This is a continuing series by mountaineer and Ashland native Adam Fox in his attempt to scale the highest point in every state. Read some of the 46 completed summits here.
Mt. Rainier was such a brutal climb that I was in the emergency room four days after leaving the mountain.
Sacrificing acclimation for safety was something that had to be done, and thus our schedule was thrown off, resulting in much more suffering. Mitigating risk was everything on the most glaciated peak in the lower 48, where over 400 people have died and many bodies, like the 32 Marines from the ’46 accident, are forever entombed within the glaciers.
Monday night my climbing partner, Dr. Chris Freeman, a Seattle trauma surgeon, and I spent the night inside of Rainier National Park in “Paradise” at 5,400 feet to get some base acclimation before the march to basecamp.
Tuesday morning we secured our permits in Paradise from the Switzerland-inspired ranger station, A-frame roof with long forest green cedar siding. A man in his 50s that kept smashing the ends of his hiking poles into the hard toes of his mountaineering boots, while pacing in the lobby, warned us of the weather.
“Nope. No one is going to summit today or tomorrow. Look at the numbers, it’s a 9! Nope. Not today. Not tomorrow!” he said.
He was referencing the “weather go/no-go matrix” that the rangers would put out daily. It assigned values for temperature, wind speed, wind direction, precipitation, etc., and then added them together to get a score. The lower the better. A nine fell into the “not recommended” shaded area, even for experienced climbers.
Option one was to continue with the plan, hike up to 10,000 feet, camp and see how it looked at 1 a.m. for a summit attempt.
“Those 30-40 mph winds aren’t ideal, but you can climb in them. Lot of Eastern peaks I’ve bagged in those conditions,” I offered to Freeman.
“Will be miserable at camp, too, with those winds. You never know when it will kick up and cause a whiteout. No sense in adding a layer of risk trying to navigate with no sight path and when the floor could fall out at any second,” Freeman said.
Along with the incoming bad weather around the Cascades, Washington state got hit with some extremely hot daily temperatures, so avalanche danger became a real factor.
Defeated, we left the park and drove to Olympic National Park, close to four hours away, where our families had rented a house on Lake Quinault. My cellmate Megan and Freeman’s wife, Tasneem Shikary, grew up together on Edgehill Drive in Ashland — that’s how I got connected with Freeman.
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Up at 6 a.m. on Wednesday, my father’s birthday, we left sea level and drove back to Paradise and decided no matter what, we were at least going to hike to Camp Muir at 10,000 feet and evaluate the conditions from there.
Four miles generally wasn’t considered long by most hiking standards. But when there’s 5,000 feet of elevation gain with ever-thinning air, it was like walking against an escalator. Because of the hot spell, the snowfield top layer was all mush; we tried to find footing while slogging through oatmeal with no visibility and a backpack that felt like an anvil.
My pack was ridiculously heavy from all the snow camping gear, tent, climbing hardware – it got so bad, the mental fatigue and whiteout and it all looked the same and every tenth of a mile I would check my watch progress and just before tears – the cloud layer broke. Behind me was mighty Mt. St. Helens, her shape contorted by blowing off her nose to spite her erupting face.
The Muir snowfield finally leveled out and there were plenty of camp spots. The guided groups had already arrived and were ushered into their bunk houses, forced to hear the snoring and smell the human odors from a packed container.
On the snowfield plateau, I was ready to throw my pack down anywhere and call it our spot. Freeman meandered down along a 20-foot rounded snow wall, where a couple of tents were already set up. We gave head nods and smiles to the other climbers, who were always working, boiling, prepping, uncoiling and recoiling rope.
The end spot included a little hill behind us. Perfect. Gravity ripped my pack off my shoulders and I took a brief moment to smile. We were situated in a little saddle, with black block spires on both sides and views of a small trail leading through a big wall on the other side of the plateau.
A snow shovel was removed from Freeman’s bag and he started excavating the site. The dark green Hilleberg 4-season tent was rectangular and we took turns smashing into the ice with the shovel, trying not to break the blue head clean off, for a level sleeping area.
