This was it.
I only managed an hour of sleep before midnight came and I had to crawl from my tent, pitched on the ice at Camp Muir, and start strapping on my helmet and crampons for last leg of the journey to the summit of Mount Rainier. Much of the vertical distance on this monstrous stratovolcano had already been climbed – the first 5,500 feet by car and the middle stretch of 4,800 feet on foot across the Muir Snowfield. Still, 4,200 feet remained, and now I would have to face the glaciers – broad flows of slowly-moving ice that could collapse above me or disintegrate beneath my boots at any time.
At least I didn’t have to face them alone. Through the internet, I found two other souls interested in making the trek. Roped together, we stood a better chance of survival if any one of us fell into a crevasse. On average, two people died on this volcano every year from mountaineering accidents, like avalanches, falls and hypothermia. Ten thousand people attempted the climb annually, so the likelihood of my perishing on these slopes was only one in five thousand – an acceptable percentage, so long as the glaciers didn’t decide to be temperamental and shift the odds in their favor.
As early as we set off from Camp Muir, the guided mountaineering groups left earlier, departing in chains of four or five clients. The glow of their evenly-spaced headlamps looked like candlelight flickering in the windows of train cars as they snaked up the side of the Cowlitz Glacier. The Polar Express has left the station, I thought, staring up through the cold wind. One car detached from the convoy soon enough, and eventually two others turned back, matching the average 50% success rate of summit seekers.
Our group was an interesting trio; we all had our quirks. Hardy was young and earnest, and he wore a pair of socks so devastatingly malodorous that I could have used my sense of smell and followed him blindfolded. Even inside his boots, they gave off a stench like a rotting buffalo. Don was the most experienced, with two previous successes on the mountain, but he was also strangely uncommunicative and refused to inform me when he was stopping. This caused the rope behind me to stretch taut and yank me backwards on numerous occasions. The whiplash would have been annoying in and of itself, but there was one instance when I announced over my shoulder that I was stepping over a wide crevasse in the ice, and Don chose that moment to take a break. The rope jerked me back, and I nearly plummeted into the bowels of the glacier!