Climbing Mount Rainier

by Sarah Sherman


Why does one climb Rainier?

I can't speak for most, but my reasons were two-fold. First, I felt it was my legacy. You see, my grandmother, Isabel Fitts Asbury climbed Rainier in 1912 in a long skirt with equipment no more sophisticated than an Alpenstock (basically, that's a long walking stick), soot and grease as a sunscreen, and, I speculate, she had nails hammered through her boot soles, which was the standard for those times. I had to speculate because I'd never had the opportunity to ask Isabel anything about her experiences.

Isabel took her life when I was just two years old. What I know of her I learned from my dad, from my Uncle Pal and her own account of climbing Rainier which was published in an Iowa newspaper, following her reaching the summit. She loved the outdoors, wilderness in particular and was an early Mountaineer. From her article it was apparent that she loved identifying the flora and fauna she encountered while she explored the wild places in the Pacific Northwest. As do I.

She also struggled with depression for many years. This trait we also shared, and somehow in retracing her steps I hoped I might be able to find this remarkable woman on my journey. Enjoying the outdoors is one activity I find that helps dispel the blues. I suspect it was for her also.

Secondly, I wanted to challenge myself physically and mentally and perhaps discover more about myself and my personal limits.

I decided last summer that 2003 would be the year to tackle Rainier. When my parents, during what has become our yearly Fourth of July reunion, brought out the copy of Isabel's article, and I realized that the 90th anniversary of her climb would be that month. It had long been an ambition of mine to follow in Isabel's footsteps. Time was swiftly passing, and my boys, Blair and Blake (18 and 16 respectively then) were independent enough for me to devote time to training and researching this important life goal.

My husband Jim painstakingly transcribed Isabel's newspaper story to our family webite:, and included photos of her visit to the Rainier National Park with her grandfather and cousin in 1912. For Christmas that year Jim gave me Dee Molenaar's Challenge of Rainier. It contains a detailed history of the first ascents of Rainier. It describes well-known early guides and the climbing environment as affected by weather, glaciers, rockfall, etc. I was particularly fascinated with the early ascents, especially by women. I had been told that Isabel was thought to be the fourth woman to summit. I found however that six women had summited prior to 1900, and still hope to find an opportunity to explore the old records from the tin box she mentioned in her account. I am told that all of the old signatures are now kept at the museum at Longmire.

That book also includes imformation about the first circumnavigation of Rainier by Bill Boulton, a friend of my husband Jim. Bill was kind enough to call and give me advice. He recommends consuming high fat, high energy foods like chocolate bars, salami and glucose tablets. He warned me about the intensity of the sun due to reflection from the snow. I asked him about remedies for altitude sickness and he suggests Tylenol-with-codeine that can be bought over-the-counter in Canada.

I started training for my climb in February, adding additional aerobics classes to my 3 or 4 per week routine, and continuing my twice weekly weight training sessions. Additionally at the suggestion of Vicki Moen, one of my favorite aerobics instructors, started carrying a weighted backpack up and down the steep hills and staircases on Queen Anne hill in Seattle, and discovered some interesting places in my own neighborhood. I also explored my copy of 100 Best Hikes in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area by Ira Spring and Harvey Manning, Washington State's hiking gurus. There I found some challenging day hikes within an hour of Seattle, which I also hiked carrying a weighted pack. Sadly, Ira Spring passed away during my training. He leaves behind not only wonderful resources for finding the beautiful hiking places in our state, but monies from his foundation, funded by book sales which provide for maintenance of many of the trails he describes and illustrates with his beautiful photographs. They also provide for the creation of new trails.

My day hikes I took solo, save the conversations I had with Isabel about the wildflowers and critters we both enjoyed.

I had hoped that one of my siblings, my brother-in-law or my sons might take this journey with me but was not surprised nor too disappointed to find no takers. (Jim I knew would not be interested, according to him, "slow room service is his version of roughing it.") I was pleasantly surprised in March when, Valerie Van Horn Cotey, a friend and business partner of my youngest sister, Alex Asbury, expressed an interest in accompanying me. I'd had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with Val and her husband Don on our summit quest of Mt. Whitney in the the High Sierra in California three years earlier. Jeff Asbury, my older brother organized and orchestrated that trip. Don, who was recuperating from a bout with bronchitis then, and my son Blake and I, who were suffering from altitude sickness were unable to summit along with Jeff, my 75-years-young father, Bill Asbury, my brother-in-law, Jacques Michel and Val.

