Climb Take Action Seven Summits – Entry 1: Mt. Rainier via Emmons Glacier May 30-June 4, 2008
Climbing.com will have the exclusive reports from Georgina Miranda — Climber and Humanitarian — as she embarks on a journey to climb the Seven Summits to support women in Africa. Enjoy this first installment of seven courtesy of Georgina Miranda and Crystal Wells of International Medical Corps
After eight months of preparation and anticipation, Mt. Rainier (14,410 feet) was finally here. Led by Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI), I was off for a six-day expedition skills seminar on Mt. Rainier for my last formal training before setting foot on the highest peak in Europe, Russia’s Mt. Elbrus. The 18,510-foot summit is also my first climb of eight in my campaign to help women and children in the Congo and Uganda by climbing the highest mountain on each continent. Through my campaign, Climb Take Action Seven Summits, I hope to raise $2.2 million – $50 for ever meter – for International Medical Corps, a global humanitarian organization with programs that directly support the people in these war-torn and fragile countries. With Mt. Elbrus scheduled just one month away in mid-July, Mt. Rainier really was my final crash course in mountaineering before embarking on the seven summits string.
Reaching the summit of Mt. Rainier via Emmons Glacier (14,410 ft) requires a vertical elevation gain of more than 9,000 feet over a distance of eight or more miles. Every year, roughly 9,000 people climb Mount Rainier and only about half of them reach the summit. The peak is accessed through the town of Ashford, Washington, which is just a couple-hour drive from Portland, if you don’t forget one of your bags at baggage claim. About 30 miles outside Portland, I realized that I left one of my bags at the airport. On my way back, I ended up hitting a slick part of the road and did a 360 across I-5. Luckily, the car came to a stop facing the right direction on the highway and I, tapping on the gas, counted my lucky stars and headed back to the airport. What a way to start the trip, but I comforted myself that the odds of anything else bad happening were highly unlikely.
Wiped out, I finally made it to Ashford at Whittaker’s Bunkhouse around 10:30 p.m.. The next morning I was up bright and early at Whitakker Mountaineering for some final gear exchanges, additions, and rentals. I highly suggest anyone climbing Mt. Rainier in-need of gear or rentals to take advantage of Whittaker Mountaineering’s services. Right next to Mt. Rainier, they are not only extremely convenient, but are also helpful, knowledgeable, and even well-priced. And, to boot, if you climb with RMI, you get an additional 10-percent off.
Mt. Rainier: Day 1
By 8 a.m., I was finally organized and ready to meet the team for Day 1 of mountaineering school. There was so much energy and enthusiasm in the team of eight clients and four guides. If there is anyway to describe RMI Guides, it would be amazing. My guides, Shaun Sears, Eric Frank, Jake Beren, and John Colver, were exceptional and I would be delighted if ever given the opportunity to climb with them again.
After a quick gear check and itinerary rundown, the team headed over to Paradise at Mt. Rainier National Park for a training day on the slopes. Day 1 was dedicated to introducing us to basic techniques like rest-stepping and pressure breathing; proper use of helmets, harnesses, and ice axes; cramponing; roped travel; ice axe arrest practice; placing anchors and running belays; fixed line travel; and the basics of crevasse rescue.
The trek into our practice spot was only about 45 minutes in 15 feet of snow cover, but it was enough of a trek for the guides to begin assessing our physical condition. The day’s highlight was sliding down a mild slope and putting our ice axe arrest skills to the test. Some of the team members really got into this exercise and would get a running start to speed down the slope. Heavy emphasis was placed on rest-stepping and pressure breathing, which I would soon find out, is truly the key to endurance and success in mountaineering.
We ended our training day at Paradise by about 3:30 in the afternoon and headed back to RMI for a quick pow-wow, lessons learned, and update for the following day. Dinner that night was at Copper Creek Inn, famous for their blackberry pie. If you ever go, you can’t pass it up, and I would suggest a la mode.
Up early again for our 8:15 a.m. start of Day 2. We stayed at RMI all day to review our proposed route to the summit, go over ‘Leave No Trace’ practices, rehearse knot-tying techniques and crevasse rescue, and perform thorough gear and clothing checks. We also divided up who would carry what up. With little food, water, and group gear my backpack was at 46 lbs, but once it was fully loaded, it weighed about 55 pounds. I was all for bringing the bare minimum, the less weight the better. I decided to name my backpack “My Little Monster” – a highly appropriate title for what was going to be my greatest challenge on the climb.
Although I had trained with my pack the week before at San Jacinto and Mt. Baldy in California, it just felt different on Mt. Rainier and it took me a couple of days to get it ideally adjusted. After our weigh in, all I could think was, “I better make it up there with this thing!”
We ended the day with a team dinner at Whittaker Mountaineering’s outdoor café and then headed over for an encore round of Copper Creek blackberry pie. That night it was a final catch-up on e-mails and pending action items for Climb Take Action, a good night sleep was in order for our adventure to come.
