Mt. Rainier, Part 2

Part of the original motivation for going to Oregon was to help my friend Phil instruct a student course up Rainier. Unfortunately, an injury suffered during our personal trip up Liberty Ridge prevented me from working the student trip, but I wrote the following article for the Pacific University newspaper.

"Of all the fire mountains which, like beacons, once blazed along the Pacific Coast, Mount Rainier is the noblest."—John Muir

Adventure. Courage. Resiliency. Every August, incoming freshman who participate in the "Voyages" program are challenged to develop and display these character traits during their time at Pacific. For several of the Outback staff, these character traits were refreshed, renewed, and prominently on display during a recent trip to Mount Rainier.
Due to it’s looming presence in the Northwest, it’s easy to forget that Mount Rainier is a serious mountain that requires skill and caution to ascend. Although it’s not the highest mountain in the lower 48 States (that honor belongs to Mt. Whitney in California, by an additional 94’), Rainier is considered a long, difficult, and unpredictable mountain to climb. None of its numerous routes is considered easy, with most routes taking 2-3 days for a successful attempt. The 23 glaciers that originate on Rainier all require technical climbing skills and the ability to use crampons, ice axes and rope team travel to safely make the ascent. Compounding these difficulties is the notoriously unstable weather of the Pacific Northwest, which can quickly deteriorate into near-whiteout conditions and gale force winds. All of these factors combine to create a dangerous, unpredictable mountain environment that turned back many mountaineers, including a trip by Pacific University students last year.
This year, 3 students (Dan Pitluck, Ryan Bourgaize & Ted Wogan) and one faculty member (Paige Bougher), along with Outback Director Phil Zook Friesen, made plans to attempt the Emmons-Winthrop route. The Emmons-Winthrop ascends the east side of Rainier, which is considerably less crowded than the more popular southern routes (the "Disappointment Cleaver" and "Ingraham Glacier Direct" routes). The Emmons-Winthrop route, first climbed in 1855, traditionally starts from the White River Campground and ascends 10,000’ enroute to the summit. On the summit day, mountaineers utilize the dreaded "alpine start", leaving camp in the early hours after midnight to reach the summit and descend while the glacier is still firm (a firm glacier reduces navigational hazards and makes travel much easier).

 Adventure: (Noun; "a bold, usually risky undertaking; hazardous action of uncertain outcome.) A key component of the Rainier trip was that the outcome was uncertain. The first major hurdle to overcome was the weather. The end of Spring semester is an ideal time for Pacific students, but the weather is notoriously unstable during this time. A similar trip had been attempted last year, but weather stopped the team at their high camp of 9,600’. This year, the original trip had been postponed for 2 weeks due to stormy weather and high avalanche danger. The postponing of the trip really highlighted the unpredictable nature of the mountain. Zook Friesen commented, "The group was doing everything right…physically training for the mountain, acquiring the best gear, learning & practicing technical skills, but we were still shut down by factors out of our control (the weather)." This uncertainty was a constant theme throughout the trip, as the original group of eight shrunk to the final group size of five.
One way the group worked to resolve this sense of unknown was through a logical and systematic sense of preparation. The group met periodically throughout the semester to discuss physical training, equipment and other ways to best prepare for the ascent. A technical training trip was made to Mount St. Helens, and the entire group (minus Zook Friesen) also completed a successful ascent of Mount Hood a week prior. Although none would compare to the harsh environment found on Rainier, these progressive steps served as a practical way to increase both skills and confidence.

Training on Mount Hood
Courage: (Noun: the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear; bravery.) Mountaineer John Graham once wrote, "Courage is not about being free from fear. Only a fool is fearless. Courage is the ability to do the right thing, and do it well, even when you are afraid." The trip up Rainier was full of fearful moments and courage was a common trait.
One of the major objective hazards in mountaineering involves glacier travel. A glacier is a moving, dynamic sheet of ice, crisscrossed by large cracks called "crevasses". Later in the summer, as the glacier loses its winter accumulation of snow and crevasses are exposed (known as a "dry glacier"), the hazards are easily seen and managed. But early in the summer, with recent snowfall, the crevasses are covered up with snow bridges of unknown depth and the hazards multiply exponentially. Warm summer days quickly decrease the thickness of snow bridges until the passing mountaineer steps on the snow bridge and it falls away—leaving a frightened mountaineer with one foot (or more) dangling over the dark chasm. As Ted Wogan said, "You definitely don’t want to fall into the unknown." An unstopped fall into a crevasse could easily result in injury or death.