I mentioned to Allen Bronemann, a friend from my fitness club, my desire to summit Rainier and shared with him my grandmother's story. Allen had summited Rainier four years earlier and offered to help me train by hiking with me. Unfortunately our schedules only allowed for two hikes. He also loaned me equipment I lacked for the climb, and provided a wealth of information. He was training himself to climb Kilimanjaro this fall.

Allen met me early (6:30 am) one morning in late June and drove me to Paradise, the location of the trailhead for the climb to Camp Muir, the base camp for a summit attempt. Allen called the night before to ask if I would mind some additional company, and I said I'd be delighted. I had the great privilege of meeting and hiking with Allen's friend Sylvia Stanley, who had helped him condition for Rainier in 1999, and would be accompanying him to Kilimanjaro in the fall. She is an avid hiker (it is her main source of exercise for as long as the weather allows). I also met and hiked with Bronke Sundstrom who had one year earlier become the oldest woman, at 78, to summit Rainier. She did it in a mere 19 hours. Allen and these strong women gave me encouragement and inspiration.

On this day the snow reached all the way to the parking lot at Paradise. This was my first experience up close to "the mountain". I confess that I had never realized what a monolith Rainier was and how much snow covered her until that day.

I carried extra clothing should the weather change, as it is often unpredictable. I also carried 2 1/2 gallons of water to challenge myself and to offer the independent hikers at Camp Muir so that they would not need to melt snow for drinking and cooking. It was greatly appreciated, and I benefitted from the extra twenty pounds of weight in my pack.

The day was picture perfect. It was 85 degrees in Seattle, so about 65 or 70 on the mountain in spite of the fact that we were hiking over snow. We hiked in shorts and shirt sleeves, and even with 40SPF sunscreen got quite a bit of sun. We met people from all over the country and even from overseas. Many recognized Bronke who is a celebrity on the mountain.

Allen and I climbed to Muir a second time one month later, with Val, and were surprised to find that we had to hike at least a mile that day to reach the snow. We'd had an unusually hot and dry summer in Washington State. We saw a strange weather phenomenon, a cloud that swirled upward and was rainbow colored at the top. It's backdrop was Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens. The panorama visible just from the Muir snowfield is incredible.

We also had an unexpected meeting with Eric DeBergh, one of the guides with Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI) with whom we would be climbing the next week.

The following Tuesday I left early to meet Don and Val at Rainier Base Camp in Ashford to report for Climbing School. There we met some of the 24 people with whom with whom we would be climbing the next two days.

Enroute to the the snow field where we would be trained, the wildflowers were amazing. There were avalanche lilies, Sitka valerian (which had a heavenly perfume), magenta paintbrush, lupine, common bistort, alpine aster, rosy spirea, green false hellebore, Lewis' monkeyflower, littleflower penstemon, partridgefoot, and white and red heather and I'm sure others I've since forgotten. It was like an English Garden, so lush was the landscape. Eric, the guide we had met a week earlier, was interested in learning their names to share with future clients and his girlfriend, who would be coming a few days later for a visit fom back East. He was particularly titilated in the Western anemone, which had mostly gone to seed. It's familiar name is Dishmop or Mouse-on-a Stick, Eric had heard it referred to as Hippy-on-a Stick. I didn't remember all the names that day, but the following day I brought a wonderful compact book of wildflowers my father had given me several years earlier.

Our climb school instructors were Eric DeBergh from New York, Tim O'Brien from Oregon, and Victor Schlimgin from Montana. They taught us how to carry our ice axes in the self-arrest grip, self and team arrest techniques, pressure breathing to maximize oxygen intake at altitude, and the "rest step" which allows you to rest the weight of your body on your bones in order to conserve energy during the long hours of climbing.

