~ June 7th, 2016 ~
“It’s only 500 more vertical feet, Tristan.”
“Thanks Rob,” I managed to reply through gritted teeth.
As I stepped over my rope, I stopped and gazed out upon one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever seen. Far below, small mountains blossomed upwards as far as the eye could see. In the distance, the leviathanic outlines of Mt. Adams, Hood, and St. Helens could be seen, shrouded in a slight haze from a forest fire across the border in Oregon. Under a brilliantly blue sky, our rope team took one last rest before the final push to the summit crater of Mt. Rainier.
~ 12 days prior, May 26th, 2016 ~
“Tristan you’re not allowed to die, if you die I will learn to climb mountains just to lecture your dead body.”
“Thanks Chris, I honestly have no plans on dying, but you never know what can happen. That’s part of what makes it fun.”
“Tristan, you’re not helping your case,” Chris scolded.
“Haha, sorry for refusing to lie to you,” I responded.
I had been physically preparing for the climb for almost a year, and had been mentally preparing myself for over three. In high school, I started a campaign called Summit For A Soldier (SFAS) with the goal of raising awareness for disabled veterans by climbing mountains. My ultimate goal was to climb Mt. Rainier, Denali, and Everest to raise money for disabled veterans. In 2014, too inexperienced to climb any of the listed mountains, I scaled Mt. Whitney (14,508 ft.) to raise money for a non-profit called Military Missions in Action (MMIA).
After the climb (and also after high school), MMIA assisted me in filing forms to turn Summit For A Soldier into a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. After successfully incorporating and becoming a non-profit, I began to search for a suitable non-profit to partner with for a publicity and awareness climb. After one partnership fell through, I was advised by my RA and friend Zack Davis to speak with a non-profit called Canine Angels Service Dogs (CASD). Upon sending an email, I was greeted with an excited and welcoming response. After talking with CASD further, I drove to South Carolina to meet with their head trainer, communications manager, and 12 of their finest k9 companions. We agreed to partner for a climb of Mt. Rainier, and I immediately began researching and planning for the climb.
I eventually worked out a deal with Alpine Ascents International to take their 10 day Cascades/Rainier course. 6 days being spent on Mt. Baker learning and training, and 4 days spent on Mt. Rainier, with a summit attempt via the relatively technical Kautz glacier route. The $500 deposit was paid for through contributions of those who EXPRESSLY stated that they wanted to help pay for the climb, and I paid the rest of the required money out of my own pocket. All donations will be given to our Mt. Rainier beneficiary, Canine Angels Service Dogs.
With funding sorted out, it was now time to train for the upcoming climb. I did a lot of cardio activities such as swimming and running to help with lung capacity and efficiency of oxygen transfer. I also did a lot of walking with a heavy pack to practice for the required muscular endurance of walking with a 60lbs+ pack.
The days slowly ticked by, and I grew more and more excited throughout the school year (now in college). Finally, 2 days after my conversation with Chris about mortality, I boarded the plane to Seattle.
~ May 28th, 2016 ~
Uneventful flight into Seattle. I reached my hostel and unpacked, then went to dinner.
~ May 29th, 2016 ~
I woke up at 8 am and ate toast with coffee. I then prepared to walk over to Feathered Friends, a sponsor of the Mt. Rainier climb, to pick up rental gear. Unfortunately, I had miscalculated how long the walk would take, and I arrived waaaayyyy too early. I passed the time by listening to music and staring through their shop window at all of the goodies inside. Finally, at 11 am I was let into the store and they outfitted me with down expedition gear, trekking poles (mine didn’t have snow baskets), and an avalanche transceiver. All prepped for the climb, I ate an early dinner and went to bed.
