Mount Rainier, Descending |

Mount Rainier, Descending

Jeremy Bernstein

(Courtesy Rainier Mountaineering Inc.)

On July 16, 1958, at 9 a.m. I stood on the summit of Mount Rainier, an altitude of 14,410 feet. The mountain, an ancient volcano that is the third-highest mountain in the lower 48 states, is some 70 miles southeast of Seattle. In my party there were three other climbers and a guide, Richard E. McGowan. I know this with precision because I have in front of me a certificate stamped with McGowan’s name – Record of Summit Climb – that tells me. I also have a photocopy of the page in the summit log, which all five of us signed.It is a good thing that I have these documents because, in trying to remember this climb, I had placed it nearly a decade later and was sure that the guide was someone named Jiggs Lewis, whom I thought was a student at Princeton. I must have climbed something with Jiggs Lewis, but it wasn’t Rainier. However, I do recall some of the details of the climb. I recall spending the first night comfortably in the Paradise Inn on the flanks of the mountain at 5,400 feet. It was first built in 1917 out of Alaskan cedar and then rebuilt in 1920 at its present location and then rebuilt again in 1926 after a fire destroyed much of the old building. It is a massive structure appropriate to the mountain.At the time I did not have much experience in snow- and ice-climbing, so I am pretty sure that I took a one-day course with the guides. We learned how to walk in crampons and use an ice ax. We also learned how to stop ourselves if we started falling in the snow. There was also some instruction as to what to do if someone in the party started to fall into a crevasse. We would be roped together to traverse glaciers and all of us, when someone started to fall, were to drop facedown and plant our ice axes firmly with the pick driven into the snow.

