Damien and I haven’t spent any time above 10k feet since Mount Shasta back on Memorial Day weekend. With several projects involving climbing at high altitude looming in the suddenly not so distant future (where has this summer gone?!) we decided that a trip to Mount Rainier National Park was in order. We developed a plan based around two obstacles: we did not have an overnight permit and, again, the forecast was HOT! Thus, the strategy was to start from Paradise in the early evening so we would only catch the tail end of the heat, then climb through the night as far as we could go on the DC route. Summiting Rainier in a day was partially on our minds and we brought gear for a summit bid. However, the main focus of this excursion was to spent time at/above 10k.

We did our best to prepare for the impending all nighter. Saturday morning was sent mostly hanging around the house and napping. We headed out to the park early afternoon and, after fighting some strangely heavy traffic, stopped at Longmire to pick up our climbing permit. It was bizarre to actually get a glimpse of the park during midday. We’re usually only in the front country very early in the morning, very late or in winter when it’s empty. At 3:45 the park was a bit of a circus. We were eager to get on the trail and away from the crowds.

We swung on our packs at the overnight lot at Paradise in early evening at about 5:30pm. Our packs were lighter than normal for a Rainier climb, but with climbing gear in tow they still weighed respectable amount. The trail to Panorama Point was crowded with people. This provided some entertainment for me: folks wearing Mary-Jane shoes and jeans. I was annoyed by the fact that there seemed to be an unseemly number of descending visitors that did not make way for us as we traveled uphill with heavy packs. I know that some people do not know that uphill trekkers have the right of way, but if you see someone with a large pack you should step aside out of common curtesy.

Beyond Panorama Point the crowds thin considerably. Sweating in the early evening heat we watched as the sun edged in what seemed like excruciatingly slow motion toward the horizon. At Pebble Creek we paused to filter water and cool down in preparation for the snowfield ahead. From then on it seemed that the tourists ceased to exist.

The snow was sloppy from the radiation of the day as we began to climb up from Pebble Creek at 7100 feet. However, as the sun slipped finally behind the lower slopes of Rainier the temperature abrupted dropped. We found a good up-track which was further improved by a team passing us (their objective was Rainier in a day). I think it’s the first time we ever found a good track going up the mountain. As we climbed we turned back to gaze at the hues of the pink and purple sky behind Adams, Hood, Jefferson and Helens. All the mountains surrounding us glowed in the soft pastel colors of evening light. Rainier is always a magical place, especially this time of day when the crowds are gone and there is nothing but the splendid, tranquil, beauty of the volcano.

The snow stiffened as we continued upward passing familiar slopes and talus ridges. Ahead the glaciated mountain loomed before us fading into the darkness. At 9:45 we switched on our headlamps and donned our crampons. Our feet with unbalanced on the rapidly solidifying snow. As our crampons crunched in the hardened snow we caught a glimpse of what we thought was a rescue flare streaking across the sky. I would find out later that it was a fireball meteor. We were surprised to reach camp Muir at 10:30pm. Our calibrated altimeters somehow got off count during the climb which is pretty typical on Rainier and read 9800 feet instead of 10100. We had climbed to Muir in 5 hours which was a record for us with or without heavy packs.

Camp Muir was abuzz for with activity.  The guided groups were preparing to depart at their standard 11:00pm. Private teams were also milling about cooking and sorting gear. Damien and I dumped our packs on the dusty ground and, after a quick snack, settled down against some rocks for a 15 minute recharge nap. I especially needed it as fatigue was beginning to take its toll. Damien also alerted rangers and guide of the “rescue flare”. They seemed surprisingly unconcerned.

We were roped up at moving across the Colwitz Glacier at 11:20pm. I had never departed this late to climb Rainier and it felt strange to be part of a conga line of teams instead of climbing in silence. We moved well across the glacier. There were a few crevasses to step across, but nothing significant. However, we began to fall apart on the ascent of Cathedral Rock at 10,470~ ft. The “trail” up the rock formation is my second least favorite aspect of climbing DC (my least favorite being the cleaver). The tread was extremely dusty and, as always, the volcano crude unstable. The upper portion where rock meets dirty glacier had some crevasses, but what was more noteworthy was the audible roar of water coming from beneath the ice. Finally, we stepped onto clean glacier ice and received a healthy blast of wind. The gusts could not have been more than 20mph, but it definitely made it feel colder. Under the twinkling stars and frothy milky way we made our way to Ingraham Flats. There is a sketchy crevasse step-over here that got our attention. The others were minor.

Damien belayed me into the camp and we stared up at the procession of headlamps journeying up the clever. We both felt trashed for lack of sleep and the fatigue seemed to be making the elevation of 11,100 feet seem worse than it really was. Ahead laid another 4500~ feet of gain. The route this season features a marvelous 600 foot descent mid-route before climbing back up. We decided that Ingraham Flats was as far as we could safely go. We must have sat there at camp in our giant puffys for a good 30 minutes before willing ourselves to get back to our feet. Exhausted, we descended back down to Camp Muir which had lighter winds.

We did not have overnight gear. However, we did bring our sleeping bag covers for a situation like this. Damien opted to sleep inside the hut. I did not wish to join the snore-fest indoors so I slept on the bench outside. However, I could only insulate half my body with my backpack, so my lower half stayed pretty cold preventing me from getting any meaningful sleep.

Damien wanted to head down right away in the morning to avoid the next impending heatwave. I wasn’t too jazzed about that since I despise descending hard snow in crampons. I felt wreaked for the first 600 feet. After vitamin I and some coffee infused chocolate though things became a lot less painful. At about 8,000 feet the snow was soft enough to begin glissading which I took advantage of (crampons off of course!).

Once again things got busier the lower we went. At Panorama Point the folks in jeans once again dotted the trail. Back to society. Somehow, we managed to drive home without falling asleep at the wheel. Another learning experience as with many of the trips this summer.