Camp Muir is cemented and bolted onto a thin basalt ridge that juts up out of the snow, separating the vast Muir Snowfield below from the upper reaches of Cowlitz Glacier. If you have any breath left when you get there, the view will take it away. Its elevation is somewhere between 10,050 and 10,188 feet, depending on which map you consult. Or where you’re standing, for that matter. The camp has several buildings, including a crude tarpaper and plywood hut. The hut is about the shape of a boxcar, but smaller. It is walled off into two sections, one for RMI climbers and the other for climbers using another guide service. There’s also a stone WPA-style hut provided by the National Park Service for independent climbers. Sitting on a slightly higher section of the ridge is the park rangers’ stone hut, outside of which rangers can be seen sitting aloof in the sun reading Edward Abbey while the steady ebb and flow of climbers mills around below their feet. There is also a weather station and several outhouses. Far below us the top of the cloud we’d climbed through still skirted the mountain, although it was beginning to break apart. In the distance we could see Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens, and, beyond them, magnificent Mt. Hood. Above us towered the remaining 4,400 feet of Rainier, the summit tucked out of view behind jagged foreground peaks. Above Rainier was the immaculate cold sky, a thin, blue membrane darkened by a deeper darkness beyond.
By around 5:30 the guides had boiled a five-gallon jug of water. We used the water to pour over our dehydrated meals, and make tea or hot chocolate. We all gathered together in the hut and ate ravenously, cheerfully stuffing our bellies with warmth.
When the lights came back on, sometime after midnight, I woke and sat up in place to watch all my teammates struggle quietly in the confined floor space, getting around each other and into their cold-weather clothes, and then making their ways out into the black night to continue gearing up. Once the traffic had cleared inside the hut I also got up, dressed, and joined them all outside. Joe, in his berth on the opposite side of the room from me, hadn’t stirred. Outside, there wasn’t much joking around, as everyone helped each other check and re-check their equipment, supplies, and clothing. The guides moved among them, tightening straps, checking laces, testing headlamps and avalanche transponders, making sure everyone’s carabiners were in order, and all the other necessary things, all the while reminding everyone that there was no time to waste. I stood inconspicuously among them, preparing along with them in my mind, feeling their strange brew of grim excitement. Before long, the guides had arranged them into their two groups.
Win’s team left the camp first, roped together for the rising traverse up across steep, bowl-shaped Cowlitz Glacier to Cathedral Gap. Jon’s team waited a few minutes. RMI keeps their parties broken up into smaller teams to minimize risk, and also out of consideration to other climbing parties they encounter on the climb. There’s also an aesthetic consideration. Smaller parties have a smaller visual impact on the mountainside.
As the last team headed out, I watched the silent glowworm line of their headlamps grow smaller, dimmer, and higher in the night. The climb from Camp Muir to the summit is steeper, colder, windier and more treacherous than the climb from Paradise to Muir. Every foot you gain delivers less oxygen to your lungs, your blood, your muscles. Making that climb roped together in the deep dark of a moonless night intensifies the danger and difficulty. The real test had begun for them.