It was just before noon on an unexpectedly cold and cloudy May morning, and I was making my way up Mount Rainier on skis. I was about half a mile from my objective for the day, Camp Muir, which sits just above 10,000 feet. The camp is on a rock outcropping between the Muir Snowfield and the Cowlitz Glacier, with a few shelters for National Park Service rangers and mountain guides. It’s a stunning area, but after three weekends of back to back conditioning trips up to the camp; it was becoming routine, maybe even a bit boring. I put my earbuds in, cranked the music up, and put my head down to really push myself in preparation for the summer adventures to come.
Each of the three times before had gone the same: I skinned up, enjoyed lunch at camp while taking in the views and sun, then ripped the skins off my skis and whooped and hollered all the way down to my car, all with enough time to be home by 3pm.
But today was much different.
There was a bitterly cold wind slicing across the snowfield that had removed any trace of the soft snowy surface I had encountered previously. The wind had turned it into an ice rink, with an angle of about 30 degrees and several miles long. The wind was howling at 20 mph, with gusts up to 50 mph; enough to make me stop to brace myself. Visibility had been reduced to a few hundred feet at best. I had been in conditions like this before, but there was on massive difference this time...
I had no ice axe, no crampons, no other form of traction aside the frozen strips of fabric under my skis.
My skis were constantly slipping on the ice, and each gust of wind almost brought me to my knees. I looked behind me at the wide-open slope that went on for thousands of feet. I could see exactly how it would play out, I’d slip and start sliding, gaining more and more speed until I either slammed into a rock or went over the edge of the snowfield to one of the valleys below. I couldn’t stop to descend since I was on a steep angle with no way to safely transition to my downhill setup. I had only two options: I could either stop and wait or continue to push further up.
“You idiot!” I scolded myself.
I couldn’t believe how stupid I was. I had two different kinds of ice axes and three different types of traction devices... all at home in my gear bins. All together, I had probably spent around $500 on those items. The year before, I enrolled in a 6 month long course on how to be in these kinds of environments in a safe manner. All of that, and yet here I was.
I brought my ski crampons and my Whippet (a ski pole with an ice axe head) the previous weekend's up to Camp Muir, but always felt a bit silly since I never needed them. This morning, when I was packing up my bag, I looked at them, then decided to save myself the weight and leave them at home. I knew what the conditions were like up there, they couldn’t possibly be any different this weekend.
My pathetic excuse to save the weight didn’t even pass the common sense check: the aluminum crampons weighed in at a grand total of 8 ounces. Half a pound. I made a snap decision to leave an 8 ounce device at home that is meant to keep me from slipping down an ice slope. I added insult to injury by also leaving the safety device meant to stop myself should I fall. I had somehow convinced myself that there was no way I was going to slip, and there was no way I could fall.
“Idiot!” I repeated the insult as I was facing the very real possibility of serious injury or death.
With no real option other than to keep heading up, I inched along as carefully as I could. On two separate occasions I had to kneel down and dig my fingernails into the ice to give myself some sense of stability and to take weight off my exhausted legs. What would normally be a 30 minute (or less) final push to the camp took me nearly an hour and a half. Never before had I been so relieved to see the flat ground at Camp Muir!
It’s hard for me to admit, but this experience scared the crap out of me. In addition to the fear; I was incredibly embarrassed. Hell, I’m embarrassed now just writing this; I’ve been sitting on this story for weeks, afraid to finish it and admit I was afraid. But I learned a valuable lesson that day, and if I can make someone else rethink some of their choices… that will make any embarrassment well worth it’s price. This was a completely avoidable situation, I was a trained and experienced mountaineer who had all of the knowledge, skills, and equipment needed to be safe in the mountains and I completely disregarded all of that. Why?
It is easy to grow complacent when we do something over and over again. It becomes familiar, natural, boring, routine… even if the activity we are doing is inherently dangerous. Over the years while I gained experience, I had also refined my gear choices, it’s true. My first trip up Rainier I over packed about 20 lbs of stuff I truly didn’t need, even carrying doubles of everything just in case. Enough food to feed a whole glacier team. But the pendulum had swung too far in the wrong direction and in an effort to continue to cut as much weight from my pack as possible, I left home the very items that are for my safety. There is never an excuse for that, period. Let me say that again...
If you are looking at a piece of gear and it’s very purpose is to ensure your safety and survival, why are you even entertaining the thought of not bringing it?
This event caused me to rethink my decision making process and I found several other areas where I had been cutting corners for no good reason. The excuses I had been telling myself were easily torn apart when I stopped to ask myself the above question. So what if my pack weighs a few more pounds and I probably won’t even need it? Is that slight weight penalty really worth my life? I plan to continue to choose mountains for many, many years to come… and that requires that I be smart and safe in them.
AUTHOR: NATE BROWN
Nate is a Choose Mountains Ambassador here in Washington State. On the weekends you can find him in the mountains, whether it be hiking, backpacking, mountaineering, skiing, or running; it’s guaranteed that he has a smile on his face! He is from Southern Illinois and just completed 13 years in our United States Army. To read more about him, head over to his ambassador page, or check him out on his Instagram.