What I Learned From Climbing Mt. Rainier

It all started at a birthday party when a buddy of mine, Matt Fallon, and I were catching up on life. We’re both a little bit on the crazy side in that we like to do marathons, triathlons, and anything else that will push us or challenge us. He had done a full triathlon since the last time I saw him, which I have not, and I was flattered when he said, “You could do it, dude.” I said something along the lines of “Yeah, I don’t know, bro” - not really giving it much thought, or wanting to. The thought of doing an Ironman is a little overwhelming. And then he mentioned that he’d also recently climbed Mt. Rainier. I was immediately intrigued. “Tell me more,” I said. He showed me some videos and it seemed really cool.

This is where I look back at the numerous times I misread people’s cues leading up to the climb. It would happen a few times more.

I think I missed his enthusiasm for achieving the climb. He told me about the companies that offer these climbs, and he said I’d probably not get in for at least a year because they’re all booked up. I thought “cool” and went home and immediately looked up these companies anyway. Rainier Mountaineering Company or RMI looked the best. And he was right, every one of the trips were “full”. So I looked into the other companies and they had different mountains to climb, but for some reason I wanted Rainier. (Also Mt. Rainier is a volcano, I’ll keep saying mountain though). I kept doing this and then one day I went back to RMI’s website and, what the heck? An opening on June 10th. I’m jumping on it.

I signed up, went through all the questions: Yes, I’m fit. I do triathlons and marathons. No, I’ve never done anything like this. The highest I’ve ever climbed? I don’t know, I think I did maybe 5000 ft. in Utah or something. I paid for the climb and signed all the waivers, but something seemed to go wrong with my computer. I called up and asked if I was signed up and this very nice lady said, “Yes Jayson, you’re all set to go.” Holy shit.

At this point it baffles me that I literally have no idea what I’m getting into. Matt was talking about some serious climbing, and I’m thinking a high walk up some trails. Maybe I’ll pick up a walking stick. I’ll probably be in shorts for some of the climb, I mean it’s June so it’s probably warm. I saw some pics on the website of people wearing shorts, this’ll be fun. The trail will be a nice clear path, probably some dirt, shit, maybe they put wood chips on it to make it nice. Maybe even some rocks on the side to distinguish that you’re on the path. I’m carrying a back pack, I’ll get a good workout. We all stop along the way and have some lunch. Maybe sit around a campfire or something on logs or rocks. We’ll continue on our jaunt up the hill to the top. Everyone will make it because heck this is only a category 2 climb. (That’s what it’s listed as. I would later learn that those ratings really don’t mean anything).

So that’s my thinking. Leading up to my “vacation”, people ask me when I tell them I’m climbing Mt. Rainier, “Are you ready?” I say, “Yeah, I think so. I’m in pretty good shape. I really don’t think it’s going to be that bad.” This is where I again, missed people’s cues. They would look at me, as I look back now, like I’m an idiot. “Ok,” they would say and walk away with dumbfoundedness. It was the “ok” you give someone when they do or say something dumb and you can’t help them.

I have a tendency to just jump into things. I ran the Boston Marathon with a bad knee thinking, “Heck, if the knee acts up, I’ll just pull off to the side and walk back to my hotel,” was my thikning. I mean the course must just go in and around Boston, right? No idiot, the course starts out in the middle of nowhere and goes towards Boston. You have no chance of stopping at the beginning of the race. I ended up running a marathon on a bad knee.

So I arrange all the flights. I’ll make it a west coast trip and go see my family and brother out in Oregon before I head off on my little jaunt up the hill. I told my buddy Matt that I was going and he said “Awesome”. I asked him if there was anything I should prepare for, not really thinking I would need to. And all he said was, “Practice going down hill with a pack on your back.” Hmm, that’s interesting. I thought, I’ll be alright. I’ll be so amped that I made it to the top, the walk down will be a breeze. Again, what an idiot!

I made it to my first stop, Eugene, Oregon. While I was out there, I was running a lot because there was a running trail called, “Pre’s Trail.” It was named after Steve Prefontaine and it was a beautiful trail of wood chips. I ran it a lot. It’s one of those things you come across that change the way you think about something, namely running. This little 6 mile trail I could’ve run all day and I might have come close to it if I didn’t have to get back to my family. Heck, I’m really ready for this climb now; my legs are in great shape. Looking back I think it did help me acclimatize to my next part of my “vacation”.