~ May 30th, 2016 ~
I arrived early at Alpine Ascents International, like…really early. I got there 1.5 hours before I was supposed to be there, so they told me to go and find some coffee. I found a quaint little coffee shop on the other side of the block, and went in. After ordering a large drip coffee and a pain au chocolat, I took a seat. 5 minutes later, 2 Seattle police officers walked in to remove a customer that was refusing to leave (relatively sure he was inebriated). Trying not to stare at the scene before me, I absentmindedly checked social media and my email. After what seemed like eons, I realized it was finally nearing the time I was supposed to be at Alpine Ascents. I pocketed my phone and walked back to get ready for the gear check.
After a 4 hour gear check, our team (led by two guides, both named Matt) was ready to head out. We loaded all of our gear, of which there was a considerable amount, into the trailer and piled into the van. We drove roughly 2 hours to a state park where we would practice rappelling, climbing, and prussiking. After an afternoon of learning that prussiking was a pain, we headed to a campsite closer to Mt. Baker, ready to begin our trek the next morning.
Once in camp we set up tents and began preparing dinner. Mike Nawrot, one of the fellow climbers on our team pulled out a circular disk about 2 inches thick.
“Is that a pillow?” I asked.
“No, it’s seaweed,” replied Mike.
“You brought seaweed?” I asked, genuinely surprised.
Another climber named Dylan piped up.
“You know in the Alpine Ascents email when it said to find foods that are dense/high in calories and easy to pack? Yeah, nowhere in that list of suggested foods did it ever say buy a gigantic Frisbee of seaweed…what was going through your mind when you picked up seaweed in the grocery store?”
“Uhh…it was late man, give me a break.” We all laughed and carried on joking about Mike’s seaweed for the rest of the evening.
~ May 31st, 2016 ~
Our team woke up early, ate breakfast, and broke camp. We then drove to the trailhead of Mt. Baker, and started hiking. We started on gravel, which turned into watery, muddy rocks, and eventually turned into snow. Several fallen trees blocked the trail, and were cumbersome to circumnavigate. Over the course of 3 hours, we covered about 3,000 vertical ft. carrying ~65lbs of gear each. Once at camp, we piled all of our sharp objects (ice axes, crampons, etc.) in one area (“AWAY FROM THE TENTS”) and started digging a snow step into a slope. The step would eventually house our tents, so we were meticulous about our work. For a little over an hour we hauled out snow and used pickets to smooth out the graded area (Dylan was a pro at this). When this was finally done, we set up our tents and melted snow to refill our depleted bottles.
~ June 1st, 2016 ~
I felt myself flying down the slope, catching some air over a slight mound. I rolled onto my stomach and plunged the pick into the snow. As my body started to slow down, I kicked my feet into the icy snow as hard as I could. I abruptly halted.
“That was good Tristan,” yelled Matt from above.
He had spent most of the day learning how to self-arrest a fall with an ice axe, but had also covered proper stepping techniques with crampons…I was now incredibly eager to walk everywhere like a duck. Or I guess a duckling, following behind the guides everywhere we went.
~ June 2nd, 2016 ~
My feet froze (not completely though, so don’t worry. Other than that we were taught crevasse rescue. The weather was relatively abhorrent; it wasn’t quite cold enough for it to snow, so it rained on us instead. However, due to the fact that we were standing in snow while practicing crevasse rescue, my boots still got a little chilly. A mixture of wet single boots and submersion in snow resulted in very mild frostnip. It damaged a nerve slightly, but was no real cause for concern. Due to the weather, the training day was called off early and we fled to our tents. I immediately took off my boots and cradled my feet, trying to warm them up. My tent mate Rob however, sat on the edge of the tent ledge and operated the stove. His entire left side was exposed to the rain and got soaked, and he must have been miserable…I will forever be grateful that he offered to do that. My other tent mate Dylan was fully protected by the tent’s vestibule, but still had his feet in the snow.
~ June 3rd, 2016 ~
Mt. Baker summit day! We started quite late for an alpine climb at about 6 am. It started out bright and cold, but the weather soon deteriorated. While roped on the glacier, visibility dropped between 40-70 ft. and we were pummeled by a constant rain and wind. We dealt with this for about 2 hours before it blew over. By that time we had reached crater rim, and began to traverse left, towards the Roman Wall.
