From the Furher Finger

From the Furher Finger

It’s the anticipation and restlessness before a trip that drives me crazy. I remember the haste in which I crammed all my mountaineering equipment in the large cardboard box. The rush to the bank, withdrawing my meager funds, hurrying to send my gear to Seattle via the United Parcel Service. All the hustle and bustle to get motivated and moving.

But it was worth it. Here, ten days of travel and a few days of mental preparation later, I find myself at the base of Mount Rainier. Tomorrow, my close friend Jim Ruch and I will go for the summit via the Furher Finger route. All the tension and effort to get out here has paid off.

As a resident of Keene Valley, my love of the Adirondacks has in no way lessened. It’s just the need to break up the weekly routine which finds me out in Washington State. No, I did not travel by the usual conventional means; I hitchhiked across the Trans-Canadian Highway from Ottawa to Vancouver. Three thousand miles is a long way to go, but my lust for adventure and mountaineering has finally brought me to Paradise.

Paradise is the name of the ranger station from which the majority of people register to climb on Rainier. The weather looks very promising and the name Paradise is certainly fitting. The sky is clear blue and the snow a dazzling bright white compared to the cloudy and bug-infested Adirondacks I left two weeks ago. It is Saturday, June 23, and our adventure has begun.

It was three days that our objective on this mountain came into focus. Mt. Rainier? Sure, we could do that. Two eastern boys trained in the Adirondacks climbing on the training climb for Mt. Everest? No problem. Jim and I had done many ascents in New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire. We saw no reason why we couldn’t slog up this hill. Big deal that the majority don’t make it to the summit. Little did I realize the scope of this mountain.

Mount Rainier is the natural skyscraper of Seattle’s skyline. For those who have not laid eyes on her slopes, it is hard to imagine her dominance. Many consider her to be The Mountain, while the remainder of the Cascades aspire to be mere foothills. Rainier is a 14,4101 volcano in the Cascade Range, with Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, and devastated Mt. Saint Helens as her sister mountains. Endurance and skill in glacier travel are most essential. It is a nine mile hike to the summit and involves about 60001 of climbing, all on snow. In the Adirondacks, Gothics is the closest alpine ascent encompassing about 2000′ of travel. But Mount Rainier is on a different scale.


The weight of my pack slowly settles on my back. We have been hiking for a couple of hours now, and it is noontime. A mile and a half ago, we passed the last of the spruce trees on Rainier’s slopes. It’s all rock, ice, and snow from now on. While the majority hike onwards up to Camp Muir, we branch left and down to the Wilson Glacier. We follow the tracks of a large party going our way. They are all members of The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based climbing group.

As we move quickly by a few stragglers, I can’t help but grin. My ears catch a woman’s complaints of wet and numb feet. Her leather boots are totally soaked and we’re only three miles up the mountain. Wearing plastic boots, my feet are dandy and warm. Jim’s homemade Supergaitors shed the wet, slushy snow. Our advantage in footwear is certainly a big help in our summit push.

But my grin soon is replaced by a gasp. The steady plod uphill saps the remainder of my breakfast energy. A few French bonbons inspires me up, up to where Jim slowly uncoils the rope and unpacks his lunch.

My eyes capture the Cascades looming around me. I recall standing on Highway One outside of Calgary, Alberta. Waiting in the light drizzle, wondering if I ever will get a lift out of there. The Canadian Rockies peek through the clouds urging me on; only I must be patient for the next ride. Out of my daze, a small Toyota slows and allows me to enter. Tom Myron beckons me inside, and my smile widens when I grasp the wheel, driving the Ice-fields Parkway while Tom sleeps.

My tired limbs groan as Jim starts out. My thoughts of the easy drive through Alberta slowly fade as I concentrate on my present situation. We try to keep moving, pushing the lower slopes of Rainier behind US. We have passed all the Mountaineers. Another factor in our favor is our light packs. Jim and I are approaching this climb with the “alpine-style” attitude of climbing. We do not have a tent, a stove, lots of food, or any extra items. The ideal is to use the least equipment possible in the most efficient manner. Two liters of water apiece, sleeping bags, bivouac sacks, and our climbing gear. The alpine style philosophy is to go as light as possible, thus enabling us to move faster and quicker. Many severe peaks in the Andes, Himalayas, Alps, and Rockies have been climbed using this technique.

