MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK — The good news came at midnight.
Rainier Mountaineering Inc. guide Casey Grom stepped into the crude wooden bunkhouse at 10,000 feet on Mount Rainier's south flank and told our climbing team that stars had appeared. The cloud enveloping us all day while slogging up from historic Paradise Inn at 5,400 feet had dropped thousands of feet below, allowing the full moon to beam its light.
"It's summit climb time!" Grom called out.
Immediately, 16 men and two women flew into action. We'd been tossing and turning in our sleeping bags since 7 p.m., trying to grab a few hours of sleep before ascending the final 4,400 feet to this icy giant's summit. We quickly ate cups of instant oatmeal, pulled on heavy climbing boots and strapped avalanche transceivers to our chests so we could be found if disaster struck.
At 14,411 feet, Mount Rainier in central Washington is the highest peak in the Pacific Northwest.
It also is more heavily glaciated than any other mountain in the country, with 35 square miles of ice from 26 glaciers.
I had summited once before, also on the Disappointment Cleaver route we would tackle today. It's physically demanding but is considered the least technical path to the top. However, my previous trip was in 1982. Now, five days after my 61st birthday, I was the oldest member of the team. Was I kidding myself? Everyone chuckled two days earlier during introductions when 27-year-old Mo McManus of Seattle remarked that she wasn't born yet the last time I climbed Rainier. Even I had to laugh.
Team members ranged from a Washington, D.C., school teacher, a Tampa, Fla., entertainment sales manager and an economist from Kansas City, Mo., to two Seattle residents who work for Boeing. Soon we would all know whether our training was adequate.
By 1:30 a.m. on July 15 we had divided into four-person rope teams with a professional guide leading each one. We wore headlamps despite the full moon as we left Camp Muir and began crossing the Cowlitz Glacier. Lots of deep crevasses lay ahead so we would stay roped all the way to the summit and back to Camp Muir, even during rest breaks.
We wore crampons on our boots — metal spikes that dig into the ice and provide stability on glaciers. Crampon points clattered on rocks as we scaled Cathedral Gap and headed toward the Ingraham Glacier. We took the first of three breaks after 90 minutes of work, sitting on our packs at what's called Ingraham Flats, a relatively level spot. There's lots to do during the 10-minute respites. First, everyone pulls a winter parka from their pack and wraps up to preserve body heat. Then we eat candy bars, trail mix, cheese or other energy food. The idea is to consume 300 to 400 calories along with a half-liter of water during each break.
Soon we traversed the Ingraham Glacier below car-sized blocks of ice that were hidden in the darkness. Returning later in the day, we would see that some of those blocks had broken loose and tumbled across the trail sometime in the not-too-distance past. The guides hustled us through the danger zone.
Before long we started scaling Disappointment Cleaver, an outcropping that rises 1,200 feet and is the steepest part of the climb. The path, snow-covered in July, was about 15 inches wide and zig-zagged back and forth with drop-offs falling 2,000 feet to the crevassed glacier below.
Winded after 45 minutes on the cleaver, we took our second break just above the route's namesake feature. The sun was starting to come up and a fluorescent pink glow stretched across the horizon. It was a delicious view at 12,300 feet, although the altitude was beginning to affect everyone.
Above the cleaver, breathing became even more difficult. One climber complained of a headache during the final break at 13,500 feet. That's normal, a guide said, and the climber popped a couple of aspirins before continuing.
Progress became a psychological battle during the final 900 feet of elevation gain. But the lure of the summit, the promise of success, drew us on despite the discomfort. My rope team stepped onto the rim of the summit crater at 7:45 a.m. — 6 hours and 15 minutes after leaving Camp Muir. Everyone celebrated in their own way, including a man who recorded a moving tribute to his recently deceased mother on a video camera.
I just kept grinning, not quite believing I was back at the spot I had visited decades earlier. The view was inspiring, with a layer of clouds thousands of feet below and 12,300-foot Mount Adams rising into the deep blue sky 100 miles to the south.
We still had to descend 9,000 feet to Paradise Inn before this day's effort would end after 14 hours of walking. That didn't matter right now. The joy was worth it, and although I told myself earlier today that this would be my last big mountain, a familiar thought was already racing through my mind.
Steve Kadel is a reporter for the Curry Coastal Pilot in Brookings.