DC, Aug. 2004
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Climbing is dangerous! Every year many climbers are broken, maimed, and killed. Don't be so foolish as to trust your life to what you see here. I'm not a guide and neither is this web site. If you don't know what you are doing or where you are going, please take a course or hire a guide!

Mount Rainier, Disappointment Cleaver "Car to Car"

August 13-14, 2004

"I really dislike the DC. It's ratio of aesthetic value to objective danger to is low, it's long and meandering, and it's crowded and overrun by the guide service."

I can't count how many times I've said that over the years.

Fast forward to I-90, on the way back from cragging at Exit 32.

"Loren, you should climb the DC with me, car to car."

"Okay. When?"

Now it's Friday afternoon, and I'm in the car at Orting High School waiting for my bud Hannah to arrive, five minutes fashionably late, as usual. It's nice to have a partner who is consistent.

We load up my car and discuss grocery needs. She gets into the car and we start to leave.

"Wait, the window in my car is down."

She gets out and rolls up the passenger side rear window. It promptly falls back down. Up...and down. Up...and down. I get out, grab it, and pull it up. It falls back down. I think for a moment. "Something is broken", I explain after careful analysis.

I grab a handy, ever-present staple when Hannah and I are together: A pine cone. I pull up the window and jam the pine cone between the window and the bottom seal. The windows stays. We hop into the car and quickly drive away before my ad-hoc Ford Tempo repair kit fails. Who says I've never used that Mechanical Engineering degree?

The drive goes without incident, even in Eatonville, where I recently received a citation for exceeding the 3 MPH speed limit by 0.01 MPH. It's about 5:00 PM when we pull into the Paradise parking lot. I grab shorts and a t-shirt and change, then we head to the Paradise Inn, where Hannah has assured me that I can obtain a grilled cheese for no less than $8.50.

Sadly for Hannah, grilled cheese is not on the menu, at any price, and she is forced to pick out the pasta from the undesirables in her Mediterranean Pasta dish. I devour mine, less those nasty little Kalamata olives. Blech. We split cheesecake for dinner, then waddle out to the car for a nap. Well, I wish anyway.

Back in the lot a now familiar scene unfolds: I wander about a pile of gear strewn about while Hannah sits atop her ready-to-go pack watching bemusedly. Amidst my mumbling and muttering I amuse myself by taking a couple pictures. Hannah remarks on the fact that this time I have remembered to bring the stove.

Hannah keeps her hands warm while I pack.

It's 7:45 PM when we walk away from the car and into the wilderness of the asphalt-paved trail. We're packed relatively light: Enough water to get to Muir, a light fleece jacket, aluminum crampons and light axe, wearing shorts and a t-shirt with Capilene top and bottom to change into at Muir, a titanium stove and pot, a rope, and a picket each. In my light approach shoes I feel good, though I take a casual pace (what I call my "all-day" pace). For her part, Hannah is in her Chaco sandals.

Somewhere above Pebble Creek darkness blankets us as we reach the snow and the temperature drops. We stop and take a decent break while Hannah changes to her trusty blue Asolo plastics, and I zip the legs onto my shorts and pull my Goretex jacket on over my now-damp t-shirt. We continue on into the cool night, under headlamp and following a nice set of tracks made earlier by the RMI cattle train to Muir.

We stop again and sit for a bit when my altimeter says 9200'. While we sit with headlamps off I see something moving nearby. The  high beam from my lamp reveals a bushy-tailed fox making its way up the snowfield. Hannah and I trade words and expressions of disbelief as it makes its way into the night.

I usually hit a wall at about 9500', and I'm expecting the last bit to Muir to be tedious. At this point two parties had passed us heading down, and I entertain and distract myself by making up stories to explain their 10:30 PM descents. When I look up I can see lights at Muir, but the night is dark and I have little depth perception. The altimeter says 9600', and I'm expecting another 500' or so to go. I'm surprised when I hear voices and see tents pitched nearby, and then again when we pull into Muir at 11:15 PM with my altimeter reading 9800'.

I empty my pack on the platform, recreating the parking lot scene. While I change into my dry layer of clothes we espy our friend the fox making the rounds of the tents at Muir. For some reason I never expected to see a fox at 10,000' on Rainier. I take a garbage bag and go scrounging for snow to melt. The winter-ish storm of the previous week is our benefactor, as I find a nice stash of fresh, wet, clean snow nearby and fill the bag.

We rest and melt snow for the next hour. Comfortable in a dry layers and with warm drinks,  we rejoice in the windless, relatively warm evening. Muir slowly comes to life, or rather those alive at Muir slowly begin to stir. I break open a string cheese and notice a bit of a funny smell, though it looks just fine. "Hannah, does this smell funny to you?"


I take a bit and promptly spit out the vile, well-past-due cheese.

"Bleth, bluck, phuh, spppppt!"

Hannah is laughing. "This is going on the list of mean things that Hannah has done to me: 'Laughed at my expense when I ate rotten cheese that she said smelled fine.'"

She is a bit incredulous that this should count, but I get out the list, which has now grown to cover two tefla pads in my first aid kit and scribble an addition.

