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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


As promised, Matt rouses us early-2 a.m. The idea behind the early start is to be up and down from the summit before the mountain stirs. A glaciated volcano like Mt. Rainier is in a continuous process of decay, shedding rock and ice in deadly combination when warmed by sun. Our stretch of luck with the weather continues. When we get underway, the wind is calm and the temperature relatively warm. Our headlamps light the way.

"You guys all right back there?" Brenda's voice comes at me from the dark, then I see the beam of her headlamp swing in my direction. She's leading our three-person rope team. I'm second. John, the jokester from Snohomish, anchors. Brenda maintains a brisk pace as we negotiate the jumble of seracs and crevasses where the Ingraham Glacier cascades to the more placid area where we'd established high camp. Like a sensitive tripwire, the rope between Brenda and me betrays my hesitation at what lies ahead. A metal ladder stretches across a jet-black crevasse. Plywood covers the rungs, making the 18-foot gap no more tricky than what I've just walked. That's what my conscious self says. My reptilian, survive-at-any-cost brain stem says, "There's a 200-foot drop-off on either side, you idiot." Prepared to leap if my feet fail me, I somehow successfully walk the tight wire.

Our rope team shortly catches up with Cole, the anchor on Jason's rope. The entire team had just gone into self-arrest position because Andy, a lawyer from Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, had yelled, "Falling." It turns out Andy had strayed a few feet off route and crashed through the crust up to his waist. "My feet were dangling in the air," he'd tell us later that day. We wouldn't know until the return trip that this would be the most hazardous section of the climb. "Alright, we move fast through the section ahead," Brenda advises John and me. "It's a rockfall zone and shouldn't be too bad at this hour. But we just want to be safe. After that, we climb a snow bridge to get onto Disappointment Cleaver."

Rocks the size of cantaloupes litter the path ahead. From above, I hear a worrisome clatter and pick up the pace. In the dark, the snow bridge is no sweat; its true precariousness would be revealed only later in daylight.

Disappointment Cleaver proves to be an interminable march through scree and loose rock. Early in the climbing season, avalanche danger on the cleaver forces many climbing parties to turn around, hence the name "Disappointment." It was at this juncture three months earlier that an RMI-led rope team much like ours encountered the merciless power of Rainier. Swept away by an avalanche that would launch them over the edge of a cliff to certain death, the team's rope snagged on a boulder at the last second. With help from nearby climbers, all members of the rope team were pulled to safety, except for one climber who perished of exposure before he could be rescued. He had the misfortune of dangling in an icy torrent of snowmelt. The wind picks up, and I'm almost thankful for the dust that swirls into my mouth and eyes.

Daybreak finds us close to the summit. We've edged around Ingraham Glacier's bergschrund, the mammoth wall created where the glacier breaks off from the mountain's permanent ice cap. We pause one last time before the summit push. Less than an hour's worth of deep, rhythmic breathing and digging deep for reserves of energy will bring us to Rainier's twin summit cones. Up here, the air is noticeably thinner.

The steep slope we lean against skips downhill for several hundred feet before disappearing. Next stop, Paradise, 8,000 feet below. The sun's first rays light Washington's Mt. Baker, Glacier Peak, and Mt. Adams, and Oregon's Mts. Hood and Jefferson. They soar above the still-dark earth like rosy-hued cumulonimbus. North to south, the view extends more than 300 miles. Only from the window of a jet plane have I seen anything comparable. At that moment, perched at 13,500 feet in a blue dawn, I understand the appeal of mountaineering: You can step onto a cloud.




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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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