As I was leaving, my brother’s girlfriend, Alyssa, said to get a seat on the right side of the plane so you can see Mt. Rainier as you fly in to Seattle. So I made sure I had a window seat, even paid more for it. As we’re flying up and they mention we’re going to begin our descent, I see it for the first time. I see this enormous beast of a mountain that is all white. All white. “Shit just got real,” was my initial thought. They don’t have this stuff out east. We ain’t in Kansas anymore.

So what I want to do is go through each phase of the climb and share a lesson that I either learned, or did well — surprisingly. We’re going to start with the very beginning — the equipment check and go all the way to the descent down the mountain, or volcano.

Day 1 — Equipment Check

You don’t always need a plan, just jump. Far. I think I’ve made it clear that I wasn’t really ready for this, but that couldn’t have been more evident than the very first day we met with our lead guide, Andy Bond. We were separated into two groups, and I was with a group of ex-cops and one of their daughters and wife. They all had everything ready to go. I had a back pack and some other stuff that turned out to be useless for the climb. (Fastforward to after the climb was over and everyone met for an ending ceremony. The group would all say they were looking at me like, “Who is this dude who comes from New York, wants to climb Mt. Rainier on a whim, and has absolutely no gear?”) I knew I didn’t have shit, but I knew I could rent it. It just turns out it was an insane amount of stuff that I would need to rent. And at the time, I didn’t comprehend that I would need to use absolutely all of it. I’m going to need three different pairs of gloves? Yes, you are Jayson.

Turns out my hiking boots were a joke. Needed real ones. Cramp ons for your shoes for walking in snow and ice. Gators for your shins to protect your pants from getting ripped up by your crampons and also warm your legs. Real hiking pants which turns out my Lulu Lemon pants were fine. Who knew? Then you need pants to go over those pants, but they need to have a zipper on each side because you need to put them on over your cramp ons. You need long johns if it’s going to be insanely cold. (You’d be able to put these on at the midway point at Camp John Muir). Then you need a base layer shirt, medium shirt preferably with a hood to protect your neck and ears from sun and just to keep warm. A semi-warm coat and then a warm coat that acts like a protective shell. You also need a rain jacket. (All of this is somewhat light and NOTHING is cotton). Luckily, my girlfriend, Melissa, had given me a couple gifts, a hooded lightweight shirt and a coat with faux feathers. Both would be very useful. I brought them along on the trip for the heck of it. Then you need a neck protector and a face guard of some sort. For the top of your head you need a good baseball hat to shield the sun, make sure you have a hood or even two, and then something warm for your head, but again, nothing cotton. We then need light weight gloves, medium gloves, and holy shit it’s freezing mittens.

You need a helmet and also a head lamp. We’ll be leaving at 12am from Camp John Muir when we’re half way up the mountain and we’ll be in the dark which I had no clue at the time. Some ancillary items we need are an ice pick, two ski poles, a rope harness for around your waste, an avalanche detection device — if an avalanche were to occur this emits a sound that can be detected. You’ll need a bag of food which contains an assortment of things like cookies, protein bars, sugar and energy stuff, a dinner for when we get to Camp Muir that will be mixed with hot water. Finally you need two — 2 liter water jugs. Lunch is from the start of the climb to the end, you eat when you can and you’re encouraged to eat. You want to eat the stuff you don’t like at the bottom of the mountain and save the stuff you love or would crave at the top because you will not want to eat at the top because of altitude. As I’m being told all this, once again, it baffles me that these people all knew me way better than I knew myself. Who knew that as I climb and get higher up the mountain the last thing I will want to do is eat. And my guide will be yelling at me, “Drink at least 1 liter of water on this break! Eat something!”