Crossing Glacially

It is now time to get to the interesting part and cross the Wilson glacier, and begin the steep ascent up to enter the narrow couloir of the Furher Finger. From 10,000 tp 12,5001, one finds the steepest part of the climb. Since it is getting late, we hope to find a high camp where we can spend the night, waiting till morning for the hard part. An ascent at this time would be suicidal. The warmth of the sun loosens tons of snow and rocks, causing them to tumble down the very couloirs mountaineers wish to ascend. So very early morning climbing is essential as well as safer.

Crossing the glacier produced nothing of an epic. In fact, for my first glacier, it was pretty routine. There were few crevasses to worry about, but I did get a good glimpse into the bottomless depths. One’s mellow perspective on the dangers of a crevasse would certainly change if suddenly immersed into one.

The slope has now increased and we steadily plod upwards to the beginning of the Finger. Jim has stopped moving and breaks into a smile when I clamber onto the horizontal snow ledge he has found. With a stunning view of the mountains around us, it is the perfect spot for the night. Below us, about an hour and a half’s walk, the Mountaineers have set up their tents and are beginning to fire their stoves. The strategy they use is called the “traditional” approach. They have set up a base camp from which they will leave most everything behind except light rucksacks for the summit push. This strategy is certainly more conservative, while our alpinist mode depends on good judgment, good weather, and very few mistakes. So in place of gear, the emphasis is on technique.

Our attention is drawn to the sound of water. Even up here, we find running water where there should be none, and do not hesitate in drinking it. This extra advantage, I am certain, has put the odds even more into our favor. With our light packs, strong technical experience, endurance, and now this water raises our hopes high.

But after the sandwich supper, we find it tough to sleep with the sun still glaring in the sky. Mt. Adams twinkles at us as we settle into our sleeping systems, each to his own thoughts. I try to cover my eyes, preventing the sun from refracting through my bivouac sack. I grunt in frustration as I turn over, resting.

“Dave, it’s time…”

And so it is. The sun is gone and the cool, mountain air chills us. It is one AM and after crunching on granola bars, we rope up. The Mountaineers below us are already on the move, still two hours behind US. Naturally, my headlamp doesn’t work, so Jim takes the lead.

Soon I am all alone on this 500′ slope, in the pitch dark. The slushy snow of yesterday is now hard-packed and frozen. Our crampons grate their way upward, with our ice axes placed shaft-first into the slope for balance.

Eighty feet above me, I can make out Jim, or rather his lamp, scouting the couloir, lighting up the area like a tiny search beam. Up we continue, with the rope taut, our only link together. I keep remembering my Adirondack experience on frozen waterfalls, the Eagle Slide on Giant, the North Face of Gothics, Chapel Pond Slabs all the practice I had then is paying off. If either of us slips, both of us would slide 2000′, like runaway rockets, down into the yawning crevasses on the glacier below.

But my confidence in my skill enables me to place that fear behind me, never letting it get out in front. As the slope lessens, the wind picks up. Suddenly I notice it is light out and Mount Adams glistens in the alpen-glow. The wind creeps through our bones and we continue. More French bonbons enable me to keep on going. My desire to go forward weakens, but Jim keeps going, and I’m roped up with him.

I can see Jim somehow standing up, ice axe raised high, as the wind lashes him with spindrift. Yes, we finally made it. Since the winds are so strong, about 80 mph, we jump into the summit caldera to get out of the blast. It is 8 AM.

Sure we knocked the bastard off but where was the calm and serenity so often quoted in all the books? All there was to do up here was freeze, so we opted to descend.

All in the Day’s Glissade

And what a descent. We passed the ascending Mountaineers one and half hours from the top. My spirit was buoyant with the acknowledgment of success, but the long, steep descent certainly captured my attention. Facing us was a 2000′ glissade down a steep, icy Furher Finger. Nothing in the east prepared me for this gripping obstacle ahead.

Off with the crampons and untie the rope. Sitting down, ice axe shaft dragging to slow my speed. Thank goodness I have an aluminum axe, not a wooden one! Half way down, I slowly lose control, my speed rapidly increasing as I turn over, forcing the pick in the snow to slow my descent. Three hundred feet later I come to a halt. My body races with adrenalin and I’m scared out of my mind.

But I made it down without losing my composure or wits. I thought that my ascent of Rainier would squelch the call in me. But as I slog down the mountain, I recall a good friend in Brinnon. Beyond Brinnon, the Olympic Mountains loom, always wild and majestic.

My backpack is filled again and I walk along this long highway, moving to another place. Once again I failed to suppress the lure. For some its fast cars, or the Super Bowl, or lots of money. But for me it’s a call to the wild and adventurous.