Failure is Always An Option

by

Article and Photo By Keir Hart

Mt. Rainier

I get antsy on planes. It’s not like I’m afraid to fly. On the contrary, I fly all over the world. It’s just that, inevitably, I start to squirm around like I have ants in my pants. My book and inflight entertainment can only keep me occupied for so long. Thank goodness for the aisle seat.

“I’m so bored,” I was thinking to myself just as I heard the static from the pilot’s headset crackle from the overhead speaker.

“For those of you on the left side of the plane, we have a good view of Mt Rainier.” Every person on the plane spun their head around to get a glimpse of the volcano. My mouth dropped. The glacier capped mountain loomed outside the window like a white-haired sumo wrestler, and felt about as intimidating. The ice sparkled in the sun, broken only by rock and the deep crevasses that fractured the trail to the summit. Towering at 14,410 feet above sea level, Mt Rainier is the most glaciated peak in the contiguous US. Climbers often use the mountain as a training ground for higher peaks like Aconcagua and Everest. My heart pounded as a small smile spread across my face. I was going to climb that.

Once we landed, my wife and I grabbed our luggage and headed to the rental car company. We spent the day and most of the next in Seattle, taking the tours, walking along the water, and enjoying the food. Although the mountain was always there in my mind, if not visible in the distant horizon. I was ready. The months of training and climbing were about to pay off.

At last we headed out on the road. Our GPS, proudly named Glenda after the Good Witch, took us directly toward the peak. After a two hour drive through rolling hills, we arrived in the town of Ashford; a traffic light-free metropolis that you would miss if you weren’t paying attention. I badly wanted to get out and walk around. The forest was different here. It was taller, and more primitive than back home, with some of the old growth Fir and Cedar trees towering over 200 feet high. Unfortunately, the sun was starting to sink over the horizon and our stomachs were making themselves known; the mountain would have to wait until tomorrow.

The sun poked its head through the window shade about 8AM the next day. I don’t mind getting up for a climb, but this was my vacation too and I wanted to sleep in. It was no use, I was up and my body was ready to go. After grabbing some continental breakfast in the lobby, my wife and I headed out to the trails so that I could check my gear after the flight to Seattle.

I was supposed to meet up with the guide company and the rest of my Summit for Someone group that afternoon. We had all spent the last few months raising $4000 for Big City Mountaineers to get urban youth to the outdoors and I was anxious to finally meet everyone face to face.

The twisting mountain road dropped us off at the trailhead, overlooking the white, opaque river. I strapped on my plastic boots, hefted my pack onto my back, and we headed down the trail. We crossed over the river on a makeshift bridge. As I lifted my head up to take in the surroundings, it jumped out at me. It caught me completely off-guard. My heart raced. Sweat beaded up on my forehead. Mt Rainier stared down at me with evil eyes. It was huge. Infinitely bigger than my first view from the airplane. All of the sudden, I felt totally underprepared. Did I bring the right equipment? Why did I not do more cardio? Work always seems to get in the way of training. I wish I had done those few workouts I skipped. I spent the rest of the hike in a daze, second-guessing my decision to make this crazy climb.

After our hike, my wife and I headed back to Ashford to meet up with the group. My head was still swimming. I noticed a small bouldering setup out front and headed over to distract myself for a little while. I concentrated on my feet. Relax. Breathe. Keep your hips into the rock. I could feel the tension slowly melting away.

“Don’t fall,” came a voice from behind me. My foot slipped. I nearly fell.

“I won’t,” I said as I turned to see the tall, bearded figure. I tagged the top and hopped off the rock.

“I just wanted to see if you were going to fall, Keir.” It took me a minute to realize who it was. He had changed since high school, but sure enough, the features were all there. A small clump of blonde hair hung out from under the baseball hat. An image of the two of us as kids in boy scouts flashed in my mind’s eye.

“Hey, how’ve you been?” We made small talk for a few minutes then grabbed our gear and headed over to the table for the formal gear check. After a small power point presentation on the mountain and guide service, our guide went through a piece by piece gear check. He made sure we each had not only the right gear to be safe, but that we kept it light. Every ounce mattered on the mountain. It seemed like each of us had at least a couple changes to make.

The next day was training. We all piled into the shuttle bus after dumping our packs into the trailer and headed to the base of Mt Rainier. The grandiose trailhead began in a small town, aptly named Paradise, at around 5,400 feet of elevation. The Visitor’s Lodge overlooked the valley, with gigantic trees and beautiful mountain flowers everywhere.

The sun beat down from above through a cloudless sky, leading to a few wardrobe changes, myself included. We spent the day hiking up the mountain, practicing our self-arrests, not tripping in our crampons, and traveling as a group roped together. It was a great way to knock the rust off of my snow skills, as the dry winter had made it difficult to find good snow climbs that summer. I could feel my confidence building throughout the day. I was ready to begin the real climb tomorrow.