Day 2 — Mountaineering Training

Be comfortable not knowing anything! — After we have the gear and equipment check, or better yet, after I rent everything that I needed, the next day is mountaineering training. The first thing they teach you is how to walk. No, I’m dead serious. I think if I wasn’t a personal trainer, marathon runner, and triathlete, I would have thought this was a little weird. But as soon as Andy stopped us as we were walking up the hill and asked, “Do you see how I’m walking?” I was on to him. He was being the absolute most efficient he could be. He wanted you to bring your leg forward, straighten it so it becomes more of a structural thing than a muscle thing. And then maintain this gait all the way up the hill. When your leg is straight it’s like a peg, taking away muscle engagement, less work, more efficient, more energy saved.

And so you would walk like that, for every damn step.

When I was a marathon runner I would try to take away absolutely every muscle I didn’t need while I maintained my pace. My mouth unclenched, my hands loose, my shoulders loose. He was doing the same. So basically you look like a zombie as you’re walking up the mountain. But if you’re doing 30,000 steps, you need to be as efficient as possible. And then when you get to steep parts of the mountain there are different ways to walk up the mountain to stay efficient. You do a side step where you’re going up the mountain but looking away from it at about a 45 degree angle and bring one leg in front of the other, all while maintaining that peg leg for efficiency. Or you walk straight up the hill (it’s a hill now because mountain is too long) with your feet out 45 degrees and once again, trying to maintain that peg leg for efficiency.

Keep in mind all of this walking efficiency is for “ideal” conditions. No one has informed us yet that winds will be blowing while we’re trying to navigate a very slim trail and we are tied to a rope with a steep slope one one side of us and a seemingly even steeper slope on the other side that goes down. Really far.

After Andy teaches us how to walk in regular mountaineering boots, we attach crampons to our boots. Crampons are basically snow shoes with ice picks. They are great for walking in snow and ice. Absolutely horrible we would find for walking on rocks. And once again, while walking in these you want to be as efficient as possible. So you sort of stomp your foot into the hill of snow to create a platform, and then you step up using the platform you created, straighten your leg to rest a little, and then bring the other leg forward. Like a zombie.

As we’re learning how to walk, guess what else he’s teaching us? How to breathe. And again being a personal trainer and studying the body and efficiency, I understood where he was going with this as soon as he started talking about it. He wanted us to blow out short little breaths as we were walking up the hill. He just wanted us to do it, and typical of Andy, didn’t give us a reason why. He didn’t have to, it would waste time. And we had too much to learn. But what he was trying to get us to do was blow out carbon dioxide so we could get more oxygen into our body. Also the short exhaling breaths have a calming effect on the body. It’s much better than short inhaling breaths where your body would think you were hyperventilating and in trouble. You need your mind calm as you trudge up this difficult terrain.

Next we would learn rope work, or I could also call it rope etiquette. Once again, this is something I kinda took for granted until the actual climb. We’re all attached to a rope going up the hill, and down the hill as well. The main thing is you want to be aware of where the rope is for your partners in front of you. If you walk too far up on them, the rope gets a lot of slack and easy for them to step on. (It was the actual climb that showed me how much this sucked.) So we learned how to work with an extended rope like you see the people doing to the left. And then when things get a little treacherous, the guide will bring you in and make the rope length between each person shorter by about half. AND THEN if things are really not a walk in the park, say it’s a steep slope on one side and you have a slim path, the guide will put a stake in the snow and attach the rope to a loop on it. Then walk forward and the next person yells out, “anchor” and the line waits for him/her to unhook one side of the rope, hook the other side and when they are done, they yell, “climb!” And we all proceed forward. Once we are past the precarious spot, we continue onward normally. (Doing this in training is A LOT different than doing in real life I would find out). What I really should have done is read an article like this from “Climbing” magazine to give me an idea before I went out there. Back to training!

The last thing we learned was how to anchor ourselves down with our ice picks in the event of a fall. You have to hold the ice pick up at your shoulder, and then as you’re sliding down the hill, you roll and stick the pick into the snow on the same side it’s on and your slide will stop, hopefully.

That was exhausting! Better get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow we start to climb.

Day 3 — First ascent to Camp Muir. The first part of the climb.

Stick with what works and stay consistent.

From the get-go, we’re walking like zombies. Even when the incline wasn’t that much, we’re walking with that same, what seemed at the time, slow methodical walk. I was ignorantly thinking, “We can just go, right? Can’t we go faster?” But, no. All the guides were walking with the same, slow, methodical step. They were all like robots. Every guide walked the same way. Even though I was thinking, “We’re just going to Camp Muir where we’re going to take a long break, we can go faster!”