Shortly after that I get an awful, determined charley horse running the length of the inside of my right thigh. No manner of stretching, twitching, or groaning cures it until I resort to a thorough massage. This is quickly turning into a one-man stand up show.

In the end we melt about six quarts of water- I drink two and fill my one quart bottle for the trip to the summit.

At 12:15 AM one rope team departs, and we notice the RMI hordes making progress with crampons and ropes. We stash spare gear in the garbage bag, tie in, and set off across the Cowlitz at 12:30 AM, with Hannah, wholly in her element, in the lead. At the tail, I'm still having doubts about my ability to climb the mountain in a single push without a major suffer-fest above 12,500'.

Hannah ready to rock and roll. Headlamps of others dot the background.

The route across the Cowlitz is mostly a traverse or descending a bit, so we make speedy progress in the soft snow. We've both opted to forego crampons for now, and I'm glad when we reach the first of the choss. The few hundred feet from the edge of the Cowlitz to Cathedral gap goes quickly. I'm happy that Hannah is carrying the coils of rope we've taken in, as I'm just able to keep up. We are rapidly catching the team ahead of us. At Cathedral Gap Hannah speaks up, "I don't feel very good."

She sits down, and the leans over. It's quiet. I look up and take in the stars. A particular little cluster catches my eye and I wonder if this is the constellation the Hannah had in the past described as her favorite, though we'd never been able to see it. A line of headlamps traces the route across the Cowlitz and I can see teams at the edge, starting up toward us in the scree.

Hannah's stomach is bothering her. Mine doesn't feel all that great either. I blame the string cheese, she blames the pasta from the Paradise Inn.

I break the silence. "Hannah, how bad is it on a scale from one to ten?"


"Well, you know my attitude. If this is going to be a suffer-fest for you then let's go down."


I stand quietly, marveling at the stars on a windless night. I feel good, and will be disappointed if Hannah decides not to continue, but certainly prefer that to her suffering for the many hours ahead.

When I can see headlamps just below us, and hear the associated sounds of voices and crampons in scree, I speak again.

"Do you want to continue? I'm not interested if you are just going to be miserable."

"It wouldn't be climbing if there wasn't some suffering involved."

"Hmmm. Okay, let's go up to Ingraham Flats and see how you feel. And let's take the speed down a notch or so."

Down but not out: Hannah still smiling at Cathedral Gap.

She rises as the headlamps of the first of the teams behind us starts to flicker onto us, contaminating the bath of starlight.

We continue up toward Ingraham Flats. I dodder along carrying the coils, letting the rope come tight when Hannah tries to sneak back up to full speed. I talk aloud, partly to her and partly to myself, about summit day on Kilimanjaro- the most physically demanding day I've ever had. Then I fade off into the few hypnotic verses that I remember from the song that the guides sang during that long, dark night.

The route descends toward the cleaver which we gain without seeing or needing the expected aluminum ladder. We plod upward in the nasty, loose choss and scree. I'm remembering, vividly, why I'm not fond of this route.

We pass one team resting in the rock. Higher, another team calls out from our left. "Don't come this way! Go back right."

"Okay", Hannah, in the lead, calls to the spots of light. It turns out to be a good thing, as they are behind us when we reach the top of the Cleaver, 12,300'.

We sit in the rock, drink, eat, and rest. I don't now remember any conversation about Hannah's stomach. In the moment it seems clear to me that it is better. A team of two comes down from above, continuing down with few words.

"I'm going to be really slow from here up. Be patient."

I'm always slow above 12,500'. And this time I've already been on the go for many hours and 7900 vertical.

We take a long rest, and the top of the Cleaver gets crowded. The teams we passed on the Cleaver pull in and sit. Then the RMI ropes. We put on our crampons, and as we get up to leave, the team we'd been trailing most of the night sneaks in front of us.

We start up with me in front now, just behind the second on the rope team of two in front of us.

"Do you want to pass?"

"No, you are setting a fine pace."

Ten minutes out I notice the boot track diverging, and opt to continue behind the two folks in front of us.

The woman in front of me turns again to me, "Are you sure you don't want to pass?"

"We don't need to, but if you'd prefer it, then we can."

"Yes, why don't you go ahead."

They stop while we walk past. Now there is no one on the route ahead of us. Despite the crowds behind, the route feels like "ours" to me now. I enjoy moving up the mountain at a comfortable, consistent pace (i.e. slow).

We take a short break around 13,500', with the crater rim in sight. A bite to eat, a few sips of water. The light down jacket I'm carrying at the top of my pack keeps me warm.

The sun peeks over the horizon right as I reach the crater rim. I walk down into the crater while Hannah waits to catch the sunrise. She snaps a few pics while I watch the sun paint the low clouds to the southeast neon pink.

Sunrise at the crater rim.

Fire in the sky, tired boy below. Photo by Hannah.

I'm decidedly slow walking across the crater- finally out of gas. People at Register Rock watch as I dawdle across and up the scree. We keep moving until we're on the summit. On top I'm happy and a bit melancholy. It's my tenth summit, and my first since 2001. I always feel close to my Dad on the summit of Rainier, and I miss him. It's 6:30 AM.

