We had on the calendar to backpack the Icicle Divide last weekend. However, as you can see from the title of this post, that isn’t what actually occured. Damien had been following the route conditions on Mount Rainier ever since our last attempt a month ago. It seemed the DC was in doable shape… At first he said he was just playing with the idea, but that he wasn’t serious…. but of course this all led to a call to us calling ranger station to check reservation availability… and that led to faxing in the reservation form for Ingraham Flat. Thus our plans changed…

We picked up our permit on Thursday afternoon at Paradise, had a less than tasty dinner at the visitor center deli and enjoyed a restful night sleep of two hours. We were moving up the trail to camp Muir at 8:00pm. The evening was peaceful as we passed the final few visitors heading back to Paradise. The stars twinkled in a perfectly clear sky. The air was crisp and still. The snowline began at about 7500 ft and pack was pretty hard so we decided to put on our crampons since the conditions were perfect for it. Together we took one steep step after another up the mountain. It was pleasant though even with our 55lb packs. However, as the night wore on we grew tired. We decided to take a nap about about 8000 ft and midnight. It was quit cozy there on the rocks with our giant Feathered Friends puffys in the quiet night beneath the mountain.

We began moving again about 30 minutes later… and about 15 minutes after that the stillness ended. We knew a front was coming in that would bring wind and possibly rain. However, reading 50mph winds and feeling it are two different things! The wind thrashed at us blowing silted and sand in our our faces, blinding our uncovered eyes. The gusts practically blew us off our feet and pushed me around sideways off the track. We battled it with our heads down and spirits low, watching our altimeters closely hoping the barometer reading was thrown off by the weather change and that we were higher than it read. I cannot describe how ecstatic we were when the rocky ledge of Camp Muir camp into the headlight focus. And 200 ft earlier than our altimeters read!

It had already been non-verbally decided that we would stay at Muir until the winds died later that day (it was 2:45am so we had a lot of time). Ingraham Flat was always windier and it would be impossible to set up the tent . As luck would have it, the hut was empty and we gratefully unpacked our sleeping bag and setting in for the rest of the night listening to the wind howling outside.

The wind did not stop howling. Climbers bailed at 11,000 ft due to the wind. The few teams that mad eit reported being severely sand blasted on the Cleaver and 70mph winds on the summit that knocked large men off their feet. Tents at Ingraham Flat and Camp Muir got blown away or shredded. And the winds were now reported to remain until midnight. Long story short, we stayed cuddled in the Muir Hut. Summit day would just have to be longer.

We departed Camp Muir at 11:30pm on Saturday night. We had spent most of our time since arriving at  Muir in our sleeping bag so we were well rested and ready to go. The track traversed the upper Cowlitz (stepping over a few crevasses). There is a somewhat short scramble (or like a scree/pumice climb) to the top of Cathedral Rocks Ridge and Ingraham Glacier. The Flat is about ten minutes away from here at 11000 ft. The route traverses the glacier making a beeline for Disappointment Cleaver, a vague outline in the darkness. It’s a good thing I couldn’t see it very well so I could remain in my happy place longer. We crossed two horizontal ladders (easy to walk across) over two crevasses before reaching the base of the cleaver and stepping off the ice.

The well flagged route of  Disappointment Cleaver ascends up the side in some long switchbacks until it reaches the spine. From here we climbed  about 1100ft of misery (rocks, scree, sand… lots of volcanic crud) until we finally got deposited back onto the glacier to my ultimate delight at 12300 ft. It took a bit to locate the track from here, but once we did the way was pretty straightforward int he well beat path. We reached a series of hand-lines leading up the broken up glacier no far from the Cleaver. A fun surprise in the midst of the hand-lines was a vertical ladder which ended up being easier to scale than i predicted. From the top of this jumble of hand-ines and broken up ice was easier ground, but ground that was above the height of Mount Adams (my previous highest peak). I quickly discovered that my tolerance for altitude was higher than most… but I still had a breaking point.

At 12500ft I began to feel sleepy and noticed that each step seemed to take more labor than usual. By 13000ft Damien and I were not particularly happy and wondering why the hell we were up on Rainier and not backpacking the Icicle Divide! It’s an odd feeling. The feeling of having fully functioning and strong muscles that are in no pain… but yet you cannot get anything to move at a normal pace because every twitch of your finger is exhausting. And… we were frustrated! We’ve spent so much time since March above 10,000ft climbing volcanoes and going to Muir. How could we not be in condition!

The sun came up and we did manage to admire the beauty of the mountain despite our altitude sickness. The ice had created cone formations I had never seen before. It was enchanting! Seracs, broken ice, caves, crevasses… it was all a frozen kingdom of gigantic scale I had never seen before. It was simply gorgeous! But as soon as I was done admires nature’s artwork I went back to trying to breathe.

We traversed left for what seemed like ages (and it was… the route really did go more our the way left than other years). The next bridge was horizontal but angle uphill as it crossed over a mess of crevasses. Just reaching the bridge is a but sketch crossing over a snow bridge, scaling and scaling and thin ice protrusion. We crawled across this one. EKKK! From here with slowly, very very slowly, ascended switch backs to the next bridge (this one also angle upward) over a less scary crevasse. We traversed some more beneath a tall ice wall until it ended and we switched back right and up the final few hundred feet to the crater rim.

This is where we stopped. Finally. We’d reach the top of Rainier… though we barely enjoyed it. We were too busy sitting in a sheltered area trying to drink and breathe as much as possible. It hurt to drink. I forced myself. It was exhausting to open my pack to get out my jacket. Every move left me feeling as though I had just run an ultra marathon. But we were there, we were there. High above the clouds and  thick smoke that blanketed the mountains below making their peaks appear ghostly (later it occurred to me that even though were above the smoke some of the soot particles were probably still floating around up high hampering our breathing). We lingered for about 30 minutes leaving the rim at 11am. It was going to be a long journey down.

The way down was easier since not as much effort was required and with each foot descending each breathe came easier. Going down the first two now downward facing ladders was got our hearts racing as we crawled down face first. We were more concerned about the hand-lines and vertical ladder below as the sun had been shinning for some time. Luckily everything was still stable as we passed through the area.  It was amazing to see the towering seracs and ice formations that was shrouded in darkness when we’d passed earlier. We stopped to rest at the cleaver. Damien was nearing his breaking point of exhausting. But some rest and water did him some good… which worked out well because I reached my point of exhaustion just as we began down the cleaver of hell. I don’t like descending loose scrambly stuff… never have and in my state i just didn’t have the patience or tolerance to complete the journey in good spirits. I felt massively better when i was back on the snow… in fact i felt like my energy was renewed on the glacier (typical of me).

We returned to camp at about 6:15pm… still too exhausted to realize that we had climbed Rainier successfully. We the ranger’s permission we stayed in Muir again and set up our tent for the night. We then spent the a relaxing hour melting snow for water before having dinner and turning in.

We completed some cruddy glissades the following morning the the snowline. Then joined the masses of tourist on the panorama point trail.. a couple asked us if we’d made it all the way up to Pebble Creek…. in my exhausted state I just couldn’t help being a bit snide (okay… i think i would have said the same thing in my normal state)I added “do you really think i packed this 55lbs of crap on my back to do a little day hike?”). People began to ask us though if we’d summited and the more we said yes the more it began to sink in… we did it together. We conquered altitude hell… and with that all the pain faded. In fact we’ve forgotten so much about the pain that we’ve already started talking about how to do better when we make some more attempts again next year!

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