Just barely a week after returning from a successful expedition in Antarctica, I was back in the mountains on an RMI Winter Skills Seminar on Mt. Rainier. I’ve got to say I wasn’t really yearning for another week of extremely cold temps. A month in Antarctica was about enough cold, even for me, but climbing Rainier in the winter is a true wilderness experience as hardly anyone ventures up on the upper mountain this time of year. Also, I was able to work with some very good friends as well as my fiancée, Solveig Garhart.
Climbing Rainier in the winter is a unique challenge, and I’d never been successful at summitting during the winter months. Out of five winter seminars, I had only summited once, and while that was in winter conditions, it was after the spring equinox and thus not technically a winter ascent.
Our seminar is usually centered around preparing our clients for climbing in Alaska, the Himalaya, Antarctica or other extremely cold environments. We build their skills in climbing, crevasse rescue, winter camping and many other things that one needs to have experience with before heading to the greater ranges. My philosophy is that you learn to climb mountains best by actually climbing, and we knew that if the weather was stable enough we would take a good shot at going to the top.
Typically, on any given week in winter Rainier gets pounded with storms. That’s one reason why it’s so hard to climb in the winter and the most heavily glaciated peak in the lower 48 states. While our trip started out stormy enough with 10 inches of snow on our first night, we were able to push through to Camp Muir on our second of five days on the mountain.
The next day we reviewed some essential climbing techniques and developed our client’s skills a bit further with some more advanced instruction. The day after that we awoke early and headed for the summit. We found the upper mountain to have fairly firm climbing conditions, which made the trail breaking easier for the guides, but required good crampon technique from everyone. Also, there was some tricky route finding as many of the crevasses had not been filled in with snow as we would have expected.
In the end we made it to the summit after 5 1/2 hours of climbing. Temps were in the single digits, and with the wind chill it was below zero. With conditions like that we couldn’t stay on top for long. After a few pictures and a little break we headed down. Everyone kept up the good work and we descended to Camp Muir in 3 1/2 hours.
The success of the climb is a result of having a great group of folks as our clients. Everyone on the trip had a high level of skill and enthusiasm, and although our summit bid had its share of struggles and tough conditions, everyone climbed safe and strong the whole way. In fact, every person on the seminar made it to the top. That is a very cool thing to have happen in the summer and almost unheard of in the winter. Kudos to the team!
Photos courtesy of Jeff Repp and Mike Esposito
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