At last, the day had arrived. We all stumbled out of the shuttle bus into Paradise, donned our packs, and started up the trail after taking our “before” group picture. We were all smiling, clean, and full of energy. I imagined our “after” picture would look very different. After a couple hours hiking, we reached the Muir snowfield. We would trudge up the mountainside for about an hour, and then take a rest to eat, drink, and see to bodily functions. Step. Rest. Step. Rest. Power breathe. Step. Rest. Step. Rest. On and on, until Camp Muir stuck its head over the ridgeline. It was a great site to see. We made the last steep ascent up the ridge into camp and dropped our packs.

I felt surprisingly energetic. There was plenty left in the tank for tomorrow. The weather looked good as we unpacked and headed into the bunkhouse for dinner and eventual sleep. As I stepped through the doorway, I was amazed that we were able to cram almost 20 people into the tiny bunkhouse. Three tiers of bunks lined the walls, each with a face peeking out from the shadows. Our guides brought down some hot water and I watched from my bunk as one by one everyone poured some into their freeze-dried food bags. I looked down at my own food and read the directions. Pad Thai and Chocolate Cheesecake.
1.Tear open pouch and remove peanut and sauce packet.
2.Add 2 cups of hot water and stir in contents of sauce packet.
3.Wait 20 minutes. Double for each 5,000 feet of elevation (directions for 5,000 feet)
4.Add peanuts and enjoy.
“Let’s see,” I thought to myself. “Camp Muir is at about 10,000 feet, so that would be about 40 minutes. Wait. 40 minutes? That can’t be right.” I double-checked my math. Definitely 40 minutes. It pays to read the directions before you bring freeze-dried food on a trip. There is nothing quite like waiting almost an hour for the not-so-gourmet taste of a bag of freeze-dried food. I was starving from the almost 12,000 calories I had just burned that day and the food went down quickly.

Over the next hour, we each started to wind down, finalized our gear for the summit, and got into our sleeping bags. Daylight still shone brightly through the window of the bunkhouse, but the upcoming 1AM start time for the summit push forced us to attempt sleep. I made one last trip to the latrine, noticing some light cloud cover rolling over the top of the mountain. It was a beautiful view from camp. The piercing wind would not let me stand still for long and I headed back toward my sleeping bag. It had been windy all day, but the forecast called for good weather until much later the next day. I didn’t think anything of it as I shut my eyes and waited for sleep to come.

My mind danced with images from the day and thoughts of what the summit would bring. I tossed and turned. I rolled onto my stomach and saw a pack of car batteries across the room. My eyes followed the electrical wires up to the ceiling where a small fluorescent light hung. I flipped onto my back. As the sun went down, I could feel my eyes get heavier and heavier. Just before they closed, I could have sworn that I saw a bright flash of light out the window. It must have been a flashlight. At last, I fell asleep.

The lights snapped me awake. I couldn’t have been asleep for more than a couple of hours, but I felt wide awake. The guides walked in with hot water and a concerned look. It was storming outside. The wind and snow were not the problem, it was the lightning. Our only option was to wait, but we could only wait until about 3AM or we would miss our window to the summit. You could feel everyone’s heart sink in the room.

We waited. My friend and I sat out front of the bunkhouse, looking into the distance, with the occasional glance at the summit. A bright flash of purple spread across the sky, followed by a deafening crash of thunder that rattled the bunkhouse. Time to go back inside. It continued to lightning about every 30 seconds for the next couple of hours. 3AM came and went. Our guides came into the bunkhouse, looking defeated. The summit was now out of reach. The next best thing was to get some sleep and then get out on the glacier for some practice. It was over.

Surprisingly, I fell asleep as soon as the lights went out. We woke again just before dawn so that we could make it to the Flats for sunrise. Because of the clouds, it was an amazing sunrise. It felt like I was on Everest, the clouds hiding the world beneath me. I came to realize the mountain would still be there. If we would have pressed on through the storm, the trip could have turned out much worse. I could always come back. As we headed back down the mountain I kept thinking of the forecast for that evening. High winds, cold temperatures, and bad weather. We made it off of the Muir snowfield as the fog rolled in. I felt bad for the next crew as we ran past them on their way up. I knew how they felt.

Hopefully, I will get my shot next time, but I knew we had made the right decision. It was too dangerous. I thought about a body we had seen being airlifted off of the mountain as we had hiked up earlier the day before. They had died trying to reach the summit in a storm. We had definitely made the right decision.

Later the next day, I ran into a member of the other team in the hotel lobby.

“Were you part of that team to the summit the other day?” I said I was.

“Did you guys make it,” I questioned, thinking there was not a chance.

“A small group of us made it to the top, just a touch and run. Apparently, there were 60+ mph winds and snowing at the top,” he said.

We chatted awhile longer, then shook hands and parted ways. I didn’t feel sorry for myself. If it wasn’t for the lightning, I think we would have made it to the top. I felt well prepared. It might have been just a touch and run. 60mph winds and snow. Good for them.

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