Here is a video summary of the day’s climb. This version without soundtrack, so you can hear the snow and the wind, and our chatter….
This version with the soundtrack that hummed in my mind during the ascent…
I slept fine that night. For the most part. An odd feature of being guided is that I’m not in charge of our start time each day. Nickel wanted to be sure that everyone got a solid night’s sleep, and apparently some climbers get stressed out by watching their watches all night, counting down the hours until the appointed time. For me, the opposite was true: I wondered when we would get a start so that I could head to the latrine before the morning rush. I guess there are benefits both ways… for me, relinquishing control was strange and a pleasure overall. Remember, you are on vacation this time!
A very chatty party did come through our camp before dawn, hooting and hollering, and waking me in spite of my foam earplugs. Alpine starts do that to you: It is so cold and miserable that gossiping helps to soothe the senses. I have been there. But… please, folks, shut the fuck up when walking through camp in the middle of the night.
Nickel got us up around 6:00 AM, as I had predicted. Perfect time for a run to the latrine, which was established a short walk down the ridge. A secluded and auspicious location for sure. For all these years of defecating into blue bags, I have shouted “Point Success!” every time. Now, for the first time ever, I was doing it right under the real Point Success. This has to be a good omen.
Quick breakfast of instant oatmeal and Trader Joe’s instant coffee (it’s actually pretty good) and we set to breaking camp. It went fine… 2 hours from the wakeup call to being ready to walk. This was very reminiscent of the timing for our first camp-breaking on Denali. We figured it would probably go a bit quicker the next time, but not by much.
The conditions were exactly as predicted: a bright, cloudless sky… no wind… it would be hot. In fact, as we left Camp 1 circa 8:00 AM there was just one small cloud in the sky, and it served to partially shade us for the first half hour or so. Every scrap of shade was a blessing. Again, a good omen for today.
Crevasses were predicted to be scarce for most of the day, but we roped up again, not only because of the risk of crevasses but also because there would be some steep sections with long runouts, meaning a risk of falling and sliding. Besides, with such warm temperatures avalanches were possible, too. In fact, there was evidence of recent slides on the slopes above Camp 1, and also towards the top of the Turtle Snowfield. This was the rationale for wearing beacons, which we were glad to do… although the entire aspect seemed quite consolidated after several hot days. Besides, this gave us an opportunity to rehearse our technique for climbing the chute in short-rope style. Conrad led out, followed by Teresa and then me. Having her on a cow’s tail knot helped to reduce the tug-of-war from above and below, but it also meant that her trailing section tended to fall below
The snow felt good underfoot. But man, it was hot. And the pack felt heavy. Just like the day before, I tended to get a cramp in my right trapezius muscle, especially when traversing to the right, which has never happened to me before. I really like the Hyperlite 4400 Ice Pack, although there must be some axis of evil with the way its shoulder straps fit me, and it could use some low-profile side pockets to stash gear lashed to the sides. I suppose I just need to train harder and get stronger.
In spite of the heat, we left Camp 1 with less than 2 full liters; this was intentional, because it saved weight and the guides anticipated finding meltwater at the High Castle. I knew we would have enough to drink… especially because Conrad set a deliberate, sustainable pace.
We passed the rocky ridge above camp, then turned left to traverse below the Low Castle. This is a rock formation beneath the toe of the Wilson Headwall, in effect a vestigial remnant of the Wapowety Cleaver, analogous to the relationship between Little Tahoma and the DC. The route pitched up steeply to the West side of the Low Castle, and we pulled in briefly for a break in the shade. It was a steep, awkward snow formation that was essentially the top of a moat, so packs stayed on… but it felt so good to be in the shade, even for a few minutes.
We saw the upper castle, perhaps 300 vertical feet above, and angled for it. I was tired and thirsty by the time we arrived there shortly before 10 AM. It was time for a proper 20-minute break in the shade. The overhanging rock was a bit manky, but I did not care. I had to cool off in the shade.
Nickel moved ahead on his own to scout out prospects for running water at a spot which had served him well before. Sure enough, he contacted us by radio a few minutes later with good news: Water was indeed running. We saddled up and ascended a snowfield on the left, skirting the Castle’s West wall, until we go on top of it and clambered onto its gently sloping roof of talus and scree. The guides took our empty bottles and walked downhill a bit until they found the trickle of snowmelt and filled them for us.