No, they have a process and it’s worked. For Andy, he’s summited Mt. Rainier over 100 times. That’s insane. And he did it each time with the same methodical step. As we we’re climbing, I remembered a quote,

“Change is cool, consistency is lethal.”

After six hours, we got to the base camp, Camp Muir, which is at about 10,000 feet. The guides told us to rest, drink some more water, and go to the bathroom, (we’ll talk more about this later, just another level of stress), and eat a good meal. A “good” meal is one we brought that we add hot water too. I happened to pick Chicken Teriyaki which was actually a good choice. The macaroni and cheese I saw looked disgusting. And the thing is, we have to take all trash down off the mountain which meant we had to hold onto it until we go down at the end of our trip.

Speaking of taking everything off the mountain, going to the bathroom was also interesting. We were all responsible for our own toiletries. Everything, includiung tooth brush, tooth paste, toilet paper, bag to hold used TP. Yes, if you went #2 on the mountain climbing you had to, hypothetically bring everything down. I like this. They’re trying to ensure that the mountain doesn’t become the mess that Mt. Everest has become. While we were climbing up the first ascent it was really no big deal for someone to go off on the side during a break and do #1. But, I and I’m pretty sure everyone else dreaded having to go #2 anytime at all during the trip, especially at the top!

As I mentioned, we arrived around 3pm and we were preparing for the debrief at 4pm where the guides would give us the itinerary for the ascent to the summit. We all, about 18 people total, were in a bunk house with pretty tight sleeping quarters. I got there and picked a bunk on the third level. I was already kind of tired but excited and nervous. I had no idea what to expect. What time would we be leaving? How does it work if people can’ t make it to the top? What if I have to go #2? What happens if we don’t all make it? How does that work? Well, I would learn soon enough.

Then the two main guides came in and gave us the lowdown. We were told they are very proud of us for making it this far. It’s a tough journey just making it to Camp Muir (you can see it on the bottom left on the map). Then we go to the big news. We should get sleep if we can from 6pm to 12pm. We will start our ascent at 12 midnight. They gave us a brief overview of the route we’d be taking (like we’d have any clue what it meant). I would come to learn later that I, again, had absolutely no clue what I was getting into at all. They wanted to make sure our gear was all ready to go and our bags were packed with what we’d need. We would leave our sleeping bags behind.

I couldn’t sleep a wink. I can pretty much sleep anytime if I’m laying down. Not on this night, I was way too excited.

Day 4 — The Climb.

Don’t misconstrue fear with excitement. The guides came in promptly at 12 midnight and said we should be ready to go in about 30 minutes. I had everything ready to go already. All I had to do was put pants on and then boots and crampons. Oh yeah, try to go #2 again because frankly that scared the shit out of me. Sorry, I had to do it.

I found myself very quiet. Most of the time before a workout with my buddies or a run, I’m the one yelling, “Let’s goooo!” But when I’m about to do something major like a marathon, triathlon, climb a 14,410 foot volcano, I get quiet. “Can I do this?” “What if I can’t?” Then I start thinking from a positive standpoint. “You wanted to be here.” “This is your element.” I was listening to David Goggin’s book, Can’t Hurt Me, for weeks leading up to the climb and I couldn’t help but hear his voice more than a few times. And I was thinking of a competitive female runner that I recently read about who had valiantly lost her life to cancer at the age of 37 or something very young. She was a savage all through her fight against cancer and her husband was as well. She’ll never have a chance to do this kind of thing. I do, let’s do it for her.

Whenever these feelings start burgeoning, my instinct is is to think that I’m nervous. But, being through this many times, I have to tell myself that it’s excitement. I want to be here. If I wasn’t nervous, THEN I should be nervous because that would mean I wasn’t ready. Being excited ensures that you’re going to be ready and prepare.

