Thinking about climbing Mount Rainier this summer season? Here are a few lessons learned the hard way. Text and images by Claire Giordano.
Every summit bid is different, even on the same route. Each time we venture into the mountains we move out of our safe, comfortable, and controlled environments into a setting where we are surrounded by factors out of our control. From weather to snowpack to our fellow team members, the mountains strip away the conveniences and routines of everyday life and test our knowledge, resilience, and judgement. With so many unknowns, we have a much higher chance of success if we prepare for the factors that we can control.
1. Prepare your mind as well as your body.
Mount Rainier is one of the most stunning mountains in the country, rising from conifer foothills to its white snowy peak at 14,416 feet above sea level. It also has a reputation for being a bit of a sufferfest. In order to find the fun in this kind of ascent, our bodies and minds have to be up for the challenge.
Before my climb, the majority of my training focused on strengthening my body. For six months I did one to two longer hikes each week with a heavy pack, increasing the weight by set increments. In between, I biked to work, did yoga, ran hills, and jogged stairs. I tried to keep as active as possible, while also listening carefully to the aches and pains in my body and taking rest days as needed. The months of preparation meant I could go into my climb confident in my body’s abilities.
This confidence is only part of the preparation, however, because the mind has to be strong enough to motivate the body to work. Unlike my previous summer mountaineering trips, this one was cold...really cold (at least for me). 5 degrees fahrenheit ambient temperature and 50 mph winds. Cold enough that I had to leave a sweater in my pack wrapped around my water bottles, and my frozen bagel required a fair bit of gnawing and slobber to eat. There is nothing quite like cold to sap one’s motivation. And added on top was the darkness, thrilling and terrifying at the same time. At each crevasse crossing, my headlamp would dance shadows across of the icy walls, the bottom invisible below.
In these conditions, the ascent became centered on maintaining focus as I put one spikey boot in front of the other spikey boot that always liked to trip me. My longer hikes (slogs) with my pack had prepared me somewhat for this, but ultimately it was yoga that helped me to stay focused and keep a good attitude. I turned to a repeated mantra, or a short phrase, to guide my focus, modulate my breathing, and keep my thoughts on the present moment. In staying attentive to the mist of my breath in my headlamp, the crunch of snow in my crampons, and the coolness of my ice axe griped in a thick glove, I was experiencing every moment. And while not every moment was a bonanza of joy, the overall climb was much more enjoyable because I kept a positive attitude.
2. Food. Food. And more food.
An ultra runner once told me that whoever can eat the most in the shortest amount of time wins. I think mountaineering also adheres to this theory. The surest way to ruin a fun day is to get hangry. Not only does a hungry tummy make us pissed off at everything, but it also seems to reduce our mental acuity and focus. I can always tell when I am hungry because my inner dialogue shifts from “look at that pretty icicle” to “when will I be off this dumb slippery bad idea of a route?”
Before you climb, spend a lot of time trying different foods on your hikes. For years I swore by protein bars of various manufacturers, until I tried to eat one that was frozen solid. Never again. I now go for bagels and other easy to eat carb and sugar loaded things like pastries, bread, dried fruit, nuts, and cookies or even some energy chews. The mountains have a weird ability to take away the appetite, so finding things you will actually eat is another foundation of a successful ascent.
I stop every hour at most, and try to take in at least 300 calories. In the cold this was a lot harder, however, so I pre-loaded with a huge breakfast of oatmeal, nuts, and dried fruit. With that on board, I was ok eating only about 150 calories an hour to the top, and then switched back to normal intake amounts on the way down.
My personal favorite: bagels. Bagels with peanut butter, bagels with salami, bagels with sirracha… anything that makes those carbs taste good, even when frozen-ish.