It was going to be a two-day climb and on the first day we went to Camp Muir at 10,080 feet, where we were going to sleep – sort of. My memory of the hike up to Muir is vague but pleasant. I recall meadows, flowers and then snow. I see now from the guidebooks that going up to Camp Muir from Paradise – an altitude gain of about 5,000 feet – is listed as taking between three and seven hours. I have no idea of how long it took us. I don’t recall that I found it difficult. If there were dangers going to Camp Muir, then I was unaware of them. But recently I came across a write-up of the hike that makes it clear it was not something to take lightly:Mistakes in navigation while traveling to or from Camp Muir during storms and “white-outs” have resulted in lost climbers and hikers and fatalities. To decrease the possibility of this happening to your party, this map list compass bearings to and from Camp Muir (true and magnetic north) as well as prominent landmarks. This map will not substitute for a USGS topographic map. Proper bearings alone will not ensure a safe trip.Camp Muir and the Muir Snowfield are nearly surrounded by glaciers: the Nisqually Glacier to the west, the Cowlitz Glacier to the north and east, and the Paradise Glacier to the south and east. A minor error in navigation may lead you onto these glaciers were there are crevasses and other hazards. STAY ON COURSE. YOU MAY HAVE TO CORRECT YOUR DIRECTION OF TRAVEL TO THE WINDWARD OF PREVAILING WINDS. Always beware of steep cliffs to the east of Camp Muir to Anvil Rock and the east of McClure Rock. These cliffs, obscured by snow and cornices in the winter, have been the sites of mountaineering tragedies. Panorama Point is a dangerous avalanche area. While traversing the Muir Snowfield, approach rock islands with care because of holes which form around them as snow melts. Crevasses occasionally open up on the snowfield in the vicinity of Anvil Rock in late summer and may be hidden by snow.I do not remember what we slept on or under or what we ate. I did not own a sleeping bag at the time. In any event, we did not sleep very long. Around 2 a.m. we were up and moving with crampons, ice axes and headlamps. I am quite sure of the time because the summit log says it took us seven hours and we arrived at nine. First we were moving with our headlamps on a glacier. Then there were some rock ledges that required some scrambling and then another glacier. The sun came up and we could see the great neighboring mountains of Washington and Oregon. We were now climbing fairly steeply on the glacier and then it happened.I was confronted with a very large crevasse. I was next to the last on the rope and had not been paying much attention to what McGowan and the two climbers in front of me had done to cross it. There was a snow bridge, but it had what looked like a red pennant attached to a wand on top of it. I was not sure what that meant – cross or not cross.I shouted up to McGowan who was several feet on the other side of the crevasse. I thought I heard him say “jump,” which seemed strange but not totally implausible. So I jumped. If the upper lip had been downhill or, on an even level, I might have had a chance. But it was uphill so I landed in the crevasse. Immediately my rope mates did what we had been taught to do – flop on the snow, ice axes implanted. It worked. I think I fell about a foot and was hauled out by McGowan. He was not pleased. About the kindest thing he said was, “The idiot jumped.” The rest of the climb went without incident. At the summit I had a candy bar and promptly fell asleep near a warm fumarole. Sometime later McGowan woke me to announce that we were going down. I recall the descent. It was a bright, sunny day and the snow had softened, so we sloshed back down to Camp Muir and then un-roped for the return to the guide station, which was across from the Paradise Inn. The altitude gain and loss in the two days had been more than 18,000 feet. That is like going up and down the Empire State Building somewhat more than seven times. I was very tired but very pleased with myself.I recall driving back to Seattle in the early evening and watching the mountain glowing pink and rose and marveling that, not that many hours before, I had been on its summit. I stopped in a Dairy Queen to have a chocolate milkshake and was a very happy man.Rainier historySince 1958, I have spent a good deal of time in the mountains. I have trekked and climbed in many parts of the world: East Africa – Kilimanjaro and the Mountains of the Moon; Tibet – Kailas and the advanced Everest base camp; Nepal – some 10 treks including two to the Everest base camp; decades of climbing the Alps and the Rockies, but I have never returned to Rainier. However, I have been reading about its history, which I had not bothered to do when I was training to climb it.The Nisqually Indians, who were indigenous to the area, called it “Tacobet.” The name “Rainier” is one of those ironies that the history of the British Empire is replete with. On May 8, 1792, Captain George Vancouver of the British Royal Navy, who had sailed with Captain Cook and was on a voyage of exploration that took him to the Pacific Coast, viewed the mountain from his ship and wrote in his log, “The weather was serene and pleasant, and the country continued to exhibit, between us and the eastern snowy range, the same luxuriant appearance. At its northern extremity, Mount Baker, bore by compass N.22 E.; the round snowy mountain, now forming its southern extremity, and which, after my friend Rear Admiral [Peter] Rainier, I distinguished by the name of MOUNT RAINIER, bore N.[S.] 42 E.” Admiral Rainier did much of his service in India and never saw the mountain, but the name stuck.Everest, I remind you, was named after Sir George Everest by his successor, Sir Andrew Waugh, the surveyor general of British India. Waugh is said to have learned about the mountain from one of his native Bengali employees. Everest almost surely never saw “his” mountain.While there had been previous attempts, the first successful climb of Rainier was made in August 1870 by General Hazard Stevens and Philomen Beecher van Trump. General Stevens had fought in the Civil War and had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Van Trump, who was born in Ohio, had been a gold prospector. Neither man had any mountaineering experience. There was a third member of the party, Edmund Coleman, an Englishman. He had climbed in the Alps, but did not make the summit. The party started walking to Rainier from what is now the state capital of Washington, Olympia, on Aug. 8. It is about 70 miles. After some hair-raising adventures they reached the summit on Aug. 17, a remarkable feat. They left a brass plate inscribed with their names.

