Last month, First Ascent Eddie Bauer associates Kristen Elliott and Doreen Jarman and friend Harmony Weihs had the opportunity to climb Mt. Rainier with First Ascent mountain guide Melissa Arnot. Below is Melissa’s account of the journey the all-women team made to reach the summit.
A big reason why I guide is that I enjoy seeing people who are challenging themselves and growing. Last month I climbed to the summit of Mt. Rainier with three women who were particularly inspiring.
The women—Seattle locals and Eddie Bauer associates who worked with me on the First Ascent launch—originally made the decision to climb Mt. Rainier two years ago. They felt inspired to try to get to the top of the mountain where the idea of First Ascent was born. After six months of training, we met in Ashford on a very stormy June day in 2009. They were excited. I was not. Walking in the rain was not going to be a good way to start the climb, and after two hours of hiking through brutal winds and very cold rain, we retreated with a “rain check” to try again in a month. A month later, on a beautiful July day, we set out again and this time made our high camp without incident.
I often say that the mountains are indiscriminate: They don’t care how badly you want to climb or how much you have trained. This was evident as the women battled fear of exposure, altitude illness and shin bang (a bruise on the shin from the boots). After an hour of climbing, at 2 a.m., we retreated with an understanding that the mountain would still be there next season. The Sherpa often say if you don’t get the summit on the first go, it is because the mountain really likes you and wants you to come back.
A year passed, and we found ourselves meeting once again at the foot of Mt. Rainier on a beautiful July day. As we hiked to Camp Muir (normally a five-hour hike) the women were impressively strong. I could tell that they had taken the training seriously, and they were mentally prepared for what was ahead. We made great time to Muir, arriving in four and a half hours. After setting up our camp, we discussed our options about when to climb. We had all weekend, so we decided to do what is called “sunset” climbing. It is a little reverse from a normal alpine climb. You start out in the late afternoon and summit around sunset, and then descend in the dark. We camped the first night with our plan to start climbing in the afternoon of the second day.
After spending the morning practicing the skills needed for the climb (cramponing, ice axe arrest, rope travel), it was time to start out. The looks of trepidation and excitement were evident on the faces of all three women. Within an hour, we were standing at the same spot that had been their high point one year ago. None of the women was interested in repeating that—they were strong and ready to push ahead.
After four more hours of climbing up steep slopes, through rocks, and stepping over multiple open crevasses, we were able to reach the summit just in time for the sun to set on the water around Seattle, a view rarely seen from this vantage point.
It was a very emotional summit. I don’t think I have ever seen any group of people try so hard for something. The physical challenge was intense, but the mental challenge was even more so. We celebrated at 14,410 feet, and then began our descent back to camp, arriving around 1 a.m. The tired climbing team crawled into their tents. The sparkle of the summit was still in their eyes.
Climbs like these inspire me to want to guide. It is seeing the hard work and the rewards of perseverance that make it all worth doing again. Whether you are climbing Mt. Everest or Mt. Rainier, the desire has to be there to make every step count. As we enjoyed cold beers and hot pizza back at sea level, the women began scheming for the next adventure—always a good way to end a trip!
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