3. Learn how to pee in the cold.
Ok, this one is mostly for the other adventurous ladies out there, but learn how to use a funnel. Many guiding companies will recommend this, and they are 100% correct. I will never, ever, ever have my bare butt out in 50 mph wind and blasted by ice pellets. Its is as unpleasant as it sounds. And you moon everyone, all the time, since you are stuck to each other with ropes and simply can’t wander far on a crevassed glacier. Not to mention that the de-layer and re-layering process is made 100x harder by a harness. So, trust me, it is worth it to put in the time and become a pro at peein like a man.
4. Become an expert napper.
This is a skill best honed over many months, so start now. On my trip, I was the only one who got decent sleep, and it made a huge difference. I was much more chipper after our summit and nearly 10,000 vertical feet of descending than my teammates. I attribute it to my high school days of taking 30 minute naps during late-night study sessions. Like any other skill, napping requires practice to not only fall asleep quickly, but also to train the body to feel rested after only 30 min.
I recommend learning some kind of meditation technique to help put you to sleep. This can be as simple as intentional breathing, or as complex as a mental check-in with each part of the body (or a body-scan meditation). While many people make summit pushes on zero sleep, even a few hours can make a huge difference in how energetic you feel, and how much fun you will be having once the adrenaline of the ascent wears off.
4. Focus on your breathing.
We take it for granted that our bodies will breathe. They do it all day, every day, for our entire lives. Sometimes, however, our bodies need a little extra help to do it right.
At low altitudes and in everyday life most of us use only the upper portions of our lungs. Pause, and direct your attention to your next breath; does your chest or your belly move with each inhale? Most likely you used your chest and neck muscles only.
At elevation the body has to work harder to supply the oxygen that our working muscles require. This means that one of the easiest ways to help your body perform is to use all of that available lung capacity by belly breathing. Instead of using the auxiliary muscles of the chest and neck to inhale and exhale, use the strong diaphragm and core muscles. Outwardly, this will look like your belly is moving in and out slightly as you breathe; this is the kind of using-all-my-lung-capacity breath we want in the mountains.
This technique of diaphragmatic and regulated breathing is so important, it is taught to Navy SEALs. Before, during, and after combat many are trained to do the 4x4 breath, which is a simple breath pattern of inhale 4 seconds, hold 4 seconds, exhale 4 seconds, hold 4 seconds, and repeat. You may have to work up to a duration of 4 seconds, but practicing breathing techniques over time strengthens and stretches the body so it can breathe more efficiently, and focuses the mind.
The second main technique to use on Rainier is pressurized breathing, or a forcible exhale every so often. I ended up doing one every ten breaths. To do it, purse your lips and force the air from your body, and exhale as long as possible.
Focusing on the breathing maintains our attention and keeps us in the present, where we are more attentive and less likely to make a mistake. Happy muscles are muscles that have enough fuel and oxygen, so we need to do all we can to help them take us up and down the mountain.
5. Take moments to look around.
When climbing, I sometimes find myself in the zone of focused unfocused-ness. I am moving, aware, alert to hazards, but not truly present or observing my surroundings fully. I am in a head space oriented to ascent and descent. In these moments, I try to stop for a few seconds to look around me and notice; the colors of icicles caught in the first light of dawn, the scalloped surface of the snow, the way dark rocks silhouette against the moon. I stop, and remember why I am out here. I am here to challenge myself, to learn, and to enjoy the stunning expansive overwhelming beauty of the mountains.
“For a little while we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels.” Edward Abbey
In 1956 and 1957 Edward Abbey was the park ranger for Arches, at a time before it had achieved National Park status and when the unpaved roads were more traveled by tumbleweeds and lizards than visitors. Now, the park is visited by 1.5 million people each year.
Even with this incredible number of visitors, Arches retains its sense of awe and wonder. Of all the parks I visited, I saw more people here who were simply standing, observing, and marveling. You know you are somewhere special when a child’s expression of awe at the 290-foot expanse of Landscape Arch is mirrored on the face of the adults beside them.