After climbing school, Don, Val and I checked into the Paradise Inn. It was built in 1917 from Alaskan Cedar salvaged from an 1885 forest fire in the nearby Silver Forest. It has been modernized minimally to preserve its historic flavor. We had a wonderful last real dinner in the dining room after waiting in the queue for the communal showers. Because the Inn is much as it was when built, our room was uncomfortably warm, and very cozy for the three of us. Don and I escaped for a time to listen to one of the rangers recount a history of the mountain. But as the lecturer's pace was similar to that of James Michener, starting with the mountain's formation by the sliding of continental plates and magma being forced to the surface, we opted to retire to our room after about a half hour of education. The combination of the heat and my excitement delayed sleep for awhile, but eventually I did doze off. I awoke early and opted to enjoy a last shower before the climb. Val and I went to breakfast (Don ate leftovers), and though we didn't have large appetites we ordered substantial meals knowing that we would need reserves the next two days. After finishing up last minute organization of our packs (where to attach crampons, ice axes, water bladders, etc.) we checked out of the Inn and met the rest of our group at the trailhead near the parking lot.

I wish I were better with the names of my fellow hikers, but remember a large group from Long Island, NY which included a single mom named Tracy, a father and son team, a husband, Jack and his wife from Michigan, a young man from Connecticut named James, two Mikes, a young woman of East Indian descent from Seattle named Anandin, and of course the "Sponge Bob Team" of which Don, Val and I were the members. We adopted this moniker because Val's step-daughter had been shopping with her and helped her pick out a sports cup decorated with the animated character "Sponge Bob Squarepants" and he was photographed throughout the climb. We were 24 clients accompanied by eight guides, Eric DeBergh, Victor Schlimgin and Tim O'Brien who we'd met in Climb School, as well as Gary Talcott from Washington, Jeff Ward from Leavenworth, WA, Peter Anderson from Montana, Kitt Redhead from British Columbia and Mike Haugen from Ashford, WA.

During our hike to Camp Muir, which was at a very methodical pace to conserve energy for summit day we had lots of opportunity to talk to the guides many of whom had teaching aspirations. I found out later that RMI looks for guides with teaching abilities as well as mountaineering skills. Becoming a guide is a feat in and of itself. Mike Haugen, who was a first year guide, was one of only six selected from 150 applicants.

We left Paradise for Muir at about 10 am and arrived at about 2:30 pm. We were given four rest stops, during which time you were encouraged to drink and eat to keep well hydrated and fueled.

We had another spectacular day and hiked in shorts. We didn't encounter much wildlife on our hike, save a couple of marmots and chipmunks, but all were very accustomed to contact with human beings and looking for handouts, trail mix is a favorite.

We spent our time at Muir refilling water containers and setting up sleeping bags in the bunkroom, which has three tiers of bunk beds encircling the room. We were called to a meeting by our guides and instructed in how to adjust our helmets (to protect from ice and rockfall) and how to attach our headlamps to them, how to don avalanche beacons, our harnesses, what clothing would be necessary for the climb, who would be in each rope team (each team consisted of a guide and 3 or fewer clients), and what order each team would leave for the summit. Don, Val and I learned that we would be guided by Jeff Ward, and that our group would be the last to leave (at 1:15 am). We were told that we would be wakened one hour and twenty minutes prior to departure, and if awakened earlier that we should rest in our bags to allow space for those departing earlier.

After our meeting, the guides provided boiling water for food preparation. Freeze-dried food was one of the recommended choices, but after enjoying chewy lasagne, beef stew, stroganoff (it was the tastiest) and rice pudding with raisins (their after effects made everyone gassy and in the close quarters of that bunkhouse) I'd recommend cup-o-noodles, cold chicken, sandwiches, and just a hot beverage like cocoa, cider or coffee, instead.

It was too warm, light and noisy (too much chatting) to get to sleep, not to mention early for an adult bedtime. They suggested going to bed at 6 pm. I think I may have fallen asleep around 9 pm, and at 11:15 am the guides woke us to get ready for the climb. More freeze-dried food (forgive me stomach) for breakfast, potatoes and some cocoa.