At this point, one of the Matt’s was forced to turn around to guide down a stricken climber, and the other Matt led a rope team, while I led the other. About an hour and a half later we reached the top of the Roman Wall and emerged onto a broad ridge. We walked on flat ground for about 7 minutes before ascending the last 100 ft. to the true summit of Mt. Baker. We spent an hour at the summit before beginning our descent back to camp. The going was difficult, as fresh snow from the day before caused our rope teams to post-hole thigh deep while descending the Roman Wall. We half stumbled and half walked down it; however, after making it down the Roman Wall the going got much easier, and we were soon back at camp. We dumped packs and re-did our deadman anchored guylines, before relaxing in our tents, melting snow, and cooking dinner. It had been a successful day.
~ June 4th, 2016 ~
We woke up at 5 am, ate breakfast, and broke camp. The final descent started at 8 am, and ended back at the van 2.5 hours later. We re-organized gear, changed into less odorous clothing, and set out for food…that was (at least for me) not oatmeal, instant mashed potatoes, or Ramen. After finding a nice sit-down restaurant and stuffing our faces, we headed back to Seattle. I then went to Feathered Friends to find warmer boots, and returned to the hostel, where I sorted, washed, dried and repacked my gear for Mt. Rainier the next day.
~ June 5th, 2016 ~
I woke up early and returned to Alpine Ascents HQ. 2 more guides, Kurt and Kieran, joined our 2 Matts for Rainier. By 6:30 am the 4 guides had finished loading the trailer, and we departed. About an hour from the trailhead we stopped for pastries and coffee. After stuffing our faces (we rationalized the calories wouldn’t go to waste), we set off again. About 45 minutes out, we entered Rainier National Park and were greeted with winding roads and Jurassic forests. Mike said he was expecting to see velociraptors, and yes, I know they’re from the late cretaceous period…so before you write me angry emails, blame the movie. We eventually wound our way to the trailhead, aptly named Paradise. We began to unload our massive amounts of gear under the watchful eye, and often times tongue, of the tourists passing by.
“ARE YOU GOING ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP?!?!” was a common question, as was, “do you really need all that gear?” …no, I just thought it’d be a great idea to carry extra weight.
Our goal for the day was to ascend from the trailhead (~5,400 ft.) to a camp at about 8,500 ft. To do so, we crossed the Nisqually glacier and were met with scenes that must have stunned all of us…well except for the guides that is.
After reaching the desired altitude, we dug snow steps for our tents, and set up. In the meantime, the guides had collected water for all of us, and had cooked us a burrito dinner. Needless to say, it was much better than Ramen and half dry, instant mashed potatoes.
~ June 6th, 2016 ~
It was a short, but tough day as we moved from the Turtle Snowfield to Camp Hazard at ~11,000ft elevation. We finished the trek by lunch time, and attempted to set up tents. Unfortunately for my Rainier tent mate David and me, our ledge was rocky and covered in a pool of water. Kurt chipped away ice from the rocks above to stop the muddy puddle from growing in size, and explained what we should do. We dug 2 drainage ditches, and allowed the puddle to disappear before setting up our tent. Unfortunately for Mike and Will who were camping below us, our problem became theirs, as our drainage began to run through their tent site. Mike, an engineer from MIT, quickly dug a drainage channel and laid flat rocks on top of it. I laughed to myself, thinking that it vaguely resembled a roman aqueduct.
With tents finally set up and secured, we all tried to sleep. The midday sun made it next to impossible though, partly because of the light, but mostly because of the heat. Surprisingly enough there was no wind, so our tents soon reached the 90s. I covered my eyes and listened to music in my best attempt at sleep, but it was to no avail. By 5 pm the guides had made dinner. We sat eating and listening as the guides explained what we would need the next day. After dinner was adjourned, I packed my summit pack (in other words, I took everything OUT of my pack) and went to bed at 7 pm.
