mount rainier in a day
2:30 am. 11,000 feet. Base of the Fuhrer Finger Couloir
Our three headlamps pan the steep snow ramp like searchlights as we work upward in the dark. The sweep of light reveals a craggy wall to our left and sun-cupped snow disappearing into the night above. The scrape of our crampons is the only sound in the dead air. One foot, the other, the ax, breathe. We move slow to conserve energy and allow careful crampon placement, wary of a long fall on the firm snow.
I’m thinking about my breathe and the long day ahead when a rock the size of a softball hums out of the darkness above and slams into my thigh.
“AAhhh!” I yell.
Jordon’s headlamp swings over. “You all right?”
“Yeah fine, just startled. I hate not being able to see what’s above us”
We continue up, reminded of the rotten rock that hangs above, pasted to the mountain with a veneer of ice. We’re midway through the Fuhrer Finger now, the steepest part of the route. We want to be out of here well before the sun hits the upper mountain and the couloir becomes a funnel for shed debris. We try moving faster but tired legs protest and we’re stuck in low gear, plodding upward through the night.
12 hours earlier. Paradise Road. Mount Rainier National Park
“Hey man wanna pullover? I think we can get a look at the route from here.” Sean said from the passenger seat.
I steered the van to the shoulder and we climbed out.
“There she is boys, the Fuhrer Finger”
Towering over us was the South face of Mount Rainier, the Fuhrer Finger route splitting it in a serpentine curve. First climbed by Hans Fuhrer and co. in 1920, the route’s name is a nod to the first ascensionist and the digital strip threading the cliffs of the mountain’s south side. It's popular with ski mountaineers for its unbroken descent from the summit to the highest road access on the mountain at Paradise Ranger Station.
We spent a few minutes looking over the route and taking in the scale of the mountain in the afternoon sun. At first look the ice and rock of the upper mountain seemed a long way off, but as we traced the line of the route it started to feel real. When we climbed back into the van I wiped the sweat from my hands before taking the wheel.
Our plan was to get to the base of the Finger that evening and make camp for an early start the next day. We stood around the van in the Paradise parking lot, sorting gear in preparation. Ropes, harnesses, a few layers, a stove to melt snow, sleeping ba…
“Say…” Sean said, looking up from his backpack to Jordon and I. That damn sly smirk playing at the corners of his mouth, and a light in his eyes.
“…what do you guys think of trying this in a day?”
Jordon and I look at him, then each other. He’s kidding…
At 14,400 feet Mount Rainier is the highest and most glaciated of all the Cascade summits. Wikipedia lists it as having the greatest ‘topographic prominance’ (elevation above the surrounding area) of any peak in the contiguous United States. All this to say that when you stand at the base and look up, it’s a damn big mountain.
I first tried climbing Mount Rainier in 2011 when some Colorado friends and I made the trek out to attempt the Emmons Glacier route. For this, our first attempt at a glaciated peak, we set aside the better part of a week and packed the biggest backpacks we had. We spent two days tripping on snowshoes and laboring under the weight of our packs to gain our high camp, and another full day digging snow caves in a blizzard when weather rolled in. Our high point that trip was Camp Schurman at 9500 feet, and the mountain felt overwhelmingly big.
In the intervening years I’ve learned a lot about mountain movement. I’ve found the way I most enjoy traveling in wild places is afoot with a light kit. Nothing too fancy, just the minimum amount of gear you need to stay safe and comfortable, and enjoy the feeling of moving outside.
A couple of years after our failed Rainier attempt, my friend Jordon introduced me to ski mountaineering on Mt Hood. We climbed the mountain, took a break to make some soup, and enjoyed excellent corn skiing all the way back to the car. From that first go, I was pretty convinced the idea had merit.
I’d been ski mountaineering for a couple of years when Sean posed the question to Jordon and I in the Paradise parking lot. Mt Hood in a day? Definitely. Mt Adams? Long day but sure. Sounds fun. Four-day climbs of Mt Rainier are long in the past, but climbing a fourteen thousand foot mountain in a single day? I can’t wrap my head around it.
