Wherever you are: David Steele 14-15

Last week, I unveiled my latest season edit of skiing. Filmed in the Montana backcountry, on Cascade volcanoes, and in the terrain park at Stevens Pass, it’s a pretty good representation of how my skiing still bridges genres.

There’s a wealth of experience in not being just one type of skier. I hope that comes through. Major thanks to family, friends, partners, and especially the sponsors who keep me out there.

Sistertime in the springtime: The Tooth, Logan Pass, and Rainier’s DC

In my travails lately, I’ve had a few conversations with different buddies about the difficulty of finding people to get out on adventures. Scheduling seems to be the biggest issue, made worse by the relatively small numbers of more-epic outdoors folk in the rural area where we live. Their words ring true for me–but the variability of my schedule gives a bit more flexibility. Even better, the two trips I’ve taken to the pacific northwest this spring have yielded an especially nice series of scheduling benefits: getting out to play with my sister, Beth.

Some background is helpful: growing up, competition kept things somewhat rough between us. Two years of age gap keep us close enough to make a constant friction, to the point that our mother tells a story of pouring out juice in a measuring cup to satisfy that neither was getting more than the other. Scrabble, when we both play, is a blood sport. At one point in my early teens, I told her that snowboarding “was going over to the dark side.” Naturally, she found things that weren’t the ones that I wanted to do: karate, showing horses for a number of years, and eventually finding a passion for theater tech that now informs her job as a commercial lighting salesperson in Seattle.

The moment I left for college in 2007, the antipathy between us disappeared almost overnight. Physical distance seemed to erase the need to compete with each other under the same roof, and though I’ll admit it took me a couple months to realize what was going on, it was a new era of mutual affection. It bums me out now to look back on all the years that I let petty competition steer my emotions elsewhere. True sibling respect is an amazing thing. It was some level of factor in Beth heading to PLU after me. But it wasn’t until she took up indoor bouldering in her third year that we were doing the same active things.

Later, she started climbing on ropes too. For her graduation present last spring, we gave Rainier a shot. Bike commuting twenty to thirty miles a day in Seattle, plus climbing four days a week, has tapped the same endurance genes that I make use of. She’s damn fast in the hills. I can’t even hope to keep up on a bike. Another era has started in our siblingship: outdoor buddies. The three trips in this post are a celebration of the fact that I’m a lucky dude–I get to spend family time out in the vertical world.

Our first adventure this spring was on The Tooth, a four pitch alpine trad route (5.4-5.7) on Snoqualmie Pass. This happened during an off day of my Volcanic Activity tour. Beth has been leading in the mid 5.10s outside and in the upper 5.11s indoors, so the climbing was cake for her. With summer planning looming, I wanted to get out and see how she did with being an efficient rope team while trying to push our way up some multipitch trad. April 27th was the date we went. Snoqualmie Pass was barely open this winter for skiing, but even still, it felt too early. Rain had fallen the night before. Trip reports, though plentiful, didn’t seem too helpful what the approach was, exactly. My favorite includes this phrase: ” beautiful super-redundant nuclear blast proof rappel anchors located every 30 feet down the Tooth.” Which seemed positive.   Either way, Steve had lent us his trad rack (thank you kind sir!) and we wanted to make it happen.

So we rolled into the lower Alpental lot with a dim idea of where we wanted to go. For those reading this, the easiest approach seems to be to take the lake overlook trail, circle around the cirque, and then head for The Tooth. The gully separating the gendarme to the SE along the ridge has rap anchors in it (35m each) for the way down, and it looks like some people go up it too.  Beth on the way up:
Winter still clung to the upper alpine. Our postholes were up to the thigh. It was exactly the kind of snow that makes me wonder why anyone would ever want to walk through it instead of skiing. Still, we made it to the base of the climb, racked up, and I was off like a shot. Dry rock, blue skies, solid placements, easy climbing. Easy to see why everyone and their grandmother has climbed the Tooth–though it’s popular, it’s fun. Stringing the first two pitches together wasn’t at all difficult, even with a half rope doubled up. Running two 70s, you could do the whole thing in two pitches. First pitch:

Beth on her way up:

At change over, things went quick. Beth restacked the rope as I racked up and headed off up the next super short pitch. Third pitch was easily the most fun, with a couple of secure but airy moves on the face. We scrambled the pitch after that, and then I placed a few pieces on the final wall before the summit. Looking down the final wall as Beth comes up:

And with that, we were up top. We’d moved quick, climbed well, and had it all to ourselves. Really fun–I think my concentration on taking the selfie murdered my smile. Bigger fish to fry later: Then, we rapped off. I’ve found that the easier trad climbing I’ve done is actually the worst to rappel, since it’s not overhanging or even vertical. I was forced to punt the rope down over and over again through the shelves. To avoid snags, we rapped four times to where we started climbing, then twice more down the snow couloir to save the strange scramble around the gendarme. If you’re going, note that the second rap station in the snow couloir is on climbers’/rappellers’ left against the couloir wall and has multiple slings.
After that, we crawled our way back through the mush, then down the trail. It had been a really awesome day, Beth had crushed it with her follows and pulling gear. Her skills make me really excited to get out more this summer when she’s not busy with all her friends that are getting married.

Over Mother’s Day weekend, Beth and her manfriend Matt made it back to Kalispell on a mad dash from Seattle. They rolled in late, then we all packed into my grandparents’ pickup with four bikes for proper Mothers’ Day festivities with a ride up the Going To the Sun road. To be honest, I didn’t take much in the way of pictures because I was chasing Beth’s furious pace up the road. She puppy-dog’d the other three of us on the way up the Loop, and after I caught up and tried to hang on as she powered up the steep grade. Elevation and continued steepness aren’t what she deals with while bike commuting. Bicycling in general isn’t my forte. Lactic acid burned in my thighs and I repeatedly told my legs to shut up as we fairly flew up the road. Maybe she was just being polite in that she didn’t dust me. Either way, we made the top in time for another sibling shot.

It’s good to be humbled by your younger sister, but even better to see her so excelling at something athletic that she enjoys. I just hope she waits for me when she really becomes an athletic mountain terror and I’m panting in her wake. As my mom does now, maybe I’ll be able to take a little bit of credit for helping to get her there.

As I mentioned earlier, we gave Rainier a go last spring. Due to my inexperience leading and planning, and a general lack of experience with big packs, that trip didn’t get past Camp Muir. So I said we’d give it another try this spring. My initial trip to the PNW this spring didn’t see that attempt. Beth texted to say that she had a weather window, I hemmed and hawed a little, and then committed, seeing other possibilities for after our climb. As I did when some friends and I skied Rainier in March, my trip over detoured through Yakima, White Pass, and then to Paradise.

I camped in the parking lot Thursday night, and went in to get our walk-up permit for Muir on Saturday. Folks at the Climbing Information Center were supremely helpful both on the phone and also in person–thanks to them for route advice and their friendly demeanor. I walked out with our permit, climbing passes for Beth and Andy, a college friend of hers that would be accompanying us, and blue bags. Then, I hopped in the car for Seattle, shopped for food and other essentials at Feathered Friends, bought some trad gear on a steal from Rob (thanks!), and hopped in Beth’s car to head back down to Paradise. I’ll explain in a minute.

Details on Rainier climbing, in case you’re curious: A climbing pass ($45/$32 for ages 25+/<24) is required for anyone going above 10,000ft. You need to register for your climb, and during the offseason from Labor Day to Memorial Day, you can self register. If spending the night out, you’ll also need a backcountry camping permit, which you can reserve, or also pick up as a walkup if the prior reservation window has ended. Rainier’s climbing rangers have always been helpful, and they run the best kept NPS climbing info blog I’ve seen, with good posts on current route conditions. First timers typically take the Disappointment Cleaver or Emmons Glacier routes.

Back to our trip. Rainier poses a big elevation risk for folks living at low elevations, like nearly everything nearby, because they end up gaining nearly 14,000ft over a period of a few days. HACE and HAPE are a concern, plus exhaustion. A safe rule of thumb that I learned while in Alaska was to only move 1000ft of elevation for every night spent sleeping there. Essentially, if moving camp between say 11,000ft and 14,000ft, spend three nights at 11,000ft before bumping up. People can and do move much faster, and altitude affects everyone differently at different times, so I’m not sure how much that rule applies for quicker climbs like Rainier. That said, I’ve found that sleeping at Paradise the night before beginning a climb on Rainier offers the benefit of 5000ft of gain before the trip even starts. Plus, it cuts out any driving–you’re there, and an early start is easy. Hence our return to Paradise from Seattle. We sorted gear, did a z-pulley demonstration, and fell asleep in anticipation of our early start.