It’s times like this when the safety of travelling as a team really hits home. The five mountaineers were tied to each other, and each person played a crucial role in assuring the safety of the team.
One of the most frightening times came on the descent. While crossing a crevasse, a narrow snow bridge collapsed under Bourgaize. He safely made it to the other side, but the last man on the rope (Pitluck) was stuck on the wrong side of the crevasse. The answer, literally, was a leap of faith. After Zook Friesen built an anchor to secure his progress, Pitluck launched himself into space, landing four feet out but also four feet below where he started. The courage for the jump came from faith in his leader (Zook Friesen), faith in the group, and total confidence in their collective ability to overcome obstacles.
Resiliency; (Noun; the ability to overcome challenges of all kinds–trauma, tragedy, physical suffering, etc–and bounce back stronger, wiser, and more personally powerful.) The group left Camp Schurman, at 9,600’ elevation, in the darkness just before 3:00 AM. By the time the group had ascended to 12,000’, Ryan Bourgaize was physically hurting, winded, bending over with his hands on his knees on breaks, and subconsciously shaking his head side-to-side, as if his body was trying to convince his brain to turn around. It’s time like these when many people would be tempted to stop and turn around, to retreat back to the tent and take comfort in the sleeping bag. Zook Friesen spoke with him, encouraging him to eat, drink and keep a positive outlook. "More than anything, I told him to stop shaking his head ‘No’. A huge part of this type of mountaineering is mental," Zook Friesen comments. "I knew Ryan could do it physically—he just had to get it in his head mentally that he could."
Speaking about it a week later, Bourgaize describes it "as if a switch was flipped in my brain. After that, it didn’t get physically easier, so it had to be a mental thing." His mental & physical condition improved, and by the time the group reached the 13,500’ mark, Bourgaize felt certain he was going to reach the summit.
At 9:30, six and a half hours after leaving their high camp, all five stood on the summit of Mount Rainier, 14,411’ above sea level on a clear but blustery morning.

On the summit of Rainier.
Sir John Hunt, the leader of the British Everest Expedition (which put the first man on the summit of Mt Everest in 1953), stated, "The true result of endeavor, whether on a mountain or in any other context, may be found in its lasting effects rather than in the few moments during which a summit is trampled by mountain boots. The real measure is the success or failure of the climber to triumph, not over a lifeless mountain, but over himself; the true value of the enterprise lies in the example to others of human motivation and human contact." The successful ascent of Mount Rainier by five members of the Pacific Community stand not as a testament to any one individual, but to their collective sense of adventure, personal courage and individual resiliency.
Sunset from Camp Schurman
For more information about Voyages or the Outback program, stop by the Milky Way or visit the Outback webpage online.

Mt. Rainier, Part 1

As I said in an earlier post, much of the motivation in coming to Oregon was to help guide a group of Pacific University students up Mt. Rainier.  An added motivation was the chance to do a personal climb up Rainier, a mountain I had never been on. To make matters even better, I'd be climbing with my good friends Phil (who lives in Oregon and works for Pacific) and Matt Hardy (currently living the expatriate life in Cambodia). The stars aligned and we all three were going to be in Oregon in early June.  Having teamed up for a very successful climb of Mt. Hood several years ago, the conditions looked good for an attempt on Rainier via the highly coveted "Liberty Ridge" route.

In 1979, two major climbers of the day (Allen Steck and Steve Roper) created a list of the best, hardest, and most "classic" routes in North America.  Some are pure rock climbs, some are pure snow/ice climbs, and others are somewhere in between. Their list, 50 climbs long, formed the classic mountaineering book "Fifty Classic Climbs of North America". Of course, any list like this was bound to be controversial, but it's worth noting that no one, to this day, has climbed all 50.

Fifty Classic Climbs of North America by Roper & Steck; 1979

One of the climbs in the Pacific Northwest, and the only one on Mount Rainier, is Liberty Ridge. Liberty Ridge is the North Ridge of Rainier, and sees very little traffic. The vast majority of climbers who attempt Rainier every year choose the southern route, with various routes getting the remainder. Liberty Ridge gets a small percentage, primarily because it has a longer approach, is longer, steeper, more technically difficult, and sees a higher number of accidents and rescues. Unless you are climbing at a very high level, it requires at least one overnight on the route, and once the route becomes steep (about 1/2 way through), retreat isn't much of an option.  As the old saying goes, "the only way off is up."

Liberty Ridge is the prominent ridge in the middle of the North Face.

I'll spare you all the petty details, but suffice it to say that Liberty Ridge lived up to its reputation. It was long, steep, and treacherous. We camped at Thumb Rock (10,760') and spent hours listening to avalanches and rockfalls scour the adjacent faces. We experienced wild temperature changes, from scorching sun that left us with blistered lips and faces to howling winds and blowing snow that left us mildly hypothermic, with our bodies unconsciously shivering in a feeble attempt to stay warm. Here's a couple of pictures that convey part of what we experienced.

Approaching St. Elmo's Pass
 Phil & Hardy crossing the Emmons Glacier.

After crossing the glaciers, the route increases once we reached the "toe" of the ridge.
 High on the route.

The final pitch below Liberty Cap, after the storm had descended in full force.
 Sunrise at Camp Schurman, after an18 hour day up & over.

The intrepid and successful mountaineers.
I'll close with a quote that has become a bit more personal lately: "For most mountaineers, the main ingredient for a happy climb is good companionship.  As one's climbing extends into the middle years, he becomes all the more aware of the camaraderie developed among friends who've shared numerous ascents on many later years, the mellowing process takes over & the aging mountaineer dwells more on the enjoyments of companions & shared experiences."-- Dee Molenaar
In "Mount Rainier, Part 2", I'll relate the story of the Pacific trip that originally brought me to Oregon. Come back soon.....