That none of the previous attempts had been made by people from the indigenous population does not surprise me. I do not know of any example of native people living at the base of great mountains who showed any interest in trying to climb it until someone from the outside suggested the idea. The Sherpas never tried to climb Everest before the British arrived. Residents of the Chamonix Valley at the base of the Mont Blanc never thought of climbing it. This was the invention of a wealthy Geneva aristocrat named Horace-Bénédict de Saussure who, in 1760, offered a reward to the first person or persons to climb it. People living at the base of these mountains found them a source of fear and awe, not sport.After the first ascent, the pace of Rainier climbs accelerated rapidly. A notable 1888 climb included John Muir, the great naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club. It was suggested by other members of the party that their high camp, which had been called “Cloud Camp,” should be renamed for him and so it has remained. In 1890, there was the first ascent by a woman, Miss May Fuller. Later she wrote, “The costume … will amuse present-day climbers. I had it made at a time when bloomers were unknown and it was considered quite immodest. How anyone could have scrambled over the rocks thus attired is now inconceivable.” By 1900, there was a public accommodation – a tent camp – where the Paradise Inn is now. Meals came to 50 cents each and lodging was 50 cents a night. In 1915, the public road to Paradise was opened and the area became a national park the following year – the third in the country.By this time a guide service had been operating since 1903. By 1914, there were three authorized guides and an assistant. The guides got $25 for the climb and the assistant got $15. Joe Horiskey, who has guided Rainier since 1968, and has climbed the mountain more than 235 times, informed me that when he first climbed the mountain in 1967, at the age of 16, the going guide fee was $32 including the one-day climbing school. He carried a load of supplies up to Muir to pay the $10 for the climbing school.Horiskey is now one of the owners of Rainier Mountaineering Inc., which has been guiding people up the mountain since 1969. They operate in the park under a contract with the National Park Service, but they are now physically located in Ashford, just outside the park. Their fee for the three-day climb and school is $795. They take parties of at most nine with three guides. I looked at the list of required equipment for the summit climb and was somewhat stunned. Almost nothing on it was available in 1958, and if it was – such as a sleeping bag – I didn’t own one. The key in clothing is now “layering,” using materials no one had heard of 40 years ago. For boots, plastic mountaineering boots are recommended. They started to come into vogue toward the end of my climbing tenure in the Alps. They have the advantage of not getting wet inside as a leather boot can do, but I would imagine they are not very good for the serious rock-climbing that most Alpine routes require. I do not know how much the entire list weighs, but in the suggested training it is proposed that a potential climber learn to carry between 35 and 50 pounds while climbing things like stairs and stadium steps. In my training, such as it was in 1958, I don’t recall carrying anything up stadium steps.Return to RainierAbout a year ago my brother and sister-in-law moved to Olympia and this past August I went to visit them. We decided to spend a night at the Paradise Inn and walk some of the trails that would lead eventually to Camp Muir. The Inn originally contained 33 rooms with communal bathrooms, but in the 1920s an annex was added with 100 rooms with private baths. During World War II the inn had deteriorated to the point when, in 1952, the government bought it and decided to tear it down. There was such an outcry that it was restored in 1979, and is now a National Historic Landmark.August, when we visited, is the height of the tourist season and we could only get rooms in the original section of the inn, which meant wandering the hall looking for the bathroom. The rooms are small but very comfortable and the meals are truly superb. I noticed a sprinkler system on the ceiling of my room. Given the history of the inn, fire prevention is an important priority. My sense is that the inn is largely used by parties of tourists who are bused in for the day – and night – and do not do much hiking, let alone climbing. One would get a fine view of the mountain from the inn when the weather is clear. On our visit it was enveloped in a dense fog, so we saw nothing.The thing that attracts people to Rainier for sightseeing is its glaciation. No mountain in the lower 48 states has a comparable glacier system – some 35square miles that contain about a cubic mile of ice. But the glaciers are disappearing. This is a worldwide phenomenon. It is estimated that the glaciers on Kilimanjaro, for example, will disappear entirely in another 10 years or so, turning the mountain from an uncannily beautiful silver apparition into a mound of dirt. The glaciers on Rainier are not likely to disappear soon but they are melting rapidly. What renews glaciers is snowfall. As the global temperature increases, the snow line gets higher and higher and the glacier melting is not compensated for. If one compares photographs of Rainier taken recently with ones taken some years ago, the effect of the glacier melt is evident.As I mentioned, my goal was to walk the trail that leads eventually to Camp Muir. My first stop was the ranger station. This used to be where the guides operated from. Now you are supposed to register your climbing intentions and sign in again when you return. Some 7,000 people attempt the mountain each year. About half of them make it to the summit. Rainier is a very dangerous mountain, especially if the weather turns bad. There are a number of fatal accidents each year. I had no intention of climbing anything but I wanted a trail map.

I had no recollection of how we actually hiked to Muir in 1958, but the ranger explained that one takes the Skyline trail and turns off before Panorama Point, which is about 1,700 feet above Paradise. To get my bearings, I walked for an hour or so up the trail. What struck me was that the part I walked on was paved, something that was not there in 1958, and that the paving showed signs of wear and tear. The lower part is made to be wheelchair-accessible. Coming down was a party that had clearly climbed the mountain. There was a guide in front and one in the back. The climbers looked pretty tired. By this stage they had been climbing for at least 12 hours.The next morning it was still foggy and drizzly, but we decided to hike anyway. The first part was a repeat of the previous day and then the pavement stopped. I anticipated a pleasant dirt trail on which one could develop a cadence and, indeed, it started out that way. But at the first steep place the dirt was replaced by stone steps, many of which were clearly in need of repair. To avoid them people had climbed the meadow alongside the trail, making an unsightly dirt-and-rock track. By the time we reached the turnoff to Muir and then Panorama Point beyond it, I had had enough.Perhaps if the weather had been better, I would have minded the trail less. But here was a premier trail in a great national park that had been allowed to decay to a point where using it was both unpleasant and even risky. Descending the uneven steps required very careful attention. While I was doing this I began wondering what this kind of trail disrepair meant for the park in general, and indeed for the other national parks. What I have learned subsequently is deeply disturbing.

