At 1:30 a.m., Win Whittaker's voice broke the bunkhouse stillness. It was the news we had prayed for: a windless starry June night, firm snow, no precipitation. "Dress light. Eat as much as you can. We'll rope up in an hour," he said.
So began Day Four of the Camp Muir Seminar, a five-day high-altitude-training program run by Rainier Mountaineering Inc. in Paradise, Wash. (206 569-2227). Such gatherings attract some 2,500 climbers each year from May to September. Since Monday, 23 of us had bunked shoulder-to-shoulder in a plywood shelter, from which we set out each morning to practice ice-climbing techniques. The spectacular l0,000-foot-high setting alone made Camp Muir worthwhile. Mt. St. Helens and Oregon's Mt. Hood poked through a white cloud layer below us. The glaciers around us opened with regular cracks and pops, and the rumble of warmed rock and snow breaking loose was a reminder of the high-peak dangers.
HIGH HOPES. We came to Muir hoping to reach Mt. Rainier's summit, 4,000 feet above us. Volatile weather had defeated several teams in the past few days. Still, we had mastered ice-ax safety, rope-climbing, crevasse rescues, and the six basic knots of mountaineering.
Now, as we strapped ice-gripping crampons on our boots, we shared a rush of anticipation. At 14,410 feet, Rainier is the toughest endurance climb in the continental U.S. Two hours east of Seattle, its huge dome turns Arctic and Pacific air masses into a year-round brew of sleet, snow, and 80-mph winds. "When my uncle was training for Everest, this was the only place he used," said Win, referring to Jim Whittaker, the first American to scale the Himalayan summit.
Our conditioning had started earlier in the snowfields at Rainier's Paradise Lodge. Perspiring under loaded packs and balancing with ski poles, we practiced step, rest, step, rest--exhaling with each move. It was the only way to avoid muscle burnout in the deep, wet snow.
Like distance running or biking, high-altitude climbing tests mental discipline. "The best climbers are the most patient," says Tracy Roberts, who has led expeditions up Everest and Mt. McKinley. Now, roping-up on the glacier, I wondered how much stamina I had really stored up.
3:00 a.m.: The start across Cowlitz Glacier seems too easy. I slow down, but even with just a fleece top, long johns, and knee-high gaiters, I'm warm.
3:45: The fun ends as we ascend a rock slide at Cathedral Gap and wheeze up a frozen ridge to the Ingraham Glacier. At first rest, we collapse and chug water. Our guide, Craig Van Hoy, rubs the shoulders of his three-person team. "It gets more difficult," he offers.
4:30: We're on Disappointment Cleaver, where snow and fierce winds can ruin summer climbs. Today, the only sound is our team hyperventilating in the thin air at 12,500 feet. Look up and all you see is a ridge with no end.
6:00: The Cleaver ends, but the angle of ascent stays nearly vertical. At the break, I force down a peanut-butter sandwich for energy.
7:00: We're an hour from the summit, with more chill and wind. Teammates Eve Gilstrup and Sandra Angus have pulled the rope so taut that I'm almost being tugged along. I speed up.
7:45: We reach 14,410 feet, the summit--exhilarated. Across a snow-filled crater is a register to sign. Many of us raise ice axes in a salute for photos.
8:45: At the descent, breathing is easier, but walking in the deep snow is like water-skiing in boots. As we enter Muir, three who declined the climb greet us with cameras and water bottles.
While previous climbing experience isn't required, anyone attempting this program should be physically fit. Pre-training for at least three months is necessary. Our group of 10 women and 13 men, aged 25 to 60, ran the gamut from backpackers and bike racers to rock climbers and high-altitude veterans. The Muir course is $634, with equipment rentals extra. A three-day summit attempt costs $381, and special fall and winter climbs are available. Whatever season you go, it's sure to be one of the more inspiring events of your life.