Beth and Andy all saddled up at 6am: I took skis, because the five grand of perfectly good skiing between Paradise and Camp Muir would be wasted if I walked. Beth and Andy moved along at a great pace. Once on the Muir snowfield, we took breaks every thousand feet.

We were among the first to pull into Muir, arriving just after 11am. Beth and Andy had done really well staying hydrated with their packs and the steady, fast pace. Andy sported a headache, but both Beth and I felt great, which should be a tribute to learning a bit more and good genes. Another benefit of bringing your sister: Beth set the lunch bar high with smoked gouda, triscuts, and dates. She made me little delicious sandwiches of all three while I dug out a proper snow kitchen next to the tent.

Remodeling at home is expensive and time consuming. But when you’re snow camping, you can build countertops, storage, seating, and windscreens wherever you please. I went out for a little ski lap above Muir, and snapped this picture. Since it was the weekend, the trail of mountain zombies stretched down the snowfield and camp quickly filled up with tents. Once back, I took a nap. Then we dove into crevasse rescue practice on the snow rollover just out of camp. Demonstrating a z-pulley in the parking lot had helped clarify a few of the complicated bits. Andy served as ballast, and I demonstrated. Then Beth did it under my supervision. Then by herself, as I hung on the other side of the rope  and thought about dinner. Andy, safely pulled out of the “crevasse” for the second time. Andy, during dinner, decided that he wasn’t planning on accompanying us on our summit push the following morning. His headache remained, even after a bunch of water and a nap. That left Beth and I planning on waking up at 1am, out of camp by 2am. We crawled into our bags, and proceeded to eat a whole bar of chocolate between the three of us, giggling about the ridiculous words printed into each different square of the bar. Mountain moments are like that: nerves or tiredness or the sheer tide of lunacy sweeps over a whole group of people together and you find yourself eating spicy, pop-rock, fine chocolate in a tent in the snow above 10,000ft. I hate that overused Kerouac quote about “the mad ones”, but lying there in my bag, it occurred to me that they’re the ones I truly understand and care for most.

1am came way too early. My breakfast pastries (pain au chocolat and cinnamon roll) were delicious. At 2am, we trundled out across towards Cathedral Gap, one other party starting up Gib Ledge. We moved well, and not long later at the gap, were treated to a sight: the lamps of a whole pile of teams that left around midnight shone above use, illuminating the route we’d take under the canopy of stars. I wish my camera and skills could capture things like that. We layered down a bit there, then continued through the flats, up the mixed rock and snow at the bottom of the Cleaver, and up to the top. Given the low snowfall this winter, things above the Cleaver were not as normal. The route typically jags climbers’ right to connect with the Emmons shoulder. Then, it ascends up to the crater rim. Instead, we traversed the top of the cracks in the Ingraham, went over a ladder, and found ourselves above Gibraltar Rock, still traversing. It was one hell of a sunrise. The big holes weren’t new territory for me, but they cemented the reason we’d done the practice the day before for Beth. It was a packed, prepared route designed for guided clients. Hand lines and placed running protection guarded the most exposed sections. Even still, it had all the massive grandeur and scale that big, humbling piles of snow and rock should. Beth later told me that she hadn’t ever felt that small. Her courage in that new environment was really impressive, and she handled the holes and exposure like a veteran. After crossing above Gibraltar Rock, we wound across to the Nisqually Cleaver, where the route ascended again. Wind had been blasting us since turning the corner. Fog reached down and obscured the group of five we’d begun to catch. Whether or not the lenticular was coming down, the summit was fogged in, and we still had 1300ft to go. So we talked about the weather worsening, comfort levels, and how we felt. The weather worried me. Beth agreed, and we turned around to make the walk back down. But first, a sibling selfie:

It didn’t bother me to retreat. We’d made it to 13,100ft, and fast. Things looked potentially grim. Sure, we’d worked hard and as always, it’s frustrating to fall short of the summit. But to see Beth move to so confidently and well in that kind of terrain is the the type of thing that doesn’t require reaching an arbitrary point atop a big hill. Plus, the benefit of turning back there is that we can go and do it again next year. Hopefully the weather will be better, because I really want to pick out the Seattle skyline from the summit.

On our way through Ingraham Flats, we detoured to try and tie down a tent that wasn’t staked into the snow at all, but simply corded to the tent next to it. Each gust would flap it completely up in the air, only to set it down. Maybe we helped. You can see that the cloud had come down to the top of the Cleaver in this photo. All the way back to Seattle, we’d turn in our car seats to see if the cloud would lift–it never did, and that’s some consolation for our decision to turn back.

