I'd picked up the idea of climbing from sea level while reading about the Three Peaks Race, an annual epic that involves sailing to and climbing up the highest points of Wales, England and Scotland. (The best I could come up with locally was a "Three Hills Race" around the San Juans — not very inspiring.) I decided to leave the sailing angle for another time and concentrate on the climb. Borrowing from the sport of duathlon (running and biking), I settled on a "bike and hike" ascent of my home peak, 11,240ft Mount Hood, starting in downtown Portland at the Willamette River.
When I dipped my wheels at the river's edge and finally began pedaling east, it really felt like a step into the dark. How would my legs feel after a 60-mile bike ride with over 6,000ft of climbing? Had other people ever done this? Were there rules to follow? Happily, it all went remarkably smoothly - except for the rain which turned to sleet above 5,000ft. After a night's sleep in the Timberline Lodge parking lot, the weather cleared. I quickly got my legs up to speed and reached the summit in three hours.
After a few minutes rest, I was able to enjoy the superb view of Mount Adams, Mount Rainier and St. Helen's to the north. I had no idea that a year later I'd be targeting those three Washington peaks for more sea-to-summit journeys. It wasn't until the new year arrived that I began to question whether it had to end there. The idea of climbing without the aid of the automobile no longer seemed like a stunt, and I needed another goal to stop my fitness from going rapidly downhill.
"The next morning, coincidentally, was my 52nd birthday. I reasoned that climbing from sea level was at least as worthy as such publicized oddities as speed climbing El Capitan or Everest without oxygen, and unlike most first ascents, the risks were negligible. If it really was so much fun, then why not try it again?
I chose Mount St. Helen's, 8,366ft, as the testing ground to decide how much of this "fun" I could stand. During the first warm spell of spring 1998, I drove up to the trailhead, then rode the bike down to a beach by the Columbia River. I started up at dawn, then biked and hiked to the crater rim in nine hours. Of course, the fun got a little thin in places, but the satisfaction made up for that. In July I climbed Mount Adams, 12,276ft, from the Columbia River via a tortuous, dirt road; in August I dipped my wheels into Bellingham Bay then set off for Mount Baker at 10,770ft.
I left Mount Rainier for 1999, which happened to be the 100th anniversary of the founding of the national park. Over the winter, a world record for snowfall was set in the Cascades, so I continued training, running and cycling into June. By the time the snow had finally firmed up, I couldn't find anyone in Portland to climb with. So it was back to the internet (key word: climbing) to search for a partner.
We met for the first time at the Paradise parking lot - just after I'd finished a long ride down to sea level at the Nisqually Delta, slept in the woods then made the grueling, nine-hour ride back up. The unexpected difficulty had been the long, rolling route through the foothills, not the climb up the side of the mountain. In fact, the grade was so gradual in the national park, 18 miles to climb 3,400ft, that I actually grew tired of the endless switchbacks and slow progress.
The next morning, coincidentally, was my 52nd birthday. Mike and I set off for Camp Muir, and I learned that my partner, in his mid-40s, really was capable of a healthy pace, as some of his long-distance hiking exploits had suggested. I felt "good, but not great." An hour into the day we fortunately caught up to a group of three who happened to be friends of his. The resulting conversation slowed the pace a little, although we were still passing folks who were day-hiking up to the camp."My sleep was cut short by the wake-up call at 2am, by which time the headlamps of the early birds were already pinpoints of light..." Our expanded team of five made for a cheerful camp at the 10,100ft col where the guide service cabins and numerous tents creates a real base camp atmosphere. We set up a production line to melt snow, then filtered the water until we had around half of a gallon each for cooking and drinking in the morning. There was a moment to remember when someone found a moisture-absorption packet in a freeze-dried meal and poured it onto the contents, thinking it was the flavor package! Fortunately we had enough spare to make up for his loss.
I was the first into a sleeping bag and woke around midnight to find the moon illuminating the scene. It had been a birthday to remember. My sleep was cut short by the wake-up call at 2am, by which time the headlamps of the early birds were already pinpoints of light on the Beehive. Our group preferred a more relaxed approach, which was fine by me, and it was closer to 4am by the time we had eaten and geared up.
Again, there was that moment of doubt, since this was the first time I'd attempted a three day sea-to-summit. In fact, my legs were good and ready, it was my head that needed to wake up! We were at the bottom of the Disappointment Cleaver by the time the sun rose. We stopped for photos as the light raced across the Ingraham Glacier and the tents at the high camp. Halfway up the crumbling, rocky trail we wandered off route and removed our crampons to climb back on track. We soon realized how much faster we were moving and quickly made up for lost time.
Back on the glacier, we replaced our crampons and pushed on to the 12,000ft level. Since I was wearing all my clothes by then, I filled my pockets with food and dropped my pack to save some weight. This year's route was a circuitous one, traveling laterally around to the west side, below a long crevasse, with hardly any elevation gain. By now, the early risers, including all the guided parties, were heading down, which only emphasized how far we still had to go.
I couldn't tell if it was the cycling catching up to me or just the altitude, but my attention rapidly shrank down to the yard of snow in front of my feet and the need to make every breath count. Since Mike didn't seem to be going any faster, I figured this was normal. We were going to make it one way or another and plodded on.
At this altitude, over 13,000ft, the wind was howling and my fingers were feeling chilled. The shape of the summit slowly unfolded as we rose higher and could see Puget Sound to the west, blanketed by clouds. When we reached the rim, I dropped the rope and slumped down behind a rock out of the wind, breathing hard and staring across the crater. The summit was still a half mile off and I wasn't feeling too bright.
After ten minutes of rest and eating an energy bar, I found the strength to stand up. My four companions were also waiting for some inspiration and the second wind that would get them up the last slope. One advantage of our late start was evident - it was 10am and we were the only people on the summit plateau.
I realized it had been just 48 hours before that I had started the ride up and felt a renewed drive to press on. I set off alone across the crater, glad to be walking on the level for a while. When I reached the far side, I was ready for the slope and strode off the snow and onto the pumice trail to the 14,411ft summit.
"I could see there was something colorful marking the spot, but couldn't make it out until I got closer...."With my eyes on the goal, I could see there was something colorful marking the spot, but couldn't make it out until I got closer. It was a string of Buddhist prayer flags staked to the ground, giving this forbidding spot a strangely foreign feel. I picked up the end of the string and turned to show it to my friends a few yards behind. It had the same mysterious effect on them and soon we were all caught up in summit fever — taking turns with the cameras and the flags.
Somehow, those scraps of fabric had connected us for a moment with the great mountains and the culture of the Himalayas. It was a fitting conclusion to a climb that had pushed me harder and longer than any other mountain experience. There are two more 14,000-footers in California to climb for maximum elevation — Mount Shasta from 140ft above sea level and Mount Whitney from 250ft below, but Rainier has no rivals in the Pacific Northwest.