We were at Camp Hazard, a rocky outcropping 11,000 feel up Mt. Rainier's south side, when Rick Ridgeway returned from a scouting trip. He had been looking over the route we would follow to the summit early the next morning.
"Boy," Ridgeway said with a mischievous grin, "that upper part of the glacier is a real bowling alley. We'll have to go early and go fast and just hope we don't get hit by rockfall." Yvon Chouinard looked up from the tiny stove on which he was cooking our evening meal and, correctly reading my apprehension, said, "Yeah, but what the hell, Tom, when your turn is up, it's up."
We had arrived at Rainier the day before, and when we had mentioned our plans to the young ranger at one of the national park's four entrances, he was emphatic. "Oh, no, sir, we're advising everyone to stay off that route. There's too much rockfall. It's too dangerous up there."
We then consulted the climbing ranger and decided to switch our route to the Kautz Glacier, but he, too, warned us of dangerous conditions. The hot, dry summer meant that there was not the usual amount of ice and snow to hold loose rock in place, so that after a full day of solar heating the steep slopes of this volcanic giant rumbled with the sound of tumbling boulders.
April 7, 1986
Ridgeway and Chouinard thought that Mt. Rainier, the 14,410-foot-high dormant volcano that lies 60 miles southeast of Seattle, would be a fitting test of my appetite for major mountains. They had been attempting to convert me from a simple backpacker to a real climber. So far we had been up Grand Teton and Mt. Moran in Wyoming and a number of lesser routes in California, New York and Colorado.
Rainier is appealing to climb because in two or three days you can distill many of the experiences of a major expedition: It is covered by massive glaciers with foreboding ice cliffs; the elevation is taxing because climbing begins near sea level; and the weather is wildly unpredictable, everything from sunshine, snow, fog, ice, wind and rain in any given 24-hour period.
The weather for our climb was encouraging. There had been a long run of clear, sunny days, and according to Ridgeway, the forecast was for more of the same. "Solid" was the word he used repeatedly to describe the meteorological prospects.
The same could be said for my companions. I was in very good company. Chouinard is to climbing what Nicklaus is to golf: the complete master of his game. Not only is he a great ice and rock climber, but he also revolutionized the sport by redesigning and manufacturing much of the hardware—pitons, chocks, carabiners, ice axes and crampons. And when he couldn't find warm, comfortable clothing to meet his standards, he began producing it under the Patagonia label. The company's resounding success has enabled him to spend a good part of the year climbing, kayaking, skiing and fly-fishing.
Ridgeway, Chouinard's closest friend, is also acknowledged to be one of America's top climbers. He reached the 28,250-foot-high summit of K2 without oxygen on the first successful American assault on that Himalayan giant. He is a skilled writer and filmmaker as well as a sailing enthusiast.
Another member of our group was Rick Graetz, the publisher of Montana magazine and an outspoken advocate of expanding the wilderness areas within his state. Graetz has been to the summit of Mt. McKinley, or Denali, as the natives call it.
I was meeting Doug Tompkins for the first time, but he, too, is part of the lore of the American climbing community. A high school dropout, Tompkins was an itinerant climber in California and throughout Europe when he and his wife, Susie, started a small women's clothing company they eventually called Esprit in San Francisco. Esprit is now a worldwide enterprise with sales of nearly $1 billion a year. Recently, Tompkins returned from a kayaking tour of Europe. Now he was tuning up for a fall expedition with Chouinard and Ridgeway to climb Gangkar Punsan in the little Himalayan country of Bhutan.
The first day on Rainier went well considering that as an ice-and-snow climber, I was a work in progress. I had been introduced to crampons just the night before when Chouinard turned me loose on a small patch of glacier at our embarkation point. Like a small child with a new pair of shoes, I strutted across the icy surface, careful to keep the sharp points of the crampons out of my trouser legs. Snagging yourself, apparently, is a common problem and a potentially fatal one if you're on a steep pitch, attempting to make the next step.
