The first Asha Teams met for the Mt. Rainier climb on Tuesday morning. Ongoing roadwork had only served to increase the anticipation as we drove through the park on our way to Paradise. At the overnight parking lot Kirk, Ben and I met the teams who had been preparing for months for this trip. After initial gear distribution and checks the three teams departed for Camp Muir which would serve as Asha’s base camp for the remainder of the trip. Most of the group had already done training hikes to Camp Muir before and the hike from 5300 to 10000 feet went off uneventfully.
Everyone had arrived by 4 pm. Upon arrival we established our shelters and quickly began the monotonous process of melting snow and boiling water to fill up everyone’s depleted water sources. The high temperatures had increased everyone’s water intake. After the sun set behind Gibraltar Rock the temperatures dropped about 20 degrees into the 40s. Everyone quickly crawled into their tents. Not long after, singing and alarms set for midnight to capture star-filled pictures broke out and kept most of the group from getting too much sleep.
Though we had not set any alarms, we had no difficulty getting out of our 80+ degree tents after the sun had risen. We casually ate and continued to resupply water while watching our gas canisters rapidly deplete. At 10 am we began training. We covered movement on a rope team, clipping into pickets, and the Kiwi coil. The teams quickly grasped the new skills which would later turn out to be crucial in ensuring our speed and efficiency through the attempt on the summit. At noon we ate lunch and began discussing all of the things that would need to be completed before our departure that evening at 11 pm. In the afternoon the second Asha team arrived with Jasmine. We welcomed them to camp but soon began focusing on the task at hand. We let the teams accomplish their preparation: packing minimally for a summit attempt, eating, hydrating and attempting to sleep as much as possible. A few hours of napping after dinner we came out of our tents, surrounded by stars, and began tying into our ropes.
The first obstacle, Cadaver Gap, was soon behind us as we moved efficiently in the darkness. We took our first break just after we reached the camps at Ingraham Flats, at approximately 11,000 feet at 12:15 am. We watched headlamps flicker at the Flats, and further below us back at Muir. We had beat everyone out of camp, and were rewarded by being first up the Cleaver. With our Kiwi coiled ropes our feet soon reached the ancient crumbled rock of Disappointment Cleaver. Movement was slow as we tread carefully, slowly weighting every step in order to avoid dropping rock on our friends, which could have lethal consequences. Soon we had crossed the worst of the rock, continuing to weave a path through the choss. We arrived at an intermediate path in the snow, high on the cleaver, but continued on, as we knew that we still had more rock to cover. Finally, we made it off of the cleaver at around 2:30 am, just over 12,000 feet. As guides, we knew the danger would be much higher as we descended the Cleaver, but crossing it uneventfully was still a relief.
We had planned a break at this point, but intensifying winds kept us relentlessly on the move. It simply was too cold to stop. Though winds likely never exceeded 20 mph, they never subsided. The wind caused unprotected faces to chap and bleed. We continued on and gave a quick boot axe belay over large crevasse, whose questionable bridge seemed suspect. A prepositioned ladder that had not yet been established rested before the widening gap. With the major difficulties behind us we continued on without rest, hoping the winds would stop. They did not. We crossed several smaller crevasses as we continued our forward and upward progress. We took a short break beneath a large crevasse slightly protected from the wind. This would be the last stop before the summit.
The monotony of the upper slopes was over before we knew it as we reached the Columbia Crest, the crater rim. Still, we found no relief from the cold. We dropped our ropes and packs and began the 400 meter walk through the crater towards the summit register. We had reached the rim just after 5 am. We welcomed the sun as its rays danced over the crater’s edge, bringing glimpses of the warmth to come.
We did not linger on the windy summit, snapping a few photos before quickly retreating within the rim to avoid the wind. We sat near the summit register as we watched the volcanic vents release steam. The three teams had performed admirably, as they conquered the route with minimal rest and no relief from the cold. Kirk and I, not expecting to have to use our puffies, had worn them for the entirety of the last 2000 feet. When guide’s move in their puffies, you know it is cold.
