KTS Climbs Mt. Rainier

Written byYael Kissel, Slovenia

hiking break in snowy mountainIn 2004, I got a fantastic chance to climb Mt. Rainier as part of a Backpacker Magazine reader contest/gear testing trip (and also, a KTS climb). There are a lot of good morals I could extract from the story, about friendship, strength, learning; but I think I just want to tell the story.

Earlier in the year (or was it even the year before?), Backpacker had published a small ad, saying it was looking for readers to take on a gear testing trip to Mt. Rainier. All you had to do to be considered was to send in a letter explaining why they should take you. I didn't think I had a chance - I didn't really have a good reason, and I had never won any contest. But it was such an awesome prize that I had to try, so one day, close to the deadline (of course) and in between working on class assignments, I quickly wrote a letter. It was silly, but truthful. One of my main points was that someday I might be a famous mountaineer, and if so, they would be able to take credit for getting me started. It didn't quite work out that way, but anyway I guess the editors thought it would be entertaining to have someone 'spunky yet capable' (as they later described me) on the team. I was 19, working on a degree in evolutionary biology, very excited about climbing, backpacking, and mountaineering, and had some experience but nothing hardcore. I was incredibly surprised when my phone rang one morning, and it was one of the editors calling to say they had chosen me. Incredibly surprised, but also incredibly excited.

hiking on mountain trailI remained nothing but excited as packages started showing up at my door with gear that I would be testing. Warm clothes of all kinds, a sleeping bag, and best of all, gorgeous crampons and ice axe. But when I finally found myself on the plane to Seattle (the first or second time I had ever flown alone), I suddenly found that excitement battling with nervousness. In particular, what would the other people on the trip be like? Would we get along?

My nervousness barely had a chance once I got to baggage claim in Seattle, and noticed a few other people with outdoorsy jackets, large suitcases, and searching looks. It didn't take long for us to figure out we were all there for the same reason, at which point our shared enthusiasm for nature and mountaineering made an instant connection. And I don't remember even one moment of discord or discontent in the week we spent together – all we knew was that we were happy to be there. And does it spoil the ending if I say that we are still all in touch, even now, seven years later? Steve, the photographer/editor, who I since met up with in Utah and in Wales. Dennis, editor #2, nothing but friendliness and smiles. Nathan, whose yoga class I want to go to next time I'm back in L.A. Jamie, who has since finished med school and I hope to see in San Diego or SF someday soon. And of course Rick, inspiring in his dedication to KTS.

mountain trailThe first days we spent getting used to our gear, each other, and the environment in and around Mt. Rainier National Park. We hiked through the beautiful wet forest, where I excitedly identified and consumed wild blueberries. We figured out how to set up our tents, and I discovered the dance party mode on my headlamp. We walked up to one of Rainier's glaciers, marveled at the ice, tested our hiking poles, and posed for glamor shots. And Dennis and Steve took us to a great little diner, where I just remember the delicious blackberry salad dressing – though I wish I also remembered the name of the place!

Finally it was time to move camp to Paradise Lodge, at the foot of the trail we would take up to the very peak of Mt. Rainier. We started with snow school – a day of learning how to walk with crampons and clean the snow out of them, how to kick step, and how to self-arrest with an ice axe. Not to sound too much like a teenager, but it was SO cool. I'm sure Rick and Jamie and Nathan would agree. I was a little heartbroken in the end when I had to give back my crampons and ice axe!

snow covered mountainAfter snow school, it was time for the climb itself. We would be guided (thank goodness – no one wanted to fall into a crevasse), and we would do it in 3 days – one to go up to Camp Muir, at about 10,000 feet, another to get to the top and back to Camp Muir, and a third to walk all the way down again. Or did we spend only one night at Camp Muir? It's hard to say now, my journal from then is on another continent and my memory is poor. Apologies for any accidental untruths...

But to get back to the story – I remember more moments from those three (or two?) days of hiking than I do from most days of my life. The first day, I remember the clear blue skies and strong sun, leading to the bizarre experience of hiking in t-shirts over giant snowfields. I remember the flags marking the trail, and the trail itself – well marked by the feet of many hikers who had already passed that summer. And I remember arriving at Camp Muir, a small collection of stone buildings, setting up camp nearby, and cooking our instant dinners at about 2 in the afternoon, so we could go to sleep early and be ready for an alpine start. I remember trying to fall asleep that afternoon, and eventually realizing that the jumping sheep I had been counting were doing their own thing, and that I was either mildly hallucinating or finally falling asleep. The next day, I remember waking up at something like 3 am, and dazedly breakfasting, packing, and throwing a short blinking headlamp dance party. I remember tying in to ropes, so that we were in small safety chains, and setting off in the darkness – pitch black except for the small pools of light thrown by each headlamp. I remember the horrific sound and weird skittery feeling of hiking over scree in crampons, and the amazing sight of dawn slowly illuminating the scene around us, so that for the first time that morning we could feel how small we were and how big the mountain we were on. I remember stopping, higher up, to reapply chapstick, chat to Rick, and catch our breath, before continuing up a steep slope, pausing with every kick step to take a full breath, in and out. I remember the view – south to Mt. St. Helens, and stretching to an enormous misty distance in all directions. And I remember crossing the crater at the top, to reach the very highest point on the rim, and exult. I remember wandering off a bit to have a pee on the highest point in the continental U.S. (still tied in, I believe), marveling at a steam vent by the trail, and somehow managing to run and jump for a frisbee that Dennis had brought, even in my crampons (it might help to know that I was playing ultimate frisbee competitively at the time). I wish I could find a more creative or less-overused word to describe the feeling of being at the top, but as far as I remember, it was just amazing.
hiking team on mount rainer
The rest of that day I don't remember. I imagine the adrenaline crash and exhaustion are the culprits. But I know we all slept well that night. And I definitely remember the next morning – when we awoke to find ourselves above a sea of clouds, as if we had stepped out onto the wing of an airplane just to feel the fresh air and admire the view. Then, before hiking down, we got to play at ice climbing. What a bonus! I was already an enthusiastic rock climber, but ice climbing had a different and unique joy – that of thwacking an elegantly curved axe or crampon toe spike into the ice and feeling it hold. I'm sorry to say that I haven't managed to go ice climbing again since then – but that short morning of joyous climbing is a memory I still remember happily, and someday I will surely do it again. In the end, though, it was time to head down. I remember the way down being painful – with my small feet, there were no sample boots that fit me and I was stuck with hard plastic rentals that ended up bruising my ankles. I was happy to reach the trailhead, but otherwise I don't remember thinking more about my painful feet. I remember only being proud and happy with the climb we had achieved. And reveling in my celebratory drink, after sneaking in (underage) to the lodge bar (don't tell).

snow covered mountainAfter that, we had just one or two more nights together before it was time to go home. Of course, it had all gone by too quickly, and it was hard to understand that the wonderful trip was over and I would be leaving my new friends. But that week-long trip had lasting consequences. I came back mentally stronger and much more self-confident, knowing I had conquered my own fears and achieved something that had before seemed far out of my reach. I discovered that nervousness is a prelude to great adventures, and that great adventures come from stretching oneself to experience new places, meet new people, and try new things. And of course, I ended up with a handful of excellent and wonderful new friends, who I hope I will be able to see again next year, on the KTS John Muir Trail trip.