Because the weather was so warm (58 degrees at Muir) the guides recommended that we wear just our long underwear (polypropyline), with shorts and carry our extra fleece layers and heavy down parka for the rest breaks. We were to wear our lightest weight gloves, our helmets, avalanche beacons, mountaineering boots with crampons, our harnesses to rope up, and of course our headlamps. We traversed the Cowlitz glacier and through Cathedral Gap in the dark, and I could at times discern that we were stepping over crevasses. The pace seemed comfortable using the rest step, but because I was the shortest-legged, I'd have to take a couple of catch up steps about every 20 to keep the rope from going taut between Val and I. Jeff was in the lead followed by Don, Val and I brought up the rear. I think that we were all feeling strong by the time we reached our first rest break on the Ingraham Flats at 11,200 feet. I could feel that the air was thinner and began using the pressure breathing technique to get sufficient oxygen. Because of my experience with altitude sickness I was worried that it might become an issue on Rainier. When we stopped for our first break we quickly donned our down parkas, and because I had perspired while climbing, I felt the chill quickly. Our rest breaks lasted 15 minutes, and we were told to force ourselves to eat. Appetites are often dulled by altitude, so I ate half a bagel with cream cheese, and drank some water. The break went by quickly, but I was glad to get moving again to get warmed up. I was worried about Val who has Renaud's disease which can cause hypothermia if she allows herself to get cold, hands in particular seem to trigger it.

After our break we continued on over Disappointment Cleaver which is a very rocky area with loose soil, and not at all fun to climb on wearing crampons. It was there that I had my first of many falls, and got the first of many bruises. It was unnerving to slide back a half step with every step forward, and there were other groups climbing below us, so we had to be wary of sending rocks tumbling down on them. We continued to climb and it began to dawn. It was the longest horizon I've ever seen, and initially it looked like an orangish laser beam. Now we could better see the terrain we were walking over. The crevasses are spectacularly beautiful, many are adorned with long icicles and the vibrant color of blue of the compressed ice almost looks electric. We travel about an hour until we reach an area at the top of the Cleaver at 12,300 feet where we take our second break. At this point it is light enough to turn off the headlamps. More water, more trail mix. We again throw on the parkas, Val consults her thermometer, it is only 20 degrees. Even in my parka I'm shivering, and Val is having difficulty keeping her hands warm. At this point I thought Don was fine, but he's beginning to feel the altitude. He's getting nauseous and has a pretty miserable headache, but he's stoic, and doesn't let on.

We get moving again, and it takes a long time, but Val does get her hands warm enough to feel again. Don is feeling progressively worse, and is visibly slowing. Val's hands are better, but the trail food (mostly the freeze-dried I think) is giving her digestive problems. She holds on as long as she can but must make an emergency stop and use the dreaded blue bag (for human waste to keep the mountain pristine). She is embarrassed and uncomfortable and I wish she felt better. During this next push we first encounter the sun cups, large ripple-like formations in the snow caused by snowmelt during the daylight hours and refreezing at night. This is where we start dealing with skirting sustantial crevasses, some of which have opened recently as evidenced by the well-beaten path we now stray from to follow a new one indicated by markers with orange tape flags. There are spots where our ice axes become our anchors to slip around icy corners on a thin path. We, in one place, attach our ropes to a carabiner on a picket placed by the guides and pass one person at a time over a narrow snow bridge between crevasses. Our next challenge is giant (Did I mention my short legs?) steps carved in the ice, with the hill falling away to our left. I am exhilarated by the scenery and challenging terrain. Wow, what adrenaline can do for you. I'm also feeling no altitude symptoms, and am diligent about using both the rest step and pressure breathing.

Our next rest stop is called "High Break" at 13,500 feet, high on the Emmons glacier. Don is feeling horrible. He seriously considers staying there, already one of the Mikes is bundled in a sleeping bag on a platform cut into the snow with a shovel by the guides. Jeff tells Don that he has guided many people and is confident that Don can make it, but that he will feel awful, and leaves the decision to him. Val and I encourage Don to continue, we're only about 900 feet and 15 minutes from the summit.

Val and I are ecstatic when Don decides to continue. We both coach him to use the pressure breathing, and slowly we ascend those last 900 feet to the crater rim. We arrive at 8:50 am. It's been about 8 1/2 hours since we'd left Muir. There we meet most of our climbing group. Twenty of the original group has reached the crater rim! Jeff told us that reaching the crater rim is considered a summit, but because the crater on Mount Rainier is canted, the highest point was on the opposite side, and that any who were feeling strong could continue across the crater to sign the registry in the box there, and climb to Columbia Crest, the highest point at 14,410 feet. I quickly drank some water and ate a little food, and even though I was fatigued climbed down into the crater, traversed to the other side, signed in for Don, Val and myself and continued up, with the long skirt I had carried with me to take a photo at the top to honor Isabel. The box was engraved with Mazamas, an Oregon based, long-time climbing organization, like Washington's Mountaineers. It was dated 1966, so knew it was not the box that Isabel had placed her name in. When I got to the top of Columbia Crest, Anandin helped me to put the skirt on, without catching it on my crampons. I brought the laminated copy of Isabel's story which I had shared with some of the other climbers in our group. Jeff used my camera to take my photograph, and James, the young man from Connecticut took one for his record, which flattered me. I then had Anandin take a picture of Jeff and I because he was so instrumental in getting all three of the "Sponge Bob team" to the summit. Val would have accompanied me, but stayed with Don at the other side of the crater to help him breathe and recuperate before the descent.