Traditional tent stakes were not going to hold if gusts of 40-plus would come through the saddle during the night. So, we got out four, bright orange deadman stakes – wider and longer – you dig down with your ice axe about a foot, run the line through a hole in the stake, bury it parallel to your tent side and it will freeze. It could hold an elephant.
Putting in the second one I got light headed, thought about falling over. There’s a reason that 50% of climbers that attempt Rainier don’t make it. Compression breathing – big exhale to get all the dioxide out, big breath in. Glare was absolutely relentless above the cloud cover – a tanning bed inside a cooler.
“The bottom of my nostrils got really burned on the last climb I did,” Freeman said as we reapplied sunscreen.
The good doctor dug out a front step so we could sit in the tent and have our legs dangle over the side. It was the best move of the adventure.
“Let’s get that stove out and start melting some water,” I said.
The fuel canister could fit in the palm of your hand, then you screw a little “pocket rocket” silver metal stove to the top of it. The can becomes the foundation, and you open three little arms from the rocket that act like the burner for the cooking pot.
“Pour a little water in with the snow to help it get going,” Freeman said.
I unrolled my Thermarest camp pad, opened the air valve, flung it inside the tent like a yo-yo, and pulled out my son’s zero degree water-wick-away Mountain Hardware synthetic sleeping bag from the stuff sack. I also pulled out a little inflatable pillow. OK, I can survive in my tent for a couple of days if needed.
“Water is ready,” Chris said, stirring the liquid inside the gray pot with a long spoon. “Bring one of your bottles over.”
“You don’t want to boil that water?” I asked.
“Nah, should be fine,” he said.
“I dunno, climbers can be real gross at camp, I wouldn’t trust this to be a clean site,” I said.
With only two cans of fuel, we needed to save fuel and skip the purifying process anyway I guess, so I conceded.
“I can literally see little bugs in my water. Like, as a backpacker, you wouldn’t want to drink water like this,” I said in between big gulps.
“You’ll be fine. Good for you. I don’t tell my kids to wash their hands before dinner – it’s all nonsense,” Freeman said.
“Da hell kind of doctor are you?!?!” I said laughing.
Cooler air was descending and I got on my down parka, and tried to be aware of the dizzy spells going from sea level to 10,000 feet in a day. I strolled out to the end of the plateau, back from where we came, saw two climbers sitting side by side, waiting for the sunset, being present, which I always fail to do.
Melt, melt, melt snow, that’s all you do, drink, use to cook, pee, drink more–kept us busy ‘till nightfall.
For dinner, you pour boiling water into a dehydrated pack, seal it up, wait 10 minutes and enjoy. Freeman put his pouch under his big coat and pretty sure he winked at me behind his black glacier glasses.
“Keeps you warm while it cooks,” he said with a full-beard smile.
“That’s a great idea!” I said and followed suit.
Six minutes later he yelled, “On no, hot, noooo!” as the seal broke and he got chili all over the inside of his mid layer.
Chili-gate was pretty much the only misstep of Freeman’s entire climb. It was also amazing to have a guy that saved lives for a living on the summit attempt team.
Climbing partner dynamics are integral and crucial beyond belief. All work must be split, each mountaineer must completely be able to take care of themselves, to save the other and you also have to actually get along with another person in tight quarters after and during extreme mental and physical strain. Freeman checked off every single partnership box that mattered.
I slurp-slammed dinner straight out of the plastic bag and then it was time to get our rope sorted and double check the hardware before sunset.
Who’s good at standardized tests?
The rope is 60 meters long. You want the climbers in the middle of that rope with 18 meters between them. Along that 18 meters, you tie in 4 to 6 alpine butterfly knots (one foot of rope needed for each knot) and finally, each climber should have an equal amount of extra rope in their backpack to perform the crevasse rescue or to self-ascend. How much rope length is in each climber’s backpack?
Batman-like, our climbing harnesses and summit packs became life-saving utility belts. Slings, pickets, pulleys, microtraxion, tiblocs, carabiners, prusik cord, and extra cordage. Freeman even had two avalanche beacons and some wands.
A couple of things we had to keep in mind as the temperature was dropping into the 20s; 1. The water we melted would freeze–not just in the bottle, but the wet bottle seals itself. Ideally, you heat up water and toss the warm jugs into your sleeping bag. But with fuel preservation needed, we had cold bottles in our bags.
