Opinion

John Carlson | Why people climb Mt. Rainier

Have you ever gazed at Mount Rainier on a cloudless day and wondered what it would take to climb it?

Well, picture a hill the height of 15 Space Needles stacked one on top of the other. Cover it with rock, snow, dirt and ice. From the parking lot at Mt. Rainier’s Visitor Center at Paradise, that’s what you see.

Strap a 40-pound pack on your back and begin walking. About one third of the way up, dirt paths become a massive snowfield. At about the halfway point, Camp Muir, you’ll encounter ice and rock, where you’ll stop hiking and start climbing. That means walking with large metal spikes (called crampons) under your plastic climbing boots, wearing a climbing helmet, a climbing harness around your hips, and carrying an ice axe.

Seven of us, including Microsoft Lawyer John Kelly from Kirkland, along with Microsoft engineer Pedro Celis from Redmond and his wife Laura, accepted the challenge to raise money for the Climb to Fight Breast Cancer at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. We also wanted to see if we could make it, since Kelly is in his early 40s and Pedro, Laura and I all turned 50 this year.

When you make your final push for the summit after resting at or near Camp Muir, you’ll get up just after midnight, grab a quick bite, gear up, rope up and begin climbing one arduous step at a time at about 1:30 in the morning. The air is thin and temperatures are dropping. You’ll encounter huge gashes in the massive glaciers covering the mountain surface.

Luckily we were aided by the very capable guides from Alpine Ascents, who were leading our climb. They guide climbers on every substantial mountain in the world and have an impeccable record of success. As we ascended, the sky around us was black and filled with more stars than I’ve ever seen. At dawn the rising sun reflected off the snow, briefly turning it pink, the color of the Climb to Fight Breast Cancer logo.

We stepped on the summit shortly after sunrise, gulping for air, exhausted and exhilarated. After a brief celebration and a short rest, we turned back and spent the rest of the day heading back down the mountain, all the way to the parking lot. Descending is more dangerous than summiting because falling down is more perilous than falling up.

Most people who ponder climbing take a pass. In fact, well under 1 percent of the people who visit Mt. Rainier National Park even try to climb the mountain. Of those that do, about half make it.

But if you’re drawn to this kind of challenge, and you want to help a good cause, contact the Climb to Fight Breast cancer at fhcrc.org/climb, or call them at 206-667-1398 (I can guarantee attentive service, as my wife helps coordinate the climb each year).

Making the commitment to climb will force you to get in the best shape of your life. You won’t regret trying, and one more thing: Once you’ve stood on the top of Rainier, it will never look quite the same ever again.

John Carlson hosts a daily radio program, “The Commentators,” with KOMO 4’s Ken Schram each weekday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. E-mail him at johncarlson@komoradio.com.

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