(Words and Photos: Emily Wood)
Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, I have always loved the outdoors. There is a certain kind of peace that can only be found while surrounded by nothing but trees, mountains, and fresh air. My fondest memories are paired with the smell of forest overgrowth and a little bit of sweat. My memories of climbing and training for Rainier are no different.
My dad is an avid hiker and has been for the last fifteen years. He's summited Mount Rainier twice and attempted it 7 times total. His determination to summit and retry when he can’t quite reach the finish line is something I admire about him. When you fail you come back more prepare, determined, and knowledgeable. If there is anything he has taught me, it’s that you learn more from the times that you don’t succeed than the times that you do. His love for the summit chase is part of the reason I knew that one day I'd have to see what it's all about myself. My other motivation being that it was an amazing opportunity I just couldn’t say no to!
Initially I think my dad was hesitant to ask me to come with him. This was usually something he did with his buddies annually and I think the picture of his daughter crossing crevasses wasn’t exactly comforting for him. In fact at the first crevasse we needed to pass over, I recall him shouting “I don’t want her crossing over that”! To which I replied “how else am I suppose to reach the top”?! Our trip up Rainier was not only a bonding experience but also a time for my dad to see that I was growing up and becoming my own person.
My dad is and always has been an intense man. It’s what has driven him his entire life; it’s mostly fueled by his desire to succeed but a little bit is driven by his anxiety too. I inherited my dad’s intensity just like he inherited it from his mother. I think of it as a gift and while I knew my dad and I were similar, this similarity was even more evident during our trainings together. I think we about killed each other once while picking a parking spot at the trail head (yes intensity has it’s ups and downs). I also learned how sensitive we both are, where I got my goofy side from, and that we’d both do a whole lot for a handful of peanut M&M’s. Every weekend we would hike together, gradually increasing the amount of weight in our packs each time. And every weekend I learned something new about how similar my dad I were.
There were a lot of times during training that I didn’t feel like hiking. But every time I got on the trail I was happy to be there. After we started our hike, my dad would always check in and ask me how I was doing. I usually said “fine”, but he knew I was struggling. During this time I had been going through a tough break up and that lent even more space for us to talk. He opened up about his own stories of heart break or times of feeling a bit lonely. This man, who made my eyes roll into the back of head sometimes, was just like me. We even dealt with break ups similarly (with sweets, crying, and cursing at the sky but not necessarily in that order). What?! We both feel emotions deeply, and he made it clear to me that being sensitive isn’t a bad thing and it’s certainly not a sign of weakness. I thought that if my dad can get through what he’s been through, heart breaks and so much more, I can get through this. Especially with him by my side and the trail under my feet.
Every weekend we would continue this pattern. Each time adding a couple more pounds to our packs, eating a couple more handfuls of peanut M&M’s (it was our fuel of choice, what can I say?) and having a lot more conversations. I looked forward to hiking with my dad every weekend. Even on the weekends that I couldn’t make it home to train, he would call me to make sure I was hitting the stair stepper at the gym. These calls would inevitably lead to the question “how are you doing?” and even though I didn’t get to see him, we still got to talk and continue to bond even more.
When the day finally came to start our climb, I was ecstatic and a little nervous. But I felt prepared and more than anything I was excited to finished what my dad and I had started together. We put our packs together, filled the truck up with some of our crew, and headed up to base camp.
Most people climb Rainier in a two-day trek. The first day, you hike up 4.5 miles with a 5,000 ft elevation gain to a spot called Camp Muir. Camp Muir is gorgeous. If you’re an avid hiker, I highly recommend going up and checking it out. It’s a tough trail but as long as you’re prepared and watch for weather, most experienced hikers can make it. While at Camp Muir you take a breather, look at the amazing views, eat some food, and try to get some rest. Camp Muir is at about 10,000 ft elevation so it’s also a time to acclimate to the altitude.
There is also a bunk house up at Camp Muir that is used by climbers where we settled in to get some rest. Thanks to the altitude I don’t know if I have laughed harder in my life than up in that bunk house. My dad’s best friend also climbed with us and when they are together, they are an absolute riot. Not only do they look like each other, but they also think and joke in the same way. Watching them crammed into a bunk together talking smack and joking around had my sides hurting from laughing so hard.
When the time finally came to attempt our summit it was about 3am the next morning. I hadn’t slept very much at all, but the pre-climb excitement had me ready to go. In the dark we collected ourselves, lightened our pack loads as much as we could and got some breakfast in us. Now when I say it was dark, I mean that other than the stars, it was pitch black. I would be lying if I said it didn’t spook me a bit. But being with my dad, knowing we had trained well for this, and that he had done it multiple times before put me more at ease.
While you’re climbing, it isn’t uncommon to hear the glacier’s ice cracking around you. It isn’t constant but the summer we went up was a warm one, so we heard it often. Because of the warm weather, the glaciers were doing more than just mimicking echoing groans. They were moving. They had moved so much that we had to take a longer route than what is usually used just to be safe. Because of this longer route and running on little to no sleep, my dad tired out at the very end. He struggled to keep motivated as we kept moving, and even with encouragement from the team my dad had to listen to his body. He ended up turning around a few hundred feet from the top.
And I turned around with him. I don’t regret it one bit. I climbed to be with my dad first and foremost. My desire to stick with him, especially after all the bonding we had done, was much more important to me than summiting. Some people might think that was a mistake but not to me. And guess what! I learned yet another lesson from my dad when he did this. Listen to your body. Your body knows what it needs if you just quiet yourself and listen. Another lesson I learned is always be prepared (sorry dad, I had to).
I wouldn’t trade anything in exchange for all of the time that training for Rainier gave me and my dad to bond. All of the blisters, the sweat, and even the gnarly sunglasses tan lines were well worth it. Plus nothing feels better than sitting at the top of Muir and looking out at the land surrounding you. This opportunity not only gave me a chance to challenge myself but it gave me a chance to reconnect and better understand my dad and myself.