I didn’t want to climb Mount Rainier again.
I went up the mountain once, in 1999 — for a story on a French volcanologist. The climb scared me to death. It very nearly killed the photographer with me, who developed cerebral edema and had to be helicoptered off the summit.
I vowed that the only thing that would get me back on top of Rainier was a really, really good story.
It landed in my lap this summer when my old friend Bill Lokey and freelance photographer/explorer Francois-Xavier De Ruydts (he goes by “Fix”) hatched up a trip to the summit ice caves in the company of a group of expert cave mappers and several scientists.
But it had been 15 years since my last climb. I hike a lot, but I knew I would have to train like crazy to get in shape. I didn’t want to be the person who had to turn back, because I knew that would spoil things for my whole rope team.
What made it seem doable for me was Lokey’s plan to travel slow, and break the climb into three days.
I specifically wanted to avoid trudging all the way from Muir to the summit in a single day with heavy packs — but that’s what we wound up doing after a lightning storm chased us off the top of Disappointment Cleaver.
Before that, we had to cross a crevasse on a metal ladder — something I had been dreading. Everyone else on the trip was far more experienced, and most of them walked across nonchalantly. I stood on the edge for a long time, trying not to look down into the chasm. Boards on the ladder provided a solid surface and there was a hand line. Still, I shuffled across like a centenarian, using my ice ax to help maintain my balance.
We also had to edge along a narrow shelf above a crevasse big enough to swallow a house. You had to face a sheer wall of snow, hold on to a fixed line and step sideways — otherwise the width of your pack might nudge you over the edge.
In several places, rocks were sloughing off from the cliffs above. If a big one rolled toward us, Lokey told me to plop down on the trail — pack uphill, head tucked — and hope for the best.
It was during the lightning storm that I really cursed myself for getting in over my head — again.
I was setting up the camp stove to melt snow for drinking water when it started buzzing. I looked up and saw Fix’s assistant, Colin Pither, squatting in a low spot. It took me a few seconds to realize what was going on before I joined the stampede.
The wind and lightning and thunder made it hard to sleep, and I worried all night that our tent would be ripped apart. It was sobering to realize those layers of fabric were all that stood between us and freezing. Microbiologist Zoe Harrold and I had to keep knocking snow off the tent walls to keep ourselves from being buried. In the morning, only the top third of our tent was visible.
After all that drama, our summit day was just a long, long slog. As the air got thinner and we got more tired, we rested for a few seconds after every step. Step. Rest. Step. Rest.
Counting steps helped me keep my mind off the misery — and the distance yet to cover.
It was exhilarating to reach the top with the sun shining, but it was never warm up there.
Our boots were frozen solid in the mornings, even though we kept them in the tent. USGS researcher Matt Bachmann thawed his over the stove.
Navigating the caves was a challenge because the floors were very steep and my headlamp barely penetrated the gloom. Every step threatened to unleash a cascade of loose rocks and send you plunging down the slope.
When we stood still, as we did several times while Fix was arranging photos, a sense of calm enveloped me. The only sound was water dripping from the roof. I felt like I was inside the mountain, and that it was a living thing.
Will I go back?
Probably not — unless it’s for another really, really good story.