Dates of Trip:
Summiting one of the most challenging mountains in the continental US would make for a great first anniversary...or so we thought! Yet when we informed others of our plan, we ran across our fair share of naysayers. There were the usual suspects: friends and family who think the very idea of sleeping on snow or crossing heavily crevassed glacial terrain is insane.
But the people who concerned us most were the experienced ones who questioned our decision to climb Rainier unguided as a newly married couple. Our instructor for a crevasse rescue course in North Conway, New Hampshire, for example, reacted to our plan with “I hope you’re still married when you get back!”
His concern wasn’t about our skills, our knowledge, or our fitness (although Nina is pretty sure he was concerned about HER skills, knowledge, and fitness). He was more skeptical about our taking on such an ambitious objective with a life partner. Relationship dynamics can affect decision making in the mountains, raise the stakes, and bring additional challenges. Yet much to our guide’s surprise (we assume), we emerged from the experience with our bodies and our marriage intact and learned some lessons along the way.
We summited Rainier via the “standard” route, ascending the Disappointment Cleaver. We embarked from the Paradise parking lot "bright and early" at 10 am (more on this below) on Thursday, June 20, 2019, skinned to Camp Muir, left our splitboards, roped up, and continued to Ingraham Flats, where we set up camp for the night. We then left our camp at approximately 3 am the next morning, summited around 9 am, descended, stopping at Camp Muir to pick up our splitboards, and rode back down to the parking lot.
Conditions were not exactly ideal, with summit temperatures in the single digits and winds in the 30-40 mph range. As far as we could tell very few people summited that day. We encountered a number of guided groups that were holding off until the weather improved. However (again, more on this below), we had no choice but to complete the trip in two days.
A few lessons we learned from this trip:
- Always make sure to confirm the logistics. This is one of the few things that is completely within your control on a trip like this. James - having attempted Rainier twice before, including a month earlier - was very certain the climbing office opened at 9am every morning. When we arrived and found the office empty, we asked the Ranger where everyone was. He politely informed us that the lines died down after 7am, when the office opened. We got extremely lucky and ended up with the last two permits on the route for a single night. This meant that our original plan, to take three days (including an acclimation day), had to be revised last minute.
- Training hikes are important. While we had completed a crevasse rescue course in New Hampshire and practiced repelling off of our upstairs neighbors’ deck on several occasions, Nina had yet to rope up on an actual glacier. So we decided to climb Mt. Baker a couple days before starting up Rainier. This turned out to be important not only for practicing with our gear but for understanding our pace and physical limitations at altitude. We also had our first and only serious marital spat during our week in the mountains — and promptly got it out of our system!
- Know your limits, comfort levels, continue to reassess, and communicate. There were several times throughout our climb we both thought we weren’t going to make it, but we continued to communicate our plans and reassess our decision. We decided to keep going despite strong winds and unseasonably cold temperatures, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have droughts about completing our object.
- Test all of your gear beforehand. We borrowed a tent we hadn’t used before and failed to set it up before hand to confirm it was fully functional. We got to our base camp at 11,200 feet, where it was cold and windy. As the sun began to set over the ridge line, we learned that one of the tent poles was cracked. Fortunately, we were able to make do, but it could have been a disaster. We also had an ill-fitting crampon that required continued readjustment until James had the brilliant idea to ratchet it in place with a Voile ski strap.
- Always bring ski straps (even if you aren’t skiing). Enough said.
We will keep these lessons in mind for our next adventure. Following this climb, James has proposed climbing a bigger mountain for every subsequent anniversary; Nina has pointed out that this can quickly get out of hand. The debate continues.
While we wouldn’t go so far to recommend climbing Rainier as a marriage building exercise, we can confidently say it feels good to prove the naysayers wrong. The best part, after some cold beers and good soak in a hot tub, was writing to our New Hampshire guide to let him know we had successfully summited.