The glow of dusk arrived around 9 p.m. and we switched to headlamps to get the final summit day prep in order.
The bright orange sleeping bag was too packed already for my La Sportiva double-booted mountaineering boots, so I would have to put frigid footwear on in a couple of hours. The socks made the inside-the-bag cut, along with my hard-shell pants and down overjacket that I stuffed towards the bottom near my chilly feet. One frosted toe on top of the other bare foot — it was like putting out a cigarette on skin, but the jacket helped.
Dr. Freeman fell asleep around 10 p.m. and a half hour later there were massive cramps shooting down my hamstrings! I sprung up and tried to touch my toes like 7th grade gym class, head smashing into the condensation on the roof.
I never drank water so quickly. The thought of Lebron cramping in that one NBA Finals game reared its ugly head, pure horror and pain. I settled back down at 11:30 p.m. and the alarm went off 45 minutes later.
Bane and I have come to accept the cold, the suffering, as we were “born in it, molded by it,” while others merely adapted to it. ‘Cus when you exit that sleeping bag, you will be miserably chilled for the next 15 minutes. Or you’ll sweat, which is far, far worse.
I spun around in the tent, let my legs go over the lip, and started the shivering process. A fresh pair of navy-striped synthetic compression socks were pulled up just below the knee, then a thick pair of wool socks. I could feel the hamstring, Dear God, let it hold.
Pant base layer was a quick dry followed overtop by a windproof/waterproof Patagonia hard shell. There was no need for long johns as my compression socks and boxers filled that gap. Falling back flat onto my sleeping bag to shimmy shake the pants on, I tried to avoid the snow with dry socks sticking out the door.
I jammed the frozen hunky boots on my blood-retreated feet. Break. Remember to breathe. Are you sweating? Get the sleeping bag off your thighs.
Over your hardshell pants and boots go waterproof gaiters that are built to withstand crampon tears. Crampons, the death spikes attached to the bottom of your feet, specifically designed for this glacier climb, were next. When the back clicks in like the sound of a ski binding, it’s a slap to the adrenal gland. Take a break. You’re getting hot again. Why are you not breathing?
“Did the water we had still left in the pot, freeze?” Freeman asked.
“Ummm, no, cuz I drank it all. Had bad cramps, had to make a choice. We still have fuel to burn and I’ll melt as soon as we get back here to basecamp, I’ll do it all,” I said.
White helmet straps were tightened as he just looked away and turned on his headlamp.
“In my defense, not sure only two small bottles were ‘clearly enough’ fuel,” I said.
Outside the tent, very little of the moon’s glow was out. We could see clear constellations and little lightbulbs bobbing up and down from climbers on the far mountain wall that had already started. The rocky silhouette looked ominous as I threaded my legs through the harness loops, tightened the strap around my waist, and watched my exhausted breath twirl around the headlamp beam.
Around 12:30 a.m., 15 hours since we started the expedition, we clipped figure-8 knots into carabiners and loops around our waist and began our attack on the mountain.
Moments later, I dropped my ice axe and it slid a short distance down the hill. Very dumb and I was only holding it like a moron because of the flat grade, but an important reminder that this mountain would swallow you hole. Like, there were bodies forever frozen deep inside the glaciers of Mt. Rainier.
An old college roommate and Hillsdale graduate Brandon “B” Garling sent me a book when he learned I was going for an attempt on Rainier, called “The Ledge.”
The author gave a speech at B’s work about how he survived falling into a crevasse on Rainier, but his climbing partner and friend, didn’t. Seven feet, they went seven feet off the route and fell through a shallow snow bridge.
The writer was leading, 18 meters in front of his buddy, and as he fell down the crevasse, his buddy hit the deck and slowed the lowering, friction sliding towards the mouth of the crevasse – but he couldn’t self arrest. When the anchor person went over the lip, he fell the whole 70 feet without slowing down.
I thought about that book a lot when we started. Freeman was out in front and I was the anchor – gotta be able to self arrest him, set an anchor and pull him up with my system.
