by Colin Aina
I recently returned from a mountaineering trip to Mt. Rainier in Washington. Towering at 14,410 feet, Rainier is an active volcano which last erupted 150 years ago and is the most glaciated peak in the continental US. Although Mt Whitney is 105 feet higher, Rainier has a higher prominence (vertical distance between a mountain's summit and its lowest encircling contour line) by over 300 feet. Yes, this is the same mountain in which 6 climbers were caught in an avalanche and were pulled over 3000 feet below to their deaths just this past May.
In the mountaineering world, it is regarded as one of the most challenging mountains and a major training area for higher peaks around the world. This is attributed to its steepness, number of crevasses, rock fall hazard and rapidly changing weather.
Why would I want to spend 6 days of my precious vacation time like this?
Well...for starters, I'm not one for leisure activities. I need to be engaged in something when I'm on hiatus from my normal routine. When I would go to the beach as a youngster I'd spend the entire time body boarding. The idea of laying in the sun was a futile venture for me and I would rather sit on the couch. I've also spent too many childhood summers on Caribbean vacations.
I was very much into the outdoors when I was little, but as sports took over my life, I didn't get out as much. As my competitive running career was coming a close a few years ago, I found myself gaining more time to get involved in new and more hobbies. I also made time to get serious about backpacking, winter camping and hiking.
Fast forward to September 2013......
I sustained a torn ACL and MCL and needed surgery. Besides not being able to attend the NAS strongman nationals, which I had recently qualified for, I was upset about missing the opportunity to go backpacking in the fall/winter. Prior to the injury, I had been getting increasingly fascinated with testing myself on Mt. Rainier and possibly using mountaineering as a way to explore other countries unlike the tourist route.
After surgery, I set forth the goal of going to climb Mt. Rainier the following summer. I very much needed something to rehab myself toward instead of just approaching my recovery of getting back to normal function. After spending a month with my right leg immobilized and back into my functional brace, I was able to ramp up the tedious task of gaining the muscle and function of my leg back. My good friend and physical therapist, Terry, never missed an opportunity to make me work past what I thought I was capable of. I would leave therapy very much the same way I would the track...exhausted, sweaty and invigorated. I compounded therapy with my own program and I progressed very quickly, all the while thinking of the mental and physical demands that getting back into backpacking and climbing a mountain would require.
The day after Christmas I embarked on my first multi-day backpack in the White Mountains in New Hampshire. I had done a few day hikes with a light pack and was feeling confident, yet nervous, about hauling 40lbs of gear for a weekend. I felt an enormous amount of relief and happiness once we made it back to the car at the conclusion.
After that trip I applied and was accepted into the Glacier Skills Seminar on Mt. Rainier through International Mountain Guides (
). Unlike the regular 3-4 day climb in which the guides assist/guide you up the mountain, this was different. It is geared to teach you the skills needed to be mountaineer and to make you a valuable team member when roped in on glaciated terrain. After getting my acceptance confirmation....it was on! I wanted to do everything I could to be prepared for this trip. Not only did I want to be physically prepared, I wanted to learn as much as possible about climbing because frankly, I would be having others' lives in my hands and mine in theirs once on Rainier. I started off by getting out and backpacking over the weekends in the winter. I also took the opportunity to learn ice climbing, which I am now addicted to. I spent a few weekends in NH with the Appalachian Mountain Club learning techniques and learning basic climbing knots (which are an invaluable and possibly live saving aspect of all climbing). The AMC also hosted a glacier travel workshop in which I learned basic team rope travel as well as self arrest techniques (if you fall on a steep slope you have to be able to stop your fall with your ice axe, very fun to practice!)
As spring approached, I continued my usual strength training and running routine as well as embarked on some more weekend backpacking excursions. I even found the time to do some rock climbing. I gradually increased my pack weight, as I was expected to carry around 60lbs on the mountain. As time drew closer to the trip, I became more focused and not a day passed that I wouldn't think about the trip and what was in store for me.
I arrived in Seattle on Saturday, June 27th with a ton of gear. The next day, I got to the HQ of IMG to greet my fellow climbers and guides. We had a meeting and then consolidated the contents of our packs as we would need to make room for group gear when heading out the next day. On Monday, we loaded up the van and made our way to the base of Rainier. There wasn't a cloud in the sky once we arrived at the base of the mountain. With full packs and full bellies, my team and I headed out to our first camp. Each day we were on the mountain we learned different aspects of mountaineering. We covered rope travel, self arrest, snow anchors, crevasse rescue, pulley systems, avalanche beacon/rescue and weather forecasting. We established 4 camps, each one progressively higher than the last. This helped us acclimatize to the altitude. On the forth of July we were at our last camp at 11,000ft and poised for the summit attempt. Keeping in mind that there would surely be more traffic than usual on the mountain due to the holiday, our guides thought it best to leave at 2pm instead of the 12am start later that night. We headed out for the summit with just the essentials in our packs and with great, sunny weather. As we ascended through steep switchbacks, and increasingly firmer snow, the temperature started to drop and ominous clouds began to roll in. At our second and final break prior to getting on the summit, the clouds picked up, and visibility and temperature dropped. There were a number of infinitely deep crevasses we had to hop over, but I simply thought of just putting one foot in front of the other. I kept this mantra as I started to feel the altitude more and more. At 7:45pm we arrived at the summit and although there was basically no visibility of the vast land below, I felt amazing. All the hard work that I had put in to be able to stand on top of the mountain had paid off. We all celebrated but quickly descended as the temperature hovered in the teens. We arrived in our tents at 11pm and after a much needed meal, feel into a a deep satisfying sleep.
The next day we packed up and headed down to the trailhead 6500ft below.
The moral of my story is that regardless of what hiccups life throws you, you need to remain focused on what you want to achieve. Yes, it does sound cliche, but having aspirations and then living them keeps you motivated.
Click the link for a great summary by one of my fellow climbers-