Ed Viesturs has climbed Washington’s Mt. Rainier 216 times since he first cut his guiding teeth on the mountain. Each summer he returns to his roots, offering two guided climbs to anyone wanting to sign up. But this year was different. A last-minute cancellation by one of his clients allowed him to take his son Gil along, introducing him to the toil of a peak that has meant so much to Ed personally for so long. —LYA Editor
Words by Ed Viesturs, Images by Ed and Gil Viesturs
This summer marked my 34th year as a guide on Mt. Rainier. I started working for Rainier Mountaineering Inc. way back in 1982, and during my busiest summers I’d reach Rainier’s summit 20 times and turn back another 10 times or so, due to various situations—bad weather, client issues, or dangerous snow conditions. My full-time summer guiding ended in the early nineties as I became more engrossed in my 8,000-meter-peak expeditions, but still, over the years, I kept guiding a few ascents each year.
Twelve years ago, based on requests and demand, I started to offer a couple of privately guided trips up Rainier each summer. Unadvertised, and strictly promoted via word of mouth and by the acquaintances that I’d made, I managed to fill these climbs year after year, with eight clients on each trip and a 2:1 client to guide ratio. I really enjoyed the opportunity to be back on Rainier every summer, to be able to return to my roots as a guide and to a place which I felt had been my “classroom.” Rainier had been an important stepping-stone, where I gained valuable experience, not only for my climbing skills but also in decision-making and leadership.
This June was the 12th season of theses climbs, which I’ve always done with Peter Whittaker, owner of Rainier Mountaineering, and therefore they are called the “VW Climbs”. Because and Because I had a last-minute cancellation from one of my clients, I was able to bring my 18-year-old son Gil along for his first attempt at Rainier. He’d just graduated from the Community School in Sun Valley, Idaho, which has a huge outdoor focus, and had also been involved in their Outdoor Leadership Program. Plenty of rough hiking with heavy packs, winter camping, and backcountry ski trips toughened him up. Gil and I had climbed Mt. Hood together a few years back and we had just returned from a three-week trek in Nepal.
All of that outdoor experience, combined with his trail-running passion, set him up perfectly to deal with the physical challenges of 14,410′ Mt. Rainier. It would be cool for me to bring him along and share some of my knowledge and experiences on this amazing mountain. If all went well, it would be his first Rainier summit and my 216th, but who’s counting?
On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, we arrived at Rainier Basecamp, in Ashford, Washington. Primarily a logging town, the population swells each summer with an influx of tourists visiting Mount Rainier National Park, climbers attempting the peak, and all of the service staff supporting these activities. Guides for the three main guide services also move into various local houses and spend the summer here. We’d been aware of the fickle weather system that had dominated the first half of June, which had caused about half of all summit attempts to fail. The arrival of a strong high-pressure system made the outlook for the week ahead promising.
My clients were an interesting assortment of people from all walks of life. Some were acquaintances that I’d met previously (my wife’s hairstylist from Sun Valley; a TV producer from NYC whose talk show I’d been on; a commercial architect from Seattle, whose company I did a corporate speaking event for and who had also climbed with me the previous year), and some were folks who had read one of my books, or had somehow heard about this climb and were intrigued by the challenge of Rainier. We all introduced ourselves, discussed the week’s agenda, did an extensive gear check, and presented a short slide show discussing what could be expected during the climb. A group dinner of pizza, burgers, and salads ended the day.
The second day of the program consisted of a one-day basic mountaineering climbing school. We teach our clients the basic skills needed to safely climb Mt. Rainier with a guide. The skill level of our clients is all across the board. Some had fairly extensive mountaineering experience and some had never even walked on snow before. All we ask is that our participants arrive physically fit and we’ll manage the rest. Mt. Rainier is considered the hardest two-day endurance climb in the lower 48, and without strength and endurance, your chances for a successful climb are quite slim. We spent the day instructing our clients on the high-altitude breathing technique called “pressure breathing”; rest stepping and climbing on steep snow; ice axe self-arrest; cramponing; harness, helmet and avalanche beacon use; and rope travel. Everyone needs to show a reasonable level of competence with these skills by the end of the day to be allowed to attempt the climb. Team members are expected to be assets rather than liabilities. Everyone passed with flying colors and was psyched to begin the next day’s climb.
Days three and four comprise the actual ascent of the mountain. The first day is the climb to Camp Muir, situated at 10,000 feet, where we spend the night prior to the final summit climb. We hike for 4.5 miles on the Muir Snowfield, shouldering 40-pound packs. This typically takes about five hours. Climbing single file, with one of the guides kicking steps and setting the pace, we travel at a steady, yet reasonably comfortable speed, with rest breaks every hour. Everyone is expected to carry their own personal gear and food. The climb to Muir allows the team to get into a rhythm, and to hone their breathing and walking techniques, which will be critical for the next day’s ascent to 14,410′.
Most of the team had no issues with the hike to our huts at Camp Muir, but one client had experienced severe leg cramping and made the honorable decision to stay at camp the following day while the rest of us made the summit climb. Gil arrived with a huge smile on his face and plenty of energy to spare.
