From Desktop to Mountain Top
By Clarissa Morford
Working for a guide service is not without potential hazard to one's health especially when your job consists of sitting in front of a computer eight hours a day.
I've worked in the IMG administrative office since the winter of 2007. Though given encouragement and opportunity to go on any number of IMG programs, my philosophy on climbing set me firmly in the camp that said, “The Mountain will always be there. What's the rush in climbing it now?” It also set me firmly planted in front of a computer screen far too many hours each day.
But this year after a long winter and too many of Becky's fabulous homemade cookies (if you can weasel the recipe out of her I'm willing to pay good money), I found myself facing the beginning of the Rainier (and swimsuit) season in less than desirable conditioning. The other ladies in the office were feeling the same way too. As our Rainier guides started rolling into town, we began to think about how Becky's cookies were still sitting with us at our desks attached to our thighs and other squishy parts.
What to do? Purchase an under-the-desk foot peddler to share around the office, of course! Ridiculous, you say? Well, that's exactly what some of the guides thought when they walked through the office door. Though ridicule and smirking could have been the attitude of all of our guides (I mean, who uses a peddler at a guide service anyway?), the reaction of one guide in particular to our attempt at getting active was quite the opposite. Josh Tapp took it upon himself to begin an exercise training program for us. Based on the CrossFit method, Josh began working with us the beginning of June. His exercises were engaging, challenging and sometimes down-right hard (log-rolling, ugh), but we kept at it.
In addition to Josh's workout sessions, I began eating better and running frequently. I was beginning to feel muscles developing from my push-ups and could tell that my cardio had improved. I also thought about trying to make it up to Camp Muir and gave it a shot on July 4 with a couple of friends. Our time that day was 5.5 hours, which disappointed me, but Josh said wasn't bad for my first time. (A good liar I mean coach right?)
Then mid-July I got a call on the radio from the Mountain. It was Josh and Eben Reckord on a six day Glacier Skills seminar. There happened to be a position available on a rope. Eben and Josh thought that I should drop everything to join them on the Hill. Oh no. I wasn't looking to climb Rainier this summer, and honestly, I wasn't that fit. But the guides insisted that I was ready, and if nothing else, that gave me the confidence to continue training although I truly thought they were crazy. I declined their offer to climb.
Over the next couple weeks, I kept running, increasing my distance to roughly three miles each day (five to six days a week). And though I've come to find out that three miles isn't much to a hardcore runner, it was (and still is) a decent workout for me. Though the running was a challenge, what really nagged at me was my poor time to Camp Muir a couple weeks back. I knew I could do better.
The morning of July 23 I set out for Camp Muir with 20 lbs of water in my pack (was I training for a climb?) and made it up in time to see our uphill team off to the Flats. My time: 4 hours. That made me “smiley,” but in no way did I think, “Next stop, the summit.” Our guides were thrilled to see me up at Muir again. And yet, I did frequently ponder, “Why do those guys think that I have what it takes to climb Rainier? I must not be seeing what they see.”
Fast-forward through the next week. I continued running and cross training with my new “normal routine.” Then the call came in. Unfortunately one of our customers had to cancel two days prior to his climb. With the gears grinding in mind, I began analyzing what this last second cancellation might mean for me. Weather? Looks like it will be blue bird and spectacular. Route? Can it get much better? Nope. Guides? Jenni Fogle. Aaron Mainer. John Erickson. John Minier. An all-star cast! Clients? (Yes, that is the benefit of working in the office!) There are three women signed up for this one, plus most of the team is comprised of Jenni's Air Force friends. Score! Everything added up perfectly. I might as well try to climb Mt. Rainier.
After a mad-dash to get some really yummy lunch foods (I could eat chocolate and other junk again!!!) and round up all the necessary personal gear, I met with our awesome summit team to get geared up. From the start I knew this was going to be a great climb, but first impressions can't do justice to how well our group ended up meshing and enjoying being on the Mountain together. We had a diverse group, including a family of four from California, an Air Force Colonel, a business man from AZ and a contractor from GA. That day I could tell I would have a good time walking uphill with this group of people regardless of whether or not I made it to the top. No pressure.
The next morning as we loaded the van to head to Paradise, I began to experience the other side of the IMG coin, as the guides began rallying the group. Every detail was attended to as Jenni and crew made sure we were ready to walk up-hill. Their frequent reminders and subtle tips created the perfect recipe for coaching our team each literal step of the way. Like the popular graduation commencement song from the late 90's, we were to wear sunscreen, drink tons of water, eat plenty of food and dance. (Ok, so maybe the song didn't go quite like that and the guides didn't give all of those instructions, but I think the last one should be adopted by IMG immediately and employed on every climb.) But in all seriousness, I felt confident that making it to Camp Muir that day was attainable. After ascending about 4,500ft over 4.5 miles, I made it to Camp Muir. I felt good! After a killer dinner of burritos (I'd always heard of the famous burritos, but now I was able to feast on them!) and some hearty laughs in the Weatherport, we settled in to rest at the Gombu for the evening.
