One year after my failed attempt to climb Mount Rainier, I received a phone call from Uli and his fiancé Trish: “Hi Matt. We were wondering if you would be willing to officiate our wedding?” Uli asked, with Trish also on the line.
Truly, I love this couple. We spent countless hours training and competing together. They are friends, great athletes, and good human beings. I felt honored by their request. I also was excited to hear that they wanted to take this next step in their relationship.
“Thank you for asking. That would be an honor. Absolutely. I would love to! When is the wedding?” I asked.
“Our wedding is going to be very exclusive. We are only inviting three guests. Our family is not going to be able to be there for it. We want to get married on the summit of Mount Rainier! If the weather cooperates, we will do it in mid-July. We will have a reception for friends and family in Bellingham a couple of weeks after the climb.” Trish informed me. Their voices were smiling, and it made perfect sense. There was no better place for this couple to exchange vows.
In the previous chapter I mentioned Uli’s athletic accolades, but Trish is an amazing athlete in her own right (https://www.steidlrunning.com/). Here are just a few of her credentials:
• Collegiate rower at the University of Washington; qualified for the 2000 Olympic Trials
• Four-time Seattle Marathon winner
• 2018 and 2019 Masters 50k Trail National Champion
• 2020 Masters 50k Road National Champion
“Of course,” I thought to myself. “That sounds amazing!” I responded enthusiastically as butterflies began flying around my stomach. With their request, I knew that I now had a chance for redemption. This time, failure was not an option.
“So, what is your plan? Obviously, we must wait for good weather. How long do plan to take to climb the mountain?” I asked with hopeful uncertainty.
Trish spoke up: “We are going to do it in one day. We will pack light, start at night and go straight up and straight down like you and Uli attempted last year.”
“Not me!” I thought. I had learned my lesson. Why attempt to do what did not work the last time?
“Well just so you know, I will be going halfway up a day early. I will wait for you and Uli at Camp Muir and join up with you there.” This was my immediate, confident response. I had determined that if I ever tried to climb Rainier again, I would conserve my energy, and take my time ascending the first half of the mountain. There was no reason to repeat last year’s excruciating performance. It had been miserable, and I had not forgotten about it.
Why do we often repeat the same mistakes? It has been said that insanity is doing the same things over, and over again, and expecting different results. For this opportunity, I was embracing sanity at its best.
I understood that going early meant that I would have to carry more gear (including a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stove, and extra food). Even with the extra weight, I felt much more confident in taking two days to climb the mountain, I could succeed. With a marriage at stake, I could not fail to make it to the top!
I planned to climb to Camp Muir slowly and steadily, conserving as much energy as possible. My body would have more time to adjust to the altitude. I would hydrate well, rest, sleep, and be ready for the second half.
The wedding party consisted of the bride, the groom, two witnesses, and me, the minister. The two witnesses were experienced mountaineers and endurance athletes in peak condition. One had just been a top finisher in a full Ironman triathlon and the other spent most of his free time free climbing the peaks of the North Cascades. They each had summited the mountain multiple times.
My alarm sounded at 5:30 a.m. on Thursday, July 14, 2005. I left my house in Bothell, Washington, and made the long drive towards Mount Rainier. I wanted to get to the Paradise parking lot to start as early as possible. It was a cloudless, beautiful summer morning. I arrived at the mountain at 9:00 a.m., and the sun was already hot. Tourists in cargo shorts and Birkenstocks were unloading from their SUV’s as I unloaded my ice ax, climbing harness, crampons, and gear. I felt hopeful, nervous, and excited.
Alone, I took my heavy pack, threw it over my shoulders, and began a carefully paced hike towards Camp Muir. There was no time pressure today. Conserving energy was my top priority. A slow ascent was crucial to mitigate mountain sickness. The heat of the day combined with exertion caused me to begin to swelter. I stripped down to a t-shirt and light hiking pants, generously applying 50 SPF sunscreen to all of my exposed skin. I drank a full bottle of water and concentrated on enjoying the grandeur of trekking solo up the mountain that grew larger with each step that I took.
Gravity seemed to pull my heavy pack backward, away from my goal. The weight of it all made the climb more strenuous than I had hoped it would be. For most people, the climb to Camp Muir is a serious undertaking. The snowfield was slippery, which contributed to my slow pace. I circumvented a few crevasses that had opened. I hoped none were hidden beneath a thin layer of ice like trapdoors waiting to collapse and open. I snacked on pretzels and a Snickers. I reminded myself that by doing what I was doing today, I was greatly improving my potential success for tomorrow.
I arrived at Camp Muir around 2:30 in the afternoon. I found a flat, low, shaded patch of snow on the glacier to set up my one-man tent. It felt great to drop the burden of my pack off my shoulders. I melted snow over my camp stove and refilled my water bottles. I rested in my tent, napping and relaxing my body in anticipation of starting again at midnight. I had a slight migraine, but it was nothing like the way I had felt a year earlier.
