As I reached the base of Gibraltar rock, I looked for the snow ledges that should lead me to the crux of the climb — the steep exit chute that would take me to the upper mountain — but they weren’t there. These were summer conditions on a winter route. I scraped crampons on a thin band of loose scree, hugging the towering mass of Gibraltar with my upper body while scanning the rock with my mitts for anything to hang on to.
I side-stepped out over the exposed cliff face and dug with my frontpoints into the mountain. Sparks burst from underfoot, as metal spikes ground on rock and made the sound of fingernails across a chalkboard. The steep ice and snow of the exit chute would be a welcome sight after this.
Halfway through this perilous shuffle there was a pop accompanied by a moment of weightlessness as a rock pried free of the frozen edge under my points and I started to fall. I had been clutching a bowling ball size projection for balance and it ripped from the wall under my dangling weight.
My right knee caught the edge as I tumbled and then I came to a stop when my left crampon caught another hold. My pants abraded and my knee bled as I hoisted myself back to the edge and listened to the dislodged rock crash its way down into oblivion.
The exit chute was steep and slick and very exposed but also solid and predictable. The swings of my axe planted firmly, and although my crampon points hardly penetrated, I knew I could trust their purchase.
I ascended the long chute quickly to a flat perch above Gibraltar Rock known as Camp Comfort and assessed the upper mountain just as the first pink rays of daylight stretched over the horizon ahead of the sunken sun. The snow was good for crampons and the pitch relaxed sufficiently to continue in piolet canne.
We marveled at the vibrant robin egg blue shadows that stretched from our boots as we began our slow march toward the first of many false summits. The air thinned and my lungs ached as I labored to breathe.
Left foot, right foot, rest, repeat. My partner showed better conditioning than I earlier in the climb, often sprinting ahead, full of enthusiasm; but at this altitude his pace had slowed and he began to fall behind, stopping frequently to sit and catch his breath. I would find out later that he had been experiencing symptoms of AMS; headaches, exhaustion, nausea, and bleeding gums, and he had battled with himself over turning back.
The slow pull of gravity tugged at the deep wounds of the glacier’s crevasses while we scrambled across the delicate snow bridges that covered their tops. On we pushed, past towering seracs as we chased the everchanging horizon of Rainier’s massive rounded top, like a carrot on a stick. Then I saw it: bare rock. The true crater rim.
I dropped my pack and stood on the rugged crest, shouting through the frigid bluster that we had made it. My partner joined me and we ducked down out of the wind. I trembled from the cold and exhaustion and longed to return to a more hospitable elevation, but I regained my poise and agreed to first cross the crater to the true summit at Columbia Crest.
We trudged across the shallow bowl to stand at 14,411’ on a small snowcapped apex, took pictures, and then returned to our gear. We were the first to summit, but there would be a few more over the coming hour. With their company we found an easier descent route across the Ingraham glacier.
The lower mountain hid below the massive curvature of the summit dome, giving the illusion that we were marching off a cliff for the first hour of our descent. Then the icefall of the upper Ingraham came into view as we descended into its maze of massive seracs.
We chose to follow a route down the center of the glacier where the surface had been chipped and flaked by crampons before ours, highlighting a way over and around the dimpled crevasses of the lower glacier. At one such crossing, a team of three carefully crossed a sunken snow bridge before us. Then my partner lightly stepped across, and it was my turn to proceed, but something didn’t feel right.
I decided to take a running leap over, rather than to trust the bridge under my own weight, and while I easily cleared the gap, my landing was followed by a very startling sound.
A large volume of air was escaping through a narrow crack. Then a section of the snow bridge, six feet wide and ten yards in length gave way and fell in a single flat unbroken sheet, out of view and into the depths below, sending a thunderous report from its impact in the belly of the glacier.
We crossed the remaining crevasses without difficulty or excitement, and then reached the jagged cliff band that separates the edge of the glacier from Cadaver Gap; the chute that we were to descend to return to Camp Muir. From this ledge, I could make out the camp across the ice below; the vibrant colored splashes of tents on the helicopter pad and tiny black dots of those milling about, and I knew I’d make it safely off the mountain.
—Columnist “The Rubber Tramp,” aka Jeff Kish, writes a weekly article on a laptop aboard the customized Ford Econoline in which he lives. You can catch up on Kish’s past stories: Dangerous Beauty: The Glacial Caves Of The Cascades, The Rubber Tramp Diary, Entry One, and his back story about shuttling through-hikers on the PCT.