Part II: The Climb
After months of preparation and training, Ali Lev reports on her truly memorable, slightly terrifying Rainier climb.
A quick note: if you’re just joining us now, we recommend you check out Part I of Ali’s journey, Training for Mt. Rainier, which you can find here.
To say that there was a lot of build up before my husband Brad and I climbed Rainier would be an understatement. After months and months of preparation and training, it was finally time. At some point, you just decide that there is no more training to do, and it’s time to climb. I was nervous and had some serious self doubt, but Memorial Day weekend was upon us and the weather was looking too perfect to push it out further. Little did we know that our first Rainier climb was going to be a truly memorable, however slightly terrifying experience.
We dropped our dogs off at our friends house Friday night, telling them that we planned to be back Sunday, but might stay another night if we were too tired. Our alarms went off bright and early at 4 am on Saturday. Our bags were packed and we were on the road, but soon after we had to turn around and grab my hiking shoes that I’d forgotten. There’s always something, right?
We arrived at the White River Ranger Station at about 8 am to get our climbing permit and campsite. By the time we arrived, both Camp Curtis and Camp Schurman were full, so we were assigned to Emmons Flats, about a quarter mile past Camp Schurman. We met another couple at the station, Chris and Wendy, who were also planning on skiing from the summit and ended up being our tent neighbors. We drove another 5 miles to the parking lot for White River Campground, situated at 4,200 ft. We were on the trail by 9:30 am, hiking in with our skis on our backs until we hit the snow line, about 2.5 miles in.
The Emmons-Winthrop Glacier Route is on the northeast side of the mountain and ascends to Columbia Crest at 14,410 ft. The first section of the route followed the Glacier Basin Trail through the woods and up plenty of switchbacks until we reached the river. We crossed the river into the basin and reached the base of the Inter Glacier at 6,800 ft. We took a break on some rocks, taking in the sunshine while eating a snack before beginning the climb up the Inter Glacier.
I lead the way up the glacier, kick turn after kick turn, slowly rising above the valley. We made our way up the glacier, traversing climber’s left towards a rocky ridge. From the ridge, we put our skis on our backs and cut left down the slope, traversing onto the Emmons Glacier. From there it was less than a mile to Camp Schurman.
We arrived at a packed Camp Schurman just before 6 pm. The climbing ranger was out chatting with folks as they arrived at camp, giving information on current conditions and showing people the route. I asked him how the skiing from the summit was and he said it hadn’t been very good and to be conservative in our decision making, suggesting that we leave our skis lower. He also suggested a 5 or 6 am start for our best shot at decent ski conditions. Sounded late to us, but another ski duo who had climbed before said that’s what they were planning on doing, too.
We skinned the last quarter mile to Emmons Flats and found a spot to pitch our tent next to Chris and Wendy. The winds were whipping as we dug out a snow pit for the tent. After hiking and skinning 5,600 ft with 45 lbs packs on our backs, we were pretty dang tired and savored every bite of our freeze dried Pad Thai before passing out in our sleeping bags.
The alarm was set or 4:30 am, but we made the mistake of snoozing until 5:30. We didn’t start hiking up the Emmons glacier until just before 7. We were a bit concerned about our late start, but then saw a couple other groups hiking up after us, including Chris and Wendy, and we felt more at ease. From Emmons Flats, the route went straight up, then we traversed left onto ‘the Corridor’. As we crossed through the Corridor, I began to feel intimidated by the slope angle and nervous for the ski conditions ahead. At the top of the Corridor was a section of steeper climbing that lead to a sagging snow bridge over a bergschrund. We encountered a few more medium size crevasses and large seracs, all easily avoidable.
Endless step after step felt maddening at times. At about 13,000 ft I felt like collapsing into the snow and quitting, but Brad’s calm words of encouragement recharged me. We trudged on another 500 ft and decided to ditch our skis before continuing towards the summit. The route curved slightly around the right corner in-between two stunning seracs, resembling something that looked like an ice canyon. As we climbed further around the corner we lost the tracks and wondered if we were going the right way. We were close though and could clearly see Liberty Cap in the distance on the other end of the mountain. Turns out we went slightly higher than the normal route, completely avoiding the last snow bridge.
