Lessons for Life – From the Flanks of Mt Rainier

In 2006, I had been climbing for a couple of years and decided I wanted to put my mountaineering skills to use for good instead of evil for a change.  I joined the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center fundraiser climb of Mt Rainier. The fundraising goal of $5,000 was a steep one, but I figured if my friends were able to do it for Team in Training and the AIDS Ride, I should be able to manage it for something unique and challenging like climbing Mt Rainier.

I met all the other climbers in the offices of Alpine Ascents International in Seattle, WA, and I realized I was the only one that hadn’t personally had cancer or been touched by a close loved one with cancer.  All of the other eight climbers had, and in fact, this would be their very first mountain.  A requirement to participate was completion of a 6-day glacier travel and crevasse rescue course, and most of them had completed their course in the preceding weeks.

FHCRC crew at the White River trail head

Although I was accustomed to being sized up on these sorts of trips for being a small woman, I was instantly the resident expert (outside the three awesome AAI guides – Dave, Eric, and Brent) which was a cool shift for me.

Emmons-Winthrop Glacier route is challenging primarily due to its length and altitude gain (White River trailhead is at 4,400ft).  The first day was pretty brutal – it was hot and our packs were heavy. Mine was probably 55 lbs, nearly half my body weight.  After about 5 seemingly never-ending hours on trail, we stepped on the glacier for the first time and took our packs off to take a long break.  We looked up and saw a menacing slope we would need to ascend to access the Inner Glacier where we would make camp for the first night.

Menacing slope - see the rope team the size of ants in the middle?

A young buck named Jason asked me how I was doing.  I said, “Great!” enthusiastically.  He looked crestfallen and said, “Really???”  I asked him how he was doing in return.  He said, “Well, I’m tired, I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, and I’m really not sure I’m going to make it!”

I think may have even chuckled out loud and responded, “Oh!  We’ll I’m also tired, hungry, thirsty and not 100% sure I’m going to make it…but that’s NORMAL!  That’s why I’m great!”  A light bulb went off in Jason’s head and he said “Oh!  That’s NORMAL!  So, really, I’m doing great, too!”

The ascent up that menacing slope was a battle for each climber, both mentally and physically.  After we crested the top of the slope and the terrain leveled out, there was palpable relief in the air when the guides announced we had reached our new temporary home.  The next day was a short one as we just rounded Steamboat Prow to camp on the Emmons Flats (near the ranger hut at Camp Schurman).

Chillin at camp

We arose at 1am and were off before 3am.  We call this an “alpine start” and the purpose is to climb as much during the night when the glacier is firm and stable.  You are much less likely to have a snow bridge give way under you and fall into a crevasse when the temperature is low and the sun hasn’t had time to weaken the bridges.

A little before 5am, the guides called us to a halt because a dry lightning storm had kicked up in the clouds surrounding the mountain.  Lightening is a particularly dangerous force of nature when you are up on a mountain, typically the highest thing around and you are covered in metal (i.e., crampons, ice axes, carabiners).  We all put on every warm layer we had with us and sat on our packs, trying not to nod off and fall down the side of the mountain.  Our patience and persistence paid off as the lightning storm dissipated within an hour.

Trying to stay warm while waiting out a lightning storm

We continued the long difficult slog upwards winding around ice patches and open crevasses, finally reach the crater rim.  As we hiked along the final stretch of the crater rim, the clouds seemed to vanish right as we summitted at 9am.  Views of most of the state of Washington and the other Cascade mountains such as Mt Baker, Adams, and St Helens expanded beneath us.

FHCRC crew at the summit of Mt Rainier

On our way down, I reflected that Jason seemed to be doing really well.  It was as if he had an extra spring in his step and an air of quiet confidence ever since our brief conversation that first afternoon.  In fact, it appeared he was relishing everything about this challenging climb in contrast to some of the other participants who were reaching their limits on the amount of alpine suffering they wished to endure, even for a good cause.

Descending the crater rim

I pondered that brief encounter and learned three really powerful lessons that afternoon on the glacier down low on the flanks of Mt Rainier…

1.  Your perception of events has an unbelievably powerful influence on their outcome.  If Jason had continued to believe that he wasn’t doing well, his mind probably would have been consumed with negative thoughts about how hard it all was, how he wasn’t good enough, how much more he should have trained.  Those negative thoughts would have killed his energy and he may have given up before discovering he was indeed capable.  Instead, he embraced the “new normal” of what was considered doing great on a tough mountain.

2.  I also learned the power our words have on others.  I have always thought of myself as just “little ole Emilie,” not a leader or influencer, and that my words did not really matter.  However, I realized if I had been in a cranky mood and said something less than supportive to Jason, I could have shaped his entire experience on that mountain for the worse.  He looked up to me as an experienced climber, and I gave him positive reinforcement that buoyed him for days.

3.   Many of the best things in this world are a struggle.  Starting a new business, finishing a degree, a personal athletic challenge, or raising children is often a struggle.  It’s NORMAL to be tired, hungry, thirsty, afraid, to doubt yourself, even be doubted by others.  But working through your challenges will make your success just that much more rewarding!

Don’t forget how much your perception of events can influence their outcome, carefully weigh the power of your words on others, and embrace the struggle!!!  These are the lessons I learned on the flanks of Mt Rainier.

Happy Jason


Epilogue:  I kept fundraising for a month after the climb and reached $3,800, short of the goal by $1,200.  Given Rainier usually cost $1,000 to climb it guided, I felt that the after-tax cost ($1,200*(1-40%)=$720) wasn’t such a bad deal given it would benefit the FHCRC.   I would highly recommend FHCRC fundraiser climbs as a way to use your climbing skills to give back.

One thought on “Lessons for Life – From the Flanks of Mt Rainier

  1. Moved to tears, Emilie! Thanks for such an inspirational story. Sometimes I listen too much to my inner whine, forgetting the true strength I possess. Positive thoughts for me today!

Leave a Reply