With a dangerous descent still before us, we urged the teams back towards the packs and began our descent off of the Columbia Crest at around 6:30 am, leaving the top of the Pacific Northwest behind us. The team’s training descending steep snow slopes on other mountains proved crucial as we made excellent time to the top of the Cleaver, the last major danger before the safety of camp. We stepped on the cleaver again right around 8 am, with the temperatures significantly warming. Fortunately, we were the first team to descend and if we moved efficiently through the cleaver we could avoid the rockfall from groups above us.
Slowly but surely we reached the safety of Ingraham Flats, but not before encountering a little bit of rockfall right at the exit of the Cleaver. A collective sense of security finally reached us, having passed all of the significant objective dangers. After consolidating all of the teams we finished the short descent from Cadaver Gap back to camp. We reached its security at 10 am, after almost 11 hours of continuous movement.
The teams quickly napped and began gathering their equipment for the final descent to their cars. A deep sense of accomplishment had permeated the camp. We were the first group back at camp and were welcomed by Jasmine and the second group of Asha climbers. We ensured everyone had at least a liter of water for the descent with Ben. Keeping the theme of forward progress, the successful teams departed around noon. Kirk and I said our farewells to the descending teams. We lent our stoves to the second Asha teams as we retired to our tents for a couple hours of rest in the beating sun, before Sandeep and Jonah’s arrival with the third group.
In the early afternoon we heard familiar voices descend onto camp. Sandeep and the third teams had arrived. We filled them in on conditions while the second teams began their final preparations and rest before Sandeep and Jonah would lead them to the summit, later that evening. Kirk and I greeted the new arrivals and ensured they were topped off with water after we acquainted them with their new home. They secured the recently vacated tents left behind by the first teams. Soon thereafter the sun set and we wished Sandeep, Jonah and Jasmine the best, warning them of the dangers ahead. Kirk and I went to bed early, after having been awake for nearly 20 hours.
We awoke around 9 am, unable to stand the heat of the tents, though it was noticeably cooler than the previous day. We repeated the training we had conducted with the previous team as we eagerly awaited the return of our friends, who had already summited at this point.
We consumed lunch, and Kirk and I exchanged glances, knowing that the rockfall hazards were significantly increasing. We knew the second team would be slightly slower, but our concern increased nonetheless as we had seen nothing by 1 pm. We had radios, but they were acting temperamental. We tried anyway, thankfully, with success. Hearing Sandeep and Jasmine report that all was well assuaded our anxiety, and soon thereafter, the second successful teams made their way into camp. They had not experienced the relentless wind, and were able to take more breaks on their journey. They also observed significant rockfall on the Cleaver.
The returning victors rested and began slowly consolidating their equipment for the journey down, as anticipation crept in on the final team. We had known going into the trip that Friday night and Saturday had the most variable weather and had the least chance of summiting because of this. Kirk and I would not allow ourselves to become overcome with summit fever and push the teams into any dangerous situation, despite the 100% summit rate thus far. No summit is worth bodily harm. With summit expectations varying, we briefed the final teams on the plan, gave them boiling water for their dehydrated meals, and everyone settled down into fitful sleep, if any. Simultaneously, Sandeep, Jonah and Jasmine began their journey down with the second successful teams.
We again rose at 10:30 pm, in hopes of departing on schedule at 11 pm. However, missed alarms and confusion on sleeping arrangements caused us delay, and we ended up departing an hour late. This weighed heavily on Kirk and I’s minds as we knew we already had little margin for error because of the potentially short weather window. We turned on our SPOT device so that Sandeep could track our movement as we repeated our journey towards the summit. Because of the delayed start we ended up behind over 50 people on several rope teams. This could easily derail our entire attempt, as being stuck behind such a large amount of people is not only dangerous, but can be incredibly slow. Varying skill levels of groups ahead of us only added to the already inherent danger. Kirk and I knew that we had to get around these groups on the Ingraham Flats or we would not summit by our 7:30 am turn around time.