From the moment I arrived, the camp was abuzz with climbing teams working together to prepare for the same goal. Most of the climbers had paid $1500-$2000 to have a guide help them achieve the summit. They had received professional training and instruction. They would take three days to complete their journey.
I do not remember socializing or talking to anyone that day. I was focused, nervous, and determined. I hid in my tent and read my tattered and worn copy of the New Testament. I slept. I waited. I boiled some water and made a mountain meal of dehydrated fettuccini alfredo. I needed all the calories I could get. I went back to sleep.
9:00 p.m. The sun had set 15 minutes ago. My sleeping bag was literally frozen. I opened my tent and looked west at the pink glow that illuminated the snowfield, extending all the way to the horizon. I knew that Uli and Trish were starting. It was the beginning of a journey. A climb, yes, but also, a commitment. The mountain was a big undertaking, but the covenant to live together “until death do us part” was even greater, and more testing. I prayed for them and pondered the joy, trust, and love that had led them to this unique beginning.
I expected to see my friends sometime between 11:15 p.m. and 12:15 a.m. Time crawled slowly by. The temperature plunged. I could not get warm because of the ice slab that was underneath my thin tent and sleeping pad. The camp grew quiet as everyone grabbed their final hours of rest.
At 11 p.m. the buzzing of an alarm clock sounded from a nearby tent. Headlamps flashed on. I stuck my head into the freezing air and gazed at the Milky Way. It was brighter than I had ever seen it before. Even the mountain was clearly seen from the starlight reflecting off the snow. I put on my down jacket, and stepped outside, shivering, and yawning. I wished I felt better, but I knew I was more rested than anyone I would be climbing with for the next twelve hours. I fired up my Jet Boil and made some oatmeal. There were so many climbers gearing up in the darkness that I worried about being able to find my team. After organizing my backpack, I perched myself on the stone wall overlooking the snowfield and waited, impatiently, stargazing.
At 11:45 pm. I saw the glimmer of a row of headlamps far below me. This late at night, I knew that no one else other than my friends would be out there. I smiled and felt the surge of anticipation. Would they be tired? Would they race through the camp and continue onward and upward? I felt confident in my strategy of pacing and resting. I wanted to start soon so that I would at least get warm.
At 12:00 a.m. the wedding party crested the top of the snowfield and walked into camp. I greeted them with hugs and high fives. This unique processional was comprised of two witnesses, a bride, a groom, and now me, the minister. It was the smallest wedding I had ever been a part of. Hopefully, we would complete this wedding march to the summit. All were hardened athletes who understood the daunting task that still lie ahead.
We hydrated, refilled canteens, put on climbing belts, boots, and crampons. We snacked and stashed unnecessary gear in my tent. As Uli and Trish roped up, I lamely joked, “You’re tying the knot already? You’re not supposed to do that until we reach the summit!”
I tried again; “Uli, I hope you don’t get cold feet! It must be just 15 degrees out here tonight!”
We laughed, clipped our harnesses to the rope, and left the camp. It was 12:45 a.m. when we headed towards Ingraham Flats.
Earlier, that evening, Trish had run a 10,000 meter track race. I am not kidding. Why? If you ask the question, I cannot explain an answer to you. If you are a competitive distance runner, you understand that 10,000 meter track races do not happen often, and they are great opportunities to run a personal best, or to at least to get in an amazing tempo run. She had planned to run that race regardless of when exactly we were going to make the climb. Based on my previous experience on Rainier, I questioned the wisdom of her decision, but I respected her confidence.
We climbed at a good pace, five headlamps illuminating a small space on the dark mountain. The others in my group had been climbing for six straight hours and had ascended over 5000 feet. We cross the flats and navigated our way up the razor-like edge of rock to the summit of Disappointment Cleaver. Trish was feeling the toll of yesterday’s race and the present climb. Our cadence was slow and steadfast. Many climbing teams were ahead of us, and two had passed us along the way.
At 4:30 a.m. the sun was beginning to illuminate the horizon. Resting at 12,750 feet, Trish spoke up, “What if we exchanged vows right here? This is a beautiful spot. I do not feel good. I am not sure I want to keep going. What difference would it make anyway?”
We all felt empathy and compassion. We also understood that on the wedding day, the bride gets what she wants. How would we, as a group of four men, respond?
Uli spoke up first, “That is fine. We can do it here.”
Faced with the realization that this moment would be defined by this place, Trish pondered her options before speaking definitively: “No!”, she said, “If we do not get married at the summit, I am going to hear about it for the rest of my life. You really want to get married on the summit, and that is what is going to happen. I will be mad at myself forever if we do not do this. Let’s go!” She led our team towards the summit. Contrary to my previous experience, I was feeling good. Gazing across the endless peaks of the Cascades dotting the horizon, I felt that the summit was within my reach. It was not easy, but I felt confident. It was getting closer.
