathedral Rocks, we descend to the Ingraham Glacier. Or very nearly.

The glacier itself has torn away from the surrounding rock walls, leaving behind a narrow bridge of ice adhered to the rock. The route ahead dances across this catwalk. Canted at 15 degrees, no wider than 6 feet in places, and ice-rink hard, the traverse demands absolute attention. A slip could be disastrous since other members of the rope team would find it difficult to self-arrest on such hard ice. If one goes over the edge, we all go. Step by careful step, while alternately pulled by the rope from ahead and tugged from behind, we walk to safety.




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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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