Chapter 10

JULY 1, Mt. Rainier Day 3 To Camp Muir

Wednesday morning there were low clouds drifting up from the cool valley but the sky above was clear and bright. The team was repacked and dry. After breakfast we assembled outside the lodge before a small crowd of well wishers and press. A brief statement about Judy's decision was made. Jim reminded the members of the press that they had agreed that they would not interfere with the climb. Even before the trip to Colorado a number of media representatives had expressed interest in climbing with the team. For reasons of safety, some "Protection of documentation investment” and to minimize distractions on the climb, it had been planned that the press could participate during the practice on the glacier. In order to have some coverage two reporters had been invited to climb with the team: Svein Gilje ("Seattle Times") and Tim Egan ("Seattle Post Intelligencer".) Jim finished his statement to the press and turned to the team and said, "OK gang, the only thing left to do is climb the thing. Let's go."

The weather was perfect; spirits were high; the team was prepared; and everybody knew that the real climb was beginning. Adding to the spirit of determination was a sense of sharing by a number of people who had volunteered one to two days of their time to help carry equipment to Camp Muir and high camp. A couple of park-rangers had the day off and volunteered their time. Bud Krogh had contacted a number of people and convinced several of his law partners to come along and help as porters. Five members of a team planning to climb Mt. Everest in 1984 came along to help out. As we started out one of the Everest climbers placed on his pack a large sign which read, "Higher the Handicapped."

Step-rest- breathe.

Step-rest-breathe.

Step-rest-breathe.

Rest step—Rest step.

A week and a half of practice was evident as the colorful parade of forty climbers and porters moved like a centipede up the asphalt walks to the snow, past the last stubborn fir trees and blossoming heather to the rocky trails, and finally to one long continuous field of snow. The distance to Camp Muir is only four miles, but it involves a vertical climb of five thousand feet and requires five to eight hours of climbing. The team stopped only twice for a brief rest and the traditional snacks of climbers- Triscuits, cheese, tuna, granola, breakfast squares, Gorp, juice. In between stops the pace was a slow and deliberate one--one foot in front of the other. Traveling on the snow was different from hiking on dirt trails. There were no rocks to trip over, but the footing was soft and uneven. One step would be on the surface; on the next step the surface would break and the climber would punch through up to the knee with a jolt accentuated by the weight of the pack.


     Last Dry Rest Stop Photo: Roy Fitzgerald

 The first few climbers formed a small trough in the soft snow which others try to follow. Steps would be synchronized for a while; somehow everybody's right foot would end up in the right foot hole. Every once in a while someone would lose his balance or slip, or do something else to throw off the sequence, and a third foot hole would appear.

 Inexperienced climbers sometimes start too fast, go a few hundred yards and slow down, and eventually are passed by those who started slowly. Jim, Dianne and I constantly reminded the climbers to breathe deeply, lock the knee, keep the weight on bone structure--not muscle; to go slowly, and keep moving.

The Nisqually glacier is on the left for climbers going up to Camp Muir. At the lodge the whole mountain can be seen. After the first hour the group was five hundred feet higher than they had been when practicing on the glacier. Each additional hour they gained eight to nine hundred feet. The middle three thousand feet of the Nisqually glacier far below is called the Nisqually Ice falls. It is a frozen waterfall, a mass of jumbled ice a half a mile wide, tumbling in slow motion from the summit to the relatively flat part of the Nisqually glacier. Blocks of ice the size of a large house occasionally broke loose and dropped a short distance, broke apart and started a small avalanche of white and blue ice and brown rock. The first sound would be a loud report, like a jet pushing through the sound barrier, followed by a heavy thump echoing from the middle of the mountain.  We felt the pressure waves then heard the sound.  The avalanches that follow hissed and roared like a waterfall. Fresh snow following a storm billows up into a tear shaped cloud. Without fresh snow it might not be possible to spot the avalanche before it stopped.

Halfway to Camp Muir the Nisqually Ice fall completely dominates the view across the width of the mountain and up for three to four thousand feet. All we could see were the ice falls and the massive outcropping of the iced western ridge of Gibraltar Rock on the right. The summit was somewhere beyond the view of the arching skyline, between the top of the blue shadowed ice falls and the rust colored basalt cliffs of the "Gib".

Gibraltar Rock looks like a tilted slice of a many-layered chocolate cake. It was formed as one lava flow after another spewed out of the crater, piled up century after century and was then carved by the glaciers and rotted by the process of weathering. It is possible for huge sections of the "Gib" to break off and destroy anything in the path below it. Camp Muir is near the base of Gibraltar Rock.

Richard Rose had been guiding Judy from Paradise. He desperately wanted her to succeed. The night before after the group meeting, he had gone to her room to express his sense of loss at her decision. He wanted to take something of hers to the summit. Now he was trying to show everybody that she could make it. She was carrying only a day pack and was doing well.

After our stop at Pebble Creek Rich started out too fast and Judy started to weaken.   I suggested to Rich that I would guide Judy and he could move on up with the others. With Jim in front I didn't have to worry about the others getting lost on their way to Muir. I lapsed into my chant on breathing and resting until Judy regained a rhythm and breathing pattern which matched her energy level. Then for nearly two hours the only sounds were the repetitive crunch of heavy boots kicking into snow. Anvil Rock a peak like outcrop at 9,854 feet above us on the right slowly moved down hill as we passed below it.  My thoughts drifted back over many trips to Muir over the past thirty years hiking, skiing, and climbing.  When a person is in shape, the easy pace of a long climb on snow is perhaps one of the most peaceful of body experiences. The body relaxes and effort dissolves into the sound of wind and the warmth of the sun reflecting off the snow. The steady pace becomes somnambulistic. Thoughts are punctuated by even, deep, lung-filling breaths.