On Jan. 4, 2002, Interior Secretary Gail Norton appointed one Paul Hoffman as deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks. His main qualification seems to have been that he had been Wyoming state director for Dick Cheney from 1985 to 1989 when Cheney was in the House of Representatives. More recently, before his appointment, he was the executive director of the Cody, Wyo., County Chamber of Commerce.His mission, upon being appointed to his present job, appears to have been to change the structure and mission of the already grossly underfunded national parks. As a start, 1,708 National Park Service jobs, including 47 at Rainier, were to be turned over to private contractors. The idea was to take the stewardship of the park away from the Park Service and turn it into a more commercial enterprise. As far as I can find out, the privatization of these jobs at Rainier has not yet happened.In late August, under Mister Hoffman’s supervision, a memo was prepared with no consultation with the National Park Service and circulated in the Interior Department. It was leaked and created a furor. As an Aug. 29 New York Times editorial put it, “Within national park circles, this rewrite of park rules has been met with profound dismay, for it essentially undermines the protected status of the national parks. The document makes it perfectly clear that this rewrite was not prompted by a compelling change in the park system’s circumstances. It was prompted by a change in political circumstances – the opportunity to craft a vision of the national parks that suits the Bush administration.”One organization that received the leaked memo was the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. The full memo with commentary can be found on coalition website at I will quote a little of it. The original document is on the left and the comments on the right. The Orwellian doublespeak which is so characteristic of the administration is clear on every page.

The term “conserve” is substituted for “preserve” or “protect” throughout the document. Although in the standard dictionary the term “conserve” means to “preserve” it has a much more utilitarian connotation in current public land management and law.The term “impairment” is substituted for “unacceptable impacts” throughout the document.In section 1.4.5 it is proposed that the definition of impairment be revised to mean an impact that would “irreversibly harm” resources or values and opportunities for enjoyment. By replacing “unacceptable impacts” with the newly defined “impairment” NPS action is limited to only those cases where resources, values or opportunities are at risk of permanent damage. Using the new impairment standard, a wildlife population could be allowed to decline until there was only one breeding pair left. At national battlefields a road could be built across hallowed grounds because it may not permanently impair the resource (it could be removed). The term “minimize” is substituted for the terms “mitigate” or “avoid” throughout the document. The proposed revision weakens the standard of action necessary to address adverse impacts.The term “reasonable” is inserted throughout the document.The proposed revision lessens the requirement for action. It also increases vulnerability to political interference.The term “overall” is substituted for “cumulative effect” throughout the document.”Cumulative effect” is a legal term established in NEPA. To eliminate it from the policies eliminates cumulative analysis. The phrase “the Service should” is substituted for the phrase “the Service will” throughout the document.By law, “will” requires action, “should” serves as an advisory; a suggestion that to take action is at the discretion of the manager. The substitution weakens the Service’s responsibility. It will allow the public and the government to undertake or allow many potential activities or measures without the adequate planning and impact assessments that are now required through the policies.The term “cooperating” has either been added or substituted for “collaborating” throughout the document to describe the relationship that the National Park Service should have with state and local governments, park neighbors, traditional park users, etc. The liberal use of the term “cooperating” reflects the Secretary’s “Four Cs” concept “Conservation through Cooperation, Communication, and Consultation.” On the surface, it sounds like the NPS should just be a good neighbor, but legally it implies sharing decision-making authority with outside interests and weakens the Park Service’s authority to safeguard interests of the citizens as a whole against sometimes conflicting local interests.

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The new regulations would allow snowmobiling, and unlimited over-flights, all in the name of redefining what a national park is supposed to be. One item struck me in particular. It reads: Merchandise: Merchandise that is in all other ways consistent and compliant with this policy, but has an accompanying religious or spiritual content may be sold in gift shops, and the sale of merchandise shall not be prohibited solely based upon its religious or spiritual content. The presence and sale of merchandise with a religious or spiritual content does not in any way constitute an endorsement or the establishment of a religion by the NPS.This proposed provision eliminates the policy against foreign merchandise and throws open the door to religious and spiritual merchandise.Perhaps the rangers could be instructed to give lectures on Intelligent Design. Speaking of Intelligent Design, I was told that there were going to be vast revisions to the inn. I inquired, and was told that they were planning to shore the structure up against earthquakes and, needless to say, enlarge the gift shop.Jeremy Bernstein’s latest book is “Secrets of the Old One.” He has written a profile of plutonium that will be published in the fall. He does not plan to climb Mount Rainier again in this life.