Flatlander Rainier Expedition June 12-15, 2016

Five Guys and All Their Gear Packed Tetris Style

Day One: Orientation in Ashford at Rainier Mountaineering Interntational (RMI) . We met our guides and the other members of our team. Every climber went through a complete gear check. They recommended I rent plastic double boots instead of my leather boots due to unseasonably cold conditions and storms in the forecast.

Day Two: Mountaineering School

This is serious business. There are lots of things to pay attention to for personal and rope team safety. Our guides are great and taught us how to use our ice axes to self arrest a fall and how to team arrest in case a member of our rope team were to fall. They also taught us footwork and breathing techniques to safely navigate difficult terrain with snowy and icy conditions. Our gang is usually a rambunctious group, but today the jokes and shenanigans took a back seat to paying attention and diligently practicing the tactics we will use on the way up and down from the summit.

Day Three: Paradise to Camp Muir

We fueled up at the coffee shop at Base Camp and then took the RMI Shuttle up to Paradise Trailhead to begin the 4.5 mile, 4,460' hike up to Camp Muir. The weather was cold from the start and we were told to expect precipitation.
"Be Bold, Start Cold." - Mike King, RMI

Snowy, Windy and Low Visibility

It began snowing in the parking lot at Paradise and it only intensified as we went up. Sustained winds of 38mph and higher gusts pushed us around even with an additional 35 pounds strapped to our backs. We were all thankful we had trained with and used hiking poles to help us keep our balance and footing.

It wasn't long before we layered up with our Gore-Tex Shells to stay dry and warm.
Due to the snow storm, our guides wanted us to get to Camp Muir as quickly as we could. The plan was to get to Camp Muir, ride the storm out in the "mountain hut" and hope for clear skies for the summit attempt the following day. As a result, we only took three breaks on the way up instead of the usual four. Because of the weather, these breaks were also truncated, lasting less than 10 minutes each. Only enough time to take your pack off, drink 1/3 liters of water, eat 200-250 calories and then get back to the ascent. Eric and I tried to make the best of it! Our "hut" at Camp Muir was not as quaint as the one pictured above. Ours was a plywood "shipping container" with 18 bunks: five across stacked three high plus three more one the "mezzanine."

Blizzard @ Camp Muir

When we arrived at Camp Muir we were hot and sweaty from the effort of battling the wind, snow, and elevation gain. It was nearly dark (this picture was taken the next morning) and the temperature was around 15ยบ with wind gusting at 45-50+ mph, especially in the channels between the huts and the rock wall where we had to secure our packs, crampons, ice axes and climbing poles. Our gear inside our backpacks was in garbage bags to keep items dry and all we had to do was extract that garbage bag and head inside, but Will was having trouble getting his gear out of his backpack because of his pack's pear shaped design. I helped him collect his gear. We were only out there 5-6 extra minutes, but being soaked with sweat in those conditions, he started going hypothermic! We got him out of his wet clothes and into his Alaska Plus sleeping bag and gave him hot chocolate to drink, It took him well over an hour to stop shivering continuously.

"I never want to be cold again. I'm moving to the equator."

"The night is dark and full of terrors."

2:30 AM Wake Up Call - The storm had passed and the night sky was clear. I have never seen so many stars all at once. The turbulence in the atmosphere must have been significant, as the twinkling of the stars was so amazing it seemed like it was CGI. Eric saw the International Space Station zoom past overhead. The guides told us that over a foot of snow had fallen overnight. Normally, the guides would have started the hike to the summit by 2:00 AM, but they were waiting for the storm to subside so we never actually headed out until 4:00 AM. Had we left earlier we would have been ascending the Cleaver between the Ingraham and Emmons Glacier when the sun rose and we would have missed the spectacular sunrise over Little Tahoma, the 3rd highest peak in Washington (11,138'). A nice reward for the hiking up to Camp Muir in a blizzard.

Our first break for the day was at Ingraham Flats at sunrise.

