Boston, New York…Edmonds
Ruth, Michelle and Maria atop Mt. Rainier
"When you part from your friend, you grieve not; for that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain." – Kahlil Gibran
New York City is home to 8,000,000+ New Yorkers.
More than 600,000 people live in Boston.
Our little hamlet of Edmonds has but 40,000 residents.
Despite our decidedly smaller population, Edmonds represented the town well during one of the last climbs of Mount Rainier in the 2011 season.
On September 21, 2011, at approximately 6 a.m., four residents of Edmonds summited Mount Rainier, along with a New Yorker, a Bostonian and an East-Sider, just as the sun rose, gloriously breaking through dark clouds.
Describing the experience is a bit like explaining why you like or dislike broccoli (i.e., because it’s horrible).
The journey began many months before the climb itself with rigorous training and exhaustive REI shopping.
When two friends and I decided to climb Rainier, we didn’t really know how to get as strong as we had to, or even how strong we needed to get, but we started down a path.
During the week, we each trained and did endless research on our own, and every weekend, we came together for mountain hikes and to share our new knowledge.
Over the months, the photos of our flushed cheeks and happy faces at the top of Mount Si or Tiger Mountain didn’t change much, but the weight we carried in our backpacks increased and our bodies got stronger.
The more we prepared, the more confident I became that we would make it to the summit.
Only now do I know that I had no idea what that meant.
I could see the snow and rock of Mount Rainier from the freeway driving out of Edmonds but as I climbed, I could see only a few steps ahead of me.
The rain didn’t appear to be letting up as Ruth (Arista Wine Cellars), Michelle (Michelle & Ron Clyborne Windermere), and I (very lucky wife of the Resident Cheesemonger/City Councilman) met up with the rest of our group on Monday, September 19.
We were happy to meet Lee, also from Edmonds; Christine, a trainer for Microsoft; two fire fighters from New York, Don and Dave; and Al, a doctor from Boston.
We would be led by a team of four guides (Stuart, Matt, Carrie, and Dave), and soon learned that each had something different to offer, from years of experience, steadiness, enthusiasm, EMT training, to a true love and respect for the mountains.
During every meal and break, they would talk to us about the next leg of the journey, safety, how to preserve the mountain, or history of Mount Rainier.
Stuart, our lead guide, consistently worked to keep us focused on the task immediately in front of us, no matter how often we tried to get a roadmap for all three days.
For the first 1,000 or so feet, clouds engulfed the mountain and us. In this drizzle and fog, we passed a group coming down who had to turn back because of the weather.
They looked disappointed, tired, even angry or sad. We were quiet when we stopped for our first break, drinking water and fussing with the gear in our packs (we were told to take only the clothes and food we needed and serious equipment such as crampons, ice axe, helmet, etc.), but then quite suddenly the clouds above us parted enough to see the top of Rainier, just the very top.
Our enthusiasm grew as the weather continued to improve and we reached the Muir snowfield, a great expanse of snow and ice that covers nearly 3,000 feet up Mount Rainier.
The white of the snowfield mixed with the horizon as we climbed higher and the clouds were below us.
We could see Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens, as well as Hood and Jefferson at times.
In the crater
The sky was pure blue and the distant patches of mountain below were dark green.
It was stunningly beautiful, and for Ruth, Michelle, and I, the steps seemed to come naturally.
We reached Camp Muir (10,188 feet) and settled in for the first night.
We climbed with a company from Seattle called Alpine Ascents, and we would soon learn that one of the best parts of the Alpine Ascents trip, other than the great guides was the cooked dinner and breakfast.
The first night was chicken burritos with fresh avocado (yum).
Sleeping in a plywood box with eight other people, next to separate plywood room with another 10-12 people, is not easy, but it was amusing (snoring, fidgeting, intermittent trips outside).
I woke up about 5:30 a.m., and got up just before sunrise to see the stars amidst the deepest of black skies.
A few minutes later, as the light grew, I noticed there were no sounds—no birds, no water, no wind. Nothing.
Only once the sun was fully up and all of us gathered to look around did we notice how the light sparkled against the icy snow. Day two proved to be glorious, blue skies and sunny, and a perfect day for snow school.
We practiced our self-arrest and group arrest moves (sliding in the snow in the name of safety is a blast).
That afternoon we geared up and roped up to each other for the first time and hiked over snow, then steep rocks, and then over the Ingraham Glacier (beautifully scary crevasses and all) to high camp.
Sleep in our little yellow tents was fitful on the last night.
We listened to the wind rustle the tent and rocks crack and fall in the distance.
Breakfast at 1 a.m. was oatmeal, coffee, and Gu with caffeine.
The first leg of the climb took us up through steep and dangerous rocks to Disappointment Cleaver.
It was very dark and very difficult (for me, at least). I couldn’t really see much more than the few steps ahead of me, lit by my headlamp, and a few steps ahead of Matt in front of me, lit by his headlamp.
After we passed the Cleaver, we also saw the headlamps of the teams 1,000 feet below us.
The lines of lights twinkled far behind us, and it was a relief knowing we had already passed what was in front of them.
The last of the summit was one step at a time, one foot in front of the other.
The ice and snow were steeper and harder to traverse. The strong wind made for unsteady footing and the growing cold was anything but comfortable.
Coming over the lip of the crater had to be different for each person.
I remember noting the incredible yellow and orange light from the sunrise coming up behind us but being wary of turning around until we were at the top.
Once we reached the summit crater, the sun was nearly up, but only half of the sky was blue and the rest was filling in with dark clouds. We knew our time in the crater was short.
I cannot explain the relief when we reached the summit, but more so, it was exhilarating.
We were at the summit of a mountain. We were looking at the inside of a crater of an active volcano. We were at the top of Mount Rainier.
Michelle, Ruth, and I always wanted to be strong and prepared enough to protect and support each other, but with the challenges coming from without and within on summit day we persevered both together and alone.
Coming down, well, it was beautiful. Soon after we started down, the storm cleared.
We could see all that we had done—the crevasses, the narrow trails, the steep slopes, the ice axe holes that we left behind us as we held them like canes, and the rocks, the loose and steep rocks. But none of that mattered because we could also see the expansive views, the sunlight under the clouds, the way icicles grow inside a crevasse, the distant mountain tops.
We had a long, tiring and difficult descent in front of us, but the beauty and anticipation of making it to the bottom and to our husbands made it all ok.
I also felt the snow and rock beneath my feet in a different way. I finally understood what our first guide/teacher, Mark, meant when he told us that it was about the journey and not the summit.
I didn’t believe him until we did it ourselves, and he couldn’t have been more right.
“What was it like?”, “How did you feel?”, “Were you scared?” Those are the most prevalent questions now that we are back at sea level.
The answers don’t come easy and don’t have much to do with where each of us came from, except maybe that four of us are proud to say Edmonds had the majority population at 14,411 feet on that September morning.