I departed from Albuquerque and made my way to Seattle. I had to kiss my wife for what could be a final time. I did not want to think about that but the risks were real. The evening before my departure I had climbing gear spread all over the living room floor. I was sorting through “clothing layers” which are used for climbing and I kept thinking, “I might need this one,” “I might need that one,” so I ended up bringing too much. Not to mention all of the food I brought, afraid that I would fall into a crevasse and, “I might need all that food to survive.” It happens to me all the time and I always want to “be prepared.” Panic sets in at some point when you know that your climbing gear, food, seems that it wont fit in your huge duffel bag, and your backpack is stuffed. After packing all that “stuff” I thought, this is too heavy, how will I carry it up the mountain, 9 miles and an elevation gain of over 9,000 vertical feet. Every time though, even though I know the drill, I take too much.
Anyway, I landed in Seattle and was met by a friendly guy named Alex. He was from the Ukraine. He drove me to the hotel and we had a nice chat about worldly things, politics, how America has changed over the years and when I left his car, I felt as if we had both become friends, and solved all the world’s problems. I was happy with anticipation about my journey, the journey to travel up Mt. Rainer. I had trained for 6 months, hard. My wife Karla is my coach and gave me most of the rough outline on my training regiment. I followed her instructions and also used a program called the “Denali (Mt. Mckinley), training program. Between the two of the programs, I felt ready to tackle about any mountain you could put in front of me, well at least Mt. Rainer for starters. Honestly, I was not sure even if all the training we did would grant me access to the gleaming summit of this magnificent, and heavily glaciated mountain of the Cascades. I was only a block and a half from the office of Alpine Ascents so I grabbed my pack, duffel and set off in a hobble towards their offices. We had a 2pm gear check and I wanted to make sure I would be on time. Upon my arrival, I was greeted with a cool building, complete with a climber figure on the outer structure and the logo I had studied for months, Alpine Ascents. I had arrived. They had a neat little gear shop where you could purchase outdoor gear and my mouth watered for some of that but I had to make my meeting so I said, “later.” I checked in at the front desk and the gentleman asked me if I were here for the gear check and I answered him, “yes.” Then, in came Pat, the expedition lead guide. Pat is guy in his 60’s but is built like a 20 year old. Lean, muscular, and definitely a mountain hard man. I later found out that one of his passions is rock climbing in addition to mountaineering. He married a lady from Switzerland and she is also a climber. They are two peas in a pod I guess. Pat was a very interesting man and as he introduced himself to us as he quickly moved on to a question that everyone needed to answer, the question? “Why Rainer?” At the surface, seems easy to explain but when one has to verbalize things, a much deeper question to be sure. Pat was an expert at what he did, from his initial approach to each of us, all the way to his leading of the climb.
After our gear check we were released and I took my gear with me back to the hotel because it was obvious I would need to reevaluate what I was going to bring and what would not make the trip up. Weight is everything as I was later to find out, yet again! We were told to meet back at 6am so we could head out to Mt. Rainer National Park to begin our climbing journey.
We entered Mt. Rainer National Park and the nerves we increasing for everyone. The van was quieter and once we hit the parking lot we had arrived. This was it! 6 months of training coming to this point. As I looked up I could barely make our this massive mountain standing tall behind the clouds. My heart sank! I’m going up there? Wow! The top of the mountain that you could see was not even the summit and I knew that. Many times in mountain climbing there is a term used called “False Summit” I knew that this was one of a number of false summits, and even that looked massive. There was snow from the beginning of the parking lot, all the way up the mountain, very unusual in the month of August. For me, I was happy for that because I love climbing in the snow as opposed to rock and talus. We loaded up, got some instructions from our guides that now totaled 4, Mark, Lakpa Sherpa, David and Pat. I was excited to be climbing with all of them but in particular, Lakpa Sherpa was someone who I knew of due to his impressive record of traversing Mt. Everest in under 24 hours, and his 14 summits of Mt. Everest. A kind of God! There is a joke in the mountain guide culture that goes, “What’s the difference between God and a mountain guide? The answer is, The difference between God and a mountain guide is that God doesn’t think he is a mountain guide.” These guys are true mountain men and for good reason. Our lives are in their hands and I have the utmost respect and admiration for them. Lakpa Sherpa is a very quiet, mild-mannered man that speaks very good English. David spent time in Switzerland and is a jovial type, always bringing a unique and charismatic perspective to his mountain guide teachings. So there it was, the mountain I had trained for, and now. Time to get busy, so we were off and stepping.
We made our way up to camp 1, “the huts” where we all grabbed our bunk space for the night. This hut was property of Alpine Ascents International, (AAI). The reality is that the average Mt. Rainer summit success is only 49% This would mean that out of the group of 4 climbers, 4 of us would make it, and 4 of us would not. Who among us would summit was my question. I put in many hours of training, hundreds. Wouldn’t that mean I was entitled to summit? Doesn’t it work that way? No chance! Dinner would be served soon so we all got our bunks setup and then made our way for a meeting and dinner. We had to hike out on a snow field where the mess tent was setup. It was just like you see in the mountain movies, a temporary dwelling dug into the snow, and for the exclusive use of cooking and eating. Lakpa Sherpa was the cook and I can tell you that he was outstanding. The menu was a kind of grilled burrito with beans, cheese and just the right amount of chili. They were so delicious as I ate 3 of them. The energy was just what I needed as a day of climbing had taken many calories. We ate and enjoyed conversation. Pat’s favorite line during group gatherings was always, “OK, who has a joke?” I always froze because I was not a joke teller. I enjoy people that have the skill to recall a joke, but more importantly deliver the joke well. Pat had good recall and excellent delivery. He was fun. For example, “You Might Be A Mountain Climber IF….You say Namaste instead of Hello.” We all ate and laughed and I knew our climb was really underway as we enjoyed each others company in the mess tent. I was so happy to be sober and doing what I loved! I was tired from our first day of the climb. Goodnight world, I pray everyone stays in good health during this climb, and this evening. I had some worries about if I could make it but I had to repel those doubts with a disciplined mind.