We skirted around crevasses. We gingerly crossed ice bridges and avalanche fields littered with icefall. We passed pillar-like seracs that threatened to collapse. We raced across sections of rockfall. Blueish white glaciers were translucent under our feet. We kicked our crampons into the hard, icy, angled, footing that presented us with grave danger. The sun grew brighter as we pressed onward and upward. Although our progress was slow, it was steady.
Our altimeters registered 14,000 feet when the first group of climbers passed us on their way down the mountain. We were only 411 feet from the summit! The sun was now bright on the snow. There was no stopping us. The weather was an idyllic 25 degrees with just 15 miles per hour winds. Everyone in our group seemed to be doing well, and Trish was surging with a second wind. Meanwhile, I was beginning to feel the effects of the altitude.
We crested the first “false summit” of Rainier (Point Success) which led us into the crater of the mountain.
“Isn’t this it?” I asked. “Are we there yet?” Not quite. Another half mile. The true summit (Columbia Crest) was on the other side of the crater. We continue. We passed the mud pits and the vents that reminded us that we were on top of a somewhat active volcano.
We took off our packs and made the final surge to the summit of the mountain. We had made it! We snapped photos and enjoyed the 360-degree unobstructed views for miles in every direction. We could see into Canada, beyond Mount Baker in the north, and all the way to Mt. Hood, in Oregon, to the south. The morning was passing quickly, and I assessed that most of the climbing parties were already heading down. The longer we were on the summit, the hotter the sun would become, increasing rockfall and avalanche danger.
In the crater, we found a place to hide from the wind. Trish dug through her backpack looking for the white lace veil had hoped to drape over her stocking hat, but it could not be found. We assured her it probably would have just been blown away by the wind.
“This is it. Congratulations!”, I said. “Trish and Uli, thank you for allowing us to be a part of this most exclusive wedding party. You have climbed this mountain. You have persevered. You have done what few have ever done, and you have shown us what you are capable of. Now, as you reach this summit, you embark on a new journey. One that is more meaningful, more challenging, and more rewarding than this climb. Uli, do you promise, to take Trisha…”
Promises were made. Vows and rings were exchanged. The marriage license was signed. Blessings were bestowed. Uli and Trish kissed with joy, hope, and confidence. We soaked in the moment, enjoying the surreal setting before turning our direction down the mountain.
Going down a mountain is easier, faster, and more dangerous, than going up. We were one of the last climbing parties to leave the summit, and we knew we needed to descend quickly to avoid as much rockfall as possible. We made good time.
At 12,500 feet we paused briefly for some water. Gazing up the mountain we could see a spectacular looking wall of ice dubbed “the Icebox”. On Father’s Day in 1981, a serac collapse here leading to the worst mountaineering accident in North American history. Eleven people were swept to their death that day. Their bodies were never recovered, buried by tons of snow and ice.
As the sun beat down on us, suddenly a massive chunk of the wall of ice disintegrated from above and began tumbling down the mountain towards us. It rumbled, growing bigger and broader as it accelerated. It was far enough up the mountain that I did not panic at first. I just asked out loud, “Will that avalanche reach us?” Truly, none of us knew for sure. We just hoped that it would stop or disappear into a canyon between here and there. As we witnessed the power of nature, we had nowhere to run. We stood, and waited, and to our great relief, it stopped tumbling. I noticed it had crossed the climbing trail above us. Fortunately, no one was on that part of the trail when it came down. We were reminded of the dangers that existed as we resumed our hasty, descent.
I was proud of myself for having reached the summit. But once again, I was feeling my limitations, especially as it related to the effects of altitude. When we arrived at Camp Muir, I was exhausted. I had to pack up my tent, sleeping bag, and mattress, adding them to my extra heavy pack. It was hard to believe we were only halfway back down the mountain. My friends saw my plight and helped carry some of my extra gear. The day grew hotter and our pace quickened during our descent. We often sat down in snow chutes, enjoyed the long, exhilarating glissades down the Muir Snowfield, controlling our speed just enough to be relatively safe. Soon we were among the day hikers and the tourists. I felt relief and gratitude when we finally arrived at the Paradise Parking lot. With a sunburnt face and chapped lips, I dropped my backpack by my truck and breathed a sigh of relief.
The second climb had been a success and it had been an unforgettable wedding. My mother had always told me, “If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try, again.” Her advice had paid off and I felt great satisfaction.
There are many times we fail to achieve our goals and our dreams. If it is a valid goal or dream, do not give up on it. This is not the final chapter in your story. These failures are merely steppingstones of learning that will enable you to get you to your goals when the time is right.
“For though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again, but the wicked stumble when calamity strikes.”
• Is there a goal or dream that you failed to accomplish that you need to pursue once again?
• What life lessons have you recently learned through trial and error?
Update: On July 24, 2016, Uli went back to Rainier and set the record for the fastest climb ever, going from the parking lot to the summit and back in 4:24:30. (over 20 minutes faster than the previous record). I like to think that I helped prepare him for that accomplishment.
To learn more about climbing this route on Mount Rainier, visit: https://www.nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/upload/Disappointment-Cleaver-Routebrief-2017_FINAL.pdf