We were at Camp Hazard, a rocky outcropping 11,000 feel up Mt. Rainier's south side, when Rick Ridgeway returned from a scouting trip. He had been looking over the route we would follow to the summit early the next morning.
"Boy," Ridgeway said with a mischievous grin, "that upper part of the glacier is a real bowling alley. We'll have to go early and go fast and just hope we don't get hit by rockfall." Yvon Chouinard looked up from the tiny stove on which he was cooking our evening meal and, correctly reading my apprehension, said, "Yeah, but what the hell, Tom, when your turn is up, it's up."
We had arrived at Rainier the day before, and when we had mentioned our plans to the young ranger at one of the national park's four entrances, he was emphatic. "Oh, no, sir, we're advising everyone to stay off that route. There's too much rockfall. It's too dangerous up there."
We then consulted the climbing ranger and decided to switch our route to the Kautz Glacier, but he, too, warned us of dangerous conditions. The hot, dry summer meant that there was not the usual amount of ice and snow to hold loose rock in place, so that after a full day of solar heating the steep slopes of this volcanic giant rumbled with the sound of tumbling boulders.
Ridgeway and Chouinard thought that Mt. Rainier, the 14,410-foot-high dormant volcano that lies 60 miles southeast of Seattle, would be a fitting test of my appetite for major mountains. They had been attempting to convert me from a simple backpacker to a real climber. So far we had been up Grand Teton and Mt. Moran in Wyoming and a number of lesser routes in California, New York and Colorado.
Rainier is appealing to climb because in two or three days you can distill many of the experiences of a major expedition: It is covered by massive glaciers with foreboding ice cliffs; the elevation is taxing because climbing begins near sea level; and the weather is wildly unpredictable, everything from sunshine, snow, fog, ice, wind and rain in any given 24-hour period.
The weather for our climb was encouraging. There had been a long run of clear, sunny days, and according to Ridgeway, the forecast was for more of the same. "Solid" was the word he used repeatedly to describe the meteorological prospects.
The same could be said for my companions. I was in very good company. Chouinard is to climbing what Nicklaus is to golf: the complete master of his game. Not only is he a great ice and rock climber, but he also revolutionized the sport by redesigning and manufacturing much of the hardware—pitons, chocks, carabiners, ice axes and crampons. And when he couldn't find warm, comfortable clothing to meet his standards, he began producing it under the Patagonia label. The company's resounding success has enabled him to spend a good part of the year climbing, kayaking, skiing and fly-fishing.
Ridgeway, Chouinard's closest friend, is also acknowledged to be one of America's top climbers. He reached the 28,250-foot-high summit of K2 without oxygen on the first successful American assault on that Himalayan giant. He is a skilled writer and filmmaker as well as a sailing enthusiast.
Another member of our group was Rick Graetz, the publisher of
magazine and an outspoken advocate of expanding the wilderness areas within his state. Graetz has been to the summit of Mt. McKinley, or Denali, as the natives call it.