We all made it over the chow tent and ate a delicious breakfast that consisted of eggs, oatmeal, coffee, and bacon. We were all eager and happy to be up and soon on our way to high camp. The sun was bright and the glaciers we were traversing were some of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. We made it to high-camp and took a much needed rest while hydrating and eating a light snack. The spirit was high with everyone as we sat a while looking at the huge glaciers, towering pillars of stone, and backdrops that included Mt. Adams and Mt. Baker. I was in heaven! No words to describe the beauty and awe of this blessed mountain. I was daydreaming, just looking around when I heard what sounded like a low level argument. I looked over at one of the bright yellow tents and there was a guide in a crouched position in front of the tent talking to someone in the tent. Everyone was now looking over, and then the lead guide got up and walked over to help out the other guide. The voices were really increasing in volume and it appeared that a couple of the climbers were being turned away from the summit push. If you are not in tip-top shape, it places the entire climbing team at risk of injury, and/or death, so they guide groups take physical fitness very seriously and if you are not looking like you will make the grade, you get booted off the climb. So, there we were, 8 climbers started with us and 2 were being turned away. There would be 2 others climbers along the way that took themselves out of the climb. As we began our summit push, we all split into 3 rope teams, and moved up the mountain. The climb was spectacular but was difficult. With each step I took, I heard the words my friend Werner Berger told me, “All I have yo do is take one step at a time,” and as the Swahili say, “Poele, Poele!” – “Slowly, slowly” (there is no rush). This is how I managed the difficult and steep terrain and kept me going. I also thought about my wife and how fortunate I am to have such a person in my life. She gave so much for me to pursue my dreams of mountain climbing. She trained with me, fed me, counseled me and was always there when I had questions. She was afraid that I might make it back but I would always comfort her and make sure she knew I would do my best to be safe. If you like heights, there are parts of the climb many will love as you walk along a precipice, high above one of the 26 glaciers. One wrong step, or if you catch a crampon on your gaiter, down you go, and possibly your other rope team members. The views were spectacular, deep blue ice, and huge crevasse openings in the glacier. There was one glacier where we had to go across with a fixed line. I could not help to look down deep into the crevasse as I navigated across the opening. It was very strange to think that if you landed wrong you could fall down hundreds, if not thousands of feet deep into the abyss. I was being careful and deliberate so there would be no mistake on my part. I could not help to look up at times to see where we were and I quickly found out that it is best not to. My breathing was heavy but I felt strong but some of the others on the climbing team were not fairing as well. We were down to 2 guides and 5 climbers when another climber said they could not make it and they wanted to turn back. When you hear that, red alert bells go off in your foggy head and you always ask the question that you hate to ponder, “can I make it?” The general guide to climber ratio is 1 guide to 2 climbers for this sort of climb. When we began the climb we had 4 guides and now we roped up our final climber and we were left with 1 guide to summit, and 4 climbers. Pat said to everyone, “This is it, there is no turning back, you all good?” We all mumbled, yes…we are good. Sure, torture is good! Funny I thought. The summit never seemed to appear, just the same never-ending high ridge we could see as we looked up. Then, we came to the lip of an icy overhang and we climb around it and what we saw in front of us was the crater. Our guide said “We are at the crater, congratulations you guys!” I was so happy because the crater means you are near the summit. We dropped our packs and began the 20 minute hike over the 1,000 foot crater, then up the hill to “Registration Rock” where we signed the U.S. Geological Survey book. This proves you were there in some way and most mountains have such a book. We signed, and moved to the final summit! I had made it, we had made it!
It was around 7:07pm when we were on the summit. We took pictures and hugged, then made our way back down to high-camp. For those that aren’t familiar, when you reach the summit of any mountain you are only 49% complete with the climb. You still have to descend, and safely. 85% of all mountaineering accidents happen on the descent due to fatigue. I had to be “mindful and purposeful” in all my steps and actions to make sure I don’t slip, and that I don’t catch my crampon blades on my gaiters and trip. We had a few problems on the rope team as we had a larger than normal rope team with 5 climbers. There are skills required when you are on a rope team so that you don’t pull people down the mountain and cause them to slip. Many on my team were not experienced rope team travelers, so there was a bit of optimizing for us to get in a grove. All in all, we made it down safely and made it to high-camp while the full moon beamed over us, and the snow.
And now I lay here with tears streaming down my face, feet hurting, blistered, muscles fatigued and physically spent. My tears are tears of happiness that our climb for hope to benefit the Children’s Hunger Fund was a success. This is not some kind of self-serving happiness, but a joy that our team was able to raise money to help feed the innocent children here in the U.S., and around the world. It was an accomplishment in my sobriety as well having conquered fears, fatigue and I didn’t quit. This is what recovery teaches us to not be a quitter. To trudge on towards success. I feel as though this goal is over, but not the one-day-at-a-time lifestyle I love so much.