Straddling a foot wide crevasse at 10,000 feet, I squinted through the blinding white light reflected off the snow at the towering glacier before me. As if a huge giant had giving it a whack with a great axe, the crevasse extended all the way up the glacier’s face. I gaped at the chasm, wondering if and when the crack would split that huge glacier and send a chunk of the mountain crashing onto our heads. The sun was bright and warm on my face. What would it take to send a slab of the ice down Mt. Rainier’s back and how much of the mountain would it take with it?
I looked back down at the gapping crack between my boots, peering down into what seemed like the yawning throat of a slumbering ice dragon. Blue like the bright sky above me, the opening extended below, becoming darker the deeper it went, as dark as a storm tossed ocean, flecked with foam and mist. At any moment, the dragon could fully awake and swallow me whole. I lifted my head and squinted ahead where our guide, Kyle, had stopped to prod the snow before him, searching for hidden crevasses. I silently urged him to hurry. For all I knew the ice dragon below me might wake up any moment.
I was awe struck at how close to death I actually was. Mt. Rainier is one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, cradling several of the largest glaciers in the U.S. south of Alaska. Mt. Rainier was a literal sleeping ice dragon. If the dragon itself didn’t awaken and kill me, I could easily die from rock or ice falls, an avalanche or weather related hypothermia. These facts did not escape me as I had prepped mentally and physically for this expedition. The dangers of trekking to Mt. Rainier’s summit did not deter me. If anything, it made the idea of conquering the beast that much more exciting and challenging.
My fascination with the crack in the glacier was interrupted by the near manical laugh of my buddy Adam who was roped behind me. I glanced back at him and grinned broadly, suddenly grateful I hadn’t lost control of my bowels. He was the reason I was here. Adam Quinn had been my buddy in adventures since I first met him in Maui five years previously. He could tell what I was thinking just by my hesitancy as I peered deep into the gullet of this beast. I laughed too, because I knew he was feeling the same way about our guided climb up the back of this giant. Crazy freaked out and loving it.
I didn’t say anything to Adam. I waited impatiently for Kyle’s command to move forward. I looked ahead towards where our guide silently prodded the virgin snow. With wobbly knees I prayed Kyle would hurry up and almost at once, he gave the command to move forward. Sucking in a lungful of frigid air, I lifted my heavy booted foot to take the final step over the crack in the mountain of ice. I exhaled a deep breath of relief, glancing back to see Adam briefly consider the crevasse I had straddled. He flashed me a grin and pointed down between his boots. I shook my head as the image of him slipping into the throat of the sleeping dragon pulling me after him turned my stomach.
There were two teams of 6 guys all roped together that day, trudging toward the same goal. The summit of Mt. Rainer. Come hail, snow, winds or the sloughing away of one of the glaciers, we were determined to make that summit.
As a giant stratovolcano in the Cascade Volcanic Arc, Mt. Rainier is considered an active volcano with its last eruption in 1894. Every month, as many as five quakes are recorded near the mountain’s summit. It is not uncommon to have small swarms of five to ten earthquakes occur over a few days as well. So the chances of seeing an avalanche, or being caught in one, was pretty good. But we had trained for these possibilities with the help of our guides.
As instructed by our guides before we embarked on our adventure, we all stepped together in unison to keep the ropes taut enough between us to allow quick response in case the mountain decided to knock one of us off, but loose enough to allow a comfortable stride. I quickly learned that if I walked too fast, it would jerk my rear buddy forward, causing him to stumble and the guy behind him as well. Whereas if I walked too slowly, my front buddy would be unexpectedly tugged from behind, lose his balance and potentially trip – possibly jerking the rest of us off our feet. Inconsistent steps between the six of us would make for a very jerky uncomfortable climb. We stepped in unison and kept a steady rhythm like good little soldiers. This was a concept I was all too familiar with as an outrigger canoe racer in Hawaii, where one person hitting the water slightly before or after the one in front of them would throw the whole boat off. But Hawai’i was a long ways from this alien world of ice and snow.
As I continued my trek to the summit, I reflected on how far I had come. Training for this trek at sea level in Hawai’i was a bit of a challenge. Adam and I had climbed Haleakala (the 10,000’ dormant volcano in Maui) maybe twice in the months leading up to this expedition. We also worked out at our buddy Dale’s gym coupled with some endurance runs and bike rides. But that was it, aside from our daily custom tours that we led for my adventure company. Looking back, I wish I had trained more.
I was two days into this expedition when we crossed the dragon’s throat, but it felt like I had been on this freezing ice cube for years. Even though the weather was absolutely perfect today, each day brought a new challenge to deal with. One of which, was the food.
For the amount of money I shelled out for this adventure, I expected good nourishing food on our trip. However, our guides only provided sugary instant oatmeal with bits of fake fruit for breakfast every morning. It wouldn’t be long afterwards that I would find myself ravenous. I was expending a tremendous amount of energy climbing this mountain and trying to stay warm and a measly processed package of artificially sweetened carbs could not sustain me.