That was the extent of my crampon training: 15 minutes on a relatively level section of glacier. Little wonder I was tentative as we started up the steep slopes of Rainier, especially since the other men, given their experience, didn't feel the need for ropes.
I was not sure how to use the ice ax, so later that morning Chouinard organized another short course. He took me to a small, moderately steep pitch and told me to fall face down on the snow, planting my ax in one motion. It worked. I self-arrested, as they say. After half a dozen more falls, Chouinard pronounced me ready to proceed, although he did say that as a rule he spends two full days with students who want to learn ice-climbing techniques. "But you'll be all right," he said. I took him at his word.
It was a beautiful day, and on this route, at least, no other party was in sight. The combination of the sunny skies and the rhythm of the crampon technique—plant all the points, then the tip of the ice ax, step, plant all the points again, repeat—suppressed my fatigue. We gained 5,000 feet in about nine hours of climbing—to 10,000 feet altitude—having started near sea level 24 hours earlier. It was quite an adjustment for my New York body even though I work hard to stay in shape. Thus I was pooped when we hit the most difficult pitch—steep, hard ice in the shadow of a rocky ridge. Ridgeway suggested we rope up. Chouinard said, "Nah, it lays back right above. This will be good for Tom. He'll learn real fast."
Nonetheless, Ridgeway fell in behind me as we started up. It was tough going, and although I felt reasonably confident, I was tired just when I needed to be strong and rested.
Suddenly, I slipped. Before I could react with my newly acquired self-arrest skills, Ridgeway planted his ax and jammed one of his boots against mine. He gave me a small smile and said, "If that happens again, try to get your ax in immediately."
Fortunately, the remainder of the route to Camp Hazard was only moderately challenging. Even so, I was the last to arrive. Trying to make light of my fixed position at the back of the column, I said, "I could move a lot faster but I take this role as anchorman seriously." The fact is, by now we were all tired and hungry for dinner.
After Ridgeway's report on the bowling-alley look of the glacier we would be crossing tomorrow, Chouinard served us his specialty, a kind of soup with tsampa as the principal ingredient. (Tsampa, a grain product popular in the Himalayas, is lightweight, nutritious and filling. Chouinard had been trying to develop it as an expedition food product.)
As we finished dinner—soup, some dried fruit and a little chocolate washed down with strong tea—our solid weather began to break up. A series of storms was moving in off the Pacific, and I could see a thunderhead rolling over Mt. Hood south along the Washington-Oregon border. Mt. St. Helens, its face blown away by the 1980 eruption, was framed by swirling currents of blue-black clouds. Ridgeway commented that we could have snow by morning.
The wind on Rainier blew hard all night, and there was little protection on the rocky ledges on which we were sleeping. Chouinard was particularly exposed. His bivouac bag flapped like a sail, and he looked ready to take off. The next morning he muttered that he had not slept more than five minutes at a time.
Standing over the bowling alley shortly before 8 a.m., I saw that it looked even more ominous than I had imagined. The cold, gray morning heightened my apprehension, which wasn't relieved by the somber expressions of the others as they attached their crampons. We had to go about 50 yards down a stretch of steep, black ice laced with rocks and boulders. The headwall seemed ready to collapse onto our route. Chouinard splayed his feet and began a rapid duck walk down the glacier, instructing me to do the same. We continued at this steep pitch for another 500 yards or so. The brief but hair-raising journey did tend to focus the mind and feet.
We made it and I'm not sure which part of me was more relieved, my heart or my thighs. Both had undergone a workout. Graetz was not yet in sight, but Chouinard said, "He'll be all right. It's like catching a cab in New York. Every man for himself—and nice guys finish last." Eventually Graetz caught up, and on we went.
Nature provided an unexpected aid for the next part of the route: Sun cups, indentations on the glacial surface left by days of solar heating, formed welcome stairways through some difficult passages. Even so, we were forced to rope up for two pitches, and I managed to clip my chin on an icy corner.
