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Mount Rainier

Sara Lingafelter
Sara Lingafelter
8 min read

Yesterday, I flew home from Minneapolis via Denver.  It was a whirlwind trip… cross country travel two days back to back (yay, frequent flier miles!) and it broke my heart to fly right by so many friends with only quick airport layovers and a couple of hours of sleep in between the flights.

The flight from Denver back to Seattle headed northwest across Wyoming and Idaho.  I spotted Mount Hood and Mount Adams, and knew that Mount Rainier would be the next thing I saw from the window seat of my plane.

Yesterday was the first time I’ve had a clear view of Rainier from a plane since my climb in August.  It was a breathtaking thing, to know Rainier’s neighbors so well now after my training hikes and our climb… I was able to spot landmarks and even features on Rainier with the eyes of a friend, rather than an unsure acquaintance.  As the plane descended, the size of the mountain — the size of that particular tiny little accomplishment in my life — grew, and loomed large.

Such a funny life to find myself looking down from an airplane on a mountain that I never imagined I’d climb.

But, this past August, I did something a little crazy.

Photo of the mountain at 7:18 am on our summit morning, by Chris Kruell, as seen from the Tattoosh Range. Yes, we summited under that lovely lenticular cloud.

I summited Mount Rainier.

It came as quite a surprise, even to me… sitting in the crater, protected from the wind, swallowing a few calories and sipping on my water bottle… I was shocked to make it.

Climbing with a team of women from around the country to raise funds for Big City Mountaineers, something about the trip felt a bit like cheating. I expected it to be the hardest thing I had ever done, and to be fair, it was not a walk in the park.   But, surrounded by incredible women, climbing for a cause we all believed in, it felt a bit like our climb was blessed.  We had good weather, great training, a summit window, and a safe and successful climb.

Katie, gearing up for mountain school...

Katie Levy, at Adventure Inspired Tales wrote up our gear check and climbing school, as well as our hike from Paradise to Camp Muir and our summit.  For a proper trip report, click those links!  Katie did a great job of documenting and sharing our trip up the mountain, and I’m not going to repeat those details here. This is a tidbit from one of her posts:

“You don’t conquer mountains. You respect them, learn as best you can how to climb them safely, and sometimes, you’re lucky enough to reach the summit and return home in one piece a changed person. I am a changed person because of this experience. The physical challenge of climbing the mountain, the mental battles each of us fought, the way we worked together as a team, and the cause we worked toward have given me a renewed sense of what we’re all capable of if we care enough.”

True.  It was a pleasure to climb with you, Miss Katie… and I look forward to many more adventures together.  🙂

The view from about 14,000 feet, during our descent. It was pretty, up there. Photo by Melissa Arnot.

If you’d like to see the trip in long-winded video and slideshow form, that’s it, above… or here you go.

I usually spend my time in the mountains in a funny state of calm mixed with worry.  I feel the calm of intentionally putting myself somewhere with consequences … under my own power … whether it’s as close to “civilization” as Blackcomb or Rainier, or as far away as the Himalaya.  My other mountain experiences have been marked by a great deal of fear, and worry, and a whole lot of self-doubt.

During my mountain skills training in 2009, up near the Blackcomb glacier, I chastised myself for voluntarily accepting the level of risk associated with the dynamic mountain environment.  I remember writing to myself, in a now-lost journal… that I love my life too much to lose it in the mountains.  That I did not feel that the risks were worth it.  While that sounds overdramatic now, to anyone who’s skied Whistler during the peak of winter; during the summer, the Blackcomb glacier is a dynamic place to be… riddled with crevasses, and with the frequent rockfall of faces that haven’t seen the sun in eons.  I was scared, and did not believe in my ability to execute when it counted.

In Nepal (I wonder if I’ll EVER write that trip report), I remember laying awake in the wee hours of the morning in my chilly tent at Pumori basecamp, listening to the booming noise of rock and ice fall, with my climbing partners up on the mountain.  My imagination ran wild with fear, as I waited until light, when I could move into the comm tent to await the call that the guys were up and moving and as “safe” as they could be on that mountain.

Tiffany, all smiles during our training day...

