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That Night We Lost the Route

Friends –

It was 2003 and we were climbing Rainier. We left Camp Muir, at 10,000 feet, around midnight climbing with the aid of our headlamps and the moonlight. We had over 4000 feet to climb. At around 11,000 feet LB, did not feel well, so we walked back down with him until we knew he could make it to camp safely. Then Marty & I turned around and headed back up. I momentarily lost my footing and hit my knee on a rock. It didn’t hurt too much. We kept moving. There were just two of us now roped together. I led. I was following a trail in the snow with the broad expanse of the mountain sloping up to my right. To my left was the fall. It was very windy. As we moved, the trail gradually became more faint.I searched for it with my headlamp. Finally, the trail was gone. The wind had blown it away leaving us alone on the cold mountain.


I looked ahead and could see a large crevasse. We could not go forward, Our choices were to turn around or to turn to the right and head up a wide steep pitch that was hundreds of feet of hard packed, ice-covered snow. I shouted back at Marty. He didn’t want to turn around and neither did I. So we did the only thing we could do. We turned to the right and headed straight up the mountain. I took a few steps and could feel the hard packed snow under my crampons. They were barely getting any bite. I stopped and took some breaths and shouted back at Marty that I could not see what lay at the top. Marty shouted back that if we were lucky we would find the trail up there. We moved up the hard icy pitch a few steps at a time.


Although we were roped together the rope was no help. We both knew that if either of us fell we would not be able to stop ourselves and we would pull the other off the mountain. Slowly, methodically, I moved a step and jammed my ice axe into the hard snow as best I could. Every 5 or 6 steps, I would stop and shout back “stopping!”. Marty would stop as well. I would bend over and pressure breath. Then slowly we would again move forward in sync. We were on that sheet of ice and snow determined not to turn back. The wind blew and the higher we climbed the more we knew we could not turn back. It was too steep and too icy. If we tried to turn back and climb down we would have easily fallen. There was no going back. So we kept moving up hoping neither of us slipped or fell. I focused on each step. Each step had to be perfect.


Finally, after about 45 minutes I neared what looked like a ridge. As I completed the pitch, I stepped up off the sheet of ice and to my relief, on to a flat safe area. I coiled in rope as Marty followed and came up behind me. There in the wind with everything on the line we had found the trail.


Only when we reached the summit did I realize that earlier I had injured my knee when I fell and hit it. It was swollen and hurt with each step down. I slowly limped down 4000 feet from the summit back to Camp Muir. It took us 16 hours to the summit and back. LB was worried. When we finally got back LB joyfully came out and greeted us. He took my ice ax and held it up in victory. We had made the summit, but more importantly we had survived a dangerous climb neither of us would ever forget.

Robb Fickman, Houston

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