The following morning I said good bye to Whitakker’s Bunkhouse and checked out. We met at 7:30 a.m. at RMI and were off. On Day 3, the goal was to start the trek in at White River Campground (4,400 ft) and trek past Glacier Basin Camp (6,000 ft) to camp at the base of the Inner Glacier about (7,600 ft). The ride over to our starting point was about two hours.
Time that day was a blur, I know we started late morning and the trek to our first camp took about 5 hours. The trek to Glacier Basin was over varied terrain of snow, dirt, and fallen trees and small streams. Due to the massive floods in 2006, a lot of the trail had been wiped out. Bits of yellow “caution” tape had been placed throughout the trail to help keep climbers on the right direction. The views into Glacier Basin were spectacular. One minute we were in the forest with a light mist and the next we were walking through an area hit by an avalanche with fallen trees all around. It was breathtaking and I just felt so lucky to be there.
The first couple of miles through the forest were challenging because we had to acclimate to the varying terrain and get used to being hot (even though the weather was in the mild 50s). For me, at a little five-foot-three, maneuvering over fallen trees with the pack was challenging. We took a break just past Glacier Basin Camp and the stunning views of surrounding peaks came into view. It was breathtaking and I just couldn’t believe I was actually there. It was a pinch-me moment. We passed another climbing team at Glacier Basin Camp and some other skiers on their way down from the mountain. Everyone was sharing weather and terrain conditions, which was helpful in planning our final route.
From our break we headed into a snowfield that would lead us up to the Inner Glacier. The guides worked with us on our rest-stepping techniques and pressure breaking. After climbing for about an hour through the snowfield, we stopped once again and roped up in teams of three and put our crampons and helmets on. The final two hours or so of climbing up to our camp were strenuous and steep. The key was really in your rest-stepping and pressure breathing. It was also helpful to be able to step in the previous climbers steps. I was quite slow in this last stretch, as I was really hot, my backpack kept pushing my head and helmet forward, and my neck was really starting to hurt as a result.
I had been in a car accident in January 2008 and had suffered some back and neck injuries. Although I was fully recuperated, this two-hour stretch of improper posture and pressure on my neck was aggravating. It is all about teamwork and John, the guide on my rope team, was extremely encouraging and offered helpful tips on my helmet adjustment and backpack adjustment to alleviate the situation.
In our last rest stop of the day, our lead guide, Shaun, pointed out our final destination for our camp and we were off on the last stretch. I was wiped out by the time we made it, but so proud of this first accomplishment. Our day’s work wasn’t done though – we still had to set up camp by digging out our team’s tent platform into the snowy slope. Next, was waiting for “hots,” or boiling water for our instant meals and getting ready for bed.
I was rudely awakened by my Blackberry alarm, which I forgot I had brought along. I felt badly as it woke up my tent mate, but luckily no one else. I fell back asleep for a couple more hours and, after a breakfast of tea and a Luna bar, it was time for some avalanche transceiver instruction. The snow was heavy and not well-packed in our track to Camp Schurman, making it a bit more strenuous.
There was a bit of falling for me on this climb. With some steps, our boots and crampons would just plunge through the snow, leaving most buried shin-deep, or knee-deep in my case. Roped up in teams of 3, we reached Camp Schurman in a few hours of climbing. The final approach involved a short descent down some loose rock and dirt, then down and up a narrow snowy and icy trail on the side of a slope leading to an area with a large crevasse, which we carefully avoided. There was only one other team when we arrived, and one other team had left and obviously not practiced the Leave No Trace recommendations. That night, I was in bed at 6:30 p.m…we had a take-off time of 1:30 a.m. for our summit bid.
At 1:30 a.m., we were in full-gear: climbing pants, harnesses, crampons, gaiters, avalanche transceiver, helmet, gloves, ice axe, head lamp, and sub zero parka. The parka was always used while on breaks or waiting periods, but never when climbing because it was too warm. I left camp with a base layer and windbreaker. The packs were stripped to the bare minimum with water, snacks, and Gore-Tex gear. The goal was to keep them as light as possible. I removed the top portion of my Denali Pro Gregory pack to reduce the weight load and pressure against my neck.
Starting out so early was amazing – you could see all the stars in the sky along with the glow of lights from Seattle. Roped in teams of three, we worked on keeping a steady pace at approximately 1000 vertical feet per hour. As we approached the second break spot, we carefully avoided a series of crevasses and stopped to gaze at the moonlight and first sights of surrounding peaks as daylight was beginning to break through. This was yet again another pinch-me moment. I had never seen anything like this!
It started to snow lightly at the second break spot. The breaks were kept to a maximum of five to 10 minutes – just enough for water and a quick snack. As we left our second break, the snowfall gradually got heavier and heavier. Stepping in new snow was tough; our boots and crampons would fall through every so often. By the time we reached our third rest stop, the snow was heavier and it was time to pull out the Gore-Tex. It was helpful to have full side zip Gore-Tex pants that could be put on over the climbing pants without having to take your boots or crampons off.