Exploring Arches is much easier than trying to navigate Escalante, as almost every hike starts and ends at the single paved road. The road can get crowded, and one of the biggest benefits of visiting on the fringes of the peak season is fewer people throughout the small park.
If you are someone who likes to camp, the Arches campground is one of the best I have ever stayed in. Situated right at the end of the road, the campsites are nestled below red slickrock formations or look out over the distant mesas and La Sal mountains. The spectacular nature of the reservation-only campground means that the spots are all claimed early… if you know you want to stay, plan well in advance and expect to try to reserve your spot the first day reservations open.
If park service campgrounds aren’t your style or you’re on a last minute mission, check out the many camping areas scattered across BLM lands just outside of the park.
Pro tip: I highly recommend an early start, especially later in the year. In past visits I started every hike shortly before dawn to take advantage of the cool morning temperatures and enjoy a few moments of solitude. This also allowed me to maximize the best light. Landscape arch is unbelievable in the morning, right as the golden light of dawn filters over the mesa. Delicate Arch, however, is best in the evening, but don’t expect to have the place to yourself; photographers and hikers usually line the entire natural bowl surrounding part of the Arch.
When exploring the Southwest, Arches is on the top of my list every time.
Part One: A Feathered Friends Tour of the Southwest
Hoodoos. Ladies with hairdos. Fairy Chimneys. Whatever you call them, the incredible rock formations of Bryce Canyon are unlike anything else in the world. The towering spires, vibrant colors, and chromatic vistas were the first stop in a road trip to celebrate the National Park Centennial.
Last month I went on a month-long road trip to explore the parks that are arguably one of “America’s best ideas” in relation to conservation and recreation. It was also the perfect opportunity to put some new Feathered Friends gear to the test in a cold and arid climate.
The National Park Service was created in 1916 "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." Over the last 100 years, the National Park system has grown to include 58 parks across the United States, which receive tens of millions of visitors each year.
Bryce first captured my imagination when I visited it as a kid; the colors, rocks, and hikes were about as different as you can get from the greens and greys of the Northwest. Returning as an adult, these same formations re-awakened my sense of childhood wonder and a new feeling of gratitude that Bryce is protected. In practical terms, this means that although the park sees millions more visitors and has more amenities than when I first visited, the natural features are exactly as I remember them.
A testament to the splendor of the park is that people visit it from around the world. Walking on the rim of Bryce at peak travel season (which starts right about now) immerses you in a melting pot of languages, cultures, and experiences. One of my favorite things to do is sit on the rim and paint. Often the painting sparks conversations and inspires interactions with people thousands of miles from home.
This was also my first time visiting the southwest in spring, and I was surprised at how COLD (and windy) it was. Each night temperatures hovered right around or below freezing, and it even snowed the day we left Bryce.
It turns out our founders and owners were at Bryce the same time I was, doing some product testing of their own. They hit the cold and snowy conditions as well, and I think we were all glad to have lightweight down jackets like the Eos and Hyperion stashed in our packs.
Pro Tip for exploring Bryce: The canyon is structured in a tiered system. Layer one is the rim, which is the most crowded, and has expansive views down into the rock formations and to the mesas beyond. Layer two includes the shorter hiking loops that drop into the canyon, such as the Navajo Loop and Queens Garden. These trails still see a lot of people, but allow you to get up close and personal with Hoodoos of all shapes, sizes, colors, and heights. Layer three is the Under the Rim trail, which is primarily used by backpackers, and is the place to go to find solitude.
BD.TV Spring Film Tour @ Feathered Friends | May 12
Mark the calendar - it is time to get amped up! The BD.TV Spring film tour will be coming through Seattle on May 12th!
Back for a second year, the BD.TV tour will highlight some of the best in climbing from Black Diamond athletes.
Where: Feathered Friends
What: Black Diamond BD.TV Spring Film Tour
When: Thursday, May 12th 2016
Time: 7 PM
Bonus: Black Diamond Climbing Equipment and Apparel Raffle | Presenters | Beverages
Check out the FB Event Page
See you there!
