Rainier climbing trip report

By Alexei Suvorov







2005-2006. Prior to the Rainier trip I climbed Whitney twice (one was successful) and Shasta 4 times (3 were successful). Next I wanted the Rainier and I wanted it badly. I knew it is a different league so, respecting the mountain I took the preparation part very seriously: wrote a training program so that I am at the peak physical condition by the summit day and I followed the program meticulously. I was thinking about the upcoming climb every moment and all my desires, intentions, drives, motifs, thoughts, behavior, diet were directed toward my goal. The desire to get to the top of Rainier was so great that it scared me at times, because with such a high drive and determination there seemed to be no way back – only to go ahead and climb it. Yes, I know it was very wrong …

Since Rainier has crevasses I needed to learn roping, belaying and glacier climbing technique, so to my good luck my friend Viktor Markov agreed to be my climbing partner and to teach me the necessary techniques. The ideal size of the roped team should be 3-4 people so we were trying to find at least the third climbing partner for our team, but to no avail. We bough some ropes, carabineers, ice screws, descenders and harnesses; I read some old books (Victor brought them from Russia) on knotting, ice, rock and glacier climbing and we practiced in the Castle Rock park on vertical rock walls, which was an awesome, fun and important learning experience.


07-01-06. So we were in decent physical conditions (we ran a three hours up-and-down-the-hill trail in Rancho San Antonio, Cupertino, CA if anyone familiar with it) by the time when two of us got on the plane to Seattle on July 1st, 2006 (we could not find a third partner). I was really amazed looking down at Mt. Shasta (which was on the way) from the plane: I did not expect it to look so enormous even from 30,000 feet! It was really huge and very close to the plane: I could see boulders, glaciers and even recognized parts of the route I  previously climbed.


Mount Rainier met us shortly after Shasta when we approached to Seattle in a clear sky. Its actual size and scale is realized when you see it so well from the Seattle airport, although it is still two hours drive away! We stopped by and got some gas containers at REI and headed to a hotel near the mountain. After lunch we drove to the mountain’s ranger station to register for the tomorrow’s climb and hiked a few hundred feet in the slushy snow which was starting right from the trailhead. We noticed that the top of the mountain was covered by clouds but we hoped it was not too much of a problem and we kept our worries away. We got out equipment organized and packed in the hotel room and tried to get a good night sleep.


07-02-06. Morning was great and clear however when we got out of the car the top of Rainier was still hidden in a ventricular cloud. We still did not worry that much as we were so ready. All we worried about at that point was that our backpacks felt ridiculously heavy when we stood and walked a few steps with our packs on. So we took out a 32 oz bottle of water from each backpack (for our consolation) and Victor also decided to take out his hefty photo camera with the tripod. That was slightly surprising to me as taking pictures was the primary reason Victor went to this climb. And surely, he started regretting about this decision in about an hour after the start and he was cursing himself for that all the way until we come back to Bay Area. I had a small camera though and took a bunch of pictures (http://link).


With my backpack with almost the size of me (I am 5’8”,140 pounds) I felt like I am a mule when hiking to camp Muir. I called my wife from one of the rest stops and everybody who was passing by was surprised to see me talking on the cell phone. As I learned later I was lucky to get the signal from that spot as the service was not available most of the way (e.g. in camp Muir).


When we finally arrived in Camp Muir by 3 or 4 PM there were already lots of people and tents so I was skeptical when found a seemingly very good spot for our tent and soon we realized that it was next to the restroom and most importantly it had a huge boulder (with the size of a big SUV) hanging over and threatening to crash on us any second especially with a gusty wind which was not to our favor. I had no strength to look for a better spot however Victor continued roaming around, up and down the hill with his backpack on (!) but found nothing so we cleaned and leveled the snow surface and set up our tent under the scary looking boulder. I would not set my tent under such a time bomb if I was not so tired and if I was not expecting to face even higher risks the following day. I was in a calculating risks mode so I just calmly took this as an additional factor to the risk value.