Sunrise over Little Tahoma (11,138')

Photo Credit: Alex Lucken

Sunrise Break at Ingraham Flats

Break at Disappointment Cleaver

Due to the depth of the new fallen snow, we had to hike up the rocky spine that separates the Emmons and Ingraham glaciers. At times it was a harrowing experience with sheer drops of well over 100' just inches away. I had to watch the placement of every step. To attempt to look around was to risk vertigo in this disorienting landscape of angles and odescents. The movement from Ingrahm Flats to Disappointment Cleaver was easily twice as hard as the movement from Camp Muir to Ingraham Flats and we were all ready for the break. Tinfoil wrapped left over pizza from the Base Camp Grill was a much tastier alternative to the Mountain House Horrors from the night before. You can see the lenticular storm cloud brewing above the summi indicating more snow and high winds on the way.

Preparing For the Last Stretch to the Summit

Of the 18 hikers who started the trek, only 8 of us were ready to make the last push to the top. One person turned around on the first day, never making it to Camp Muir. Several more decided not to join us when we left this morning. A few more turned back at Ingraham Flats. A young man of just 16-years old had pushed himself beyond his limit and he fell to his knees several times as we ascended. At the point where he was struggling to get back on his feet, a guide took him back down. A few others made the decision not continue higher from this break at the top of Disappointment Cleaver. Our guides made the decision for another based on their assessment of that climber's ability and the safety of the rest of the team. In the mountains, your ability to react as trained, follow instructions, and commit physically and mentally can be the difference between life or death, for you and the other members of your team.

Will did a self assessment of how he was feeling during this break and made the mature and responsible decision that Disappointment Cleaver would be his high point of the day. At this juncture we were already 5-hours in and still facing 10-hours more if we pushed on to the summit. It's not enough to be able to just reach the summit, you also have to get back down. You can't just walk off the course and have the SAG wagon pick you up. Honesty on the mountain is paramount and I'm very proud of him. Our team guide and rope leader, Mike King, was very impressed with him for even gearing up this morning after being hypothermic the night before and you could see the respect he had for his decision to head back to Camp Muir.
A rarely seen alpine songbird, the Grey-Crowned Rosy Finch. This little guy was brave and looking for dropped nuts or granola.
I think he wanted to join our rope team. "On belay!"

Assessing the Avalanche Risk

Our guides Pete & Mike (in the neon green and grey jackets) confer on the route and asses the avalanche risk due to the snow accumulation on the Emmons Glacier on the way up to High Break

Hannah & Chris Scout Ahead

Guides Hannah Smith (Avalanche Level I Certification) and Chris Ebeling (Avalanche Level II Cerification) went ahead to asses the risk. They found that the winds had deposited more than 3 feet of soft, loose snow on top of hard packed snow. They determined that the avalanche risk was HIGH and our guides made the decision to turn the team around. Disappointment Cleaver would be everyone's high point for this expedition.

High Point

Disappointment Cleaver - 12,358'

You can see the summit of Mount Rainier behind us. It looks like we could just cruise up and tag the rim of the volcano, but that summit is still 2,052' above us and 0.9 miles away.

Left to Right: Gregg Brekke, Mike Briehl, Will Cousino, Eric Gibb & Mike Cousino.

Mount Adams visible on the horizon.

Tent Camping Above The Clouds

Rope Teams Crossing the Cowlitz Glacier on the Return Trip to Camp Muir.

Each rope team had one guide and a max of three climbers.

Camp Muir on the Way Back Down

We had a nice long break back at Camp Muir to pack up the items we left behind, have some snacks, refill water bottles, and take some pictures.

Mount Adams Peeking Through the Clouds 48 Miles Away!

Mt. Adams is the second highest peak in Washington at 12,280'

Cathedral Rock

We almost made it to the top.

Pike Place Market

On Thursday we added my brother, Mark, to our entourage. We dropped Gregg off at King's Station for him to catch his train to Portland, and then the rest of us sampled to the local tastes and brews that ultimately turned into a Pike Place Pub Crawl when we serendipitously ran into to fellow climber Alex Lucken!

Eric, Will, Mike B., Alex & Mike C.

Created By
Mike Cousino


Sunrise over Little Tahoma Photo Credit: Alec Lucken

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