How the heck can you “stumble upon” a 14,000ft mountain ascent? Well, I think it goes a little bit like this…
We’re back in the autumn/winter border of 2009 and I’m comfortably Stateside. I’ve found a hiking group via the social networking site called Meetup, and decided that I liked the group/hikes enough to stick with them. On a particularly wet and cold Saturday morning a hike had been scheduled at Hawk Mountain, but had been officially called off because of snow (which was in fact washed away). I’d told the hike organiser that I was suitably game for some sort of walk today, so we arranged to go to Valley Forge and do a couple of circuits of the mini-hills around the back.
It was on that particular trip that he started chatting about pulling together a potential trip to Mt Rainier next summer. I found myself expressing more than a polite interest. Not an impolite one, but more than enough interest for him to ask “Are you interested in doing this?” “…Yes. I think I am.”
My life suddenly entered a new territory.
I’d been expeditioning (American translation “backpacking”) since I was in secondary school aged 13, with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme. I’d progressed through Bronze, Silver and Gold; all of these levels involved a multi-day expedition in the Scottish highlands (5 days walking at Gold). I LOVED IT. I had loved it so much that on the minibus back from the Gold expedition I’d made an offer to help out supervising future expeditions…and they’d accepted my offer. I didn’t do more than a couple of expeditions per year in the summer time after that when I was required to help out, and I didn’t get all that many day trips in either. Nonetheless, I kept hillwalking in my life from there on in.
And I’d been content to leave it at that. I found the Highlands peaceful, and I believed the act of walking through them benefited me on a spiritual level. I didn’t see the point in bagging Munros for the sake of ticking boxes on a list: I believed in savouring the outdoors and taking beauty over heights and targets. Stuff beyond that (international climbs, higher & more technical ascents) just weren’t on my radar.
The Meetup group had allowed me to do several things. It speeded up my integration into the USA; it let me meet people and get socialising; it got me “hiking” with a lot more regularity.
The first thing I learned about the leader was that he’d organised a trip to Maccu Picchu just a month or so before I arrived. He also organised a large group trip to Mt Washington, the highest point on the East coast. While most of my hiking colleagues were fairly casual day-hikers looking to meet new folk and get outdoors, suddenly hard-core mountaineering was on my radar.
The organiser thought I had demonstrated enough strength and competence to be considering harder stuff such as Mt Rainier. He invited all folks interested in an ascent to his place to get a firm Yes/No from us all.
It was here that I learned what mountaineering was all about. The midnight ascents, the masses of gear to protect you and keep you warm, the dangers of climbing up a glaciated peak such as Rainier. He told us the basic training plan: we’d do a winter day-trip at Glen Onoko and put some rudimentary training in (ropework etc); next we’d do a slightly harder winter weekend jaunt in the Catskills; finally we’d try a winter ascent of Mt Washington (due to be v. brutal and harsh). After that we’d be primed for Rainier. He’d source a guide and we’d settle on the dates, etc, then be off. Everything seemed crystal clear now.
I’m one of those stupidly stubborn people who dislikes backing down from anything they commit to; but I was contemplating backing down when I saw just how much gear I would need to buy. This bling is expensive, man! And Glen Onoko was only in 3 weeks, with myself going away for over a week between then. I slept on the matter and then reasoned it out: I’d buy the gear in stages. Glen Onoko wouldn’t require the heaviest down jackets or helmets; just the basic technical gear like spikes, harness and ice axe. Once I spread things out like that…it was feasible. I called the organiser and told him that I was IN LIKE A BIATCH. He sounded delighted and played matchmaker to find me a climbing partner (to share equipment, go on a rope with). Things are always a lot more motivating when you’re planning the same game as someone else, aren’t they? I felt confident that the plan set out by the organiser would happen smoothly.
It didn’t. The organiser clearly knew what he was doing when it came to mountaineering: there were no gaps in his knowledge or doubts about his technical competency. The fact he took the time to train up a bunch of mountaineering newbies for a difficult hike when he COULD have just picked some of his experienced friends to do the trip speaks a lot to me. However, doubt was circulating throughout the hiking circle about previous unsuccessful trips and some unfair play. There existed a lot of bitterness out there, which made me kinda uncomfortable to be where I was in this situation.
The main issue was that people were certain the organiser was leaving it too late to find a guide for summer/autumn 2010, because most guided trips were now completely filled up. That sounded like a real issue: there was no talk of us doing this solo – we needed a professional guide to get us to the top, because the organiser had never been to Mt Rainier before. No guide = no trip.
Eventually one of the other girls who was “in” went searching for vacant guided tour spots. She found enough for us all, and told us we had until the end of the day to confirm our place on them. The thought of not doing Mt Rainier was pressing enough on my mind to make me confirm almost immediately.
Hiking had been gradually been taking a more important role in my life in the months leading up this trip. Firstly, I was hiking in the winter months: snowshoeing, bushwhacking, bushwhacking in shoeshoes, tromping over iced-up waterfalls. The trips were getting longer, more frequent and further afield. I went to the Catskills and Adirondacks in NY, and randomly down to Virginia when snow stopped play up north. It was more about trekking with friends than going along with scheduled Meetup trips; hiking friends in “splinter groups” from the Meetup giants got me to Maine, the Adirondacks and Mt Washington in New Hampshire. Some awesome times were had with great people, and I got to see and do a whole load of things I’d never have achieved solo.
Then it came around to August 2010, and the trip time.
It turned out that I was quite well-prepared for the ascent in relation to some of the other people I ascended with. They were all fit, outdoorsy people – but not many had specific mountaineering experience. I’d spent weekends in crampons and at least knew OF the “self-arrest position”. We were all trained up and unleashed on the mountain.
Mt Rainier itself wasn’t as bad as I feared in terms of “unpredictables”. The altitude didn’t affect me much at all; no one in the group got ill or had an accident; the weather was amazing (we traversed up the final glaciers at sunrise clad only in our base thermal layers, it was that warm); there were no unusually dangerous situations to navigate. The mountaineering was unquestionably hard-going, but we walked at such a sustained and deliberate pace I felt fairly strong throughout the mountaineering part. Waking up at midnight to do out 6-hour climb to the very top from our 10,00ft camp…tough. Descending the final ENDLESS snowfield in the baking afternoon sun to reach our minibus after 14 hours awake…urgh, not cool. Watching the sun rise as we reached the final stretch of our climb (~13,000ft) …so pricelessly beautiful you would not believe. Throw in the fierce splendour of Mt Rainier’s national park and alpine meadows then the brutal bits are outbalanced.
I’m writing this the morning after. I’m still a bit “out-of-it” after my lack of sleep, but I feel pretty good all things considered. As in, I would think about doing more mountaineering in the future. Just not this week.
The moral of the story? Allow things to get onto your radar and don’t sit content with a limited outlook on life/your abilities. Just go for it.