In the tent next to ours there was some russian party of 3 plus an american mother with a 16 years old boy. One of the russians turned out to be a guy who completed 6 out of  “seven summits” (including the Everest just two months ago). They went to sleep at about 8PM when we just started our dinner.


What we also did not expect was spending several continuing hours boiling the snow for our lunch which at once turned into dinner, and then for the tomorrow’s climb, so Victor thought it was our mistake that we took only one stove as it was such a slow water-making process (to me I was not sure as I still remember how heavy my backpack was). So we did not get much of a chance to relax before it was a time to go to bed. However when we were almost ready to call it a day we got some german dude approaching us (tall, smiling, wearing glasses and a bit clumsy) and asking if he can join us tomorrow so we could be a 3-people rope team. We gladly agreed after finding out that he had carabineers, some rope experience and a prior Rainier attempt (got turned out by weather). He looked a bit light-minded as he was only wearing shorts and a t-shirt in a 30 F (and quickly dropping) air and he did not have a stove. He offered us some dry “german” bread and we gave him a hot beef stew meal from REI with fresh green onion.


So when we finally got inside our sleeping bags I forgot completely about the “Hummer” hanging over the tent. However I could not sleep because of a complete nose congestion on both nostrils which seemed to appear for no reason. That almost certainly might have been caused by the altitude because I did not have it either before or after the climb and it appeared only when I took a horizontal position. I am not used to sleep breathing with my mouth so I was not sure if I actually slept at all but I think I finally fell into some delusional dream… however my eyes opened wide when a guy next to us literally yelled at 12:30AM while going out of his tent with such a sick enthusiasm: “what a beautiful morning to climb!!!”. The guy thought that other people in the camp could not hear him at all because he could see no one since everybody was inside the tents, so that jerk probably could not think at all. Of course my last hopes to fall asleep were gone and I had to listen the rest of the dialog of the two idiots 3 feet away from me who were having breakfast and preparing for the climb. Anyway when this group finally departed it got quiet for only five minutes when a tent from another side got active and we had to hear another act of the same theater play. I know Viktor did not sleep too because both of us were tossing, turning and letting out sighs of anger.


07-03-06. So when Victor suggested that we get up I was even relieved.  When I started putting on layers of cloths inside the tent my heart started pounding because of the elevation. We got out of the tent into a quiet darkness inhaling the crispy cold air at about 2:30am under the clear and amazingly starry sky. I was absolutely awake and fresh as if I was not sleeping at all. Three cups of hot tea required 20 min waiting which was still worth it to give us some jump start. German fellow misplaced some of his gear or clothes and was grumbling aloud while trying to find them. We decided that I would be climbing in the middle of the rope at least at the beginning since I had not had any previous rope and a glacier experience and I was the smallest guy in our team. So with all preparations and last minute check-ups up we departed at 4AM to adjoin the tail of the flickering light chain ahead of us. It was already getting light and we took off our head lights as well as some extra layers of clothes shortly after start. The next two hours was uneventful and we were climbing in an autopilot mode until we reached the Disappointment Clever where I knew it was a dangerous part because of the falling rocks which could hit and sweep you down the very steep slope. At the top of the clever we witnessed the colorfully lighted sky on our right (as we were heading north) with the sun about to show up from behind the mountain ridge which was our horizon. We made several pictures but the best ones turned out to be taken by our new German friend, as fe found out later.


I expected to see big ice seracs based on the route description but that did not diminish my fears when I was glancing at them walking by several ones each with the size of a house. It seemed like these monsters were ready to start rolling any moment as they were standing on a steeply sloped ice surface right above us.


The line of lights in front of us turned into a very long snake formed by humans, part of which we apparently were. I do not remember seeing anybody behind so our climbing party was one of the last ones. We saw little tents on the right and some dot-like folks getting ready for the climb apparently after a much better and longer sleep then us.


It seems all three of us were comfortable with the speed we kept, so everything was according to our plan and expectation so far. When reading about crevasses prior to the climb I found it was very abstract and simplified so I was concentrating more on the technical aspects (roping, belaying, etc) but when I actually saw the first crevasse I was astonished. Let me explain. The distance between the edges (where the trail crossed the crevasse) was actually not too big but I could see that both edges were actually snow cornices and I could not see how thick they were, which made me very nervious. So basically when I was preparing to jump I realized that I am actually standing right above the crevasse on a cornice which may break and fall down when I step on it (see these pictures on the left).  