Our guides started to test for avalanche potential to ensure it was safe to continue forward. While the conditions were by no means optimal, it was still safe enough to move forward. Conditions would be reassessed at our next break. Once we were all geared up with the Gore-Tex, we were on our way again. The last stretch to our fourth rest stop was quite strenuous. The newly fallen snow was accumulating quickly, making the ground unstable to climb on. Even when we put our ice axes in the snow for balance on the uphill slope, they would sometimes just plunge through the snow and cause immediate unbalance.
I had been a bit nauseated since we had started out and it had intensified by this point. I think it was mainly a combination of way too much over-processed food. My stomach had had enough of the instant meals. I missed the blackberry pie at the bottom.
This stretch was also steep – at least 30-degrees – and it was crucial to continuously do pressure breaths and rest-steps. By the time we hit our fourth rest stop, I was pretty wiped out. Our guides asked us how we were doing and made sure we still had enough juice for the last stretch to the summit and to make it all the way back down. I was exhausted, but still had enough fuel for the last push. The guides again did some more avalanche testing and determined it was safe to continue, but that additional testing would be necessary a little further up. The conditions at this point had gotten a bit worse with additional snow fall and wind.
After climbing for what seemed like 30 minutes or so, they did another test and this time came back with some bad news. We could all see the top of the Columbia Crest from where we were standing, but our guides informed us that conditions had quickly worsened and there was now high hazard for an avalanche in that area. There were about six to eight feet of fresh snow that was not well compacted on a 37 degree slope, which could easily trigger an avalanche. It was better safe then sorry and, at only 600 feet from the summit, we had to decide that it was best to descend.
We had started so early that at our descent began around 8 a.m. I took a bad spill just shortly after starting our decent. Although I did not fall very fall, I still followed proper procedure and yelled “falling” and went into self arrest. The killer was that my backpack slammed against my neck and forced my head forward. Getting back up on my feet, I could immediately feel I had hurt my neck. Each step down from that point was pretty painful, as I felt a sharp pain going down my neck down my spine. The additional minor falls every now and again just made it more exhausting. I was so grateful we had placed wands our whole way up, as visibility was poor and our trail up was pretty much wiped clean.
Once we were about 1,000 feet from camp, John, my rope team guide, decided he wanted me to take my pack off and he would bring it down for me. I had already taken Ibuprofen, but I was still in a lot of pain and going pretty slow. I felt so bad and said I could finish the last 45 minutes or so we had left with the pack. The other guides reassured me it was okay and not to argue with my guide, and so I handed over the pack. It really did not weigh much by that point, maybe 15 lbs. The contents of the pack were divided between our other guide Jake and my rope teammate, and John and the pack was attached to a piece of rope and linked to John’s pack and dragged down the rest of the way. John also gave me one of his poles so I could balance better with the ice axe and the pole. Conditions by now were quite windy and with heavy snowfall. The two rope teams in front of us raced down the final half hour stretch of the glacier. I also was able to pick up my speed without the pack and with the added balance of having the trekking pole.
At last we made it to camp and it was still stormy. We had made it! Our teammates snapped photos of us coming into camp. The last rope team was just a few short steps behind us. I honestly felt like we made it just at the right time; from that point forward it only got stormier and extremely windy. It was about 12:30 p.m. when we made it back to camp. It had been a grueling 11 hours of climbing and definitely the most physically challenging experience I had ever faced.
By the morning of Day 6 the weather had cleared up. We all woke up with a few feet of new snow packed up against our tents. I woke up with my neck feeling much better, but I still took some more Ibuprofen to prepare for the decent from 9,400 feet back to 4,400 feet. I knew I had to carry down a fully loaded 55-pound pack, so I was delighted to find out that there was a high possibility we would be able to glissade down the Inner Glacier.
Once we reached the Inner Glacier, it was time to take off the crampons and get ready to glissade down. I was curious how this would work in groups of three, but it was an absolute blast. To my surprise our guides informed us we had glissaded down 2000 vertical feet! Once leaving the Inner Glacier, we were able to take off our helmets, harnesses, and ropes. It was a swift trek down to Glacier Basin. By 2 p.m., we were back in the parking lot, feeling a little strange to be on solid ground. All in this entire trip was amazing and I was blessed with an awesome team and guides.
Onto Mt. Elbrus
Rainier was the boost of confidence I needed to prepare for Elbrus next month. This trip just reiterated that fact that mountaineering is just as much about mental stamina as it is about physical stamina. It also enforced the principle that going up is only half the journey. This trip was not about getting to the top – it was about experiencing the journey there and back and sharpening our skills.
For me especially, this trip was the final prep for my campaign to help women and children in the Congo and Uganda, which was, without a doubt, my underlying motivation. Not only do I feel ready for Mt. Elbrus, but I also feel more prepared to continue encouraging others to take action for women in the Congo and Uganda through some kind of personal challenge.
Representing more than 80 percent the world’s refugees, women and children suffer most in emergencies, while they hold the key to a healthy, peaceful future through their resilience and determination. Both the Congo and Uganda, neighboring countries in central Africa, have suffered more than two decades of civil wars that have left millions dead and even greater numbers homeless. None have suffered more than the women and children. These climbs are for them.