No one attempting to climb Mount Rainier thinks it’s going to be easy, or even necessarily fun the whole way. The very notion of mountaineering means tackling challenging terrain in an unforgiving environment. Cold, wind, exposure, hunger, blisters, discomfort, and fear come with the territory. Suffering is almost guaranteed. Reaching the summit is never guaranteed.
It takes a certain glutton for punishment to submit to a big mountain’s mood despite slim odds of conquering it. A few weeks ago, my coworker David Weinstein did just that, tackling Rainier’s Emmons Direct route on a trip organized by Jansport. I interviewed him before he left, which you can read here. This week, he told me how it went.
Sadly, Rainier knocked the wind out his sails. And by that I mean that, despite having a bluebird day, he was unable to bag the peak because of relentless howling winds that forced his team to retreat 2,000 feet shy of the summit. Bummer. David had been training for the climb for months. And it turned out to be an amazing experience, don’t get me wrong. But there’s a certain amount of disappointment that comes from pursuing a goal and falling just short.
Avery Stonich: How was the climb leading up to summit day?
David Weinstein: It was great. We started through the woods, with little glimpses of the mountain poking out here and there.
On the second day, we rose to a gorgeous sunrise. It was beautiful. We hiked out of tree line and up onto the beginnings of the Emmons Glacier, where it got steep. We started to feel the 50-60 pounds on our backs. It got really hot.
We roped up and started picking our way across the glacier through the windless fog. It was sort of surreal. Then we climbed out of the fog, and I could see tents in the distance, so I thought we were in the clear.
All of a sudden, the guide at the front of my rope team punched through a snow bridge. His pack wedged in the snow and caught his weight. He didn’t even yank on the rope. I didn’t realize that his legs were dangling in empty space. He wiggled his way out and told me to take a big step over the hole. I looked down and couldn’t believe what I saw—a drop of at least 100 feet. He could have taken a serious fall, dragging the rest of our rope team after him. It was the first time I‘d really understood the dangers of traversing a glacier. It was humbling.
A.S.: What happened on summit day?
D.W.: We woke up to tents blowing, but I heard the guides shouting over the wind with joy because there was a full bed of stars. Wind was the least of my concerns.
We left camp at about 2:00 a.m. That morning might have been my favorite time. There was a blood red crescent moon rising, and it cast just enough light so you could see the wispy cloud layer below us.
We trudged along, taking mountaineering steps, where you step with your heel and lock your back leg to conserve energy. We had sustained winds of 30-40 miles per hour, which was exhausting. It wasn’t exactly comfortable. It was cold. It was just pain at this point.
The wind began to make certain sections more daunting. It would gust, and the whole team would have to turn and kneel down. Some people were getting knocked over, but given my lack of experience with this type of mountaineering, I didn’t think it was terribly out of the ordinary.
As we approached 12,500 feet, a gust knocked down our entire team on a 40-degree pitch. It was too dangerous to continue and we decided to turn around.
On the way back down, during a break, a gust of wind knocked me so hard that it yanked my anchor. I went flying over another person and was lucky not to kick him with my crampons. It reaffirmed that turning around was the right decision.
A.S.: Were you ever scared?
D.W.: No, not really, but that’s probably due to ignorance. The conditions were definitely nasty, but given how little mountaineering I’ve done, I figured our experience was status quo.
The danger didn’t really sink in until the week after I was back and I heard about the ranger who died after we were there. It was sobering because it was the same route we had done. He slid more than 3000 feet. Not all the pitches we were on were all that steep, but when I think back to how icy they were, I realize how dangerous a fall could have been.
A.S.: Were you disappointed?
D.W.: We got down at 10:00 a.m., and I went through some doldrums of depression. I was bummed we didn’t summit, but that was just a catalyst. It was a combination of a lot of things—instead of being outside and hiking, we faced a whole day tent-bound. I was exhausted. The wind really wore on everything.
A.S.: Did you discover anything about yourself?
D.W.: I learned that I probably won’t be doing a whole lot of mountaineering of this kind in the future. It was beautiful, but I think you mostly enjoy that in retrospect. It’s such a harsh climate, and people are on that mountain for one reason: to get to the top. You’ve got crowds and cell phones. There’s not much isolation. That’s not the kind of experience I usually seek.
A.S.: What will stick with you the most?
D.W.: The views and the people. The views are obvious, but I have to give a huge shout out to Jansport for organizing this amazing trip—I met some great people. I think that will be as lasting an experience as the mountain. It reaffirmed that I really enjoy working in and promoting this industry, and the policies that protect places like Rainier National Park.
A.S.: Tell us about the Land and Water Conservation Fund and how it has helped Rainier.
D.W.: The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is a federal fund that was established to create and maintain a nationwide legacy of high-quality recreation areas and facilities. We at Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) spend a lot of time working with government leaders to secure funding for it—which is not always easy.
At Rainier, LWCF funds have been used to purchase additional land to make room for new camping and administrative facilities, create additional hiking and fishing opportunities, and protect scenic resources.
What’s your Rainier? Do you have your sights set on some lofty outdoor achievement? How would you feel if you didn’t achieve your goal? I think many would agree, it’s not necessarily about the summit but about the journey you make along the way. Nothing feeds the soul like adventure.
Avery Stonich is communications manager for Outdoor Industry Association. Follow us on twitter: @OIA and @averystonich.