Perhaps I don’t fail often enough.
I have thankfully been pretty blessed so far with my finish rate. Never had to DNF (yet) from a race, successful summits of both Aconcagua and Denali on the first time, and finishing a 400+ mile week running across Iowa. I’m proud of the consistency, but maybe the fact I always finish every single project means I am not testing myself enough? Maybe I need to have bigger goals, harder projects, ones that really quite might be out of my ability level? Am I not actually pushing my limits if I am not occasionally failing?
UltraPedestrian Ras, the bearded and dreads-to-his-knees ultrarunner who is known for going longer than anyone around him will ever care to do, has completed the Wonderland Trail back to back, ran six times across the Grand Canyon, and last year traversed the state of Washington unsupported. I’ll admit, I was a little afraid of what he had in mind when he contacted me wanting to team up on a project. His idea, called the Rainier Wonder Traverse, involved starting at White River, running the eastern section of the Wonderland Trail to Reflection Lake, climb up the Disappointment Cleaver route and traverse over the summit descending the Emmons Glacier route back to White River, then finish the rest of the Wonderland out back to Reflection Lake. Complete the entire project unsupported, so carrying our climbing boots, crampons, ropes, helmets, all our many pounds of gear, the entire way. A very ambitious goal, especially since Ras had never mountaineered before.
Of course I accepted, as I found myself groaning as I hoisted an overloaded 45 pound pack onto my ready shoulders. The leftover burrito from last night sitting like a lead weight in my stomach, a lack of coffee in my system, and a sketchy shimmy across a downed log on the raging White River all were all bad signs of the pain to come. It didn’t help with Ras happily traipsing down the trail, reminding us that this was “infinity”. This was all there was to come for the next three days….oh geez what did I get myself into.
I have never been afraid of weight on my back before. I am not a small framed minimalist trail runner who needs six gels on a 100 mile run. I used to weigh 200 pounds and still remember Sapper School in the Army, where we had to carry 85 pound rucksacks through the woods, and go 48 hours without eating at times. So perhaps I underestimated what carrying 45 pounds of climbing gear and food will do when you are trying to RUN 30 miles of the Wonderland. I originally intended to have lighter weight gear, but I couldn’t get it ordered in time for the trip. So I was stuck with all my regular mountaineering gear: steel crampons, ice axe, 40 meter glacial rope, etc. Hey, what’s the worst that can happen, right?
Well, turns out, a lot of suffering is what can happen. Ras and me moved briskly through the cool morning up to Summerland and Panhandle Gap and were mystified by the lack of snow. Running Cowlitz Divide in the heat of the day posed some problems though. 15 miles in, and the weight was getting to us. Ras potentially had heat stroke. We stopped at Nickel Creek for a long while to recover. It was incredible to think that since we sat at just over 2,000′, we had 12,000 FEET OF ELEVATION still to climb that evening. Eventually we found Reflection Lake, and turned off the Wonderland to climb to Muir. The misty rain overtook us, and added to the misery as we hiked through Paradise. Wet, muddy, and disgusting, I entered the Paradise Inn to check the weather forecast right by the lodge fireplace, dry comfortable tourists, spending a relaxing Friday evening listening to a presentation. Somehow, this only tightened my resolve to keep headed up the mountain.
Do we keep climbing? The weather sucks, but who knows what it’s doing up top? Only choice is to climb. And behold! 8,000′ the weather clears off (“Rain or shine, today we climb”, Jim Whittaker). Death March up to Camp Muir though takes us to 4am, about five hours behind our time schedule. Climbing this evening (morning) is obviously out. It slowly becomes apparent we won’t have enough time in my three day window to finish the complete route out….Sullen and dejected, the only thing to do is wait until tomorrow to climb. We change into our down pants and jacket and find a spot in the shelter to curl up.
Since Saturday was a forced rest day, it should have been the easiest part of the trip. But, for the first time in years, I suffered from some slight AMS. Headache, nausea, diarrhea, and the worst, a pit in my stomach about the upcoming traverse. I had just been up the DC route to the summit a few weeks ago, but I have never been all the way up the Emmons route. Ras and me heard wildly different reports on conditions from other climbers and rangers. It was also possible there would be zero visibility. Add to this, Ras was still a novice. I was very impressed at how quickly he picked up at all the techniques I showed him on our training day, but there’s nothing that replaces mountain experience. I felt comfortable with us getting to the summit, but would we will be able to cross over? The entire trip hinged on this traverse. Would it be safe; would it go; would we be too physically drained? The safety of the team rested on my mind and ate at me the entire time.
We step off from Muir at 10:30pm Saturday evening. Weather is holding. We climb. The crevasses are beautiful, and there’s a bunch of them! Ras handles the ladders like a champ. The only real issue was being stuck behind a group of novices for 40 minutes at the crux ladder right below Camp Comfort. Slowly but surely, we crest the summit crater; the knot in my stomach only getting tighter. Could we do the Emmons?!
Break to melt water. Eat food. Fuel, not food. Use the last of the fuel, no more water, 1 liter each. What will the Emmons be like? Take our summit photos (no view, stormy). Sign the summit registry. Will the Emmons be safe enough? Celebrate with summit bacon (I did, Ras is vegan :P). Are we mentally good to traverse?
Only way to find out is to try. Slowly, hesitantly, we start to descend the Emmons. Climbers on the way up only report gnarly terrain. Oh shit. Slowly but surely, Ras and me continue to descend, and the weather breaks. There is a bootpack and wands. Every crevasse crossing is super stable. THE EMMONS IS NO ISSUE AT ALL. The entire time I had been worried about a ghost, a ghoul that was only in my mind. My spirit acted as the sun, and came out from behind the clouds. Suddenly I was at peace, sitting at Camp Schurman, pouring glacial cold water over my head, eating Airhead candy after Airhead. Life could not be better.
Laughing and joking, on a high the entire way out to White River. Once past the crevassed sections of the Interglacier, we just simply ran down the snow, still in crampons. Ras and me played like kids. We were no longer sad we would not have the extra day to finish the other 67 miles of the Wonderland, but frankly I enjoyed what we did more. We started at the car, carried all our gear, accepted no aid, got water only at natural sources, ran to an opposite side of the mountain and climbed back up and over. An estimated 50 miles total and 17,000′ of elevation gain.
Honestly, I think carrying climbing gear for the last 67 miles just would have been unpure too. I enjoy unsupported for the pureness of it; it is simple. But in this case, even if we had finished the route, carrying the gear for the last half would have been pointless suffering and less enjoyable. But maybe that’s the point. Though on paper, Ras and me failed at the Rainier Wonder Traverse, it didn’t feel like a fail. Mount Rainier is a very special place to me, and together we experienced her in a way we never had before.
That to me is the win.