"Boom" The mountain spoke.

Inhale, "...there's an avalanche up there somewhere."

Exhale, "... above the Gib"

Inhale, "... Sounded like a big block of ice."

Exhale, "...I wonder where?"

Inhale, “...  It's so far above me that by the time the sound gets here the ice blocks have stopped falling."

Exhale, "...Look some more, sometimes falling ice looks like a river or waterfall."

Inhale,.. How is Judy doing? Turn around and look."

Exhale, " Looks fine. ..

Inhale, "...I've always wondered how it sounded when the front end of

Gibraltar rock”

Exhale, "... fell off in 1952. They closed the Gib route."

Inhale,  "...There's a spider on the snow."

Exhale, "...Blew up on a warm wind from the valley below."

Inhale,"...Glaciers and snow fields are covered with bugs."

Exhale, "...Snow worms? --too early."

Inhale, "...Hmmm. Where's the bottle of snow worms I collected in '1957."

Exhale,"...Alaska. Lots of snow worms. Never did see a snow flea."

Inhale,"... They're supposed to exist in Greenland and Alaska."

"Phil. How much further?" Judy broke in.

Exhale. "Another twenty-five minutes. You're doing great, Judy. Did you hear that large avalanche a few minutes ago?"

"Yeh. Kind of scary. Is that the kind that killed the climbers last week?" Judy asked.

Exhale. "Probably, if they were under one that sounded like that."

Judy and I arrived at Camp Muir forty minutes behind the others. By taking a slow pace Judy arrived at Camp Muir relatively relaxed. We were all at Camp Muir just before sunset.


     Phil and Judy arriving at Camp MuirPhoto: Ridgeway-Film

Everybody was tired but elated. Doug said it was the most demanding physical thing he had ever done in his life. He wondered if he could make the summit but decided he really wanted to. Jim explained that getting to Muir is the hardest part.

Camp Muir is the primary base camp for several routes up Rainier. There is a large kidney-bean-shaped flat commons area, outlined with large boulders. East of the common’s area the snow field is flat.  Climbers can pitch tents in the snow or they can stay in a public shelter on the south side of the commons. The shelter is a stone building thirty feet long, fifteen feet wide and eight feet high. The only opening is the door. Inside there are bunks which will hold approximately twenty climbers, and a shelf to hold stoves. Melting snow had flooded the floor with an inch of water.

The Guide Service has a bunk shack on the north-west side of the commons, a rectangular fifteen-by-twenty-foot box covered with tar paper and a tar roof which will sleep twenty to twenty- five. Bunks are three tiers high. The head room at the top level is so low it is impossible to sit up. The Guides also have a storage building and higher up on the rocks to the north, above the other building, a cookhouse. In addition to the four buildings, there are a couple of chemical toilets and a rack of refuse containers which are carried out by helicopter twice during the year.

On my first trip to Camp Muir in 1952, before the guide bunk shack and cook house, there was a traditional outhouse with a hole that opened over a cliff. The next year somebody forgot to close the door and snow and ice filled the outhouse and it never thawed out.

The view back down the slope is to the south. In the clear air the distant peaks of Mt. Hood and the Three Sisters in Oregon stood as reference points for the height of volcanic peaks above the countryside. Mt. Adams (11,000 feet) and Mt. St. Helens (8,000 feet) appeared as giant neighbors above the waves of four thousand foot-high foothills. A swath of destruction lay between St. Helens and Rainier. Steam clouds coming out of the dirty scar of Mt. St. Helens crater leaned out to the west in a gentle wind. A little more than a year before St. Helens was 1,300 feet higher. It had erupted on May 18, 1980, leveling the forest and sending a shower of ash which covered eastern Washington. The snows of winter covered the ash which had fallen on the route to Muir. Smoke from logging operations and slash burning filled several valleys. The ridges of the foothills lay in rows like a corduroy road toward the ocean. They blocked the low-angle sun sending grey shadows into the smoke filled valleys.


     Mt. Adams Photo: Ridgeway-Film

Stoves were placed on a large fixed outdoor table which stood about four feet high. Jim made dinner. Some ate standing up looking at the scenery, some ate sitting on the large chunks of volcanic basalt and pumice bordering the commons area.

We slid into our sleeping bags around ten o'clock. I slept in the Guide bunk shack with the disabled climbers. Our "porters" slept in the public shelter. The space was cramped on the sleeping platform- bunk and the blind sometimes had problems locating the opening to their sleeping bags. Justin inadvertently started to slide a leg into Bud's bag and stopped when Bud commented in a droll tone, "Queer."  This caused a choking round of muffled laughter as we fell asleep. We tried to be quiet because another climbing party who was going directly to the summit had gone to bed around five in the afternoon and were already asleep. They would get up at midnight and climb all night while the snow was still solid and try to return before the late morning avalanches started. The route up the mountain is on the eastern side and the snow starts getting soft and melting as soon as the sun rises. Pelion was planning only to go to high camp on the next day and would not have to get up until seven or eight. The only clue the early rising team might have to their unusual roommates was Charles' leg lying on the bench.

The summit party got up at midnight,climbed to the summit while we slept, and returned to Muir while the Pelion crew was gorging itself on pancakes. The guide reported that the route was in great shape.