I had to hurry back to the other side to leave by 10 am. To linger tempts fate because conditions can become rapidly hazardous. I had promised to call Jim, my dad, and my brother Jeff, who it occurred to me had the middle name Ward, my mom's maiden name, like our guide's last name. First I tried Jeff who was on a sailing trip to Catalina Island off the California coast, unfortunately I got his voice mail. Then I tried my husband Jim at work, and lost the signal. By that time our guide was losing patience, and not wanting to jeopardize safety I opted to make my other calls after the descent.

Unfortunately being the last group up meant that climbing to the Columbia Crest and back had used up my entire rest period. I started okay, but was hoping that we would be stopping again at "High Break". But that was not the plan. We continued on to the stop above Disappointment Cleaver, and for about 20 minutes before arriving there my legs were trembling with fatigue. And I found myself on my fanny a lot, I also leaned into the hillside and tried to slide along it as much as possible. Before arriving at the break I was afraid I would not have the energy to continue. Somehow I stumbled to the rest stop, took off my pack, forced myself to eat something more and have a drink of water. Even though the break was brief (about 15 minutes) by the time we started again I was much refreshed. The guides also decided that in order to descend more quickly that we could take off our crampons for the remainder of the descent.

The descent was much more rapid than the ascent and it wasn't long before we were back on the Cowlitz Glacier. We had to move rapidly through an area aptly called the "Bowling Alley". We had seen large boulders roll downhill from Camp Muir the day before, and saw one right before we had to traverse the area. After passing that area we had a brief stop, Val and I had run out of water, so we cleared the dirty top layer from the snow, and ate some for moisture.

We arrived back at Camp Muir at about 2 pm and had to hurriedly gather the belongings left behind in the bunkhouse as the next group would be arriving shortly. We had a snack, replenished our water, replaced the helmets, avalanche beacons and harnesses in the bunkhouse. I think the last of us left at about 3:45 pm. Eric showed us how to "ski" down the rippled snow to save energy by taking fewer steps. The guides also allowed us to "glissade" in a few places (imagine a long snow slide on our fannies).

True to form our group, "Team Sponge Bob", was the last to arrive (6 pm) at the parking lot, Mike, the junior guide was our companion to the end, in order to ensure that all the team had arrived safely. The rest of the group had waited patiently for us in the shuttle bus, and we were presented with certificates documenting our summit.

Don, Val and I checked back into the Paradise Inn, this time in one of the more modern rooms. It was probably built in the 1920's because it had it's own private bath. When we arrived at the Inn we discovered that they had lost power, and the lights were off. The shower was only tepid, but was wonderful none the less. By the time we had all finished bathing the power had returned. We hurried to the dining room because they are only open until 8 pm, and it was nearly 7:30.

When we arrived at the dining room we were told that because of the outage that only hamburgers and hot dogs were available. We were so hungry that it didn't matter. We were pleased to find out when we were waited on that they still had salads available and the Chicken Pot Pie that we had admired on an earlier visit. Don and Val each ordered a Rainier beer, and I a glass of Columbia Crest wine, and we toasted our accomplishment. Val had just started dinner, and began feeling unwell, she retired to our room while Don and I finished our dinners. When we rose to pay the bill we moved as though we were centenarians, I had to rock a few times to get out of the chair. We shared our recent activity, in order to explain our stiff movements, and the hostess laughed and congratulated us.

It's funny, since my summit I've been asked what my next challenge will be, I had hoped to enjoy the memories of this one for awhile. I am toying with the idea of Mt. McKinley in Alaska, and will keep you posted.

Sarah Sherman