The Big One

This is it—the big one! Six young men and three adults have just registered with the National Park Service for a summit attempt on Mt. Rainier, the mountain monarch of the Northwest. White and majestic, it rises 8,000 feet above the surrounding ridges of lesser mountains, its summit flanked by 26 named glaciers. It is a paradise for the students of nature. At different elevations can be found both beautiful seasonal flowers and unreal ice sculptures common to the Arctic.

The teachers, priests, and adult leaders of the Seattle Washington North Stake’s Tenth Ward have been preparing for this attempt for a long time. We have had weeks of expert instruction in mountaineering. We’ve learned about (and worked for) proper physical and mental conditioning. We have studied proper body chemical balance. We have studied potential hazards, such as avalanches, dehydration, hypothermia, and crevasses (fissures in a glacier). We have learned about proper clothing and equipment and quick energy foods. We have gone to nearby mountains and practiced such things as foul-weather camping, stopping a fall with an ice axe, and rescuing a fallen climber from a crevasse, as well as many other aspects of first aid and mountaineering safety. We capped it all off with a climb to the summit of picturesque, 9,677-foot Mt. St. Helens. We have done everything we can to prepare. Now comes the test.

The weather forecast indicates a high pressure ridge aloft, deteriorating with low clouds forming to the south and cooling temperatures for tomorrow with possible rain. Not good, but not especially discouraging.

We set out, each carrying his share of the gear, plus his ten essentials (extra clothing, extra food, sunburn protection, sun goggles, first aid kit, flashlight, extra batteries, compass, map, matches, fire starter, and knife).

It is just over three miles and about a 1,400-foot elevation gain up a beautiful forest trail to Glacier Basin. There are bare places to set up camp amid snow drifts and avalanche lillies. We prepare supper during intermittent rain at about 5,700 feet.

Each night we will have an evening devotional before we retire. Our theme this evening is “Know Thyself.” We discuss what we have learned and experienced the last several months in preparation for this endeavor.

Next morning, after a good breakfast, we start our ascent of Inter Glacier, a climb of about 4,000 feet in two miles. A full pack, including climbing ropes and other climbing and emergency equipment, makes this a real physical challenge.

Near the top of Inter Glacier, which forms the “foredeck” of Steamboat Prow, we are rewarded by a spectacular view of the upper mountain. The initial summit route among numerous crevasses is obvious. The upper route appears more problematic. There is an ominous summit cloud cap on the mountain. We descend the ridge and arrive at Camp Schurman at the foot of the Prow about 4:00 P.M.

We will have supper by 5:00 P.M., be in bed at 6:00, and up at 12:00 midnight. Since climbing at higher elevations must be done when the surface is stabilized by freezing temperatures to avoid weak snow bridges over crevasses, shifting seracs, and other potential hazards, it is standard climbing practice to start a summit ascent at midnight or soon after at this time of year.

After a quick breakfast we will try to be climbing by 1:00 A.M. Will the weather hold? Will the summit be clear? Will there be route problems? winds? illness? Is our physical and mental conditioning adequate? This is where the training all comes together! Everyone works together now. We’re a team. Everyone is busy preparing food or melting snow, lots of it. We need two quarts of water each to take up the mountain, plus up to two quarts each for supper and breakfast. We have to avoid dehydration. The air is already thin. What will it be like at 12,000 feet? 14,000 feet? The mountain looks inviting. The summit looks ominous. Anxiety is high.

A team of four climbers is coming down. It will be good to get their report. We must eat whether we feel like it or not—high energy food, lots of carbohydrates.

It’s 5:00 P.M., time to get packs with the ten essentials ready for the summit so we can survive the night up there if necessary. We must also get the ropes ready, knots tied, prusiks in place. Everything will be easier now than later when it will be dark and the temperatures freezing.

The descending four arrive. They appear to be in their mid-20s and strong. They look tired. The effect of their experience is etched in their faces. Their report: a good climb. Frozen snow turned to ice at about 12,000 feet requiring crampons. They took 2 quarts of water each, but could have had a gallon (they felt dehydrated). The summit? There was a whiteout, and they had to use wands to find their route back down. The wind was moderate (20 to 30 miles per hour). They didn’t check the temperature. The chill factor was probably zero or below. They will complete their descent this afternoon. Our anxiety is now higher. Whiteouts can be bad news, more of a challenge than we’d really like to have.

We’ll stay in the hut instead of pitching tents. It will be nice to get out of the rising wind.

At 6:00 P.M. we are ready for bed. The theme of our second devotional is “Control Thyself.” We have a good discussion. It helps reduce the tension of anticipation. Sleep is fitful. Some can’t sleep at all, but even a little rest is welcome.

The alarm finally goes off at midnight. No one speaks. Groan, groan. Is this for real? Okay! Now or never! Everybody’s up and dressing for the climb. Don’t dress too warmly. The climbing will be hard; the body will generate a lot of heat. An insulated undershirt, wool shirt or light wool sweater, and wind breaker is enough. After a quick, cold, high energy breakfast, we’re ready to go.

The sky is full of stars. There is very little wind, but it is cold.