Accommodations at Muir are spartan at best. The clients sleep in a large plywood hut with three levels of bunks. Some of the guides sleep in a smaller separate bunk space, some in tents, and two squeeze into a small A-frame shack, where we also do the cooking and heating of water. For food during the two-day climb, the clients are provided with meal packs including various snacks, a freeze-dried dinner, oatmeal and hot drinks. We provide them with as much cold or hot water as they need, produced by an elaborate solar and propane snow-melting system that the guides constantly maintain.
Once the clients were settled in, we gave a “summit talk” to discuss what’s to be expected the next day. Then dinner was served. The clients had their wonderful assortments of freeze-dried meals to choose from, while we guides had cheeseburgers and salad (not within sight of the clients, but there were a few comments later about what they could smell wafting through the air). The guides spend so much time at Camp Muir that freeze-dried meals for that long simply wouldn’t cut it. Then we had “lights out” at around 7PM, knowing that our alarms would go off at midnight for an alpine start. The weather looked great as the sun settled in the west.
Trying to actually go to sleep that early at night is nearly impossible, even for the guides. It is much better, though, in a cozy tent with earplugs versus the clients’ bunkhouse, where you’re surrounded by relative strangers tossing and turning, coming and going through the squeaky door, with burping, farting, and all of the smells produced by a group of people in an unfamiliar environment—body odors, wet wool socks, the remnants of someone’s beef stroganoff, and the ever-present personal gases. At midnight, once the clients are up and moving again, a breakfast of warm oatmeal adds to the pungent odiferous mixture. That’s probably why—to this day—I cannot fathom eating oatmeal anymore.
After a few hours of “horizontal rest,” we roust the clients at midnight, and in an hour or so, expect them to eat, drink, go to the bathroom, and suit up for the day’s climb. That means loading packs with the day’s essentials, putting on harnesses and crampons, adjusting helmets, and finally grabbing an ice axe. Wearing headlamps, we then gather on the glacier to rope up for the ascent to the summit.
Splitting the seven clients into four teams, each led by a guide, made for rather small rope teams. Behind me on the rope, I tied in my TV producer friend, and Gil was at the end acting as my anchorman. The division of the rope teams is fairly well thought out and not random. We want to spread the strength of the team equally among the ropes, so that there’s no fast rope or slow rope. For the next 10 hours or so, until we return to Muir, we’ll be literally connected to each other, and it’s quite a feat of coordination to move smoothly up and down the mountain, and somehow remain on friendly terms!
We started our ascent shortly after 1AM under a clear, relatively calm, starry night. The final ascent to the summit is broken into four sections, each being about an hour to an hour and a half in length, with brief maintenance stops in between. The first stretch takes us to Ingraham Flats at 11,000′. The next section is the steepest and most hazardous, as we traverse quickly under the Ingraham Icefall and then ascend the Disappointment Cleaver, where if you’re going to “spin out,” this is where it happens. Loose rock and steep terrain have taken their toll during the many attempts of Rainier. This is the section where we coach pressure breathing and rest stepping to help get everyone up this beast in reasonably good shape.
We arrived at the top of the Cleaver at 12,300′, in the dark, took a short break, and everyone was still strong and willing to forge ahead. The next section, which took us to 13,400′, was straightforward glacier climbing, but felt like the coldest part of the day, just before dawn. The sun made its daily appearance at 6:30AM, as we took our final break here before climbing to the crater rim. The wind kicked up a bit more with every section of the climb, and we added a layer of insulation at each break.
There was yet another amazing sunrise from high on Rainier as we gained those last 1,000 feet to the summit. This is the section where everyone digs deep and discovers something about themselves that they never knew—how uncomfortable they could be, how hard they could breathe, how far they could push. We call it the “currency of toil.” At 6:30AM, just a bit over five hours after leaving Camp Muir, we reached the summit. The feeling of reward when everyone reaches the summit is well worth the price.
I never get tired of the view from the top of Rainier, and seeing the elation in the faces of my clients as they reach the summit. This is why I keep doing this. This climb changes people. It transforms them physically and mentally. They have gone to places within themselves that they’ve never gone to before. To have my son Gil there for his first ascent was another great moment for me as well.
For me, this was my 216th ascent. For Gil, and most of the others, their first. Each climb is different, as the weather and route conditions change constantly. Every new client adds an interesting dimension as well. But as I’ve always said, reaching the summit is only half of the climb. We still had 9000′, nine miles and seven hours before we could drop our packs for the last time in the parking lot, and revel in what we had done. Thus ended another successful, yet safe ascent of Mt. Rainier.
That evening we celebrated with food, drink and war stories. Smiles, sunburns and sore feet abounded. Our disparate group of relative strangers had, in the space of just three days, become a team of friends. Gil was already asking what bigger peak we might climb next. Then slowly we dispersed, and everyone headed back to their hotel for hot tubs, showers, and a contented sleep. I, on the other hand, still had a two-hour drive to Seattle that night, as I had an early flight to catch the next morning for a corporate speaking event in San Francisco. Maybe I could entice some of the attendees to come and attempt Rainier with me next summer! The journey continues . . . and it continues to be a rewarding ride.
Check out the First Ascent line of gear that Ed was instrumental in designing, building and founding at eddiebauer.com/firstascent
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