But you weren’t ready Jayson! I know, I know, it’s only luck that I train as hard as I do and I was getting ready for a triathlon, that I was able to even think about being able to do this. My buddies and I train doing insane Gym Jones style workouts all the time. And it just so happens, Gym Jones is a style of workouts that were started by a climber by the name of Mark Twight. He believed that, “The mind is primary.” Because when you’re ascending a mountain of considerable height, if you’re in good shape, it becomes way more of a mental battle than a physical battle. I knew this as I was going in that physically I am ready for a lot and because I’ve tested myself mentally through these types of workouts, I should be ok there too. We’ll see.

As I start off on the ascent with my head lamp on and only aware that we’re headed to the top, I’m thinking it’s better that I can’t see anything. Just keep going forward with my crew. Don’t think, just go, one step at a time.

First Break — Take care of yourself to take care of the team. We hiked up the first part of the mountain and we came to our first break. It wasn’t easy. At all. We had a couple people ready to call it quits. It was already evident that this wasn’t going to be as fun as training where we were laughing and enjoying our time in the sun playing with some ropes and learning how to walk and breathe. It was already evident that those lessons on walking were only going to be used some of the time, I was just trying to walk and stay relaxed. The terrain was so unpredictable there’s no way you can just maintain a consistent gait of peg leg, relax, step. You do what you can. And oh yeah, all that rope training? We’re really using it.

As the guides were figuring out who was going down and calling it a day, they were also making sure we were drinking water and eating some food. And all I remember throughout the training is the guides yelling, “If you’re not drinking water, you’re not taking care of yourself, and your team will suffer.” Wow, that applies to life too. I have to remember that when I talk to my clients and/or teams.

Think of your teams, co-workers, families, everyone. If you’re not taking care of yourself and at your best, you’re letting them down as much as you’re letting yourself down.

Second Break — Always Prepare For The Worst So You Don’t Have To Think About It — We had just gone through some very tough terrain. Some rocks and treacherous parts made it very difficult to navigate. Walking in crampons over rocks and crazy terrain has proven to be a pain in the butt. I was figuring we would have a few more people drop out and go back because, well, it sucked. We only had two guides left because one of the three had to take the first group that turned back, down to Camp Muir. Some people were on the fence about whether to quit, and we had to make up our minds quickly because the guides needed to keep a certain guide to climber ratio, and if it gets messed up it could put an end to the whole climb. That’s what our lead guide, Andy, was saying. I think the only female guide we had, Devon, was sensing this. She was always smiling and sweet, until she had to break some things down: “Ok, if you thought that was hard, the rest of it is going to be really fucking hard. And then coming down is even worse. You have to think if this is your day.” They wouldn’t tell the people to turn around, they would give them the reality of the situation. I think every person that turned around made the best decision that day without a doubt. Devon would turn out to be right on everything. Next time they’ll know more what to expect and make it to the top.

Then just as we’re taking off for the climb, I see that my light headlamp isn’t working. Shit. “Hey guys?” I was trying to yell. “Hey guys, my headlamp is off I think.” Then one of the new guides, Grayson (I remember cuz it reminds me of Jayson) came over. To say he was a savage under fire is an understatement. In no less than 5 minutes, he discovered that I was an idiot and didn’t pack spare batteries, found someone that did pack spares, got them out, opened up my headlamp with a screwdriver or knife or something because it was either frozen or just jammed, and then replaced my batteries and I was off. These guy and girl guides were badasses the whole time. This was just one occurance.

We’ve also started one of the many wardrobe changes that we would perform. Off went the lightweight gloves, on went the medium weight. And again I didn’t pack well enough and one of the guys that was going down offered me his overcoat. It was a life saver I would come to find out. I really thought I had enough. Ugh! Off we went into some more treacherous terrain, still in the dark.

Third Break You will always second guess yourself, sometimes once a day, sometimes once every three minutes.

As I mentioned before, I’d done some Gym Jones training in the past. This is a gym started in Utah by a climber, Mark Twight. He was a climber and wanted to add a mental component to fitness. The workouts were often long and you would be thinking a lot, like, “that was only round 2 and I have 19 more to go?” So mountaineering was somewhat similar. I was always wondering if we were making progress! I’d look off in the distance and it didn’t look like it was getting closer at all. Add that to the fluctuating mindest and confidence and your head is spinning. The continuous thoughts of, “This is cake, I got this all day” would come and then the continuous thoughts of, “Did I drink enough water?” “I can’t get my breath down, shit.” “I wonder if I ate enough?” “What if I can’t make it?” As these were occurring I would usually think of the breathing techniques we were taught or hear David Goggins in my head talking about how everything is in the mind, everything.

