Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Liberty Ridge, Mt. Rainier: June 2007

There are things in life that are badass one does to impress other people. Then there are things in life one does to impress oneself. I have found these are the things that end up impressing people the most, especially if you are like me and hard to impress.

What am I saying? I'll tell you what: This weekend, JB and I attempted to summit Mt Rainier via Liberty Ridge. 10,000 vertical feet, grade III-IV ice, up to 7000 feet of exposure (exposure: the distance you fall before your body stops moving), and completely committing. In other words, once you commit to the route, there is no turning back. To get down, you must get over the top.

Liberty Ridge's simplicity, beauty, and difficulty lend it a power to attract and seduce the experienced alpine climber. The route itself is not terribly technical, save a 50 degree ice sheet near the very top of Liberty Cap (the terminus of the route at the summit plateau), and the standard challenge of glacier travel on the approach-route finding and keeping you and your partner out of crevasses. It is long, clean, steep, and physically demanding, a classic route in alpine mountaineering. Take a look at it here:

So we wanted a piece of it. JB and I knew we were at the top end of our climbing experience, having minimal amounts of ice climbing experience (including a skin-of-our-teeth pitch on the bergschrund of the Ice-Cliff Glacier on Mt Stuart), but because of our level of fitness, our trust in each other as climbing partners, and the optimistic weather window, we felt good about going for it.

We spent dozens of hours preparing: studying the route, reading climbing reports (some scary, some motivating and amusing), making countless decisions on gear, food, clothing, and schedule. Two plane tickets, 4 days off of work, a bunch of rented and borrowed gear (thank Garrett), and a new pair of waterproof climbing gloves later, we were psyched ready to go.

Even after all of this, I still knew I wasn't as ready as I wanted to be. This route is a stretch for me. Not only do I believe in pushing myself, but I look for opportunities to do so. Alpine climbing provides a compelling and relevant way to take on a challenge and push one's limits in a tangible way, enabling types of growth that apply not just to the next mountain but as a metaphor for all types of success (Corporations love hiring mountaineers as motivational speakers or retreat leaders, as the metaphor couldn't be tighter - "He summitted Everest, let's summit our own Everest and move these vacuum cleaners!").

So off we went. Our first night we spent on a narrow ridge on St. Elmo's Pass, arriving just as the sun was setting. Day 2 involved crossing two glaciers, and gaining Liberty Ridge at its base. We gained about 3500 vertical and enjoyed lots of heart-racing snow-bridge crossings, a process that involves trying to be as quick and light footed as possible, and a look into a dark, silent, gaping crevasse to remind you why. The base of Liberty Ridge is where we unroped and slogged up the boot-pack (steps kicked in -for which we are grateful- by other climbers before us) finally arriving at our bivouac spot of Thumb Rock (10,300') at around 4 PM. Two parties (total of 5 people) had arrived before us. Excited discussion about whether or not the weather would be suitable for a summit attempt continued among (and often between) each party for several hours, encouraged by a less-than favorable weather report that another climber had called for from the weather service. The thunderstorm clouds we could see at the top nad other sides of hte mountains were supposed to worsen leading to a full blown snowstorm the following night.

At this point, it was 6 PM and JB and I agree to go down. Then we hesitated- the weather report is sketchy, not terrible, and why not just wait until we wake up at 1:30 to make that call? What if the weather is perfect? If it is not, we will just go down at that point with the only thing lost is a headstart making it back to the car.

We went to bed at 9 PM, the sunset still providing enough light to read from. 4 hours of occasional napping, sweating in the tent, listening to JB snore (he was very apologetic later on) and wondering what was going to happen later we left our tent just before two to see a clear summit. Then clouds. Then clear. So we decided to go for it. We packed up, looked up one more time at the summit: scary clouds. We both admitted that although the weather was not terrible, it was not perfect, and for our skill level, schedule, and readiness we needed perfect to move forward with confidence.

What we didn't want was to reach the summit, or even worse get close to it in the most exposed and technical section of ice climbing, and get caught in white out conditions. Furthermore, there was a certain risk of having the predicted winter storm blow in sooner, and then we were really screwed, looking at walking down in a storm or a tent bivouac of unpredictable length. We a plane to catch and jobs to get back to, not to mention how any of those scenarios would be no fun at all.

So we looked at each other, and looked up one last time at the swath of clouds insulating the summit, backlit by the moon in the early morning darkness. The sight was at once beautiful and decisive. We looked down, then at one another again, and simultaneously (like the times you would say "jinx, you owe me a coke") we blurted "I think we should go down." Even if we bailed, at least we bailed in stereo.

So we headed down in the dark, down the bootpack we climbed up hours before. It was dissappointing, but we didn't feel that bad because we knew we were saving ourselves from what was likely a very sketchy situation. Once we had descended almost 2000 feet, the sunrise at 4 AM was beautiful. Well, beautiful and glorious outside of how it illuminated the upper mountain which was now TOTALLY FREE OF CLOUDS.

We felt like total assholes. Losers. Wimps. We were at the point of commitment and we balked based on something that didn't even happen. All of our time, efort, and money only to blow it on what turned out to be a bad, fear-based decision, and now we had to just watch the beautiful clear route and the other climbing parties taht were already up on it who were going to summit that day in the clear weather and we were down at the bottom walking back to the stupid car.

Well, at least it felt that way.

After the first few hours of intensely clear skies and emotional disappointment, the summit gradually became more and more and more socked in with thick white clouds. Their arrival coincided exactly with when we knew we would be getting close to if not on the summit, and that is exactly where they stayed the rest of the day, gradually engulfing the entire summit and much of our route down.

That made us feel, if nothing else, a little bit better.

Also, about halfway down JB's knee started acting up in a major way, cutting our pace in half. It didn't seem to relate to any one event of the day, rather something that began earlier in the trip and worsened. We were a lot better off not being up on a tough, technical route with another 4000+ of descending to deal with and have an injury further complicate a delicate situation.

In other words, I feel really good about the decision. We made the right choice in not attempting the summit. Sure it is a bit hard to swallow looking at all of the investment we made, but it made me rethink how to define a climb successful. In this case I felt that despite not making the summit the climb was a great success: great mountaineering experience for both of us as climbers and partners, a great experience, two nights out in the wilderness, and we both made it back safely.

I will do my best to get some more photos uploaded in the next few days. in other news, I am starting a class with Mediabistro.com tomorrow night, a series of writing seminars and industry panels about Writing for TV.

I am really excited. I'll keep you, as it were, posted.

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