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Wind, Rain and Avalanches

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“Everyone needs sunglasses when we’re on the glacier… even when it’s cloudy. If you’re squinting, which you all are, you need to wear them.”

My friend Rob and I, along with our three guides and the other six members of our group had already put on our “crampon compatible” mountaineering boots, gaiters and rain gear. We were part of a program called Summit For Someone, a fund-raiser for Big City Mountaineers. Big City Mountaineers (BCM) takes at-risk students on mentoring trips in wilderness settings. Rob and I had been looking forward to this four-day wilderness adventure for months, but never once imagined that rain and clouds would keep us from reaching the summit or even seeing the majestic peaks of the Olympic range.

The 17-mile trek through the Hoh River Rain Forest had been spectacular. Some of the sitka spruce and western hemlock were gigantic, 300 feet high and 23 feet in circumference. It was hard to look up while walking with my pack on. There were huge trees that began as seedlings that had sprouted on fallen, decaying trees. The Hoh River water was tinged gray with glacial silt and looked really wild.

We learned first-hand why it’s called a rain forest. Precipitation here ranges from 12 to 14 feet-every year. Even so, rain in late July is very “unusual” (the word everyone used to console us) and our guide said he’d never seen so much rain during this time of year. Oh well. As the three backpacking women we passed on our way out said about choosing this rainy weekend, “I guess we really know how to pick ’em.”

We’d climbed a narrow, windy ridge and descended a steep slope of loose rock. Now we were preparing to cross the Blue Glacier on the slopes of Mt. Olympus, the highest peak in Washington’s Olympic National Park.

I clipped into the middle of a guide’s rope between her and Rob. Alaina is less than half my age but probably twice as strong. She’d already climbed Mt. Rainier (14,410 ft.) earlier that week.

“Try to step where I step,” she said. “Put your ice axe in one hand and one of your trekking poles in the other. Switch them when I do. Keep the rope on your right. Don’t step on the rope and keep enough distance so that the rope falls away from you at a 45 degree angle. If you slip remember to yell, ‘Falling!’ Dig your toes and the pick of your ice axe into the snow. Let’s go!”

We were going to a high camp from which we’d leave at 3 a.m. for our push for the summit if the weather cleared. Clouds hung low over the glacier. It was raining and we were running out of daylight so the guides were in a hurry. We had to hike about a mile across the glacier and ascend about a thousand feet without slipping on any of the exposed patches of blue ice or stepping into any crevasses. Rain pelted our jackets and soaked our gloves. My sunglasses were covered with raindrops on the outside and fogged up on the inside. It was hard to see and hear. I was getting too warm from all the exertion but couldn’t unzip my jacket because my hands were full and we never stopped. Alaina was purposely taking short steps and it was hard to follow. I kept doing an awkward, jerky double-step to try to get in step with her. I could tell when it worked because the rope would graze the snow and swing left and right in a graceful rhythm. Pretty soon my legs started aching and I was huffing and puffing. In spite of it all, what I could see of the scenery was spectacular.

Conditions continued to deteriorate. We pitched our tent in the pouring rain. Rob and I hurriedly peeled off our dripping rain gear and dove into our tiny, yellow tent. The guides reminded us that we needed to take responsibility for staying warm and hydrated so we’d be ready if the weather cleared. We watched puddles appear at our heads and feet. We inflated our sleeping pads as much as possible. They were like rafts keeping us out of the water. There was no way we were going to go out into the rain for the evening meal, even if we had to go to bed hungry. The guides came around with boiling water for a hot drink and tuna casserole. We unzipped the tent enough to hand them our cups and bowls. It was amazing how the food and hot drink lifted our spirits. There was no sitting around sharing stories while the sun set over the mountain peaks. No alpenglow or star-studded skies with snowfields glowing in the moonlight. Instead, we spent the night crowded together in our leaky tent listening to wind, rain and avalanches.

As it turned out the weather did not improve and we were not able to reach the summit. But crossing the glacier and making the high camp was worth the trip, despite the conditions we encountered.

Things don’t always work out the way we expect. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes the guide says, “Gang, sorry to have to say this, but this just isn’t summiting weather.” For more information on participating in a Summit for Someone climb check out or call 303-271-9200.