Above the Castle, only the Turtle separated us from Camp Hazard. This is a huge, steep snowfield that pitches up towards the Kautz Ice Cliff. The West side of the Turtle is a rocky ridge that tops a wall that drops down to the Kautz Glacier beyond it. Camp Hazard sits near the uppermost section of this ridge. (NB: It’s named for Hazard Stevens, one of the first people to attempt to climb Rainier.)
Up the Turtle we went. For me this was beautiful terrain, but it was also hot, exhausting work. The pace was perfect, and we followed the best line… and still I felt it. I thought of Suzanne Sundfør’s lyrics in White Foxes:
Poses, poses… that’s all you are to me.
Roses, roses… that’s all you’re offering me.
Hunger, hunger… is the purest sin
It is an empty church in a crowded bin
I’ve whipped and I’ve stumbled, I’ve fought and I’ve prayed
For the gravy of your soul…
But all I want to do now is walk along the barren trees and fields of snow.
My eye is my sanctuary.
We climbed safely, smoothly, and securely. It took about 2 hours for us to reach “lower” Camp Hazard, our last break spot for the day. By the time we reached it, I was tired and dehydrated for sure. We could have stayed there, on this steep slope of scree and choss, but a more comfortable and auspicious site lay a couple hundred feet higher up the route. As we mounted up from that last break, a cold wind started, and we looked upwards at spindrift whirling violently above the Headwall, thousands of feet higher. Today, winds near the summit were forecast for 35 MPH, and it looked like that was spot-on. Down at 11,000 feet where we were, it was really just a breeze—just enough to send a chill over my sweat-soaked body, that felt still and weak as we regained the Turtle for the last few steps into camp.
It felt great to pull into Hazard at 2:30 PM and get the pack off. GPS indicated 11,167 Feet AMSL… meaning it had taken us 6.5 hours to ascend approximately 3,000 vertical feet. That is about half the pace I would usually shoot for on a day hike, but this was no day hike. We were heavy, it was hot, the altitude was adding up, we were traveling roped on short interval, and the snow was a bit squishy. Meaning, our pace had been perfect.
While we got our proverbial shit together, the guides started to improve camp. Several abandoned platforms could be revitalized, and one had to be cut anew from the slope. Nickel was clear that we were NOT to help during this process: By taking care of ourselves, and thus improving our energy for the summit later that night, we were helping in the most important way. He was right of course… still, it felt lame to have the guides do all this work on their own. Just get that tent pitched and take care of yourself.
While preparing the kitchen, we realized that Camp Hazard does indeed harbor its own special kind of hazard: human stool. Prior parties had left a series of fecal bombs littered around camp, just below the snow surface. Inexplicably, some of these were entombed in blue bags. Why the hell anyone would defecate and leave it there (explicitly against MRNP regulations) is unclear; why they would shit in a plastic bag and leave THAT there is even more vexing. I mean, this way there’s really no way to expect the waste to ever biodegrade. Our team agreed at the outset that we would carry down any trash we found, but only after the summit. This was just… nasty. Rowan cursed the situation and shoveled the raw feces out into the void, where it caught the sunlight during its flight to the glacier below.
The guides cooked a great meal of pasta and fresh broccoli. The food on this trip was excellent… and yet, I had to fill a second blue bag myself that evening. This is unusual for me… very unusual in the mountains. Did it portend a GI catastrophe? Only time would tell.
I sipped water that night, bit by bit, and waited for my system to catch up. Although I did add to the “pee-squared” bottle that night, it was not as full as I would have liked. The tent was warm, and my teammates were lovely. I felt more or less as ready as possible for the alpine start… although, again, we did not know when that would happen. I guessed 2:00 AM, meaning there would be about 6 hours of “sleep” that night. It would be enough. It would have to be.
As I drifted off, I imagined the route. It was so mysterious to me… In my mind, it looked like a wide, tall version of the Pearly Gates. T and I had climbed the Gates in April, and it went fine. We had nailed it. And we will nail this, too.