Backstory: Are We There Yet?

In 1989, Mt. Rainier earned a spot on the “Decade Volcano” list. Given the mountain’s past eruptive history and proximity to population centers, geologists studied it closely over the next 10 years to see if it might erupt.

In 1997, I also classified Rainier as a “Decade Volcano,” but for different reasons: I hoped to ski it within 10 years.

Spring 1998 found me gazing at the sky from a shelter 10,000 feet up Rainier. The pinpoint sparks above contrasted with the sea of clouds below, and the stark, ghostly light moved me to doubts. We summited without our skis, and my regrets followed me home.

Since then, I’ve been back to the volcano time and time again. I’ve skied the Muir Snowfields in fog, sun and blizzards. I’ve had a friend drag me up Liberty Ridge, and I’ve turned back as rocks buzzed my head on the Success Cleaver. Once, it rained so hard that drops squeezed past the gaskets in my Subaru’s windows. I became sick from stove fumes one windy night on the Emmons Glacier. Through it all, a ski descent remained elusive, though not for lack of trying.

Along the way, I ticked objectives off my list. Solo descent of Cooper Spur? Check. Self-guide the Haute Route? Yup. First descents on Baffin Island? In the bag. North Face of Mont Blanc? Done that. Dana Couloir? Twice. South Face of Superior? Laps.

Rainier from the top? Nope.

Illustration by Alex Nabaum

Spring 2007 arrives, and my partners are game to try another attempt. When conditions line up, Mark, Judd and I point the car west and hope. Arriving at the Paradise trailhead, we find high pressure and great snow cover. Next stop is our 9,000-foot camp and, soon enough, 3 a.m. arrives with no wind and shimmering stars. The volcano’s crystalline points draw my eyes up, but the crevasses force them down as we begin our ascent.

By 5 a.m., we’re through the crux of the Fuhrer Finger couloir. Steep and narrow snow, hemmed by rocky walls, gives way to a broad slope dotted with seracs. We look south over our shoulders at the red-streaked sky. We wordlessly space out along the rope and climb to the crater rim.

I lead the last few feet, until suddenly, we can’t go up anymore. We’ve summited. I turn and blink at the cold, blue sky. My eyes fall on the snow spread out below, rolling away steeper and steeper. We begin the ritual of packing up ropes and crampons, trading climbing tools for descending ones.

We click into our skis, and there’s no time to linger. Wind-formed waves cause our skis to chatter and skip. We turn on a dime around the crevasses and glide between shadowy openings, trying not to look down. Then, it’s jumping and grunting in soft corn through the crux. The steepening slope draws us down into a narrowing chute. Painfully gained vertical gleefully falls away. Gravity pulls me into the gut of the couloir until my legs burn and lungs heave. I am tired. I am blissful. But I’m not done yet.

An hourglass-shaped choke spits us onto a broad apron of white velvet, and we traverse like we mean it. As we carry speed on shaky legs, nearby avalanche debris reminds me that we’re small, and the mountain is big.

Eight hours after leaving camp, we return to find ravens picking at our food. We eat, pack, nap and wait for the sun to set. When the snow firms, we shoulder heavy packs and, with protesting quads, begin careful turns along a serpentine route through slots and chasms.

Our group kicks and glides across the shady slopes. Are we there yet? No. We throw skins on for a short climb. Are we there yet? Close. Exhausted, we pole over moss-covered sun cups. Are we there yet? Not quite. There’s still a short hike over dirt to the car.

Are we there yet? Yes. After 10 years, I’m there.

Speak Your Mind