Dead Of Winter, Ascent Of Mount Rainier

I found my new partner. We spent the next hour packing and left at sunset for the high camp, situated five miles and 5000 feet above. But my partner’s exhaustion would have us stopping short, bivvying in the snow just an hour before our goal.

The next day was a lazy one. I woke to a large flock of gray-crowned rosy finches hopping around our makeshift camp at sunrise and searching fruitlessly for food scraps that we were careful not to leave. A raven with a flair for the dramatic repeatedly tucked his wings and entered a free fall in the sky above us, squawking to make sure he’d been noticed before catching himself again.

A diving raven

We arrived to find Camp Muir empty. We had a significant head start on the day’s ascenders from Paradise, and the only evidence of earlier mountaineers was the gear they stashed in the group hut before leaving on their summit attempts the night before.

At Muir we cooked food, melted snow for water, and prepared our summit packs as we watched the population of the camp expand and contract with the coming and going of the day crowd.

A few other climbers arrived to share the hut with us before their own summit attempts, and by early evening all headlamps were out and a nervous and apprehensive silence descended on the Muir snowfields.

Camp Muir hut

Our alarm was set for 1:30 am, but I anxiously awoke many times throughout the night; I listened to the wind whipping outside, rolling back and forth to distribute the hip pain from sleeping on a plywood platform with nothing but a Ridgerest for cushion, and I battled my nerves over the climb ahead.

Minutes after the alarm sounded, I tiptoed around the hut by the muted red light of my headlamp, strapped on boots and gathered my things. Then I opened the heavy wooden door and stepped through the small opening to face the mountain.

The wind howled through the darkness, stinging my face and nearly sweeping away one of my mitts as I tugged on my crampon straps with freezing fingers. The moon had not yet risen, but the sky was clear and full of stars, and the faint twinkling light of a million universes made me feel even smaller than the mountain already had.

The author ascends Mount Rainier

The climb was steep and I warmed up quickly, despite temperatures that barely escaped the single digits. My heart beat rapidly on a cocktail of exertion, adrenaline, and caffeine. Left foot, right foot, axe, repeat; French Technique toward the inky monolith of Gibraltar Rock.

From high up slope, I could see how far I’d come by the tiny lights of headlamps moving about in Camp Muir. The pumpkin-color sliver of a waning crescent moon rose on the eastern horizon.

Over the beehive formation and rock bands we crossed, recalling the accounts of climbers who had traversed too high the night before and got cliffed-out before returning to Paradise, unsuccessful, in their attempts at the summit.

Sean McCoy

Sean McCoy is the Editorial Director of GearJunkie, and 5+ other All Gear websites.

He has been writing about hunting, fishing, trail running, camping, skiing, and more for 15+ years.

Prior to GearJunkie, he was the chief photographer for the Virgin Islands Daily News and former Editor In Chief for GearJunkie. Based in Denver, Colorado, McCoy is an avid trail runner, camper, hunter, angler, mountain biker, skier, and beer tester.