Most of the Rainier route had a boot track, about as wide as your normal standing stance, zig-zagging up the snow belts between rock faces. Three points of contact, step forward with one crampon foot, then solid purchase with the other, sometimes in single file if the boot track was too skinny. Ice axe in the left hand, on the high side of the slope, providing point three. If you slipped, you’d start sliding down towards an open crevasse, the Venus fly trap of the mountains.
All the previous route studying didn’t really matter – for one, the dark night with hardly any reference points, and two, we had to change day of and take the Ingraham Direct (ID) as the Disappointment Cleaver route hadn’t been used yet in 2022 due to so much precipitation.
As the sun’s rays melted the snow bridges on ID, eventually everyone would have to take the Cleaver, which climbs a long stone ridge instead of directly over the Ingraham glacier.
That’s why I wanted to climb in late June – the mountain would still be pretty frozen and I don’t mind the cold – looking up 100 feet from the bottom of a glacier crack was a consistent nightmare daydream. We were a week too late, as the heat had come, and the guides were going to switch to the Cleaver route any day.
Climbing 4,000 vertical feet from Camp Muir to the summit was the most physical suffering I’ve ever experienced on any climb. Mentally, it was the most will power ever needed.
It wasn’t technical, just so steep without any flattening out. All while navigating and jumping over crevasses in the dark, with your headlamp as the only illumination. I loved every freaking minute of it!
Freeman’s pace and skill were apparent throughout and that gave me motivation and confidence to continue the push.
Straddling the glacier openings – the gaps weren’t that big, but you had to get them right, watch the trailing rope, have enough slack and find that traction on the other side. Coming back down in the daylight we were amazed at how skinny some of the passages were.
Rainier’s summit was a giant indented crater from a volcanic eruption in 1894. There were two summits, standing in the crater bowl and/or the highest point on the crater rim. We bagged both as the sun’s nuclear core began to drown us in bright once again. It was time to lose the down parka and goggles, switch to sunglasses and hard shell top.
Other glorious peaks of the Cascades, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens and way off in the distance, Mt. Hood in Oregon, were all seemingly so beneath us at 14,411 feet.
Waiting to pass the guided groups on the way down was such a test of patience. Stopping meant getting cold, but with the grade, there was only one boot path to follow.
Two miles from camp we both hit a wall. Seven straight hours of summit climbing with no sleep and Freeman kinda just fell over on a shallow spot and we tried to simply breathe a bit. It was only 30 degrees but it felt like 80F and we sat and sweat and sought to be content but every step was so, much, effort. The clinging of the hardware on our belts seemed like a prison guard walking down the cellblock.
Never have I endured a climb session like that. At basecamp, 24 hours of pure expedition to that point, and my head just rested in my hands inside the tent, waiting on water melting, as we ran out miles ago.
Death marches in climbing refer to the last 2 to 4 miles of a trail that should be easy – you’re close to the end, it levels out, the vehicle parking lot just over the next ridge. But the body has nothing more to give. It can’t cope, won’t produce any more power.
“It’s all mental. It’s all mental,” my old climbing partner Chad Emmons always insisted when training and climbing. Agreed. And my mind was gone after packing up the tent and cleaning camp, loading the soggy backpack.
Knees hyperextending trying to stop the slush sliding down the Muir snowfield, backpack full of wet and dense gear, gave up on hydration long ago, gels and cliff bars smeared in and around the mouth, mixed with chapstick and prickly facial hair.
It was fascinating to view into the southern Cascades and other peaks begging to be climbed and then skied down.
Freeman absolutely soared down the snowfield and made the four miles in about an hour and a half. I clocked in at 1:50, cruising past the Asian tourists day-hiking the lower national park.
Driving felt like floating as we passed the massive spruce trees on the way out of the park and I played “Rich Spirit” from Kendrick’s new album and looked over at Freeman and said, “You ready for Denali 2024?”
“I could do that … ” Freeman said.
Post climb ER — we drove straight from Rainier three hours to Freeman’s house in Seattle. The next morning I was on a cross-country flight with my muscles cemented.
The next day I woke up and couldn’t move. I think there may have been a slipped spinal disk. The pain was 8/10. July 4 was spent in the ER getting muscle relaxers and steroids and shots into my legs. Don’t be like me, kids.
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