Sunday, July 25, 2004

Mt. Rainier

Adjusting his headlamp, and pointing deep into the inky darkness, Garrett turns to us with great seriousness, “this would be a good time to step deliberately.” With that he takes two steps into the void, and becomes little more than a bobbing point of light slowly climbing into the sky. Since we are all roped together, we have little choice but to follow. Illuminated only by headlamp, and the cacophony of stars blazing above, we each in turn step into the blackness, grimly wondering what lay ahead.

Every city has at least one icon. Paris has the Tower, Tokyo has Fuji, Sydney has the Opera, and Seattle has Rainier. Dominating the horizon on clear days, Mount Rainier stands as a lone sentinel overseeing all of Puget Sound. Rising to 14,410’ just 100 miles from the beaches of Seattle, Rainier has become a part of the fabric of Seattle life, providing comfort, joy, excitement, and mystery to the Pacific Northwest. For some, it also provides immense challenge.

Lynn and her brother, Rick, grew up in Seattle, and like most Seattleites, Rainier’s presence was simply a part of their young lives. At every turn the mountain watched over them, embedding itself in their soul. Something has brewed inside ever since, for throughout her life, Lynn has toyed with the idea of climbing “her mountain.” Unfortunately, climbing Rainier is not a simple task.

“Chunk.” Our crampons grab and bite at the steeply angled glacial ice. Since we left our tents at Camp Protection at midnight, we have been steadily climbing. With our headlamps illuminating little more than our coming step, we have thus far climbed without fear or incident. Now with the admonishment to be careful, the tension has ratcheted up a notch. Step after step, we silently wade through the unknown, occasionally stepping over holes in the ice, or boulders strewn about. Abruptly, the ice ends and we are climbing through a talus field. The pace has quickened, and we all notice. Crampons and ice axes ring out into the night as they strike the hard volcanic rock. Soon, the rock gives way to ice once again, and the pace slows. Garrett’s radio crackles to life, “the Bowling Alley is clear.” Suddenly feeling very much like a bowling pin, I realize what we have just done. Garrett turns to us and smiles, “well, that was a good warm-up.”

Mount Rainier is the most heavily glaciated peak in the lower 48. For centuries, its massive glaciers have carved the peak’s volcanic mass into a never-ending series of cliffs, ridges, crevasses, couloirs, and moraines. It rises more than a mile higher than the surrounding mountain ranges, and it is famous for creating its own weather patterns. Any climb up this mountain requires planning.

As we tossed around the idea of this climb last Christmas, Rick eagerly expressed interest in joining. Although Lynn and I have summited peaks higher than Rainier, because of the glacier travel required, this climb requires skills we never practiced. Accordingly, we made the right decision and scheduled the climb through Rainier Mountaineering, Inc., home to many of the most accomplished guides on the mountain.

For serious mountaineers, Rainier is a training ground. Many of the world’s best have climbed Rainier multiple times, developing skills that would later serve them in Alaska, the Andes, or the Himalayas. While the standard Disappointment Cleaver Route we took would be a walk in the park to serious climbers, it is part of a progression in a lifetime of mountaineering education. For relatively new climbers like us, it is an introduction into the world of big mountains, and it is poised to teach us a lesson.

With one glance over his shoulder, Garrett steps off the trail worn into the ice. A team of independent climbers is plodding upwards, creating a bottleneck. Wanting no part of the chaos, we downshift on the uneven glacial ice, crampons digging for extra traction, and surge up the 45-degree slope. As the sun peaks over the horizon, the world around us is immersed in alpenglow. Huge crevasses and ice caves slowly come into focus, and giant cleavers of ice, forced upward by thousands of tons of pressure, stand guard on all sides. The beauty of the moment is immense.

The first day of an RMI Summit Climb is spent with a senior RMI guide practicing the skills needed for basic glacial travel, including rope team movement, crampon use, and ice ax arrest. Day Two is a mellow climb from Paradise at 5,400’ to camp somewhere near 10,000’. Day Three is summit day. If all goes as planned, Day Three begins before midnight, gets you to the 14,410’ summit by 7am, and ends late in the afternoon back in Paradise.

Our climb to Camp Protection had been uneventful. A long walk up a well-developed trail led to the crossing of a small creek. From there, a long climb up the Muir Snowfield ends at Camp. Other climbers, with and without guides, were making similar treks to similar camps. Although most of the guided climbers were wearing plastic mountaineering boots for the climb up the snowfield, we were surprised to see one of the guides start climbing the snowfield in flip-flops. Turns out he was Jess Roskelley, the youngest American to climb Mount Everest.

Pausing occasionally for rest, fuel, and water, we climb steadily in Garrett’s wake toward the summit. With natural light bathing us for the first time, our route reveals itself slowly. A furious mish-mash of tumbled ice hangs in the air above us, while deep glacial trenches wait below to swallow any misstep. Weaving between seracs, the trail continues to climb steeply, until we suddenly crest a ridge and look down into a wide, flat field. Garrett, and his fellow guide Mark, turn and smile in unison, “congratulations!” We had reached the crater rim. Smiling, we drop our packs, cross the crater floor, and climb jubilantly to the high point in the State of Washington.

The summit is only the halfway point of any successful climb, so there is always some motivation to head back down immediately. However, the weather is perfect, so we squander a few moments for exploration. The volcanic summit of Rainier contains numerous steam vents. In places the ground is hot to the touch, and steam literally pours from vents scattered along the western rim of the crater. On the eastern edge, steam has carved a number of mysterious caves from the glacial ice, creating surreal rooms of light and heat. The power of nature is astounding. After an hour on the roof of Washington, we finally turn back.