We continued to ascend through less technical terrain, slowly but (relatively) surely reaching the crater rim. The true summit, Columbia Crest, was just another couple hundred feet on the northwest side. The snow up to the summit was soft and smooth and would have made for excellent corn skiing. I was so tired, though, it was hard to get excited. I think I was a bit in awe, maybe even shocked that we had actually done it. We reached Columbia Crest and immediately sat down in the snow. It was a strange feeling sitting atop that volcano having accomplished a goal we’d had for almost 4 years. I wasn’t overcome with emotion, I just felt a sense of calm. I looked out at the valley below and the other peaks in the distance and then over at Brad. I don’t know if I would have been able to do it without him by my side, encouraging and supporting me. We hugged and kissed and celebrated briefly before beginning the slow, elated walk back to our skis.
We arrived back at our skis around 4:15 pm. The temperature had dropped and the wind picked up, resulting in bullet proof ice. We were hesitant about the conditions, so we hiked down another 500 ft or so. Then we saw Chris and Wendy. They were skiing just a couple hundred feet below us. We decided to give it a go, with our axes still in hand, tethered to our harnesses. I slowly side slipped until I got in the groove and took a couple turns. Brad took a turn and fell, but was quickly able to stop himself from sliding too far. I yelled at him to go slow and not to charge it.
On Brad’s second turn, he slipped again, tried to arrest, and went sliding down the mountain head first. He somersaulted several times, sliding 300 or so feet before finally self-arresting. This took place in just a matter of seconds, but watching the love of my life and best friend slide down the mountain … this mountain … it was terrifying. Had Brad not had his axe, or wasn’t skilled or aware enough to self arrest, he could have easily slid hundreds of feet into a crevasse. I skied down to Brad crying. All he could say was how happy he was to be alive and that he couldn’t get an edge on his board. I asked if he was hurt and what I could do. He was physically fine, but we were shaken.
After the whole ordeal, we decided to hike the rest of the way down to be safe. We watched the sun set from the Emmons Glacier. The sky shifted through different shades of pink and orange. We eventually ran out of water and it was clear that Brad was running out of positive vibes. He was exhausted and each step was a struggle. We could see the lights of Camp Schurman below; we were getting close, but it still seemed so far away. Our roles shifted; this time, I was encouraging Brad. We both asked out loud why we wanted to do this and said we would never do it again. We got back to camp just before 10:30 pm, exhausted and dehydrated. We boiled snow for water and went straight to bed, too tired even to make dinner.
On the third day, we arose at 8 am, legs sore and hearts grateful. We had mac n’ cheese for breakfast (when on a mountain!) and took our time packing up our things before we skied out. We recapped our whole ordeal with Chris and Wendy and agreed that we all needed burgers and beer when we got back to the valley.
We hiked out to the Inter Glacier and smiled ear to ear as the sun shined down on us and we clipped into our skis. I looked at Brad and said, “So when are are we coming back to redeem ourselves?” He laughed. “Maybe next year.” We were finally skiing. It was everything I dreamed of. It may not have been from the summit, but we had excellent skiing on the third day. It was great to end our adventure on a high note.
AFTER, OFF THE MOUNTAIN
There was a lot to reflect on while we drove home. Our late start caused us to miss out on the window of good snow. Had we started earlier, we could have actually gotten some good skiing in, and we would have returned to camp before dark. We prepared for months for this climb and were confident in our skills, but didn’t listen to our gut on a starting time. You might say that we got lucky, or that we made a poor decision by leaving late. Either way, the mountain taught us plenty of lessons along the way.
I was never into peak bagging until I moved to the PNW. But I get it now. It’s definitely a high: pushing your body and mind to places you never thought it would go. I don’t know what’s next for us, maybe Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Whitney … I’ve also had my eye on Pico de Orizaba in Mexico for a while. I don’t know. What I do know? Next time, we’ll listen to our instincts.
Alexandra Lev is an avid outdoor enthusiast with a passion for storytelling and adventure travel. Willing to try almost anything once, she considers herself a jack of all trades, master of a few. Usually deep in the backcountry with her husband and two Siberian huskies, Alexandra is always on the move. You can follow her on instagram @luckyalexandra or at https://www.luckyalexandra.com/.