Back in camp, we spent a while trying to find Andy, only to realize that he’d gone off for a little exploration on the rock buttress above camp. He was stoked to see us, and his headache was gone. We pulled camp, and they took off. I loaded up, and made turns all the way to Alta Vista before walking the rest of the way to the car.

The snack spot at Paradise has a huge benefit compared with some of the other ones I’ve experienced: soft serve. It was 10am, I’d been up since 1am, and so it felt totally justified to be lying on a rock in my sandals, looking scruffy, waiting for Beth and Andy with my ice cream.

Getting to do outdoor stuff with your family is a huge gift. Anyone who spends their time in the hills knows the amazing things that happen when you disappear into the lofty realm for a few days, and how the experience  lingers on afterward. Infusing that into a familial bond is amazing. Sharing it with my sister is a tremendous honor, and just like the expanded ideas that come from my own experiences, there’s a shining future of climbs out there for us. Thanks to Matt for his care and driving late at night and belaying, Andy for accompanying us on Rainier, Steve for the rack, and most importantly my parents for giving me such a rad adventure buddy. Love you, Beth.

Right on, Rainier: a ski jaunt up and down the Fuhrer Finger

NOTE: All photos/videos current to route conditions as of March 5/6, 2015.

Unfolding on layers of rock, or ice, or the accumulated winters of a snowfield, geology and weather can be so patient. On their own time scale, they’re moving right along. But on ours, they fairly stand still, and following their slow lead informs a safer mindset: the mountain isn’t going anywhere. We can come back. There’s nothing wrong with stepping down, turning back, making the harder choice.

The truth, though, is that when something catches my notice, or lodges itself in the folds of my brain, that patience is tested. It’s hard to pick good conditions, good people, plan well, and not succeed on an objective. The thought of turning back when many things have aligned can be burdensome. Worse, it’s the feeling of work not yet done on a big goal that eats at me. Such have been the past couple years on Mt. Rainier. I’ve written about those climbs, both our attempt on the Finger in 2013, and our group attempt via the DC last summer.

The net result of both was that I learned quite a bit, but hadn’t been anywhere near the summit. So for this spring, I’d put that goal pretty high on my list. May or June seemed like the time to do it–until a couple weeks ago, when it occurred to me that with the vicious cycle they’ve been having, a March attempt might make some sense. March might be the new May, to quote a local friend.   Of course, the trip wouldn’t have been possible without partners. Blake Votilla was heading to Rainier to interview for a guiding job with RMI (which he now has–congrats!), so we shuffled dates, brought Miles and Mike on board, and hoped to meet up around 9am Thursday.