Our 9,000 vertical foot climb down to Paradise is incredible. Doubling back over the route we had taken in the dark, we see for the first time the true nature of Disappointment Cleaver and the Bowling Alley, as well as the poetically named Cadaver Gap and Gibraltar Rock. Cliffs thousands of feet high drop straight out of the sky, while crevasses hundreds of feet deep show their watery depths. Other Northwest volcanoes dominate the horizon, including Adams, Hood, and the cinder-washed cone of Mt. St. Helens. Wildflowers swish at our feet, and glacial streams gurgle past the trail as we roll back into Paradise. Exhausted and happy, we look back up at the summit nearly two miles overhead, and realize we will fondly remember these three days forever.

Check out our photos.

Rick’s trip report and photos can be found here.

Special thanks to our guides Garrett Madison and Mark DeSmet for an amazing experience. Accomplished climbers and guides, and genuinely good people, we would recommend Garrett and Mark to anyone. Look for Garrett on TV this fall in the 400+ mile Subaru PrimalQuest Adventure Race.

See RMI for more info on Rainier.

Monday, July 19, 2004


No matter where you are from, heading home always feels right. Whether it is the smell of a freshly baked pie on an Iowa farmhouse windowsill, or the bustling sounds of that Italian restaurant around the corner from your folks’ place in the City, certain senses spring back to life when you are home, even after years of dormancy.

For me, the trigger is the first glimpse of the Colorado mountains. They may not be the tallest or most rugged on the planet, but they are an elixir for my soul. One glimpse and the memories come flooding back: camping with my Dad and our pup in the Collegiate Range; casting size 4 stoneflies to rainbows on the Gunnison; hiking in the San Juan’s above Telluride; skiing knee-deep powder above the Friends’ Hut, 11 miles from the nearest road; and proposing to my fiancé (now wife) at 10,600’ on the crest of the Continental Divide. Accordingly, it will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that one of the first stops in our travels had to be Colorado.

Just days removed from the bustle of the East Coast, Lynn and I found ourselves in Colorado, catching up with my parents and as many of our friends as we could. Old bonds quickly sprang to life, and laughter and smiles were permanent fixtures all around.

Of course we had to find a way to play in the mountains. Now, most competent medical professionals would advise flatlanders from the coast to take it easy, and to avoid any forays into high altitude until they had time to acclimatize. It is great advice, and we of course, ignored it completely. After spending one day in Denver, we decided to climb Grays Peak (14,270’) and Torreys Peak (14,267’). Why we chose to climb the 12th and 14th highest peaks in the Continental U.S. in one day will become very apparent as this Blog starts to take shape, but for now lets just say we wanted a great hike with amazing views.

We left Denver at 5am, and reached the three-mile road to the trailhead less than an hour later. Unfortunately, the rutted four-wheel drive road overpowered our borrowed car less than halfway to the trailhead, so we parked nearby and walked the extra two miles to the “start” of our hike. The trailhead sits in a placid alpine valley at 11,000’, with sheer rock faces reaching for the sky on all sides, and a wall-to-wall carpet of wildflowers and willows rolled out below. Above it all, Grays and Torreys stand side-by-side at the head of the valley, commanding the scene.

The trail climbs steadily along a crystal clear rushing brook, and soon the sheer rock faces relinquish panoramic views of majestic ranges towering to the North, including the Never Summer Range, the Indian Peaks Wilderness, and Rocky Mountain National Park. After a few switchbacks, the summit of Grays reveals itself, as well as commanding views to the west and south. Other 14,000’ peaks pierce the sky among the sea of mountains, but directly to the North, Torreys dominates the view. After coming all this way, it is almost a requirement to climb it too.

Accordingly, after dropping off the face of Grays, we switch-backed up the short, yet steeper face of Torreys. After a few minutes on the summit enjoying the fruits of our labor, we scrambled down the ridge, across one of the few remaining snowfields, and back down to the car. 13 miles, 4,000’ of elevation gain, a handful of wild mountain goats, and more wildflowers than one could count. A great day in every way.

The rest of the trip was great as well. Lots of time with my parents, fly fishing in Rocky Mountain National Park, golf with my dad, and a great trail run on Lookout Mountain. There were many friends we didn’t get to see – time was simply too short. Next time! After all, no matter where we are, home keeps drawing me back.

Enjoy the photos.

Saturday, July 17, 2004


Welcome to our blog (aka, web log). As many of our friends know, we are lucky enough to be taking an extended absence from the working world to travel. This blog is a multi-functional tool for these travels. Most importantly, it will record and share our thoughts, memories, and photos of the amazing things we see and experience around the globe. However, of nearly equal importance is our ability to stay in touch with those we love and cherish, and vice versa. Hopefully, this little slice of technology will accomplish it all.

Life is astounding. Four years ago we lived in Colorado, owned a lovely house and a couple of cats, and we played in the mountains with a group of amazing people we were lucky enough to call friends. Then, the Residency Match sent us packing to Boston – an amazing city that was entirely new to us. Slowly, we learned the mysterious ways of the East Coast, explored the corners of New England, and formed a new group of great friends. Along the way we worked, learned, and evolved.

As Lynn's residency drew to a close, we spied a window of opportunity for travel and exploration. This window is intriguing and all-too-rare, and we feel fortunate to be in a position to jump through it to investigate the other side. The next few months will be a time to experience new cultures, places, and customs. Join us here (or better yet, in person), and monitor where we are and what we are doing. Use the blog to keep in touch and tell us about your lives too. After all, as exciting as traveling may be, we are really going to miss our friends and family.

Thanks for all the love and support. We are excited about the coming months. It is time to get out and see the world!