“Rainier Climbers” A climbing team led by RMI Guides rises above the cloudbank and ascends Disappointment Clever in Mount Rainier NP, Washington.
Winter Photography Part 3 of 3 ~ What we learned on Rainier
Thirty climbers crammed in Muir Camp, a high altitude dormitory lined with bunk beds, with gear piled everywhere and wreaking of long underwear dangling from every hook in the place. We were ready to go when the wakeup call came at midnight; others had been sawing logs like it was a Hilton down in Seattle. We had half an hour to eat, pack and be outside strapping on crampons for summit day on Mount Rainier. Everything we would need for a twelve hour day was on our backs. As if still dreaming, I clipped onto the rope behind Marla, at the back end of our group, and started crunching across a glacier in the dark. Lines of glowing headlamps stretched across the glacier below a star-filled sky. I was carrying a DSLR with zoom lens and a small carbon fiber tripod, hoping for grand images from Rainier’s summit.
We stopped after precisely one hour, just before our traverse of Ingraham Glacier. Packs off, down parka on, time to quickly drink, eat, and get back on the rope line after 15 minutes. RMI has been running climbing tours all over the world for a long time and the whole business is dialed and regimented. If you’re holding back the group, your day is over. One guy was placed in a small tent at the first rest stop, his climb finished before sunrise. A guide was called on the radio and told to come pick him up. Every soul accounted for and safe on the Everest of North America.
Marla and I carry the lessons from Rainier on all of our trips – the proper gear to travel through an inhospitable place and discipline to rest, drink, and eat on schedule, and making sure that everyone in the group is doing ok. The welfare of the group, including me, comes before photography on these athletic outings. RMI Guides recommend a synthetic base layer, an insulating layer, and soft shell top and bottom while moving. We carried a puffy down parka with hood for stops to stay warm while re-fueling. The parka goes on immediately and stays on until everything else is put away. We eat simple stuff that we like, high caloric food that’s packed with energy and make ourselves drink, knowing that we’re getting dehydrated in spite of the cold.
We reached Disappointment Clever and looked across Ingraham Glacier and a thick cloud bank with glaciated volcanoes punching through, the whole world a cold blue mass of ice, clouds, and pre-dawn sky. I traced our route across the glacier, where we had skirted gaping crevasses in total darkness. Sunrise added contrast, detail, and warmth; and I made the two images here. There was just a moment in between responsibilities as anchor of our rope team, and I quickly made hand-held shots to capture the experience and grandeur on one of the great mountains of the world, where glaciers are retreating at an alarming rate.
The lessons of Rainier traveled with us to the Cordillera Blanca in Peru, where we summitted Nevado Pisco, an 18,900′ glaciated “easy” peak sandwiched between giants in a sea of ice. I made a few images that I liked on Pisco too, hand-held and secondary to all of the other responsiblities. Camera gear is really useless at 18,000 feet, extra baggage for trip documentation. But photographers have been carrying cameras to lofty summits since hob-nailed boots, tweed jackets, and wool pants, capturing our imaginations and inspiring the next generation. I think twice about what I’m willing to carry now, how I can tell a story without being saddled with a hideous electronic load. I’ll be on the lookout for a small camera/lens combo with an APS-C sensor that I can carry around my neck. I’ll bring an extra battery and a polarizer and call it good. The tripod can stay at base camp for more contemplative image making – along with an extra lens or two.
Our Rainier climb was stopped short by avalanche danger at 12,000 feet. Surrounded by seracs the size of houses, six feet of fresh, unstable sugar snow sat heavy on base layers that had warmed and cooled and were ready to slide. Our guides cut into the layer cake and showed us where old snow had crystalized into ball bearings, why it would be unsafe to travel higher. Maybe it’s no more complicated than this: The mountains simply don’t care.
“Sunrise On Ingraham Glacier, Mount Rainier National Park, WA” Glaciers in the cascades are receding rapidly, victims of climate change.