Hummingbird Ridge - Still Waiting for a 2nd Ascent | North America's Fifty Classic Climbs, Episode 4 & 5
WITH MARK & JANELLE SMILEY
Those of you fortunate enough to have seen Mark Smiley's presentation at Feathered Friends back in September got a pretty good idea of how brutal Mt. Logan's (19,551') Hummingbird Ridge really was. Now, with the release of North America's Fifty Classic Climbs, Episode 4 & 5, everybody can see why this "classic" has only had one successful ascent... half a century ago...
Hut Skiing in the Selkirk Mountains
-Words and Photos by Jed Porter
Canada is where it’s at. As much as we Americans love our local skiing, its our northern neighbors that truly hold the goods. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love skiing in all corners of the United States. We have an amazing diversity of terrain, cultures, and climates in which to practice the white and slippery. If an American ski mountaineer were to assemble a “bucket list” of must do trip types, many could be accomplished on home turf. However, there is one type of ski vacation that is simply better in Canada.
Western Canada, with its reliable snow and unique land-use patterns and history, is blessed with some of the best backcountry, hut-based ski touring on the planet. Continue reading
Ancient Art - The Coolest Top Out In Climbing? | North America's Fifty Classic Climbs, Episode 2
WITH MARK & JANELLE SMILEY
Episode 2 is live! From perfect splitters, terrible weather, dicey double cornices, stellar granite, Mark and Janelle Smiley saw a lot of what climbing had to offer in 2014. Each climb has attributes that make them unique and special. One look at Ancient Art in Utah's Fisher Towers and it's abundantly clear what makes this climb a classic - it is remarkably aesthetic. It's main corkscrew route to the tiny top is a climb that draws climbers from around the world.
Because of its sandstone composition, Ancient Art may very well be ancient history in the near future. Check out what makes this classic so special with Mark and Janelle Smiley, and get after it!
Ancient Art - The Coolest Top Out In Climbing? | North America's Fifty Classic Climbs, Episode 2
WITH MARK & JANELLE SMILEY
Episode 2 is live! From perfect splitters, terrible weather, dicey double cornices, stellar granite, Mark and Janelle Smiley saw a lot of what climbing had to offer in 2014. Each climb has attributes that make them unique and special. One look at Ancient Art in Utah's Fisher Towers and it's painfully clear what makes this climb a classic - it is remarkably aesthetic.
Because of its sandstone composition, Ancient Art may very well be ancient history in the near future. Check out what makes this corkscrew classic so special, and get after it!
Fine Jade (5.11a) - Utah's Best Sandstone Tower | North America's Fifty Classic Climbs, Episode 1
With Mark & Janelle Smiley
Check out the first episode in 2015 from Mark & Janelle Smiley and EpicTV from Fine Jade, an absolute desert classic. Right on The Rectory in Moab's Castle Valley, with fine views of Castleton Tower, and complemented by some of the finest sandstone cracks imaginable, it should be high on any trad climber's list. See what this fantastic line in Utah's high desert is all about!
The Calling with Barry Blanchard
Join us at Feathered Friends November 3rd, 2014 for a special event with alpinist Barry Blanchard!
One of North America’s top alpinists, Barry Blanchard will be reading excerpts and showing images from his new book The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains. Known for pushing the standards of highly technical, high-risk alpine climbing in the Canadian Rockies and the Himalaya, Barry is a mountain guide and a Patagonia alpine climber who lives in Canmore, Alberta.
After his presentation, Barry will answer questions and sign books, which will be available for sale.
See you then!
Where: Feathered Friends
What: Barry Blanchard The Calling reading, slideshow, and book signing - presented by Patagonia & Feathered Friends
When: Monday, November 3rd
Time: Doors at 7pm | Begins at 7:30pm
Bonus: Food and Beverages | Q & A | Book Signing