Late on Wednesday afternoon, I loaded up and headed on out from Kalispell. The drive was most interesting going over White Pass. Snow guns with lights trained into their tubes of snow made for a remarkable sight in the dark. A kind lady helped me with directions to the Skate Creek Road at 1:30am. Just an hour later, I pulled into Ashford, shuffled gear, and fell asleep. Six hours later, Blake, who must have been out on a walk, casually strolled by. We chatted while I packed, discussed a couple things, and headed into the park to find Miles and Mike. After half an hour of waiting for them in the Longmire parking lot, we realized they were in the ranger station–waiting for us. Our permit secured, we headed back out to organize. Then Miles walked up to the group: “Turns out there’s going to be another group on the Finger. The best part is that my ex-girlfriend is in it.” This set off all kinds of speculation about camp that night, though we’d later realize that the other party wasn’t planning to camp anywhere near us. Everything went into two vehicles for the trip up to Paradise. We reorganized, and were off to a great alpine start of almost exactly noon. Looking out across, with the red line indicating our route. Things went smoothly. We dropped off the main trail near the base of Pan Point, traversed over a moraine, and roped up to cross the lower Nisqually and Wilson Glaciers en route to camp. Blake and Miles took one 30m, with Mike and I behind. Perhaps the biggest thing that I notice every time I’m on Rainier is exactly that: it’s big. The scale is way off for most of the mountain environments I’ve played in. For reference, compare the route picture above. The first line covers about 4000ft feet of gain, while the second is over 5000ft. Another angle on the vastness, of Mike and me: We found things more cracked out than we expected. Paradise, and I assume the mountain at large, has seen only a fraction of its yearly snow, and I remember fewer detours around broken areas from our April trip two years back. Other than that, some fresh snow from a few days prior make for easy skinning. We made it to camp at around 9200’with daylight to spare, and only a little bit of treacherous ice. Mike and Miles sidle in. Citing the good weather, we took a Megamid just in case, but never needed it. A wind drift below a massive rock offered a nice floor and room for bunks. As I’m demonstrating, it’s important to check the softness of your mattress in these wild climes. Once settled, we melted a preposterous amount of snow to rehydrate. Its amazing how much water you go through at elevation, with a medium sized pack, trying to make good time. Past trips haven’t seen me succeeding at drinking enough, and paying a price performance wise. Then, Miles pulled a small deli’s worth of veggies, cheese, and sauce out of his pack, and cooked some incredibly delicious backcountry pizzas. The secret seems to lie in a just add water crust, mixed in a ziplock and then squeezed out to cook in a pan. Rich eating, that’s for sure. Very tasty. Though our kitchen and dining room was nice, I wanted more counter space for making sandwiches. Snow walls make for easy remodels. Somewhere in there, we all bedded down in the alcove, passing off to dreamland. The moon was bright and further across the sky every time I woke up. Then the alarm jangled out of my watch at 3am, and we were up again. We took forever to get out of camp, mostly because we really hit the water hard. I’ll take the blame there. 5:30 saw us skinning across the glacier, ski crampons crunching into the refrozen surface. Navigation happened at the length of a headlamp, and it was strange to watch the beams of Miles and Blake searching the mounds of snow and ice ahead of us for the route across the basin and into the bottom of the finger. Above us, ice and snow hung and loomed in the dark. On my end of the rope, I felt pretty dang small there, just moving forward across the snow in the direction we knew the Finger’s couloir to be, the rope to Mike tugging behind me. Eventually, light came and we began to angle up into the couloir. I dropped the rope to Mike, and continued up. Ski crampons would bite in, then sometimes slide. Switching to crampons would be more secure as our feet punched in through the thin surface of crust, but then we’d lose the efficiency of out skins. The angle forced our hands (or maybe more appropriately, our feet) as the sky began to go those pastel colors you see on Lisa Frank pony coloring books. Here, Mike chews on a ski strap to keep his energy up. Leader shot from Blake, the rest of us chugging along behind him: We had to high side on climbers left to avoid cracks radiating off the Nisqually Icefall towards the upper part of the Finger. There wasn’t enough snow, to our eyes, to allow a glacier traverse. This meant a steep pitch to that top that we belayed up to avoid a roped tumble into the open crevasses below. It’s worth noting that we couldn’t see a good line for a traverse into
the Nisqually, though I know that’s sometimes good route finding, as when Wildsnow did it.
Once there, we found our way across a little pass and onto the summit glaciers. Things were starting to slow down in our rope team. Water and exhaustion were taking their toll as we strolled upwards. Mike takes it in. The Finger proper is down and to the left. Rainier so dwarfs any of the foothills around it that it doesn’t have the feel of Mt. Baker, the other stratovolcano I’ve climbed. Plus, because the base is so broad, the upper reaches feel more like a big plateau than the top of an individual mountain. It goes on, and on, and on. The scale constantly messed with my head. Maybe five hundred feet above where the last picture was taken, Mike had had enough. He’d pushed super hard, but was exhausted. It was smart for him to stop and save his energy for the trip down. With the emergency sleeping bag in my pack, he could bundle up and wait. The weather seemed fine. Part of me wanted to call it off and wait for him, but I’ll be honest–the part of me that wanted to finish what the two trips previous hadn’t done was really strong. I wanted to make the summit. With his urging, I tied in with Blake and Miles to finish the last 700ft or so to the top. Rope snagging on wind sharpened sastrugi, we fairly flew up the last bit of glacier to find the summit decorated with small plates of ice and a bitingly cold wind. I would have liked to hang out, but the wind was fierce. Plus, Mike was waiting. Plus, the gate to Paradise would close and lock at 5pm. It was just after 1pm. We’d need a nearly record setting pace on feet to make it in time. Of course, we weren’t on feet for the 9000ft we were about to descend. We had skis. It was rattley, chattery, and strange. We crossed snow bridges, dodged sastrugi, and made scrapey turns down big panes of wind affected snow. Mike was awakened from his nap by our hollers of glee. Once the whole band was back together, we took off again.