And the closer I jump off from the edge the more chances are that it breaks! So the sheer fact that I have to jump it over, all of a sudden chilled the blood in my veins. A very simple jump if done over a paddle becomes actually a very terrifying jump if it is over a chasm.


Thoughts about the chances that my foot might get tripped with crampons or that the icy cornice breaks at take off were rushing through my mind. When our german buddy jumped over without saying anything (man, he should have warned us!) it was too late to think about what to do in case he falls (bad, bad thing to happen) so I did not have any more time to analyze the situation but needed to jump right away! Well, I focused as much as I could (which was more important than the strength at this moment), ran a few steps and jumped. I could not look down, because I was afraid of my thoughts (“what if…”). When I landed on all my 4 ends, I stuck my ice axe into the snow and roped myself to it before I signaled Victor that he could jumped then. That way if Victor had fallen my ice axe would either stop him or we would all fall down. After we all jumped over this crevasse we crossed two or three more crevasses by also just jumping them over. That was as much more trivial and non-technical (no fixed ropes, no ladders unlike I saw in everest movies) as unsafe because we had a very small room for mistake. So it was a very new experience in spite of all the preparations.

After another 2 hours of climb the air started getting hazier and soon turned into a dense fog. I realized that we are walking in a cloud similar to what we saw yesterday from the parking lot. I do not remember if it was very windy though, which was good. At some point our german friend suggested that we should consider turning back, and according to his altimeter it was another 2-3 hours to the top. However a climbing party going down told us that it was about half an hour “or so” to the top. However in 15 minutes the german fellow said he cannot go further because he did not see a point since he could not take any more pictures in the fog. We waited for a next group of climbers going down, which agreed to clip on our comrade to their rope, so we thanked the german friend and two of us continued going up in the milky white fog. It was another 1.5 hours until we finally reached the top and registered in the summit book.  The fog was so dense that we could not see anything farther than 4-5 meters (13-15 feet) away. All pictures turned out to be black and white as all other colors were saturated by the fog. Even though there was no any view from the top I was happy to summit the Mt.Rainier in the first attempt. Near the top we met our base camp tent russian neighbors and we followed them down after spending just a few minutes at the nothing-to-see summit.


We had more opportunity to enjoy the view on the way back, just in 1 hour after leaving the summit (when the fog dissapeared): everything you could see was in an enormous scale: huge ice seracs and cracked glaciers as if someone kneaded and smashed the snow mass, so that was a very surreal landscape when you are coming from everyday home-office environment. Another thing that made my blood felt frozen is an echoing roar from falling rocks which we could not even see. That was so much contrasting with the overall mountain quietness and we could only imagine that some huge rocks fell, somewhere. When you live in a hi-tech world you cannot realize at first that this sound is not from a TV or a CD player – it is a real world sound and you are a part of the action.


On the way down we took crossing crevasses much more seriously taking much stricter precautions (roping, belaying, communicating, etc), but you cannot hide from the fact that you must jump, which was still a very scary part. I was so spent so I could not find strength to get up and continue each time we were stopping for a break and I did not feel hungry or thirsty, which was probably a symptom of a minor mountain sickness. However the adrenaline kicked in again when we were passing the Disappointment Clever with falling rocks intensified by the melting snow (it was sunny and hot) and we were almost running through the clever with our crampons gnashing when stepping on the rocks. After passing by the russian group we returned to the camp and told the boy’s mom not to worry as we saw her son was fine just 1 hour away form the camp. I crashed down inside the hot tent where we slept for about 30 min before I was able to recover and started packing up.


Sliding down on my butt as much as I could was fun but I had to pay for that because my butt got completely wet.


Conclusion. It was a nice trip and a great accomplishment for me. But I could not have done it without tremendous help from Viktor Markov who spent his time and efforts teaching and training me the rock climbing, roping and crevasse crossing technique.