DAY ONE: ORIENTATION
It's been two months since we packed up our gear and headed to Ashford for our summit climb orientation. I remember that day perfectly. Pulling up to RMI, seeing our group under the gazebos, the CFCA banner standing tall by our group and Win Whittaker organizing it all.
It was hard to believe that orientation had already come. I hadn't been able to comprehended the magnitude of what we were about to attempt and I realized most of us were on the same page. What we had relentlessly fundraised and trained for over the last 5 months was right before our eyes and we were living out what we visioned over and over again in our heads.
Win Whittaker began to speak and we all went silent.
Generally in our society, when someone starts to speak to a crowd, the crowd respectfully quiets for the speaker but this silence was much more eager, it was a 'tell me everything you know' kind of silence. The Whittaker family is known worldwide for their mountaineering expertise and the fact that we were going to be climbing with one of them was a tremendous honor. When you meet someone like this, your time spent with them is truly invaluable and as an aspiring mountaineer, I couldn't soak up enough of Win's wisdom.
The first part of orientation was at Whittaker's bunkhouse with our team and our guides for an overview of RMI's climbing technique and policies. We went over both objective and subjective hazards on the mountain as well as the disappointment cleaver route that we would be taking. As we were sitting there listening, my mind went to a scene in an Everest film where the lead guide was giving the same speech to his climbers in Nepal. This was us, on a much smaller scale of course, but getting our pep talk and looking around at the flags on the wall from RMI guides on the tallest peak in the world made that moment so surreal.
The second part of the evening was gear check. Our team split into two groups, one went with Win and our group went with Paul. After laying out our gear on the lawn, we held each item called while Paul observed what we brought. A few of us found that a layer we packed wouldn't be sufficient if less than favorable conditions roll in on the upper mountain. I ended up ditching the hard shell pant I originally packed and rented a heavier, breathable hardshell that I can't imagine not having for our climb school and our post climb glissades. We made sure our crampons were fitted correctly to our boots, learned how to pack our packs with intention and had a few good laughs before we headed to bed for the evening in preparation for day two, climb school.
DAY TWO: CLIMBING SCHOOL
RMI Climbing school was a day of learning some basic mountaineering skills needed on the upper mountain. We practiced self arrest (how to stop yourself with an ice axe when falling), how to arrest and react when a team member is falling, how to walk in a rope team, how to use crampons and how to use our avalanche transceivers. THIS WAS ALL NEW TO ME. It was exciting but also made me wish I would have had a little more experience. Rope teams can be tricky...
After climb school we got together at the grill, ate, shared stories, expressed our anxiousness and excitement for the next morning and headed off to bed.
BEGINNING OF DAY THREE: CLIMB TO CAMP MUIR 9:30 AM
I slept very well at the bunkhouse and woke up feeling refreshed. Refreshed, but nervous as hell.
Reflecting back on this climb two months later, I can see everything for what it was. I was so busy leading up to this day that what I was going to attempt never really sank in but during the 20 minute bus ride to the park, it got real.
We got off the bus, geared up, had a quick talk with our guides Paul and Taylor and we were off to Camp Muir. At this point, I felt completely confident. This Camp Muir hike was familiar to me and felt like I was walking in the park with friends. I kind of forgot I would be attempting to summit the remaining 4,000 feet above Camp Muir and was in my own little zone. My anxiousness fled quickly and I was just doing what I've come to love.
A few hours in, the clouds became more sparse, the sun was beating down relentlessly and I could feel myself start to get mentally tired. I had more than enough energy to get to Muir but I hadn't felt worn like that during my previous trips to Muir so I started to question myself. I focused on my rest step and pressure breathing and was able to keep the pace for the next hour and a half to Muir.
CAMP MUIR - 3:30 PM
When we got to Muir I felt instant relief which was soon followed by some anxiousness.
What am I doing here? This is insane.
I sat in our bunk and started to rehydrate but could not get over what was happening in my stomach. At first, I thought it was just my nerves but it worsened as time went on and I couldn't tune it out. Gas was expanding in my stomach and it had to go somewhere so my natural instinct was to keep running to the outhouse. I tried taking Tums, drinking more water, laying down but nothing brought relief.
Altitude, you're fun. No really though, I love you but thanks for the heads up the last three times we were together.
