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Sunrise to Sunset on Mount Rainier – November 2014

The bike I’m riding is sliding sideways on an ice-glazed road in backwoods Washington. I get a glimpse of Mount Rainier in the distance but it looks impossibly far away, especially after I hit the asphalt and get pinned under my ride. This is no isolated incident…moments earlier, my buddy just “Brian Boitano’ed” his bike into a 345 degree spin across the ice before putting it down in the ditch.

But with the access road closed, this is how we have to roll.

The idea to head to Washington from Whistler and help a friend winterize the cabin at Rainier’s Camp Shurman is an ambitious one. I wanted nothing to do with it when I first got the invite from Matty Richard. But there were a few factors that convinced me otherwise. The main one was this: when you get asked to wander around in the mountains with people who are more experienced than you, you go…even if you’re totally out of your league.

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photo: Shane Treat

And that’s definitely the case here. Three hours after I pick myself up off the pavement, I’m putting on my brand new crampons and starting up the headwall of the Inter Glacier, a 4000(ish) foot snowfield that stretches out from the top of the Steamboat Prow. Really, our day has just begun.

“Try not to think about it too much,” says Shane Treat, our spiritual leader for the trip.

It’s good advice and I do my best to settle into a rhythm, which gets slightly more difficult after we rope up towards the top of the prow. By the time we change over and drop a few turns down to the Edmunds Glacier, I’m a shadow of a man. But the stoke of a couple early season turns gives me some jam for the final push towards the cabin that sits 9450 feet above the big city lights of Seattle.

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The last 200 feet to the hut is accessed by a ribbon of solid ground that makes its way between a couple clusters of gaping crevasses, meaty motherfuckers that look like they could swallow a whole condo.

Crampon time.

The day’s final changeover almost defeats me. But after I fall behind and struggle with my quiver of unfamiliar gear, I notice the shadow of Rainier being cast across the rolling mountains that sprawl back towards Canada. This sunrise-to-sunset sufferfest has been worth every step.

There’s a moment of panic when we find the door to the hut is frozen shut. We had a contingency plan. But now that the sun’s gone down, we’re totally committed to a night at 10,000 feet. So there’s much rejoicing (whisky) when we troubleshoot our way out of the cold and into the door.

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We do the routine maintenance that we came to do in the first place and celebrate with a few victory drinks on the lower flank of Washington’s highest mountain. It’s crazy to think that we still have roughly 4000 feet of rock, snow and ice looming above our heads.

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We’ve got no intention of summiting the volcanic beast—November’s not the month for the heavily glaciated NE face—but it sure is nice to look at the thing. And after we get a good night’s sleep, we can rip early-season turns on the Edmunds and Inter Glaciers.

Excitement’s high, but sleep falls quickly on our merry band of drunks.

After breakfast in the shadow of a hot pink mountain, we ski a couple hallways through the hungry-looking holes on the Edmunds and make our way back to the hut.

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photo: Mark Erickson

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The avalanche danger’s low and the glacier’s pretty fat for this time of year. But it’s hard to shake the sensation that the mountain might decide to eat us for lunch.

As beautiful as she is, Rainer’s really got a nasty side, having killed over 300 people since the government started keeping track.

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photo: Mark Erickson

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It seems like no backcountry trip is complete without constant reminders of your own mortality.

There are a few more of those during our climb up the ridge behind the cabin on our way out. Thanks to my general lack of climbing prowess, I move with the grace of a giraffe on ketamine. The rest of the crew, on the other hand, bounds up the prow like caffeinated mountain goats.

They’re nice enough to rope me up for the part where one’s most likely to die. And even though I feel like a bit of a Nancy Boy, the crew passes on as much knowledge and stoke as they possibly can.

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photo: Shane Treat

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photo: Shane Treat

The climb brings us back to the top of the Inter Glacier, the 4000(ish)-foot snowfield that we kicked steps up yesterday. The snow’s not perfect, but it’s a real treat to cover all that ground with a couple thousand lefts and rights… There’s even a few pow turns to be had.

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We’d said at the beginning of the trip that if we got even a lick of decent snow, we could call it a success. And we did.

But I’m placing a lot more value on the things I brought back from the edge of my comfort zone. And the time I got to spend with a few good friends on the side of a massive volcano.

But we can’t drink victory beers just yet. We still need walk a few miles to the icy road and mount up those bikes….

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