Camp Muir is a magical place. Though sleep did not come super easily, partly due to excitement of the adventure ahead and in part due to the altitude, stepping outside of the shelter in the middle of the night to use the facilities (remember, we're commanded to drink lots of water!) was not an inconvenience, but an opportunity to gaze into the darkness to view the closeness and clearness of the heavens shining above. What a sweet blessing after hard work earlier that day, now for sweet dreams.
7 am came at the right time the next morning. So did hot pancakes with bacon in the Weatherport. Had we not been expending so many calories each day as we walked uphill, I was beginning to think that I was on a true vacation from the office getting pampered with yummy, not-so-good-for-you, food. I could get used to this, and then I remembered that this wasn't a leisure cruise.
Moving up to the Ingraham Flats that morning, I wondered when I might start to feel more negative effects of altitude, other than a slightly more concerted effort to keep my breath. In addition to focusing on my fluid intake, I had some headache medicine on hand just in case and had purposed to keep eating whether or not I felt like it. By the time we bedded down for the afternoon, I mused to myself how strong I was feeling sitting on the side of a gorgeous glacier. Spirits were high with our team, and I felt ready to begin climbing in the morning. How far I'd get was still unknown, but I was happy to be on the Mountain giving it a try.
We awoke at 11:30 pm to a starry and still night. The Big Dipper hung just over the Cleaver; how nice to think there were some guiding lights from above. Ahead and high on the route, we could also see the headlamps of other climbers pushing upward in the darkness. Could I make it? I downed my breakfast of coffee and a hearty bagel with cream cheese and bacon. (Oh was I going to miss eating like this after the climb!) With crampons fastened, headlamp shining and a song in my heart, I set out from the Flats in the cover of darkness, anticipating the hard work to come. I was glad I wasn't in this thing alone.
The guides did a fantastic job not only leading our rope teams upward and onward, but also at managing our expectations as to what we were to face next. Going into the unfamiliar both terrestrially and technically (remember I sit behind a computer all day), was not intimidating because I knew who was with me. During our basic mountaineering school the previous day, our team became well versed (for newbies) on the essentials of cramponing courtesy of John Erickson and ice axe self-arrest from John Minier. Jenny and Aaron also showed us how proper rope travel should look. I'd been taught the skills, now it was up to my legs and lungs to propel me to the top. As I said, the guides were very good at letting us know what to expect next, and when we were told that the first hour and a half to hour and forty-five minutes would be the hardest grind, I mentally prepared to take it one step at a time.
Pulling into our first break at the top of the Cleaver, I was amazed at how good I felt. Was it the coffee that I'm normally forbidden from drinking at the office (Tammy thinks I get hyper or something…whatever!) that was giving me that extra bounce in my step? Was it the internal sound track and quiet mediation on the stillness and beauty of God's Creation that was keeping me going? With those passing thoughts, I scarfed some Jelly Bellies and chocolate peanut clusters along with a few slugs of water. I was ready to continue moving onward and upward, always aware that at any time the Mountain could decide that I had gone far enough.
Over the next couple hours, though laboring, the methodical and rhythmic pace set by my guide became a metronome to the colorful song that was ringing through my soul. As the sun was rising, the glowing dawn seemed to give hope that the top would come soon. From the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same the LORD's name is to be praised. Step, step, breathe. Step, step, breathe.
After our last rest at High Break (13,400'), our team was still moving well uphill. Many other climbers were ahead of us on the route and many were below. The brightness of the rising sun and the beauty of the surrounding territorial hills were indescribable as unobstructed vistas on the route encompassed every gaze.
Step, step, breathe. Though surrounded by a stream of climbers, the last few steps to the crater rim were really between the Mountain and me. Step, step, breathe.
And then, I made it.
What excitement and relief that the top was attained and I wasn't a weeping weakling. Tired, but not exhausted. Then disbelief set in. Was I dreaming? Did I really climb Rainier? Let me get my camera! Oh, let's get a picture of me doing push-ups on Columbia Crest for Josh Tapp. Now where's my cookie? Oh yeah, and what goes up must come down. Alright, I'm ready for the downhill slog. Step, step, breathe. But seriously, where is my cookie?
I still haven't gotten my Rainier summit cookie, but what a great personal challenge and memorable experience that showed me what our guides were able to see in me. And to think Rainier was not in my plan this summer but with a little encouragement to get active, that is how I went from sitting behind this desktop to the top of Mt. Rainier.
Clarissa Morford, Rainier Climber and IMG's Administrative Assistant