Mount Rainier summit pushes Owen grads to the top
- Mt. Rainier's elevation is 14,411.
- Climbers hike to 10,060-foot Camp Muir before final assault.
- Trek guides tell climbers to show up in the best shape of their lives.
- Jordan Childs and Lauren Richards trained for a year.
Jordan Childs remembers the moment June 8 when, dog-tired and still 2,000 feet from the top of Mount Rainier, he looked into his climbing partner’s eyes.
Lauren Richards, his sister, looked back. Their gaze betrayed their weariness. Since 2:30 that morning, they’d been climbing the last 4,000 feet of the 14,411-foot mountain, switchbacking up an impossibly steep pitch in an all-out effort to make the summit before a storm moved in.
Do we have it in us, their eyes asked each other. One team of climbers had already turned back that morning. Conditions were brutal.
The siblings, Owen High grads (2000 and 2003, respectively), had been training all year for their push to the top. Richards, who lives in Seattle, had climbed mountains in the nearby Cascades. A CrossFit enthusiast, she trained by swimming and running up storied staircases near her home. Childs, who lives in flat Richmond, Virginia, climbed flights of stairs in ankle weights, wearing a heavy backpack. He’d watched hours of Rainier assents on YouTube.
The trekking company that took them up, RMI Expeditions, told participants to show up in the best shape of their lives. There’s a reason for that. More than 400 people have died on Mount Rainier since 1897 (though not all from climbing), the National Park Service reports. People die of hypothermia. They fall into crevasses. They tumble down slopes and get caught in avalanches.
“The mountain kind of has its own weather pattern,” Richards said in a phone interview two weeks ago. “What looks like a pretty harmless cloud to someone like me … there’s always the element that the mountain is going to do whatever the mountain ends up doing that day.”
Richards had been talking to her brother about climbing Rainier for a couple of years. It was her who signed them up with the trekking company. She organized the trip and stayed on Childs about the training.
In early June, he flew out to Seattle. He and Richards drove to RMI’s camp in Ashford, Washington, near the mountain. Guides divided people into two groups of nine trekkers. Each group would have three guides. Everyone went out for some mountaineering training the day before the crew hiked to Camp Muir, which at 10,060 feet is the launching point for the 4,000-foot climb. Everyone settled in to bed in the austere barracks by 6 p.m. in anticipation of the early start.
About 2 a.m. the next day, the guides woke them up. It was time to climb, they said.
Though good, conditions were less than ideal. The temperature was about 35 degrees. Sustained winds clocked in at 35 mph; the wind chill factor was below zero. Childs and Richards strapped their head lamps to their helmets, pulled crampons onto their boots and picked up their ice axes. One by one, their group started off, forming a line that snaked off into the darkness.
“It was gorgeous when we started,” Childs said. “I hadn’t seen stars like that in a long time.”
About halfway up, morning light began to flood the snow fields – a cheering development after the hard slog up the slope. But a storm was moving in, and temperatures were dropping. A group from another trekking company had already turned around. Childs and Richards’ guides said there was time to make the top safely, but four climbers in their group headed down. The siblings, two guides and three other clients decided to push on.
“If the guides were willing to go, we were willing to go,” Childs said. “We had worked so long for this.”
The climb got harder. The pitch was severe, forcing the team, roped together, to switch back and forth to gain altitude. Panting hard, Childs focused on his training, forcing air in and out of his lungs, keeping his footfalls steady.
“At that altitude, any extra steps take a toll on you,” he said. “Your muscles are burning like you’re running a marathon without training for it. And you just can’t get a deep breath. I felt like I was always out of breath.”
Adding to the difficulties was the wind, which at times felt capable of pushing the team into the crevasses the climbers had been uncomfortably close to. Richards remembered what the guides told everyone at base camp – in case you slip, dig the axe into the snow to arrest your slide. She hoped it wouldn’t be necessary.
“I tried to put it out of my mind as much as I could,” she said. “I thought, I need to be really, really careful and thoughtful. More than anything else, I was more out of breath than I thought I would be. I felt bad. It was brutal.”
The group stopped for a 10-minute break, something it did with each 1,000-foot gain to tighten crampons and check on each other. The climbers forced themselves to drink the required eight ounces of water and eat the requisite 300 calories. Childs didn’t really want to. He just wanted to rest. He hurt.
He looked over to his sister to see how she was faring. She looked back with a silent resolve. We spent too many hours training, sweating, hurting to let this pain and fatigue do us in now, her eyes said. If anything, she was more focused than ever.
“There really wasn’t a moment that I felt that one of us entertained the idea of turning around,” she said. “There was a mutual understanding that we’re going to do this.”
Six hours after leaving Camp Muir, the small group made it to the top. Richards had imaged it would be a big emotional moment, but it wasn’t. It was actually sort of anticlimactic, her brother said.
“There was really nothing,” he said. “No bottle of champagne waiting for you. It was an unbelievably harsh environment.”
Richards felt depleted. “It really stripped you down to what you showed up with – your preparedness,” she said.
“And, I’ll never forget this,” Childs said. “One of our guides put his pack on the summit and pointed to the really dark storm clouds and said, we’re not going to run down the mountain but we’re not going to walk, either.”
So after just a few minutes on the top of the fifth highest mountain in the continental U.S., one on which alpinists practice before heading for the Andes and Himalayas, the climbers straggled off, one by one, just as they had in the predawn hours.
It wasn’t particularly fun, but it was satisfying, Childs said. The best part was having done it with his sister, he said.
“As we get older and life gets in the way, the people that have known us longer than anyone in our lives, you don’t get to spend as much time with them as you would like,” he said. His sister echoed his sentiments.
“To have someone who completely understood what I was going through,” she said, “it was so much more than just those couple of days of being on the mountain. It was all the things we did to prepare for it. I’m so glad that we did it together.”