A few years back, during my medical training, Bonnstein and I offered to lead a team on a summit attempt of Mt Rainier. Many of our classmates were interested, but once it was all said and done, only two were able to commit. The team consisted of our two classmates and one of my climbing friends. The two classmates had never been up Rainier before and had essentially no mountaineering experience. My climbing friend was still developing his skill set. He would provide us with an extra, reliable team member and in turn he would learn more about how to lead a team of newbies.
Our classmates took the necessary steps to get into proper physical shape. We had a training day in a park teaching them the knots they would need to know, how to tie into a rope, what gear to bring. We got a few funny looks from other park goers when we had them suspended by ropes to get a feel for it. When the time came for us to actually undertake the climb, the weather looked great. So great, that when we arrived in the parking lot at the base of the mountain, we found that it was packed. There were tourists and climbers covering every open square inch. But, on one of America’s most iconic peaks during a spell of great weather in the usual busy season, this was expected.
We spent day two of three teaching our Newbies a few more skills and reinforcing the previous ones. We had a late lunch/early dinner so the team could get a good nights rest for an early start. Figuring I’d be the hero, I brought a few tall boys up the mountain to share with the team. Bonnstein, being the consummate asshole that he is, managed to bring intact cheesecake slices to one up my beers. Cheesecake at about 10,000ft above sea level is certainly a luxury. We had to reiterate that most climbs do not, in fact, involve cheesecake. Got to make sure the Newbs have the proper impression of what mountaineering really is! Summit day requires an “alpine start,” which is a polite way of saying offensively early. We got up, had a quick breakfast and got started more or less on time, which is impressive on a good day, even more so when you factor in Newbies and their fumbling. By the light of headlamps we struck off across the first glacier.
On Mt Rainier, there are only a handful of companies that are legally allowed to guide commercially. They tend to operate like a well-oiled machine. We were a group of “independents.” The guides are usually pretty great. They flag the route through the crevasses at the beginning of the season, put up ladders as needed, respond when there is an incident on the mountain, once their clients safety has been assured and generally do a lot of prep work on the hill. All the pros are not without cons. This can sometimes lead to an appearance of entitlement. Like it is “their” mountain. It’s a mountain. No one owns it. Because they are being paid, and put in so much work that benefits the independents, it can feel like the guided groups take precedence. I don’t usually mind because I don’t have to do any route finding and they usually move at a good pace.
My rope team consisted of myself and a classmate. Bonnstein had a Newb and my climbing friend on his rope, just behind us. Unfortunately, once on the glacier, we got stuck in the middle of some guided teams. The one in front was moving painfully slowly. At the end of the first glacier, there is a rock ridge that is covered in loose rock. It is imperative to pay attention to those above you who may be knocking down loose rocks. The guided group behind us tried to pass during this section and after I offered a profanity laden admonishment, they backed off. For “safety.”
Now I’m grumbling. And the group in front of us was still going so slowly. Once on top of the ridge, the second glacier comes into view. The lower end is riddle with giant crevasses and is amazingly beautiful. But, given our alpine start, there wasn’t much to see. It was still night. The girl at the end of the guided team in front of us started stammering on like a tween at a pop concert.
“ohmygodohmygodohmygoditssoamazing” barely stopping for a breath, which was impressive at that altitude.
Grumbling, in my head thinking, “it’s a fucking glacier. You can’t see shit. Hurry up. Fucking guided gr…”
I crested the ridge and saw that she wasn’t impressed by the glacier. She was marveling at seeing the Northern Lights from high up on the side of a mountain. The green flicker was in front and to our right, the mountain summit off to the left. From that altitude, we had an unobstructed view. I was mentally eating crow and it tasted terrible. This old salty was put in his place by the exuberance of a Newbie. The expense of the “been there, done that” attitude became painfully obvious. This was a moment that literally stopped me in my tracks. The other half of my team and our compatriots on the other rope team came up to the same spot. There was discussion of value of digging out cameras. No one did. We just stopped and stared. Few people will ever climb a mountain. Fewer still will see the auroras from the heights of one. And only one got to see them after having just been humbled by a complete Newbie. We couldn’t linger too long; there was still a lot of ground to cover during what would likely be a 14 or so hour day. And it was cold.
The other night, we were sitting around having mulled wine and pie at what was meant to be a send off party, although the flight left a day early because of weather. So it was just a night sitting around and relaxing. Mississippi, our weather guy, came in from launching a weather balloon and let us know the Aurora Australis, the Southern Lights, were out. They were faint and not that exciting, but definitely out. Some of the group hopped up, dressed and got ready to head out to see. Some of the old salties didn’t. They had seen the auroras a million times and these weren’t going to be that good and wait until June.
That morning on Rainier has stayed with me. That crow didn’t taste too good. I got dressed, lickity split, and wandered out with the rest of the going-outside group. The auroras were faint. It took a bit for my eyes to adjust to the dark to see them. Mostly milky white with just a tiny bit of movement and maybe, just maybe, I could convince myself I saw some green.
There will be more auroras as the season progresses. I’m certain there will be a better show. And I’ll be there to see them.