Fourth Break — Ignorance can become bliss — My line when I’m in the gym, and I think some people have adopted it, is, “Let’s see what happens.” This is usually said before we do a horrible and difficult workout. It dampens my fear in that I’m admitting I have no idea what is going to happen, but hey, let’s try it anyway. This is what I was thinking as we took our last break before we summited. We had about an hour to go and we were all just taking it in. The wind was fierce and I was putting everything I brought on my body. The heavyweight gloves, readjusted my hoods so they were all on, and thanking God that one of the guys gave me his jacket. But more than anything, we were starting to see the fruits of our labor. We’d been going for about six hours and we could finally see the top. And for the first time I realized that the sun was coming up, and it was amazing. We were told to take off our head lamps and put our sunglasses on. The last part didn’t look bad at all. Just a gradual climb to the top.

Summit — When you accomplish something, just go with it, don’t try to feel anything. So there I was at the top. We were at a sort of bowl, remember Mt. Rainier is a volcano. I really didn’t know what I thought, until I pulled out my phone and started taking a video. It turns out I was pretty emotional. I just started talking and the next thing I knew I was on the verge of tears. I tried to gather myself but maybe I shouldn’t have. It’s what I felt at the time! I remember asking Andy, our head guide about walking around and he said not to go over to a certain area that looked cool. Apparently a girl went over to an area like that previously to go to the bathroom and the ground gave way and she went down about 20 feet. That’s ok, I didn’t need to move. We were all so content. The 20 year old girl, Jordan, from Baltimore that showed so much composure on both the way up and down the mountain just laid there for a little bit, soaking it all in. We took some pictures, and then started on the decent back down.

The Decent

Take heed of lessons from the experienced. It sounds logical, but sometimes, a lot of times, I think… I don’t know what the heck I think, I just don’t listen. Matt said, “train coming down hill with a pack on your back.” I heard this, but I thought, “Nah, I’ll be fine. If I make it to the top, I’ll be so jacked that I made it, coming down will be easy.” It wasn’t. And later did I learn that the decent is when the most injuries and deaths occur. Your so tired and delusional that it’s much harder going down than coming up. That’s what Devon, the girl guide said too! Well, I was all over the place. The snow was warming up and seemingly giving way every step the whole way down. You’d step on snow and drop a foot deep. I was walking a zig zag most of the way down. And the thing is, you can’t rest at all because you’re really always working to decelerate. And that’s exactly what Matt was getting at. It would be difficult just walking down the mountain, but it was really hard navigating the snow, crampons on rocks, and the hot sun with a 30–40 lb. back pack on. I once heard, “saying and doing are two different things.” Someone that has been there has knowledge, tricks, experience. Use it, don’t take it for granted.

The biggest lesson of them all —

The mind is primary. This was the phrase Gym Jones (that crazy and intense gym in Utah) brought to the forefront fittingly by Mark Twight, whom is a climber and the founder of Gym Jones. Everything starts in the mind. Your belief that you can do something, your willingness to start it, and your grit to see it through.

As David Goggins has professed, we’re only using 40% of our capabilities at any particular time. And so much research has shown that your brain will shut you down way before your body will. Sort of like a “governor” on a car or lawn mower. It tampers the output so it doesn’t overheat. As we go out and try more things, push ourselves further, I believe we raise the limits of that human governor. And each time you raise your limits, you empower yourself more and more.

You can do a lot more than you think you can. As you progress and start achieving bigger and bigger goals, you start to see life’s triviality get smaller and smaller. I can’t stress this enough. Once you do something like this, it really creates an inner calm, about everything. That person playing annoyingly loud music on the subway? No biggie, it’ll end soon. That horrible drive with traffic? It’ll end soon. It’s something you have for life. But this doesn’t happen on a whim, you have to be bold enough to just jump. And the more you do it, the higher you’ll jump. GO!

I’m a personal trainer in New York City with insane curiosity for fitness, health, and history knowledge. I like to write about topics that make me learn more.

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