Arriving at the lower part of the Nisqually, we skinned back up to join the main trail. Miles, Mike, and I forwent our shirts for the last bit to Paradise. Whippets and ripped abs, I tell ya…

Thanks to Blake, Miles, and Mike for a terrific trip. Thanks also to Blake for photos.

Learning times on Rainier

Looking out the upper floors of the Tingelstad dorm at Pacific Lutheran University, my alma mater, Mount Rainier fills the eastern horizon. The first time I went to visit a friend who lived there, it majestically posed through the windows of an end lounge. Nowhere else on campus does the picture appear so completely; the image of its conical mass through the haze of Tacoma was my first of a truly massive mountain in close proximity to where I lived. Like anyone with any sort of upward ambition, the desire to play on and climb up it was kindled with that first chance encounter.

So when my sister asked to climb Rainier as her graduation present, it made sense. She spent a year longer at PLU than I did, and thus had that much more time to stare at the giant looming out of sight behind shade trees and brick buildings. Starting with a group of some six people, only four of us eventually committed and arrived in a hurricane of gear and excitement at the end of May: my sister Beth, our mutual friend Laurel, my girlfriend Rose, and me.

As I spend a fair bit of time in the hills, and was the only one with expedition mountaineering experience, it fell to me to organize and pilot the planning of our trip. Everyone else would be renting things like crampons or cold weather sleeping bags, we’d need to eat things, what about permitting, and on and on. I made a gear list (notably lacking water bottles). A big thanks to Woody for helping out with my gear and some stuff for Rose.

But none of this seemed particularly daunting to me. I didn’t need to buy any gear. We didn’t have to ski anything, though I’d be taking my skis as far as Camp Muir because I refused to walk down that snowfield. Grant and I did way more work on our trip for Denali last year. I’m not sure why the particulars of this trip didn’t feel strange at the time, but I figured that with good weather and a simple route choice on the Disappointment Cleaver, we could make a solid shot at getting to the top.

The week before our Friday departure, I helped Beth to move into a new house in Seattle, then attended the Mountain Equipment Spring ’15 launch at their US headquarters in Peshastin. After a kind ride from Sam to and from, I was itchy to get going, but lacking on prep work and organizing gear. After a bunch of last minute stuff that took hours, Laurel and I arrived in Parkland. Everything somehow fit into Beth’s car–we even managed to get all four of us in there.

Rainier can present a serious altitude challenge for climbers who live nearby. Puget Sound seems to be within spitting distance of most houses, making the summit a gain of 14,000 ft from usual sleeping elevation. Making such a leap in a few days doesn’t work for everyone, so to help the crew acclimate, we spent the first night at Paradise. I figured we’d roll in, work on crevasse rescue and roped travel, and with another practice session the next day at camp, everyone would be up to speed for our time on the glaciers.

Leading the crew through the snowy woods by Paradise, the experience gap started to become obvious to me–if even by accident, I’d been skiing and climbing with a number of friends whose experience and abilities were better or comparable with my own. They’d self arrested falls, melted snow for all their water, and suffered under big packs. We’d trade ideas, talk about things, and know about trip planning from having been here. But the people I cared about on the rope behind me relied on my estimations of their skills, readiness, and ability to think they could make the climb. They had to. And while I know well the seriousness of being in the mountains, the transition from partner to leader or teacher was one that I hadn’t fully realized.

Morning came with a nearly full repack, and I headed out to get in line at the permitting office. The Rainier trips I did with Grant last spring were before the May 15th winter camping period ended, so I didn’t realize that permits were required after that date. Montana has very little permitting on climbing, so it wasn’t strange to think that we didn’t need one.  30% of permits are held for walk ups, and with all the reserved permits full we were hoping to snag one the afternoon before, but couldn’t get to the office before it closed. So I stood in line, only to get to the front and realize that three available “spots” referred to numbers of people instead of tent sites–we couldn’t camp at Muir. And I didn’t have all the contact info for our group, or a license plate number, or the rest of my group with me. It was a junk show, and it was my fault; I should have done more research. As the others shouldered their packs to learn about grinding uphill, I was learning more about what a leader for this kind of thing should have done.

We set off, moving at a steady pace. The headwall at Panorama Point proved our first test of climbing with full bags–we stopped shortly after to take a break. In the planning process, I had been worried that we’d get hit by a nice spring snow squall on the hill. That meant that we’d take heavier gear for worse cold, just in case. Such conservative thinking put an additional ten to fifteen pounds into everyones’ packs, and the strain was slowing us  quite a bit. Being used to big bags, it didn’t occur to me how much they might factor in. I’d failed to mention carrying weight when Laurel asked how to train for our climb. It proved a heavy thing to forget.