The weather continued to worsen; sleet, some snow flurries and even stronger wind. We hunkered down in the lee of a rocky ridge, and Ridgeway fired up our stove for a lunch of smoked oysters, crackers, broken bits of chocolate and tea.
When we began again, Tompkins was certain the summit was no more than 400 or 500 yards away, up another icy face. I wanted to believe him. The weather was closing in fast. Visibility was about 20 feet and a light snow was falling. At the top of the face, the visibility was less than 10 feet. We checked the maps and Tompkins determined the summit was off to the left, across a couple of sizable crevasses. Ridgeway and I thought we should be moving straight ahead. The swirling snow and fog were disorienting, and Tompkins, it turned out, took a wrong turn. We found ourselves on a treacherous, narrow, rocky spine with a long fall on one side and a deep crevasse on the other. Huddled against the fierce wind, trying to read the map, Ridgeway, thinking aloud, said, "Damn, I should have brought a compass."
Here was my moment of triumph. Reaching into my backpack, I produced my compass—on these kinds of excursions I never leave home without it. We took a quick fix and scrambled off the rocky ridge onto a huge sloping glacier, picking our way across yawning crevasses. Chouinard was ecstatic. "Isn't this weather great?" he shouted, barely audible above the wind. He was only five feet away but his image was faint. I could, however, see his broad smile as he said, "You know, this spices things up. Makes the trip interesting."
Well, it was certainly interesting, but the hour was getting late, the weather wasn't improving and the summit remained elusive. Moreover, we had to reach the top to find the route off the mountain. I began to contemplate the prospect of spending the night atop Rainier, tucked in a crevasse for protection. Later, Ridgeway and Chouinard confessed that they had shared similar fears. By now the wind was so strong and the visibility so bad we had to keep calling out to one another to maintain contact.
We trudged on, finally reaching a long, moderately steep rise. It matched the map contours leading to the summit. Slowly Tompkins and Chouinard edged ahead. Near the top of the rise, we could see the outline of what seemed to be the summit.
Chouinard led the way. We reached a lip of the volcano and found a few brightly colored wands stuck into the rocks. Was it the summit? "What do you think, Rick?" I asked Ridgeway, shouting into the wind. His parka was covered with ice, and he leaned into the gale, shaking his head slowly with a thin, ironic smile. "I think we overshot it," he said. Later, we discovered we were about 20 yards from the true summit, but for now, this one would have to do. We had to find the way down, fast.
More bad news. The blowing snow had covered the beginning of the descent route. We scrambled past it the first time, winding up at the top of a steep pitch of ice and scree. We couldn't risk that course in these conditions. Again I began to think of spending the night here. The possibility was no more appealing than it had been earlier.
Tompkins, who had climbed Rainier 20 years earlier, had a vague recollection of where the trail should be. He hunched over the snow, like a man looking for a lost watch, and picked up traces of what appeared to be a trail. This time, his instincts were right, and we were on our way down. It was no stroll in the sun. There were deep crevasses, and perhaps for the first time in his climbing career, Chouinard was happy to see the occasional trail marker, a frail wand in the snow, warning of a sudden 300-foot crack in the glacier.
Just when it seemed we might be locked in the clouds forever, we emerged into an unforgettable ocher light. Spread out before us were great glacial valleys; Little Tahoma, a majestic offshoot peak of Rainier, bathed in wispy clouds; and, far below, the dark green forest. All of this and not a sound except for my labored breathing.
To get off the mountain that evening, we had to almost run the last three miles down the trail under a full moon. At the bottom. I made my second contribution to the expedition: I persuaded a local inn to remain open an extra hour, until 11 p.m., so we could end our long day with fettuccine, grilled trout and several beers. The owner of the inn also offered us his hot tub, but we declined. What the hell, no sense getting too soft.
Tom Brokaw, who anchors "NBC Nightly News," lives in New York City.