On Friday, June 30th, 2023, I stood at the summit of Mount Rainier, at 14,411ft, the tallest mountain and volcano in the state of Washington. The picture you see is just one of the gorgeous shots from our climb. This is how sunrise looks from around 13,000ft :) Pretty spectacular, I must say.
Back in 2018, I had gone guided, and I was pretty scared and new to mountaineering, even though I did manage to reach the summit. This was my second summit of Rainier, and it was a self-guided summit, with my rope team of 4 people. Over the last few years, I've continued to gain experience as a climber, acquiring new skills like navigation, trip planning, crevasse rescue, self-rescue, and just overall experience with different conditions. I felt ready to take on this challenge of working with the team and planning our self-guided attempt to summit Mount Rainier. We trained, not just fitness wise, but the other skills needed, made a plan, discussed under what conditions we would attempt and kept a close eye on the weather, and decided to make a summit bid for Thursday night/Friday morning. We also did a few other big climbs leading up to this as a team.
We left town early on Thursday, started our climb from Paradise (5,400 ft) with ~40-45 lb backpacks, got a spot in the shelter at Camp Muir (10,000ft), which offers first come first serve spots to put your sleeping bag and sleep so you don’t need to pitch a tent, and is sheltered from winds. We started our summit push at midnight and made it to the summit crater at 8am. Weather was cold due to winds, but otherwise route was in good condition, with a couple of crevasses that you need to jump over, one ladder to cross and several other crevasses to step over. Navigation on the scree/rock sections was a bit more tricky to find the flags, but we worked as a team. We spent a good 2 hours at the summit, walking up to the true summit from the crater and then to the summit register. On the way we were greeted by an amazing sunrise. We took 6 hours to come back to Muir. Once back we decided to spend the night at Muir since no one was interested in packing up and hauling our heavy packs down in soft snow (we had taken permits for two nights as backup so that worked well), and head down the next morning back to Paradise.
Overall, of course this needs physical strength and training, but it is more mental. At altitude and when you are tired, the math just goes off the window, and as we were moving slowly, and looking at how high and far the false summit (the tallest point you can see, but is not the real summit as that is hidden from view until you reach higher) looked, I miscalculated that we won’t reach the summit before 11am (clearly that wasn’t the case and we would be comfortably there before our 10am turnaround time) and was really wondering if we would summit or need to turn around. I resorted to my usual, count to 50 and then restart because I know I can always take the next 50 steps even if the summit seems far away. As a self-guided team, it also takes more mental focus, as you are constantly watching for objective hazards which this mountain has plenty (icefall, rockfall, crevasses, collapsing snow bridges, steep slopes etc) and you are staying alert in case you need to arrest the fall of any team member. So mentally, and when the altitude goes above 12K, it gets hard. I am so proud of the team - we made a good plan, talked contingencies about turning around, staying together, and we stuck to the plan and executed it well.
Compared to my 2018 guided attempt, I felt way more confident of my skills, my footwork, the trust in my gear and really enjoyed my trip. Also, timing was perfect with summit day before my birthday and a sunrise at 10K feet on the day of, with a hike down Muir. As I reflect on this trip, I wanted to share the key lessons from my mountaineering journey and progress:
1) It is about the journey, and not the destination, and it doesn't happen overnight. While the destination looks spectacular, this didn't happen overnight. Since 2018, I've committed to, prioritized and enjoyed focusing on my fitness and learning skills which culminated and helped me even dream of having a goal like doing a self-guided Rainier summit bid.
2) Focus on preparing for what is in your control and accept the rest and adapt. We trained for things we could - our fitness, the skills, and discussed things like the trip plan, contingencies, decision making, risk appetite etc. Beyond that, whether the mountain would give us a safe passage and no one in the team would have altitude sickness was really something we could not control. What we focused on was preparing ourselves with things we could control, manage the overall risk by being flexible on a good weather window, and hope for the best.
3) Your confidence will only grow when you attempt things that are uncomfortable and hard. I really believe that when we are in the comfort zone, there is no growth. Life goes on, you keep chugging along, but you don't necessarily gain any new perspectives or skills. When you do things that are outside of your comfort zone, you have to step it up. When you then attempt and succeed at those things, you learn, and your confidence grows. Sometimes you also fail, and that is when you learn the most and adapt.
4) Always break down big goals. With anything big that looks daunting, there's always the first step you can take that is doable now. And there's always a way to break it down into the smaller things that need to be tackled, and a plan to make those things happen. Just because the big thing seems hard, don't shy away from it, break it down. Whether it is skills you need to learn, or mini milestones you need to accomplish, break down the bigger problem into smaller things and then tackle them.
5) Trust the team. While some folks like to go solo, I am a team person. In this case, we went as a rope team of 4, had to trust each other's decisions, skills and work together. It was important to build the relationship and to have open communication for us to feel comfortable. We did a few other simpler climbs before we embarked on this higher consequence and higher reward adventure.
6) Teach and help others. I volunteer as a program coordinator and climbing lead for the Asha for Education Seattle Climbing program. I help others aspiring to climb big mountains by mentoring and advising, leading training hikes, and in this process, I grow too. Teaching others, especially newbies needs you to simplify the complex into the basics and really helps you remember the fundamentals, and helps you improve.
7) Be grateful. Along the way, I've had many mentors and friends who have taught me skills and who have provided companionship and accountability. I've had the support of my family for me to pursue these adventures. I've also hired help, whether it was trainers or whether it is a nanny. This doesn't just happen on its own. I am grateful for the role every one of them has played in my journey.