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Climbing Mt Rainier: My Journey - Part 1
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Back in the summer of 2016, I moved to Seattle after completing my grad school in Pittsburgh. I got a job at Microsoft and that led me to the beautiful Pacific Northwest. Initially, my inclination was to move to Bay Area after a year since that was the tech hub but here I am 7 years later still in love with the mountains here.
One of the first things that captivated me in Seattle was the sight of Mt. Rainier. This solitary mountain is visible from anywhere in the city, and I couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to climb it. During my commute from Belltown to Bellevue, I always enjoyed the sight of Mt. Rainier from the SR-520 bridge.
The first hike I attempted in Seattle was the Skyline trail on Mt. Rainier, which gave me a close-up view of the peak. It was a challenging 6-mile hike with an elevation gain of about 1800 feet. This hike, which was my first since the Chadar Trek in India back in 2013, completely drained me. The trail was not covered, and on a sunny day, the sun was beating down on me relentlessly.
After that, I recall browsing through "How to Climb Mt. Rainier" guides and doubting my ability to accomplish such a feat. The task seemed incredibly difficult and demanded extensive training. Till 2020, every year I used to look at those training schedules and told myself it’s way too hard for me to try it. Even though I continuously did harder hikes here and there for all the time I never thought of training and attempting any major peaks in PNW. But I kept on hiking to improve my fitness level.
Fast forward to January 2020, just before the pandemic began, one of my friends signed up for a program organized by the NGO Asha for Education. This program involved raising funds and providing training to climb five peaks in the Pacific Northwest area: Rainier, Baker, Glacier, St. Helens, and Shuksan. I stumbled upon the registration details on a Facebook event that appeared on my timeline (yes, I still occasionally use Facebook). I decided to register and attend the first online session, where they outlined what it takes to participate. And that's how my journey began.
As I attended the initial session and listened to the inspiring stories of those who had climbed these peaks before, my excitement grew, and I felt compelled to give it a shot. The organizers scheduled a qualifying hike, requiring us to ascend Mt. Si, which encompassed a 6-mile journey with an elevation gain of 3200 feet. It was February, and the mountain was still covered with a significant amount of snow. On a rainy day, we started on our hike, commencing in the darkness to simulate the conditions we would encounter during our ultimate goal. It was an exhausting hike, but all of us managed to complete it within the required time to qualify for the program. The purpose of the qualification hike was primarily to assess our readiness to attempt Rainier that year, as there were limited permits available, which would be allocated to the fittest participants. Since then, Mt. Si and I have become close friends, as it has proven to be an excellent training ground conveniently located not far from Seattle.
After this, I decided that I would train to attempt these peaks and see where it takes me. We did some initial training hikes on Poo Poo Point, West Tiger Summit, etc. But unfortunately Pandemic hit and things became worse as most of the things closed and everyone was just working remotely at home. Nobody knew how and when it would end but everyone had some hope that it would end soon and we can start training with other folks together.
To maintain our training regimen, we organized workout sessions on Zoom. It was a new experience, as I had never participated in virtual workouts. Although we were able to engage in bodyweight strength training, it proved difficult to train for the stamina and strength required for climbing. Fortunately, I resided in a 27-floor building and noticed that the stairs were rarely used by anyone. Thus, I decided to make the most of it. I loaded my backpack with 20-30 pounds of weight and started ascending and descending the stairs. I vividly remember how exhausting this activity was, as it involved relentless repetition of going up and down. To keep myself motivated, I relied on a playlist of songs and podcasts. This unconventional approach proved effective in building my climbing stamina.
Occasionally, I would even wake up at 3 am on a weekday to go on a hike. This early start was a deliberate choice to avoid crowds that typically gathered on weekends. Despite the pandemic, some people were still venturing out for hikes. I believed it was crucial for individuals to immerse themselves in nature during those challenging times for the sake of their mental well-being.
Lessons Learned - With unwavering determination and a willingness to overcome obstacles, you can absolutely achieve your goals.
After a few months of training, the time for attempting my first summit (Mt Baker) was coming closer. Even though we were not sure if we would be able to (due to COVID-19), we wanted to be prepared and wanted to do snow training to get comfortable with snow. We had to go in batches with our guide since we could not get a large group together. I with 3 of my fellow climbers and our guide headed to Stevens Pass in May, where there was still much snow left. This was a very interesting experience as we learned how to walk in the snow and how to save ourselves in the snow if we slip. We learned how to use Ice Axe, self-arresting with and without an ice axe and essentially just tried to get comfortable as much as we can during this time (Due to covid we had less training than in general what we would’ve done).
Mt Baker Attempt
We attempted Mt Baker in June 2020. It was a 3-day trip climb. On the first day, we set off early, making our way to the base camp. That evening, we relaxed and acclimatized to the surroundings. The following day, we engaged in snow training near the camp, honing our skills in walking with ropes, self-arrest techniques, and even rescue procedures for crevasse accidents. As is customary, we planned our summit push for the middle of the second night, taking advantage of the firm snow conditions before sunrise and returning while the sun was still up.
Arriving at the camp on the initial day, we were greeted by gusty winds and occasional rain showers. The weather forecast for our summit attempt seemed promising at that time. After setting up our tents and preparing dinner, we slept early. That night was an interesting experience as it was raining and windy all night. Imagine sleeping on a mountain where no one is around and hearing the sound of wind and rain on your tents. It was surreal and scary.
The next day we woke up, and after breakfast, we put our gears on and went on some snow training on how to walk with a rope tied, how to self-arrest, and even what to do if someone fell in the crevasse. Scary but that gave us a bit of confidence to trust our gears. After a very early dinner, it was time to sleep so that we can wake up at night and get ready for the summit push. When we woke up we could see the moon and it was quite clear so we started the summit attempt. We were doing the Coleman Damming route. It was turning out to be a good day but around 800 feet below the summit, the weather became quite bad. We had a snowstorm and it was a total whitewash. We sat there for a bit to see if it will stop and if it could continue but we couldn’t stop a lot as we were getting cold. In the end, we decide to turn back and go down. When we arrived at our camp, it was quite windy and if we did not have put our bags in the tent, it would probably have flown away. The wind was constant around 30mph with 50mph gusts. We quickly somehow packed our tents (it was a real struggle with cold winds) and went back down as fast as possible.
While we were disappointed not to have reached the summit, it was ultimately a wise choice to retreat given the worsening weather conditions. The experience, though intimidating, was also exhilarating, and we emerged with valuable lessons and newfound skills to apply in future climbs.
Lesson learned - Know when to back down. Sometimes extra courage and drive can bring your down harder.
There were a few more climbs before I attempted Mt Rainier and I will be sharing that in Part 2 of this article. So stay tuned and subscribe to my newsletter to receive it directly in your inbox.