2003 Rainier Summit Climb Trip Report
by Heather Macdonald
The first climb of the MRAG 2003 season gathered at Crystal Mountain Resort on June 7th. All four guides, (Aaron, Heather, Mason and Steve), the eight climbers and all three owners of Mt. Rainier Alpine Guides, (Eric Simonson, Lynn and Paul Baugher), met to make introductions, organize equipment; go over the climbing itinerary and to have a wonderful catered salmon dinner! This particular climbing team was unusual in that six out of the eight climbers were women. Five of the women were old friends whose enthusiasm and gusto never faltered. (There always seemed to be peels of laughter coming from their tents!)
After an early morning start, the team was on the trail with heavy packs and slowly made their way up the to the Inter Glacier in beautiful weather. At the foot of the Inner glacier the guides taught a "snow school" which involves learning basic techniques to keep everyone safe while climbing. Skills such as rope travel, cramponing, ice axe arrest, the rest step and "pressure breathing" was gone over until each climber achieves a kind of muscle memory of the technique.
After that it was another hour and a half of roped climbing on the fairly benign glacier until they reached their first camp, a small snowy perch around 8,000ft. Once the tent platforms were dug, tents erected and packs unloaded, everyone had one thing on their mind: food. The climbers relished in the burrito dinner and the fresh vegetables that had been lugged up there. (Well worth the weight.)
The next day involved a fifteen hundred foot climb up to the final camp at Camp Schurman, which was at about 9,500ft. The climb to Camp Schurman was not as difficult as the first day and it took the team about three and a half hours to make it there and have plenty of time to rest for a summit attempt. The camp has a spectacular view of both the Emmons and the Winthrop glaciers and their crevasses since it sits on a ridge between them. The crater rocks of the summit can be seen directly above the camp. Aaron and the other guides talked with the climbers about the details of the climb before them and what they needed to bring in their packs or what to wear in the morning. Everyone seemed ready and psyched.
On June 11th at approximately 2:30am all twelve members of the MRAG expedition left Camp Schurman and headed towards the summit of Mt. Rainier on a perfectly clear but slightly windy night. The three rope teams filed out of camp looking like a string of Christmas lights stretching out into the darkness. At the time they left the wind blew about 10-15 miles per hour and the Emmons Glacier route was in perfect condition so all were extremely optimistic that they would reach the top. Not long after the team left camp the first climber decided to turn back. Steve and Mason escorted the climber back to camp, then the two guides caught up to the rest of the climb.
After about forty minutes into the climb, the winds got stronger. It was a struggle to get into a good climbing rhythm and to use good crampon technique while pushed around by the wind. At the first rest break (11,200ft) one climber, who was too exhausted to go on, decided to head back down to camp with a guide, leaving the other three guides and six climbers to carry on.
The leader of the climb, Aaron Horwitz had mentioned at the break that maybe, "the winds would calm down after the sun came up," but no such luck. Dawn overtook night and the winds only increased to 30-35 miles per hour as the climb moved up the glacier. It became difficult to stay on one's feet and impossible to communicate between rope teams. At 12,800ft the entire climb decided to turn back. Once at camp all the members of the expedition felt pleased with their efforts. As one guide said to another climber, "Well, sometimes the mountain says 'Yes' and sometimes it says 'No'."
The morning after the summit attempt the skies were still blue and the wind had calmed a little. All the climbers eagerly packed up their camp and climbed off the ridge where Camp Schurmam was located, and back down to the Inter Glacier. As Aaron had promised the teams walked roped for a half an hour until they reached a point from which it was safe to glissade. Everyone put on their Gortex pants and coats, sat in the snow with their ice axes at their sides as rudders and shot down the mountain with Cheshire cat grins on their faces.
After the glissade down the glacier it was an hour and a half walk on the trail back to the parking lot, where Larry, the van driver, awaited the team with a cooler full of celebratory beer and sandwiches! The perfect ending to a great adventure.
Heather Macdonald, IMG Guide