Hannah on the summit.

Tangled up in yellow: Me on the summit. Photo by Hannah.

Back at Register Rock we settle in amongst some other people who had come up other routes, mainly the Emmons. I sign the register and Hannah points out the entry of John's tent from several weeks earlier. An RMI guide signs for his umpteen hundredth summit. Someone asks about our route or time or something and Hannah explains that we'd climbed from the parking lot in a single push.

"Ahhh, I thought you seemed a little slow walking here from the rim."

I look up from my food or the register or my nap and toss in, "Yeah, I was. She was just being nice to me."

The time we spend on the summit is sweet and exquisite, and when Hannah announces that it's time to go, as we've been there forty minutes, it feels more like fifteen. But the RMI hordes who spent a large amount of time, energy, and money to be escorted up the mountain, but then stopped ten minutes from the summit in the crater floor are starting to rise and make ready to depart: I've been behind them on the cleaver before and I'm not interested in reliving that experience. I pack up my clutter and, in my typical dopey-at-elevation state, start drunkenly meandering back across the crater.

At the far side Hannah decides that it's time for her to pee. True to form, I've peed about 76 times since we left Muir and Hannah 0. She looks around for a convenient place to get some privacy.

"Hmmmm. Well, I guess this is no place to be bashful."

I dutifully turn and pretend to be terribly interested in the RMI groups preparing for departure.

And then we walk up and out of the crater and begin our descent. I don't descend as fast as I used to, but we make decent time back to the top of the cleaver at about 8:30 AM.

The Emmons from the Cleaver.

Little Tahoma.

Exposed by daylight, the melted out cleaver seems to go on forever. We descend it in Kiwi coils so the rope isn't dragging through the jagged rock. On the last traverse toward the Ingraham entrance Hannah suddenly speaks up, "Look! A candy bar!"

I follow her finger down the slope toward the gaping moat between the Ingraham and the cleaver. There, twenty feet below us in the steep, loose choss is a candy bar, or at least a candy bar wrapper.

"I'm going to get it!"

"Hannah, I have a bunch of food, bars, etc. I'm happy to share."

"But it's a candy bar!"

I realize that there is no logical argument that will make any impact on her, so I decide to watch and try not to worry.

Hannah teeters down the loose, steep slope to the edge of oblivion where desperate, wriggling, determined fingers reach over the precipice and, while she wobbles on the brink of plunging into the inky depths, tickle the 50 Twix bar into her grasp. Well, it might not have been quite like that, but I wouldn't have gone after the thing. That she did, with a smile, and then insisted that we split it is a prime example of why I so enjoy climbing with her.

We scoot as quickly as possible back under the Ingraham ice fall, then slow our pace as we pass through Ingraham Flats. Copious rockfall greets us as we traverse under Cathedral Rock to the top of Cathedral Gap. I'm glad to have my helmet.

Hannah pauses to reflect on the place we spent most of the day.

Descending the loose slope below Cathedral Gap is not fun, and I whine endlessly to no one in particular. We stop briefly when the down-slogging ends.

"My Dad and I always like to race across the Cowlitz."


"Well, you know, not really race, but see how fast we can make it back to Muir. Our best is 20 minutes."


"So you want to race?"

"No. I'm too tired. And fat. And old."


Once on the glacier though, I have a change of heart and move as quickly as I can.

When we walk back into Camp Muir, I look at my watch.

"Fourteen minutes, Hannah."


We take a long, pleasant break at Muir. I lean back against my pack and close my eyes. I'm careful though, not to sleep, as Hannah has warned that even the briefest of naps negates the "car-to-car" designation. Hannah pulls off her boots and socks. I look at her feet. And then at her face. And then back at her feet. They have spent a lot of time crammed into boots and rock shoes, and it shows.

"Hannah, your feet are soooooooo sexy!", I offer up facetiously.

"Dude!", she says before bursting into laughter.

While I continue my not-nap with my eyes closed, Hannah socializes with her friends at Muir: She spends a good deal of time at Muir, and knows the rangers and other frequent visitors well.

I'm happy that she's occupied, as it means a longer break for me. I'm not excited about walking down the snowfield, something I haven't done in many, many years <1996, I looked it up> (skis are more fun, less work, and faster). Eventually my break comes to an abrupt end.

"Dude! You aren't sleeping are you??"

"Dude, no!", I answer as I open one eye and squint up at her hovering figure above me.

"Are you ready to go?"

This is code for, "Get your lazy butt up."

I do, and we start the long walk down. A couple times I try glissading, but I'm in shorts and the chutes are icy and cold: A frozen, highly abraded ass is worth avoiding.

I'm slow once the snow runs out: My ankles have been getting worse all summer, and I'm determined to make it back to the car without any further injuries.

By and by we reach the lot. Thanks to the below-top-speed pace we'd set and the nice break at Muir, I feel good back at the car: Not footsore and not fatigued or tired. The time of our arrival now eludes me, but we were about 17 hours round trip.


This page was last edited on Tuesday, July 05, 2005
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