Fortunately, luck and skill lent us their hands. After cutting our break short to get in the massive line that was slowly meandering across the flats, like a massive caterpillar whose movements were illuminated by headlamps, I noticed an opportunity. The unskilled group ahead of us had not conducted equipment checks. I knew this because I was staring at a harness that was on backwards and if weighted, could either break or cause serious injury. Jonah had spotted this also on the previous day on a different climber. I pointed this out to the unaware climber and the entire team stepped aside to let us pass as they corrected their critical error. Still we were too far behind to have a chance. Kirk had remembered a potential different crevasse crossing that would allow us past the bulk of the groups. He shouted to me ahead and I began to look across the glacier for any potential crossing point. Fortunately, I saw wands in the distance, meaning that a different path was a potential option. We cut out of line towards a suspect snow bridge. It turned out to be completely secure as we navigated an older path, cutting ahead of dozens of climbers. Now, pending weather, our chances were looking much better as we had just saved ourselves over 2 hours of delays in a matter of 15 minutes. Kirk passed the final team in our way before the cleaver because they had not shortened their rope, and we already had.
Now, only poor weather could stop us. Though the winds were lower than our previous summit, ominous clouds began to obscure the stars above the crater rim. Weather can turn in an instant on these coastal mountains. We passed another group on the cleaver, whose inexperience shone through as they dropped rocks on us because they did not shorten their rope, a dead giveaway that they were unprepared. With the cleaver behind us we only had 2000 feet and some familiar obstacles to go. The weather at our current location was still holding, but that meant nothing. We continued on with one final break before pushing to the rim.
Despite an hour late start, a massive traffic pile up of inexperienced climbers, and uncertain weather conditions, we made the rim at exactly 5 am, a brisk 5 hours after departing camp. We had made the best time of any Asha team this year. The rising clouds from all directions reminded us of our luck and potentially still dangerous predicament. For the final time this trip Kirk and I brought the teams across the rim to the summit. We spent little time, as Kirk had noticed that the lower camps had been obscured by rapidly rising clouds before he crested the rim.
We set off before 6:30 am. Racing against potentially dangerous weather. The rangers had advised us that a lenticular cloud could form, and Kirk, having experienced one before, knew that all visibility would be lost if we found ourself in one. They also advised that winds in excess of 30 mph could come. As we rapidly descended we looked back, to what appeared to be the cloud forming on the summit. We watched a team turn around less than a thousand feet from the summit because of what the weather appeared to be doing.
But, as I mentioned, weather in these mountains is fickle and ever changing. As if our concerns were nothing but a bad dream, all signs of bad weather seemed to vanish. The teams that had retreated had lost a perfect chance for a summit. The previously obscured camps were now visible again, and a light cloud cover above us kept us from overheating as we began descending the cleaver. At the base we passed though human sized boulders that had detached the previous day, during Sandeep’s team’s ascent. We reached the relative safety of Ingraham flats by 9 am. After collecting ourselves for the final push to Camp muir we departed. The final descent passed quickly. We were safe. We began tearing down camp immediately before 10:30 am, knowing that collective fatigue could make the simple descent into a long process. Though we had easily made the best time to the summit, we actually made it back to Camp Muir at exactly the same time as the first group.
We packed, filled up some water, and began descending shortly after noon. Despite slow progress because of minor aches, pains and collective fatigue we arrived at paradise by 3 pm. We all experienced culture shock as a massive amount of tourists here for the holiday weekend tore through the protected meadows and rampaged across the park. The rangers were having quite the time trying to quell the hordes of people who would stand behind signs that said to stay on the path to take photos of wildflowers that they were standing on. We joked that these tourists were the largest hazard of the entire trip. The parking lot was a total mess as people ignored the rules and were filling up the overnight parking lot, intended for climbers. It was quite the offputting way to end a trip. Nonetheless Kirk and I were proud that all of our teams had made the summit and that the mountain had allowed us safe passage despite the several obstacles and concerns that we had.
All in all the Asha teams experienced excellent conditions, but that does not negate the fact that their significant amount of training and preparation paid great dividends. Our consistent times through variable conditions only reinforced this fact. Thanks again to everyone for the great time. We are appreciative of your preparations which made being guides for you much easier and actually quite a joy. We also would like to thank all of you for your fundraising efforts for Asha, which will undoubtedly make an incredible impact to those in need in India. See you in the mountains soon! Thanks again from the Miyar Team!