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't frustrated at this point, so I straight up asked Win, "Is it normal to feel like you've constantly got to GO?" He laughed and said, "Yes, that just means your body is acclimatizing."
In my head, I thought, "Okay, so these are the cards I've been dealt, deal with it." I tried to keep that mentality but it wasn't lasting.
We all made our dinners and I had maybe five bites of mine and couldn't stomach it. At this point maybe I should have known that altitude had won this round but I was still fighting. Not eating was absolutely going to decrease my likelihood of making it to the summit and I knew that but this was just how it was going to be.
After dinner, the guides came in to reiterate the game plan and discuss the route one more time before we tried to get a few hours of sleep. It was about 6 or so and we were told we would be woken up anywhere between 10PM-3AM to gear up and start our ascent. We were told that what was most important wasn't so much getting a great sleep but spending time horizontal.
The guides left and we laid in the bunks silently waiting for it to get dark. I was still awake when the sun began to set and from a tiny window of the top bunk, I watched the glow over the clouds with Mt. Adams in the distance. I knew I should try and get some sleep but my stomach wasn't giving up and I was starting to mentally psych myself out so I did what I always do in those moments and prayed. I prayed for our team, and for strength, comfort and reassurance. It wasn't the mountain I was scared of and it certainly wasn't our leaders. I had no doubt that we were in great hands and couldn't have asked for better conditions, the thing that scared me the most was myself.
How would I know when to turn back? I know I can be stubborn and I do like to push myself but after you reach a certain spot on the upper mountain, there's no turning back until after the summit. I knew altitude was getting to me and didn't know what to expect as we got higher. I had to be self aware and just give it all I've got.
WAKING UP TO START THE ASCENT - 11:00 PM
A few hours of tossing and turning went by and Win walked in the bunk, rang a bell and turned on the lantern.
It was time.
The next five hours were unlike anything that I have ever done and I still get goosebumps talking and writing about it. I really can't describe it any other way than an out of body experience. Whatever it was got me hooked on this sport and I've been chasing it since then.
Sleepless and foggy, I slip my avalanche transceiver over my chest.
Who is playing Eye of The Tiger?
Okay, I can get down to this.
I feel like I'm in a movie, this should be a movie, this is absolutely surreal.
I was able to stomach a little bit of breakfast and then slowly gathered my gear that was inside for the night and climb down the stairs to main level of the bunk. I headed out to the bathroom one more time, repack my pack, put on my harness and attached my crampons to my boots. I found out then that my rope team would be my husband Joe and I and our guide Eric. We would be the last group to take off so we waited around for a few minutes while Eric checked our crampons and gave us a little pep talk.
We waited for a few minutes for the rope teams ahead of us to gain some distance and then we were off. As we took our first steps away from Muir, I couldn't see anything other than what was in the small light bubble that my headlamp shined on the snow. I looked up and could see the lights of our team ascending up the mountain like floating stars.
WOW. THIS IS INCREDIBLE.
I stumbled on the rope which brought my focus back to the climb.
Shit, keep your eyes in the bubble, Kim.
It would suck to fall right here.
Okay, this pace isn't so bad, I've got this.
I'm really not sure how long it took to reach cathedral gap but I'm guessing it was about a half hour. It was then that I started to think maybe I don't have this. My stomach wasn't bothering my so much anymore but I was starting to feel winded and was being tugged by Joe in front of me.
Back to the "Rope teams can be tricky" statement I made earlier...
I'm traveling on a glacier, it's dark, I'm trying to get the hang of using crampons and an ice axe and I'm being pulled from my harness because I can't keep the pace. I thought this was difficult until we started climbing up steep dirt and rock. Nothing makes you more thankful for snow than trekking through rock with crampons. These steps were so large, they required me to lift my knees to my chest and utilize my ice axe for extra support. I looked up at Joe and it seemed like he was just cruising along. I tried to throw in some rest steps but they just weren't long enough for me to catch my breath. I thought to myself, it's only going to get significantly more difficult, are you really ready for this? The answer was no. I was not. At least that's what I keep telling myself.
I couldn't find it in me to continue on past the flats to the cleaver. I was astonished at the pace I had kept up with and I was still trying to catch my breath as we stopped at the flats. I told Eric this was probably going to be it for me, and he said something along the lines of "I'd hate to have it be this way but if it's just not your day, the mountain isn't going anywhere." He recommended that when I get back to Muir, I relax for a bit and set my alarm to 5:30 so I could go out and watch the incredible sunrise. The thought of watching the sunrise over Camp Muir made me feel better about making the decision to turn. I looked around and started to check out how everyone else was feeling. We all looked tired but I could tell I didn't have the extra stamina like the rest of the team as they caught their breaths and I hadn't.