~ June 7th, 2016 ~
Mt. Rainier Summit Day!
“Hey Tristan, you awake?” asked Matt from outside my tent.
“Yep!” I yelled in response, above the wind.
I checked my phone. It was 1 am…I had hardly gotten any sleep, as vicious winds had reached us just after sunset and had rattled the tent all night long.
“David get up,” I shook David until he poked his head from his sleeping bag. As David sat up and rubbed his eyes, I began putting layers on. After deciding on wearing a base layer shirt, softshell pants and a puffy jacket, I emerged from my tent. I drank hot chocolate and ate a bowl of instant oatmeal in the windy, but not overly cold night. I was wearing my helmet with headlamp turned on high beam. After eating, I turned off my headlamp and allowed my eyes to adjust. Above me, thousands of stars lit the night and I could just make out the Milky Way. I grabbed my pack, got my ice axe, ice tool, and crampons from the sharps pile, and attached my ice tool to my pack. I strapped on my crampons, then awkwardly walked across the rocky terrain to sit with Rob.
It didn’t take too long before Kurt noticed that Rob and I were ready. We roped up with Kurt and began. Our headlamps cast a ghostly white light upon the scree, and our crampons let out a cry with each step. We soon reached the top of Camp Hazard, and Kurt set up a rope to protect us on a 15 ft. downclimb/traverse to a skinny ledge. Rob went first and made it safely to the snow ledge, I followed behind and soon joined him. Kurt then took himself off belay and soloed down. He ordered that we wait here until the other 3 teams had made it down safely. After 2 rope teams had passed us, and the third had made it down the rock step, Kurt gave us the greenlight to continue on short rope. After about 3 minutes of short roping, he extended us to a long rope and told us to spread out. With that, he took off at almost a jog. I hurried to match his pace, and soon our rope team was across the most dangerous portion of the climb, the Kautz icefall.
We had reached the Kautz ice chute, a 1,000 (vertical) ft. wall ranging from 50-70 degrees inclination. After checking that we had both our ice axe and technical ice tool, Kurt promptly soloed up about 50 meters before securing with 2 ice screws. It was then my turn to climb. As Kurt belayed from above, I got my first taste of ice climbing…at 3 in the morning…in the dark. I swung my ice tool which latched immediately, but was forced to strike 3-5 times with my ice axe before it would stick into the hard, predawn ice. I kicked my crampons in, and slowly worked my way to Kurt. Rob trailed behind me, tied further down on the same rope. We repeated this same drill 2 more times (3 pitches), before being able to walk up a section of the ice chute that was far less steep.
We then climbed 2 more pitches of steep ice, before reaching the top of the Kautz ice chute. As I climbed the last 2 pitches, pale dawn light began to illuminate a steel grey sky. All around me, tall ice columns sprouted from the ice chute. Similar in appearance to stalagmites, we climbed amongst these behemoths during the last 2 pitches.
We were now on the Kautz Glacier. Kurt, Rob, and I rested, drank water, and ate food. We hadn’t had a chance to stop for 2.5 hours, and it was now 5 am. After our rest stop, we began travelling up the Kautz Glacier on long rope; however, after about 20 minutes we were forced to stop. The other 3 teams were far below us, still climbing the Kautz ice chute. Kurt said we needed to wait for the other guides before we could continue on the upper mountain. 2 hours passed before all 4 rope teams were reunited. In that time, all three of us had gotten extremely cold and were shivering and moving around in an attempt to stay warm. Soon after the last team arrived, Rob and I left with Kurt, and walked for another 45 minutes up to a ridge. We rested on the leeward side of the rock ridge, hiding from the howling wind that had made us so cold.