The group climb leader takes the lead. Crunch, crunch—the snow is frozen, but not very hard. There is nothing below us but blackness. There must be a heavy cloud layer down there to completely obscure everything. In three hours it will be twilight—in four to five hours, sunrise. The thought of light and warmth is comforting. Six or seven hours should be the turning point. In eight or nine we will be at the summit!

Two hours later the climbing has become labored. The heavy exercise has overcome the cold. Rests are only momentary relief. At 11,500 feet the team reverses position and Scott Capener takes the lead.

(He later said: “Being third man on the rope team, I felt secure. All there was to do was follow, but when we reversed positions, it seemed like the whole world reversed. It was pitch black in front of me, broken only by my headlamp, which wasn’t much benefit. Before, I was reassured by two lights ahead of me. Now I was alone, navigating between crevasses. I didn’t want to begin to think of how deep they were. I was trying to pick a route up a mountain I’d never been on before. The closest person to me was 50 feet behind me, out of hearing or talking range. There were people behind me, but I was alone.”)

We are no longer able to “kick steps” so we put crampons on to enable secure footing. The moon rises, a meager orange-red slit where you imagine the horizon should be.

At 12,500 feet the lead team again reverses position. We’ve now crossed several crevasses, but you never feel comfortable about them. Climbing has now become an ordeal—a real test, hour after hour.

Several of the team are now suffering one or more symptoms of acute mountain sickness (headache, nausea, vomiting), but there are no complaints. It is now twilight, and delayed sunrise is both welcome (it will soon turn to blinding, burning light reflected by the ice in every direction) and disappointing (it’s very cold when you stop to rest). There is no in-between up here. While you hike you sweat; when you stop you shiver.

The terrain is now steep, about 60 degrees in places. Two have tender Achilles tendons. The strongest of the group are calling for rest, which is welcome to all. Soon we are climbing again. You sink in your ax spike, take two steps, and repeat, breathing hard and deep several times in between. Over and over, on and on! Seems like it will never end. You feel lightheaded because you are breathing so hard that you are almost hyperventilating in spite of the thin air at 13,000 feet. But you can’t faint; you can’t fall; don’t even close your eyes or you might doze and slip. On this hard ice and steep angle, it would be almost impossible to stop once you started sliding. You recall accident reports in which fatalities occurred under similar conditions. Stomp those feet down hard!

The wind has started to blow down the mountain. It is bitter cold. There are clouds over the upper mountain. We start wanding to mark our route. We’ve now crossed many crevasses. Some we cross on snowbridges; some we climb around until we can step across.

At 13,500 feet we are climbing into the cloud cap. The wind is about 20 miles per hour. Maybe it will blow the cloud cap away. At 14,000 feet there is intermittent snow falling, with higher gusts of wind. At times visibility is ten to fifteen feet. Sometimes the ridge is visible for a few seconds. At 14,200 feet we are now higher than Liberty Cap or Point Success, two of the mountain’s three summits. Hoar frost forms on eyebrows and clothing. Although spirits are high, the condition of the group is not good. They are approaching fatigue. The advisability of continuing seems questionable.

Belden Durtschi, the climb leader’s second in command, has been here before. He is called up for consultation. Other members of the team are consulted. Not a negative word is heard. Belden takes the lead with his rope team. Soon exposed rock of the crater rim is showing. The terrain is not as steep.

At 9:30 A.M. the altimeter indicates we are at Columbia Crest at last! We scramble to the left side of the crater wall and collapse. Three fall asleep still in their packs. The rest take some food and drink and rest. The rocks feel like pillows.

After about 20 minutes it doesn’t look like the weather will clear, so we start our descent. We are soon out of the cloud.

The descent is fast, and we arrive back at Camp Schurman at about 1:30 P.M. for a well-earned rest.

In blinding sunshine, with a heavy cloud layer several thousand feet below, we spend an enjoyable afternoon exchanging thoughts of our experience. Since some retire early, the third element of our devotionals is held the next morning—the theme, “Give Thyself.” Our devotional themes “Know Thyself” (Socrates, 450 B.C.), “Control Thyself” (Cicero, 100 B.C.), and “Give Thyself” (Jesus Christ) are a formula for success suggested by Elder Paul H. Dunn in his book Discovering the Quality of Success. If we follow these concepts, we will truly succeed!

After breakfast we rope up again to descend the Emmons Glacier to where we can traverse the ridge to Inter Glacier. The lower half of Inter Glacier is free of crevasses and presents a beautiful glisade where we lose nearly 2,000 feet in a little over a mile. It is a fast trip and quite a thrill!

As we descend, the summit, shining brilliantly in the sun, is sometimes visible through the clouds. It’s hard to believe we were really there.

But we were, and it has made a difference.

In retrospect one of the fellows commented, “I learned a lot about self-discipline. It stimulates your thinking with challenging decisions.” Another said, “it was a spiritual, beautiful experience.” We discovered a lot about the qualities of success.

Into a cloud sea far below,
I lonely watched the red sun go,
Then turning, miracle of glad surprise,
Enchanted saw the full moon rise.

—C. Schurman—

[photos] Photos by Carl Henderson