The thing is, while Sean’s prone to good humor and outlandish proposals, I’ve never heard him suggest anything without being fully ready to launch. He must think it’s possible.
Jordon’s response brings me back to the moment.
“I think that’ll make it a lot harder to pull off” he says, “but it would be rad if we could do it.”
We talk it out. It starts sounding more plausible. After some back and forth and filled with nervous excitement, we decide to give it a shot.
12:20 am. Paradise Ranger Station. 5400 feet.
We wake to the alarm’s buzz, echoing around the back of the van. We get dressed, donning harnesses and packs. Fighting off the midnight fog we stick skins to skis and head for the dirty snow at the edge of the parking lot. We click into skis and start up the well-worn trail from the visitor’s center, a moving island of light.
8000 feet, Wilson Glacier.
Icy snow glitters in the glow of our headlamps. The sound of our breathing, the jingle and scrape of ski-crampons the only sound in the black night. We’ve crossed the Lower Nisqually Glacier and climbed the Wilson. We can see the headlamps of other climbers above us. It’s the middle of the night and we don’t say much as we shuffle across the landscape, the mountain’s bulk hidden in the darkness above.
Sean dances up the mountain, rapidly putting distance between us. A wild animal light on his feet.
As radiologist-in-training at the University of Washington, Sean has the most packed schedule of anyone I know. He stays fit by running to work and packing big adventures into his squeezed weekends.
“Look at those pole plants” Jordon says, as we lean heavily on our poles looking up at Sean “he’s barely using ‘em!”
We look at each other and shake out heads.
By the time daylight comes we’re through the Finger, looking at the apex of the Nisqually Glacier and the summit beyond.
I love this movement in big terrain. A chance to dip into something raw and uncontrolled with two great friends at my side. A chance to feel tiny and vulnerable in a vast and uncaring wilderness with the safety and security of daily life peeled away.
We group up and prepare for the push to the summit.
It’s easy climbing, but with thin air and 8000 feet of climbing in our legs, we measure upward progress in half-steps. Forty five more minutes of ragged breathing and we’re on the summit looking over Puget Sound. Forty miles to the west and 14,000 feet below.
We collapse for a nap in the steady breeze that sweeps the summit.
After climbing all night, we rise to start our descent 20 minutes after arriving. It’s still cold on the summit, but below us the frozen snow is softening rapidly in the sun. We need to get to the steepest parts of the route before they’re too warm. Sean leads the charge off the summit into icy sastrugi.
As the slope steepens it catches the morning sun directly and we’re soon carving soft snow.
We stop above the steepest pitch of the route, a rollover that hangs over a gaping crevasse.
“I want to make sure JT’s got a route down from here” Sean says. “I’ll check it out”
He jump-turns in place and skies the pitch effortlessly. The snow is perfectly soft and he whoops pulling up out of avalanche exposure.
“What do you think?” He shouts up.
“I’ll give ‘er a go!” I say. I’m gripped, staring down into that crevasse and doubting my skill. I Take a deep breath, and release my edges.
An arcing right turn above the gaping hole and I’m standing next to Sean filled with relief.
The crux behind us, it’s time to enjoy thousands of feet of perfect corn-snow down the tapering neck of the Fuhrer Finger couloir. Sean opens it up to lead us off.
Jordon follows, and I drop in close behind. It’s a party now, and we carve up the couloir in perfect conditions.
After we exit the couloir the angle eases. Out of exposure to avalanches, crevasses and consequential falls we enjoy swooping turns down the Wilson and Nisqually glaciers.
4000 feet. 12 pm. Paradise Road at Nisqually Bridge
We punch through hollow snow and scramble wet rock to the road. Tourists look at us blankly before returning their attention to the mountain, towering over the glacier behind us. The events of the morning swirl around me. I can’t believe we’ve done it.
I had never considered skiing that massive mountain in a single day. Never thought to push so far beyond anything I’d done before. But as I stood there on the sunny road looking up at the huge thing we’d just done, I felt grateful to have the kinds of friends who give me the courage to leap after implausible goals.
I came away from that day with a whole new understanding of what’s inside me. All it took was one sly look from a friend and a question. Why don’t we see what we’re capable of?