So maybe, it’s a little bit because of the kinds of conditions I’ve already seen up close, that Rainier didn’t scare me in the way I expected it to.  Maybe, advice from friends to just keep putting one foot in front of the other, somehow got into my DNA.

Perhaps, also, it’s due to the incredibly talented instruction and encouragement we received from our guides, Melissa, Solveig and Carrie.

As an aside — I don’t often think in terms of “heroes.”  I am pretty down to earth about the incredible people that my life grants me the opportunity to spend time around.  But Melissa, Solveig and Carrie are such incredibly large forces in my memory of Mount Rainier, that I actually imagine them as larger than they are.  When I ran into Carrie at a cross-bike event awhile back, before I said anything to her, I told my friend about the eerie coincidence of a person who looked JUST LIKE one of my Rainier guides, only was about a foot shorter than I remembered.

Melissa, Solveig and Carrie taught us what we needed to know to feel confident and prepared for our climb.  They also helped us be aware of the risks and seriousness of our endeavor, without scaring us off the mountain.  From the first minutes of our orientation, to the handing out of our “summit” certificates over pizzas and beer, the message I received was, “you CAN do it.”  And, despite myself, I believed it enough to do it.

That's me, not puking (but close), at our high rest. Photo by Amy O'Connell.

It’s a little known fact that I had absolutely zero expectation of summiting, when I headed up to Camp Muir that weekend.  I figured, I would have a nice, heavy hike with a bunch of great women.  I’d have a little nap, and then, get up and gear up and give it a try.  But no bone in my body believed that I would summit.  When we bedded down at Camp Muir at about 7pm, to await our wake-up call that could happen anytime from about 11pm on (and actually arrived about 1:30am), I listened to a few wonderful songs on my iPod then fell asleep quickly, and slept soundly until the breeze against our tent woke me at sometime around 11:30pm.

I then laid nestled in my tent next to Tiffany and Katie, and mentally wrote the blog post to explain why I didn’t summit.  I envisioned getting too tired, too scared, or too cold to keep moving up, and assumed that I would be among the climbers who — at some point during the climb — turn back.  At no point did I think about writing this blog post that you’re reading, right now.

Tiffany and I, sitting in the summit crater.

I am still so happy, and so surprised, by our climb.  I still — to this day — feel buoyed by the love and camaraderie of the women with whom I climbed… most of us have kept in touch since our climb, and I expect many of us will have additional adventures together.  Melissa, Solveig, Carrie, Hillary, Amy, Alicia, Katie, Tiffany, Kruti, and Candace and Lori, who were there in spirit… you are each a part of my heart.  Thank you.

Now, I am not thinking about what comes next.  It’s not about figuring out a bigger, or more “out there” objective… Mount Rainier felt just about right.  If I can, I’d love to climb it many more times… I would repeat the DC route, and would love to do the climb from Camp Sherman via the Emmons glacier.  I’d love to spend next summer hiking to Camp Muir over and over again… that godforsaken slog with a heavy pack and a world of views might just be a lovely hike with a daypack and good waterproof hiking boots.

Mountaineeresses, on the summit. Clockwise from left: Melissa Arnot, Me, Amy O'Connell, Katie Levy, Hillary Harding, Alicia MacLeay, Solveig Garhart and Tiffany Royal.

I am so thankful for the support of the many donors (including both financial contributors, and gear sponsors Feathered Friends, Mountain GearWaypoint Outdoor,  and Arc’teryx) who helped make this trip a reality for me, and KEEN Footwear, who supports Big City Mountaineers through their KEEN Cares program and supported me in so many different ways this summer.

Your contributions will help Big City Mountaineers get under-resourced kids outdoors.  I am so thankful for the many pep talks and words of wisdom shared by my friends and family during my preparation for the climb.  I am thankful for the many dedications I carried up the mountain… from friends who donated in honor of others.  And, I am thankful to the kick ass women I climbed with, who are now family.

And Alan… at no point did the word “impossible” come into my head.  The climb… the fundraising… the training… was hard, but nowhere even close to impossible.  Thank you so much for your wisdom, which I have shared with friends since, and which has now carried me and several other women I know to places we might have otherwise thought impossible.


Sara Lingafelter

Sara (Grace) Lingafelter takes steps forward and backward toward a right-sized life on a daily basis.