As it was Saturday, the crowds streamed by us. Later, I overheard a ranger mention that there were 300 people at Camp Muir during the day.

Since Camp Muir was a zoo, our permit was for the Muir snowfield. Anywhere we wanted to be between 7600 and 9600 was fair game. By the time we hit Moon Rocks, just above 9000ft, it was pretty clear that the packs, the altitude, and lack of water had throttled our summit bid. Worried that wind would kick up in the evening and level the horribly substandard REI “four season” tent we’d rented for Beth and Laurel, we dug in camp behind the rocks.

As I cut blocks for the tent walls, I thought more about our trip plan. Of the group, only Laurel and I had snow camped. I was the only one with extensive crevasse rescue practice, and my demonstration was so rusty that I found myself thinking it dangerous to try and teach it again without doing some research. It’s fine to rely on a leader to select a route, but if they take the crevasse rescue knowledge with them into a crack, that leaves the others stranded and panicked. As I later learned, people usually take multiple trips on Rainier before they attempt a summit, which should have made sense–I spent two weekends on Baker before a third weekend saw us on the summit.

Unwittingly, I was asking and supposing too much. There’s a lot to learn about just camping in the snow. About good rope work. About functioning well at altitude. I assumed that the rest of the group was where I was, because that’s usually the case. In stepping back, I realized that what we ended up doing was exactly what we should have planned–a practice trip. A taste of what it’s like to camp in the snow and haul big bags. A chance to enjoy the view from the pee rock and appreciate the alpine.

As the crew started to go to bed, I saw a pair of blue pants that I thought I  recognized. A buddy had mentioned that they might be on the mountain the same weekend, so I shouted, and it was confirmed. Jonas, Connor, and Xanti all pulled into camp and dug themselves a platform just below our tents.

They were headed to the summit the next day, while we planned to head the rest of the way to Camp Muir.

Morning came. The scones I packed for breakfast were delicious. Once we all realized that our backpack lids worked as fanny packs, we headed for Muir.

Once there, I climbed up onto the Cowlitz Cleaver to ski a bit. A view into the Nisqually Cirque.

At home, things have been various shades of unconsolidated all spring, leaving us with a weird mix of mush, pow, and isothermal soup. That made the corn cycle on Rainier an absolute blast, and I tore down the chute below (the guide building at Camp Muir is visible in the lower left), hooting and hollering all the way to 8000ft. A quick skin back to camp, and after a brew session to rehydrate, Beth and I went up to Muir for more.

Later in the evening, Beth and I took some time to work on snow climbing. She led a steep but inconsequential pitch of snow, putting in pickets and then top belaying me up. I then dug the first snow bollard I’ve ever made, and we rappelled inconsequently back to camp. There’s not much explanation for why I was so excited about a simple trench in the snow–it’s just cool to rap on nothing but snowpack, to have learned it from some simple research in Freedom of the Hills, and to have it work perfectly the first time.

Beth and I are lucky–between my dad’s exploits in the fourteeners in Colorado and the Canadian Rockies and my mom’s exploration in Glacier and Wyoming, we come by the mountains naturally. We had parents to teach us to layer, bring water, and set turn around times. To keep us motivated. To show us the power of the freedom in the mountains while balancing that with safety.

Many people don’t have such luck. They wander into mountaineering with less appreciation for the danger, lack of skills, or no group to teach and encourage them. For me, it’s an honor to take friends out and show them the aspects of the mountains that have given me so much. I think it’s the responsibility of anyone who feels comfortable in the mountains to help others get to where they’re at. By the standards of my peers, this would have been a dull trip. But for me, it shifted from a summit bid to showing a few people the things I really love about playing on big mountains in the snow. Which, ultimately, is more satisfying.

In the morning, we packed up and headed down. Plastic was in fashion for everyone, with the ladies sporting bag-skirts and me on my ski bases.

The chute at Pan Point proved interesting, with one wall as ice and other other as slush. Laurel popping out with a grin.

We piled everything back into the car, and headed for Parkland and some well deserved fast food. Thanks to all the ladies for a wonderful trip, and teaching me so much about how to organize these sorts of things.

My thoughts and best wishes are with survivors of those who died on Liberty Ridge the same week.