What was left of the tent fit just the tops of our bodies. Outside, in the white snarl of the storm, only our cramponed feet digging into the snow kept us from tumbling down the northern slope of Mt. Rainier. The tent floor was in shreds, and wind had sucked my pack and sleeping bag into the void two days ago. This was day five on the mountain.
Constantin and Rus slept. I lay awake with Vasily, thinking about my family. And then, we heard a roar as snow ripped loose from the slope above us. The nylon billowed as ice smashed into the walls. I threw my elbows over my head as Vasily dove over Rus’s body. It wasn’t until the noise stopped that we noticed Constanin wasn’t moving.
We’d started what was meant to be a three-day ascent of Rainier’s famed Liberty Ridge on Friday. I’d summited Rainier six times before. Vasily and Constantin were experienced mountaineers, and Rus an elite ice climber. Our weather window was narrow, but I trusted them. That first night, we heard others talking about rockfall near high camp, which had killed a climber a few days prior. So we settled on a new plan: We’d acclimatize for 24 hours, then skip high camp to launch a single-day summit bid.
On Saturday night we set off in an efficient rhythm. But as the sun rose, the snow softened, and soon, we were post-holing through mush. We didn’t reach 12,000 feet until noon, exhausted and hours behind schedule. Reaching the peak before nightfall was out of the question.
We figured we could reach the next sheltered spot by dusk and set up a tent. But Rus was struggling. At some ice terraces that required technical climbing, he acted reckless and confused. It was altitude sickness.
But the slope was too dangerous to descend because of the soft snow. We had no choice; Vasily picked the most forgiving path around the ice and we continued. It was too steep to stop for the night, and the wind was picking up.
Around 5 p.m., Vasily said, “We can’t get Rus up any farther.” He stomped a platform in the snow. It wasn’t big enough for the whole tent, so we sat inside, huddled on the partly supported floor, and tried to sleep.
By nightfall, gusts up to 50 mph were blowing our tent—with us in it—down the slope. Our already-tight weather window was closing faster than forecasted. We dug in with our feet and took turns climbing out to hammer our pickets back into the snow.
By morning, Rus was shaking violently. We needed to get him down. I called 911, but the helicopter couldn’t land—the gusts were too strong and the slope too steep; we decided to rappel 500 feet to a flatter spot. We spent the next two days there.
Those days were grim. Rus was stable but too sick to move, and my feet had become numb and blue. Still, we felt sure the helicopter would save us. We rationed our food, discussed our options, and tried not to think about the worst. Every now and then, a Chinook appeared, wobbled in the buffeting wind, and turned back. Each time it vanished, I felt a little more hope drain away.
On day five we made a plan. The safest descent was on the mellower east slope. To get ourselves down, we’d have to summit first—that left 1,500 vertical feet to go on six ounces of fuel and four protein bars. Rus had perked up, so we decided to go for it the next morning.
But that night, the icefall happened. Constantin slept through it, and a chunk of ice slammed into his face. After, his chest was still. I called his name as Vasily put his ear to Constantin’s lips.
Suddenly, Constantin moaned. “Who hit me in the eye?” We couldn’t help but laugh. It was the most relief I’d felt in days.
On Wednesday we woke to a whiteout. The helicopter would never find us—we had to move. It took us a few hours to get to the crevasse field below the crater. The wind picked up again, gusting to 60 mph. Blind, we spent four hours crouched in place.
“Let’s put our sleeping bags over us and wait for the wind to die,” Constantin said. To my surprise, Vasily nodded. But I knew if we lay down, the snow would bury us and we would never get up.
“No, we need to move,” I screamed. For hours, I kept yelling, and nobody moved. But I couldn’t leave my friends. Eventually the wind let up, just a little. It was time to go.
We found an ice cave about 400 feet below the summit to spend the night, and on Thursday morning, the wind finally calmed. We had to get to the summit crater that morning if we wanted to get rescued. We brewed a liter of tea, split our last bar, and started moving.
We made it to a saddle and could finally see the crater. I felt giddy, eager to reach the top. But when the slope steepened, my team, all three of them, turned to me and said they had no energy to go on.
Before I could speak, I heard a roar. The helicopter. This time, it wasn’t turning back without us. —As told by Yevgeniy Krasnitskiy to Corey Buhay
Skill School: Safely Summit
Any number of things can go wrong on a peak like Rainier. Take this advice from Stefan Lofgren, climbing program manager and incident commander for this rescue, to make it up—and down— safely.
Be conservative. “Even qualified people overestimate their abilities,” Lofgren says. It’s difficult to make up lost time at altitude—be conservative with pacing goals, and if your pace is slower than expected, reconsider your route.
Watch the weather. “To be an experienced mountaineer, you have to be an amateur weather forecaster,” Lofgren says. Before starting the climb, obtain detailed weather information by cross-referencing several sources. Don’t try to summit with a small weather window—wait for a good forecast.
Be accessible. If things go south and you can’t self-rescue, try to help rescuers, who may be limited by high winds and harsh weather. Get to a place that is sheltered from the elements to increase your chances of rescue.