Bittersweet Summit

DSC_0138 Hello, my name is Mark, and I’ll be posting some things about my travels and my obsession with quality recreational gear. Today, I’ll be sharing a recent story about my summit of Mount Rainier- one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, located 54 miles southeast of Seattle, Washington.

June 28, 2013 was an abnormally warm day at the White River campground and trailhead at the base of the mountain. We were sweating as we packed down coats, ice axes and crampons into our packs. Now wearing only T-shirts and our lightest hiking pants, we trekked up the mountain towards the Emmoms Glacier. Our team was comprised of seven mountaineers including myself and two local experts who would be guiding us along the way.

The plan was to work our way up to the base of the Emmons Glacier and then shoot over St. Elmo’s pass onto the Winthrop glacier, where we would build a base camp. Here we would stay for 5 days and work on mountaineering skills that we would later put to use on the upper mountain. The weather was great for all of our time spent there and we all gained a great deal of knowledge and technical skill. On the training day that we worked on glacier travel, we believed we had scouted an alternate route to make it to high camp, Camp Shermann, without backtracking over the pass and up the entire Emmons glacier.


The day came when we would pack up our base camp and put our new route to the test. Switch-backing up the Winthrop glacier, dodging crevasses as we made our way toward high camp, we passed the location where we had turned back on our previous recon trip. With 500 vertical feet left from our high camp, we ran into our first problem. A gaping wall-to-wall crevasse. Working our way back and forth, looking for a safe way around the crevasse, we found nothing…There was no way, by this route, to get over the giant crack in the glacier and make it to high camp. Our only option was to go back down the Winthrop, over St. Elmo’s pass as originally planned, and start over up the Emmons glacier…Fuck. Already exhausted and feeling a little down on our luck, that’s exactly what we did.

DSC_0160 Moving at a snail’s pace, the team was not looking so hot. We had been carrying 50-pound packs on steep, dangerous terrain for over 7 hours. After a few more hours and only half way up the Emmons Glacier, one of our team members, Tony, decided he could no longer keep going. Stopping now would mean giving up his chance for a summit early the next morning. Shortly after leaving Tony’s new camp, Jim, too, decided it would be smart for him to stay behind – ultimately sacrificing his summit bid as well.

There were five of us left, Phil – our lead guide, two climbers – Han and Dave, and myself. The final 2,000 feet to high camp were grueling, and by the time we finally got there it was 8 p.m. It had now been over eleven hours of traveling. At high camp, another guide met up with us to assist on our summit push we’d be making the following morning.

When traveling on steep glaciers, it’s best to leave early, before the sun heats them up causing unstable and dangerous conditions. That being said, we had to leave camp at 1 a.m the following morning in attempts to reach the summit and return before the heat of the day. So, we threw our tents up and ate as fast as we could in hopes of getting a couple hours of sleep, before we set off on our summit bid. Before lying down, Phil warned us that reaching summit would be highly unlikely due to our incredibly long day and lack of sleep. Not to mention, the 5,000 vertical feet that still separated us from the top of Rainier. So we tried to close our eyes and get some sleep. Not two hours later, our alarms went off. It was midnight and time to move. We crawled out of our tents and quickly got ready – wearing harnesses and crampons, headlamps strapped into our helmets, ice axes in hand, and extra food and clothes on our backs, we headed toward our summit…

It was a long but incIMG_3771redibly beautiful morning. Watching the sunrise over the Cascades was absolutely breathtaking. I had a hard time focusing on every break. Needing to eat and drink as much as possible but instead, finding myself staring into the mountains, acknowledging my dreams were coming true in that very moment.

Far in the distance I could finally to see the summit crater. Numerous times as we got near the summit, our lead guide, Phil, noticed that Dave was losing his footing. He repetitively asked Dave if he was ok and if he would like to head back down but his response was always the same. He put two thumbs up saying, “Nope! I’m good”, then continued to stumble along. Suddenly, at 14,000 feet and only 411 more feet from the summit, Dave collapsed. Before I even saw him on the ground he had already begun to vomit. At 14,000 feet above sea level and roughly 5,000 crevasse-covered feet from high camp, this is a very big deal. If, while on our descent, he fell at the right time and place he could pull us all into a crevasse killing the entire rope team. The first thing I heard Dave say when we got to him was “Just put me in my tent.”… He was out of it.

One guide stayed with him and tried to get him to drink water, eat food and stay warm. The lead guide, Han and I, made a jet for the summit. At the summit we hugged, took a few pictures and only for a short time enjoyed the view from what felt like the top of the world. It iss a truly amazing feeling to set a goal such as this years before attempting it and then to find yourself standing there on the summit. With the overpowering thought of our climbing partner struggling for life 400 feet below we rushed back down to his side. He was sitting up now but still couldn’t keep anything down. We let him rest for a few more minutes and, he finally started to get his bearings. At this point we had all been moving for about 23 hours straight with only a short nap. I was feeling pretty good still, but I was ready to head down to high camp in a big way. We got Dave on his feet, tied into the rope and started slowly down the mountain. He lost his footing a few times but managed to keep himself upright. This was incredibly nerve-racking. We were ready to perform ice axe arrest at any time to anchor the team if Dave started sliding toward a crevasse. After a long four-hour decent from the summit we were approaching our high camp.

IMG_3832 I’d have to say the last couple-hundred feet of this 27-hour day had all of our footwork looking a little sloppy but luckily we made it back to the tents safe and sound. Dead tired and a little shaken up, we dragged ourselves into sleeping bags, where we rested long and hard before descending down the rest of the mountain to the trailhead the following day. Such a mix of emotions. Complete exhaustion yet satisfaction with reaching the summit is the only way I can sum it up. Simply put, it was a bittersweet summit. DSC_0215 -Mark Malkowicz

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