I found out that two other team mates had decided to turn as well, so we unlatched from our previous rope teams and gathered together. We all agreed that the pace was much faster than we trained for but I knew if I'd been keeping up with intense cardio prior to the climb or utilized an oxygen reducing mask, it wouldn't have been feeling like I did.
As everyone was getting ready to take off, I kissed my husband and asked him to go careful. I wasn't worried because I understood his strength and knew he was guided by the best. I was definitely jealous, but mostly excited for him and the rest of our team.
We found out that Joe would be the guide leading us back to Camp Muir, he told us if we wanted to hang out at the flats and star gaze for a minute or so we could. We took advantage of Joe's offer and laid there in silence. The stars were so close they felt like they were in your face. You could faintly see the city lights from Yakima 130 miles away. It was about 2:30 AM at 11,250ft and life was completely still.
DESCENDING TO CAMP MUIR - 2:30AM
We watched the rest of our team ascend up the mountain as we started heading back to Camp Muir. I questioned myself the whole damn way.
I feel so much better now.
I just psyched myself out.
I should've kept going.
Maybe I was just overheating.
Why didn't I train harder?
When will I come back
When can I come back?
I need to come back...
I think it took two hours to get back to Muir. I was happy to see our friend Amy who had been waiting up in the bunk since she decided she wasn't going to go further than Muir the day prior. Her husband Rich had turned with me and our friend Paul. Joe brought some more hot water and we sat in the bunks trying to gather what had gone wrong for each of us. I tried to think of all the reasons why I wasn't ready but knew there was no use in beating myself up over it. After awhile we settled down and tried to get some sleep before we woke to see the sunrise.
Eric was right, the sunrise was magnificent. I knew the view that our team had at 13,000 right now had to be breathtaking but I couldn't help but think we are the lucky ones down here. I sat there and let it all soak in.
A few hours later we got the radio call that our team made it to the summit!
I couldn't wait for Joe to get back and hear all about it. I wondered if he was ever able to get the GoPro running while he was up there since we exchanged helmets when I turned. I was incredibly proud of him and the rest of our team and grateful that the weather held out for them.
The teams descent seemed like it took an eternity and I'm sure that they would't argue that. We waited hours before we were able to see them crossing the cleaver. When they finally returned to Camp Muir, I gave Joe the biggest hug and told him how proud I was of him. Proud AND jealous! I knew I would be talking his ear off all week trying to get every little detail of the climb. He looked drained, and knowing his level of endurance made me realize how much the climb requires from you. I know I made the right choice as a watched the rest of the team return to Muir.
The few of us that had been waiting at Camp Muir started the descent to Paradise shortly after they returned.The rest of the team was going to take a breather before they continued on. We were fortunate enough to have pristine glissade chutes for a good portion of the descent which is always rejuvenating.
We returned to the parking lot at Paradise around 2:00 and the rest of the team wasn't too far behind. When they all made it back we cheer'd each other on, cracked open a cold Rainier beer and waited for bus to take us back to Whittaker's.
On the bus ride back, I was thinking about how wild the last 12 hours had been. It was crazy to think that guides will periodically have yo-yo climbs...how incredible would be to build up that kind of strength and endurance? To summit, descend and then lead a team up the next day to do it all over again. It blows my mind knowing what our bodies are capable of. My experience on Mt. Rainier showed me how crucial training is for this sport. This was only the beginning of climbing for me and it opened the doors to so much opportunity.
Joe and I knew that we wouldn't be staying for the ceremony dinner when we got back to Whittaker's. He was beat after a long summit day and we were both eager to get home to our dogs that had been at camp most of the week. We returned our rental gear, said some goodbyes and were on our way home. Like all of our finer moments in life, it all went by too quickly. Part of me wishes we would have stayed for the dinner but it was also lovely to be home. I missed everyone and everything already but had no doubt that the friends we had made through CFCA would stay close. Driving away from Whittaker's, I knew that my life was forever changed and that before I knew it, I would be back at RMI, walking up to orientation for the next endeavor.