Once all 4 rope teams had rested, we let the team led by Kieran break trail. He found a more direct route headed towards summit crater, but the 3rd person on his rope team punched through a snow bridge spanning a huge crevasse, and the other 3 rope teams were forced to traverse over until we found a different snow bridge. Once across the cavernous maw of deep, blue ice, we caught back up with Kieran’s rope team. However, going up the final snow slope to summit crater, I was forced to stop and adjust my double plastic mountaineering boots. I had over-tightened the hard plastic shell, and had severely bruised my shins. Now with every step, it felt as though someone was slamming a 2×4 into my lower leg.
“It’s only 500 more vertical feet, Tristan.”
“Thanks Rob,” I managed to reply through gritted teeth.
As I stepped over my rope, I stopped and gazed out upon one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever seen. Far below, small mountains blossomed upwards for as far as the eye could see. In the distance, the leviathanic outlines of Mt. Adams, Hood, and St. Helens could be seen, shrouded in a slight haze from a forest fire across the border in Oregon. Under a brilliantly blue sky, our rope team took one last rest before the final push to the summit crater of Mt. Rainier.
We finally reached the crater, and once inside all 4 teams took a break, and ate and drank. We all drove the spikes of our ice axes into the hard packed snow, and secured our packs to them. We then left the crater for the final 5 minute traverse and ascent to the true summit of Mt. Rainier; I carried my technical ice tool, camera, and Summit For A Soldier banner to the summit. The wind at the very summit was brutal, and it was extremely difficult to hold the banner without it flying away, but I didn’t care. We had done it, we had reached the summit. I looked around to see the smiling faces of our entire team poking out through various colored hoods and buffs. I had Kurt take pictures of me holding the summit banner, and noticed Mike attempting to eat his seaweed. He would later tell me, “I’m not sure if my legs or my jaw were more tired by the end of it.”
After just 7 minutes at the summit, we descended back to the summit crater and retrieved our packs. After eating a quick snack we began to descend…quickly. In just 2 hours, we were back at the top of the Kautz ice chute. Once there, we left Kurt, and Rob and I went to secure ourselves with an ice screw. Soon, Matt joined us and created a much better ice anchor with 3 ice screws. After the anchor was constructed, Matt lowered the other Matt. Rob and I were then lowered and secured directly to a new anchor system. Two more climbers were lowered after Rob and me, and they joined us on the anchor. After Kieran was lowered, we short roped with him to scout out the best place for the 3rd and final construction site of a rappel anchor. We found solid ice and chipped away the surface. Kieran set 3 ice screws, but soon grew uncomfortable with how exposed the site was. There was a major rock and ice fall hazard where we were, so he unscrewed the ice screws and we traversed to the other side of the ice chute. Here, there was a much larger icefall, but we were shielded by a truck sized block of ice. Kieran re-set the ice screws, and Kurt lowered him the rest of the way down to the bottom of the ice chute. At the bottom, Kieran created an anchor with a single ice screw for safety, and then Kurt lowered rob and myself. Once at the bottom with Kieran, we clipped into the ice screw, and untied from the rope. Suddenly, a massive cracking and thunderous sound erupted from above us.
“GET AGAINST THE ICE,” Kieran yelled, and I dove at the ice wall in an attempt to shield myself from the ice fall. Huge chunks of ice and rock thundered down to our right, and we watched as loose material was added along the base of the Kautz icefall, right where we would soon be walking. Somewhat shaken, I stepped back to where I had kicked myself a little ledge in the snow. Soon, the rest of the climbers and guides had lowered and 5 minutes later, Matt took 2 climbers and crossed the icefall on long rope, making it to the 15ft rock step. The other Matt took me and Rob on long rope, and crossed the icefall. Our team soon joined them below the 15ft rock step, and we watched as the other team’s Matt soloed up the 15ft rock step and set up a belay. Once their team had safely cleared the rock step, our Matt followed suit and soloed up the rock step. He set up a belay, and soon it was my turn to climb the step. I slid my ice axe vertically between my back and backpack, then traversed over and up the rock step. Once again, my ears screeched against rock and I swiftly reached the top. I unclipped from the rope and waited for Rob. We had made it back to Camp Hazard!
