Scott Smiley is in bed by 9 p.m. Two hours later, Art Rausch is tugging at his sleeping bag. “I’m not so sure I’m into these alpine wakeups,” chuckles Smiley. Everyone assembles down by the cookstove. Two more guides–Andy Kittleson and Andres Marin–have joined the group. Kittleson will lead Smiley’s team (with Rausch and Fawley fore and aft of Smiley), and Marin will lead the second group of writer, photographer, and Micah Clark. The teams gear up by the light of their headlamps. Little light-pools jerk and slide about to the tune of clinking carabiners, the zup! of harnesses being tightened, the crunch of boots in hard snow. Ashley Garman makes the rounds with beef stroganoff, making sure everyone is fully dosed. The guides review gear one last time, then the teams step off around the cliff-sheltered bowl of the upper Cowlitz. Several other groups have already departed. Their headlamps dot the distance like abbreviated strings of Christmas lights.
The Cowlitz is a walk in the park, and then it’s steeply up the switchback scree of Cathedral Gap. There is no snow here and Smiley can hear his crampons grinding against rocks. He’s angled forward at the ankles. Already his calves are burning. It’s doubly tough never knowing how his foot is going to land. While everyone else tilts their headlamps to the trail and picks their way, Smiley is walking blindfolded through a room full of bowling balls, none of the same size.
After the scramble up the gap, the Ingraham Flats are a relative stroll. Three-quarters of the way up, Rausch calls the first break. The heat of the climb sweeps away in a pressing wind. “Get your parkas on,” says Rausch. Smiley feels a little something in the pit of his stomach–if that was an easy stretch, what’s to come? “Parkas off,” orders Rausch, and Kittleson leads out. A vertiginous smattering of constellations shifts in the sky above.
The easy part is over.
Thousands of people attempt to climb to the summit of Mt. Rainier every year, and roughly half of them are successful. There are many more technically difficult mountains in the country; Kittleson will be taking the most popular route to the top, and the good July weather is likely to hold. Still, conditions on Rainier are famous for going to hell in a hurry, and every year a handful of climbers perish on the slopes. It’s no Everest, but it’s enough.
In 1981, right where Smiley is walking, a wall of snow and ice broke loose and buried 11 climbers forever. Fawley is guiding him across a series of crevasses, talking him right up to the edge, then having him reach across to gauge the distance with a ski pole. When he has the breadth in his head, he takes the big step. Anymore, he will tell you, he lives much of his life on trust.