A travel Journal from Mount Rainier and Lessons from the Summit
Written by Dana Kau
From my late teens through my mid-thirties, the word “travel” held connotations of cross-continental flights, foreign languages, and unfamiliar foods.
As my career carried me across the US and occasionally to London (to the tune of about 150,000 air miles per year), I believed that unfamiliar ink stamped on a passport was the answer to finding an escape. I was moving fast.
In mid-2017, I was in the midst of a divorce and in the final days of getting my MBA while working full time, I was just glad to be moving at all. I was seeking adventure and signed up to climb Mount Rainier. I began what I thought was a completely rational training process - to move... a lot.
I got on a plane and flew to Hong Kong to hike the region’s incredible network of trails and to get as far away from Chicago as possible. Following Hong Kong, I hiked Red Rock Canyon in the Mojave desert at the Western edge of Las Vegas, re-opening my eyes to the treasures of nature in the American landscape.
The training philosophy of “move a lot” was mostly working, barring the reality of Chicago winters when “moving” means get to your front door to receive your Amazon Prime now delivery of six bags popcorn in twenty-four-inch snowstorms. The July 2018 climb of Rainier was over 6 months away.
In January, I joined my dear friends in St Lucia, where, in 48 hours I hiked nearly five thousand vertical feet summiting both Grand and Petit Piton, majestic twin peaks flanking a bay which are so fantastic UNESCO dedicated the volcanic spires as World Heritage sites. Petit Piton is steep, covered in flora unique to the peak, and bogged down by brutal humidity.
I kicked off the morning feeling like a bit of a hero; that sentiment quickly vanished as I stood drenched in sweat looking up a straight vertical 35-foot face covered in vines, mud, and rock with one long, mossy rope being the path to ascent. Looking up at the guide I felt... small. The mountain took its moment to remind me that my ego, my ridiculous carnival patterned yoga pants and I weren’t in charge but rather temporal patrons navigating her landscape. Looking up at that face, in an instant, I replaced “move, a lot” as my mantra with “move, with intent.” Each step and hand-grab mattered for conserving energy and navigating safely. Once I made it up to the ledge with my guide he said, “You know lady, I ain’t never taken no woman up here alone. I don’t think any guides have, ever.” Back to hero, for a moment anyway.
Four months out from Rainier, it was time to start moving in the mountains. I planned two spring trips to Breckenridge: a trip to the Grand Canyon and a guided training summit up Buffalo Mountain. I committed to the infamous Rim-to-Rim Grand Canyon route and ran logistics through a friend on the ground in Arizona. As Mr. Arizona had done Rim to Rim before, he noted I was in for a 10-mile trek. I came to find what that actually meant was 17.5 miles, eight hours and fifty-six minutes, 5,200 vertical feet and a swing from 32 degrees to 95 degrees pre-heat index.
I overweighed my 70L backpack and didn’t bring enough real food, which set me up for a struggle. My confidence was a bit tested when my boss told me that he had to be airlifted out due to heat exhaustion on that same route. Rim-to-Rim was about to be the longest and hardest single push I’d ever done with weight- 30lbs on a 120lb body. I was at my best fitness shape to date, yet still, I had to muster a fair measure of grit to outpace the average 12-14 clock the trip should take.
With one month until the climb, I hired a coach, Michael Hagan, through Training Peaks, to push me one more level. By this point, I’d fallen fully in love with the transformative effects endurance training had on me; each successful multi-hour training session was a new milestone and served a secondary purpose of cleaning out the pain of losing a husband, a house, and transitioning out of a job I loved for five years. Oh yeah, and graduating.
Through osmosis, I learned about natural pain remedies like cannabidiol. At some point, those remedies turned into rituals: daily combinations of breathing, CBD oil, competition meditation, prayer, vitamins, plant-centric meals...and an unveiling of the best version of my life thus far.
It's here. Sheryl and I headed towards Rainier. The most visibly prominent mountain in the States, her white silhouette masks at a distance how complex she is up close: waterfalls, crevasse, and avalanches abound. We connected with our climbing crew at International Mountain Guides headquarters: 8 climbers and 4 guides.
The perfection of the weather above us was tempering our nervous energy regarding the conditions in front of us: 48 hours before, a ¼ mile wide avalanche wiped out the trail to the summit and guides had be working around the clock to re-create a safe pathway. After about five hours of hiking, we reached our overnight abode: a plywood bunk shack at Camp Muir (10,000 feet). A second hut of high-grade vinyl served as our mess hall for one-pot meals.
Day Two. Unlike the fast pace I was running at through the end of 2017, the mountain grounded my pace down to a “rest step”. As it sounds...take a breath, stand on your back leg for a rest, take another step. At that pace, I was able to take in the insane landscape of crevasses, surrounding peaks, massive rock face walls, and the amazing company. We moved through a boulder field from 10,100 feet to about 11,200: Camp Two – Ingraham Flats. We had a quick hot meal and attempted to go to bed at 6:00 pm, awaiting a wakeup call at an unknown hour for the final summit push.
2:00 am: Go-Time. Headlamps, cold weather gear and lean supplies packed, our rope teams moved across the black snowfield in the dark towards the Disappointment Cleaver summit route. Two climbers had already called off their attempt, and a third decided her journey was over by about 3:00am. The way the rope teams were aligned meant none of the five remaining climbers could turn around without bringing down the whole group.
Before starting the climb, I asked a dear friend of mine to give me a trip mantra. “However far you go is far enough.” The only far enough for me was the summit itself.
To get there was a matter of knowing what I was made of and what I wasn’t. I felt all my work leading into the trip made me know what I was made of and it was time to bring that to a center point. The sun slowly made its way up the horizon highlighting in orange craggy rock faces, windswept cliffs and...a long way to go still.
For me, despite all the training, the final hour was a painful slog I got through by counting each consecutive step. Sheryl, who had about half the logged gym hours I did, was doing fine. Altitude is a different devil for all of us. In forty mile an hour winds, zero-degree temps with wind chill factored, we tipped into Rainer’s cratered summit at 7:00 am.
The struggle was apparent enough for Luke to take off my backpack, throw me onto it, and demand “You need to eat your snacks.” In that moment I thought “You need to get me a helicopter out of here!” Having spent the last 48 hours with the man I knew better than to vocalize that request. I recovered from the momentary lapse of irrationality and started getting my mind right to walk back down ~9,500 feet.
Years of moving fast took me to places that were painful, costly and hard to get out of. It wasn’t until I decided to move really long distances slowly that I was able to gain true direction.