I knew from my years on Maui as a personal trainer, that these processed carbs would burn out of our system in about 60 minutes. Then what would my body utilize for energy? Fat AND muscle. But I didn’t have a lot of fat on my lean frame. So after a day of hiking through snow and bearing heavy gear, I was burning a lot of energy and it was coming from my muscle. At night, our bodies busily repair and build/regenerate new cells. But what materials does it use to repair and build new cells with? If your diet consists of sodas and candy bars, processed foods loaded with preservatives and chemicals, than that is exactly what your body is going to be rebuilt with.
As I sat eating my breakfast, I studied our two guides. Both were Haole (Hawaiian for white) guys that were very lean and wiry. Although in they were in their late twenties to mid thirties, they were haggard from years of leading clients through the harsh weather conditions of Mt. Rainer.
Looking at my guides, I could see that of years of eating snack size candy bars and junk food had taken a toll on their bodies. I just knew that by the time these guys were in their sixties, they’d be hobbling around with aching knees and joint problems. Not to mention a myriad of other health problems as their bodies, made up of years of consuming junk food, start to deteriorate at a faster rate than if they had maintained a nutritious diet and fueled properly for their hikes.
In my regular life back in Maui, I had an adventure tour company I co-owned with my buddy Adam. We both knew from experience that being well fed, fit and active was important if we were going to be able to provide the type of service our guests demanded for their customized adventures. Experience had taught us that treating our guests well and beyond their expectations led to them having great memories of their adventures in Hawai’i. If our guests were not properly fueled for the hikes and trips they had hired us to lead them on, chances are they’d feel pretty worn out and sore the next day. What would they remember the most? The scenic hike through lush tropical forests or the two or three days of aches and pains as they recovered from the hike? Chances are, they’d talk to their friends about the pain of the journey more than the experience of traversing through the most beautiful landscape in the world. Our guest’s adventures were priceless and we aimed to make sure they had the best possible experience ever so that they would come back again and again. Year after year. We built life-long relationships with our clients based on the principles of great customer service that went beyond their expectations.
For example – when we picked up our guests from the hotels or airport in the mornings, we would greet them with silver platters bearing fruit, muffins, juice, coffee and tea. Later, during the hike, we’d take a break alongside a beautiful waterfall or overlook and present a silver tray laden with more fruit, deli sandwiches, veggies and juice to make sure all of our guests were well fed and hydrated. That was the winning difference between us and our competitors on the island. We went the extra distance in providing our clients with first class service that allowed for a memorable experience during their short stay on Maui. Memories that would last a lifetime.
Back on Mt. Rainier, there was a severe lack of silver trays. It was truly an experience to last a lifetime, but I had no plans of returning again next year. This wasn’t my ideal annual vacation getaway and my guides certainly weren’t that concerned about our experiences so much as they were concentrating on getting us up to the summit alive and returning us to home base in one piece.
After what felt like hours of trudging through knee deep snow and ice, Kyle finally gave the signal to break for lunch. We had been traversing along the slanted side of a glacier, where we had literally been walking on turned ankles so that we could grip the ice with more surface area of our crampons (steal claws on the bottom of our boots). I turned and with my ice ax chiseled out a seat in the wall of ice and snow next to me. Then I snugged my butt onto the ice shelf I had carved from the glacier, stuck my axe into the wall and lashed my rope to itso I wouldn’t slide down the side of the glacier during lunch. I pulled out my stash of beef jerky, whole grain energy bars, dried fruits and nuts, a jar of Almond butter and a can of Tuna. This was the most decent meal I had during the day on my week-long expedition – provided by yours truly. Pre-packaged food never tasted so good as I wolfed down my rations. I could just feel my body soak up the nutrients it needed to replenish itself so I could have the energy to continue on until it was time to set up camp for the night. I also had my custom blend of amino acids, minerals and powdered nutrients that, like a chemist, I had blended in my kitchen back home. It was my secret potion that I used on long runs, paddling, bike rides, etc. that kept me on top of my game. I added the powder to my water bottle, grateful that I had the foresight to bring it along for this trip. I was pushing my body hard and I wanted to go home feeling good and remembering the trek pain free.
Lunch breaks allowed me the chance to survey the landscape around me. I couldn’t get over the stretch of pure whiteness, occasionally broken by crevasses. The snow was pristine and smooth. I could see where we had come up the mountain, the trail was a line of churned snow in shades of grey, blue and black. It was easy to spot in the distance as we were the only team on that side of the mountain and we were making our own virgin trail. As we sat enjoying our lunches and the view, we heard a low rumble and to my amazement, saw a wall of snow and boulders crash down from the side of the mountain and completely bury our tracks from just a few hours before. Again, I marveled at how close to danger we had been. Had we been just a few hours slower, we could have been caught in that tide of snow and rock cascading from its perch above – like a hungry predator with outstretched wings of cold, cutting ice, swooping down atop of us to envelope our team in its suffocating embrace.
Adam and I glanced at each other and for the first time during this trek, I wondered if I was ever going to see my beloved Maui again.