Once back in camp, I methodically piled all of my sharp objects away from the tent, unpacked my gear, and flopped down inside of my tent. It was 5pm. Surprisingly, I wasn’t as tired as I thought I would be, but my shins were absolutely destroyed. I turned my phone on, and blasted music to drown out the noise of the tent flapping in the strong wind. I got back up around 6:15pm to find that the guides had made dinner. I ate dinner and sipped on mint tea, before retiring to my tent again just past 7pm.
~ June 8th ~
My alarm went off at 5am, and I blasted heavy metal to keep David from falling back asleep. Today was going to suck. There was no easy way around that fact. My shins had swollen overnight, and had become even more sensitive to the touch. As I contemplated the descent we were about to face, I packed up everything in the tent, then went to out to eat breakfast. I sipped mint tea, and attempted to make a packet of chicken ramen. Sadly, the wind was so strong that the water cooled almost instantly. The ramen was still slightly crunchy as I ate it, and the chicken broth was barely luke warm. After breakfast, I took my pack out of the tent, and waited for David to clear out. Once he had vacated the tent, 3 guides helped us take down the tent in the extremely high winds. After successfully storing the tent in my bag without it flying off the mountain, I finished packing my sharps and group gear, and sat on a rock.
We descended from Camp Hazard all the way back to Paradise. It only took 3.5 hours, but it was definitively the most torturous part of the climb for me. Each step was excruciating, and I kept falling over. The combination of these two things really put me in a less than positive mood, but at least I had learned by lesson: no more overtightening double plastic boots. And besides, there was really nothing I could do besides suck it up.
When we finally reached the parking lot, it gave my guides much pleasure to learn the name I had given my boots. Ever since they found out that my pack had been christened Walter the Whale, they constantly asked me what my gear was named. Going along with their enthusiasm, I had named my ice axe Stephen and my ice tool Hawking…get it? Cause they’re sharp? …Shut up, I know I’m corny. Well, it only seemed fitting that I gave my boots a name, and after the final stint back into the parking lot, I had decided to name them Lucifer. I justified that their all black appearance (versus everyone’s neon yellow boots) and tendency to break people, led to a fitting name.
After christening my boots, I promptly took them off and hid them as far back in the trailer as they could go. Then I put on regular shoes and clothes, and went in search of porcelain…which didn’t take too long to find (thankfully). After losing about 6lbs, I hopped in the van and we left Paradise in search of food. After eating copious amounts of red meat, we returned to Seattle for the final goodbye. I gave the guides a tip, and thanked them for showing me the ropes.
~ Afterward ~
I could not have achieved this climb without the help of all of SFAS’s wonderful sponsors. Mountain Khakis was kind enough to donate raffle packages to one of our fundraising events, Feathered Friends allowed free rental of their gear, Obdura assisted in publicizing the climb and sent apparel, Alpine Ascents International gave a 10% discount on their 10 day course, and PDQ held a fundraising night to raise money for SFAS and our beneficiary Canine Angels Service Dogs. All of these sponsors were an absolute pleasure to work with!
If you’re interested in learning more about Summit For A Soldier and what we climb for, or if you wanted to make a donation, visit us on the web at www.SummitForASoldier.org
Follow us on Facebook: www.Facebook.com/SummitForASoldier
Follow us on Instagram: @summitfast or @3stan_m
Wonder how I’m getting myself into trouble these days? Follow me on Instagram for the latest in SFAS news or to see my personal adventures: @3stan_m
…if your pictures don’t scare me too much, I’ll probably follow back
A big thank you to Charlotte DeVol for reading and editing this mess, and to Canine Angels Service Dogs, Will Beshears, Mike Nawrot, Kurt Hicks, and Matthew Nightengale for contributing photos.