I recently had the opportunity to go on a guided climb up Mt Rainier with the Mountain Hardwear team. The main purpose of the trip was to test product and hear firsthand feedback from the guides at Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI) about the gear they use from Mountain Hardwear.

Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. is owned and operated by Lou and Peter Whittaker together with Joseph Horiskey. RMI not only guides clients up to the summit of Rainier but they also teach the latest techniques in mountain and ice climbing.

Mountain Hardwear supplies RMI with all the outerwear and tents to run their business – this includes outfitting the guides as well as being the sole brand offered for rental outerwear.

We arrived Friday afternoon in Seattle and carpooled to Ashford, Washington where RMI has their headquarters. The weather forcast was not looking good with 100% chance of precipitation on Sunday.

Saturday morning was mostly cloudy when we headed up the mountain for a day of training. Starting at Paradise (5,420’ elevation) inside the National Forest we hiked up for about an hour and a half to a small snow field. Here we spent a few hours practicing self arrests with our ice axes, walking in crampons and learning how to walk roped up. This was all new to me! My least favorite skill was sliding down head first on my back and then using the ice ax to stop my fall. This exercise combined with my morbid imagination conjured up all kinds of gory scenes where my inability to stop my fall caused the gruesome deaths of all that were roped to me. My favorite new skill was ‘compression breathing’. Even though I’ve lived at altitude for most of my adult life, I had never learned this technique for catching my breath and re-oxygenating my blood while moving.

That night we had a fun dinner at a local restaurant in Ashford and went to bed early to be rested for the first day of our big climb. The next morning my pack felt huge but only weighed between 35-40 lbs. I was grateful to be wearing so many clothes so I didn’t have to carry them. It was raining at Paradise where we left the warmth and comfort of the RMI bus.

After about an hour of hiking we were in a wet snow storm. At our first rest stop everyone was doing great. We ate and drank some water. At our second rest stop, the wind was more significant and we were about 45 minutes below the Muir snowfield (10080 ft elevation). One of the team was having a hard time keeping up. Peter Whittaker gave us a pep talk and told us we may have to head back down if we couldn’t all make it.

Soon we were on the Muir snowfield with ice and wet snow pelting us. It reminded me of home – hiking Teton Pass in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The only difference was the snow was wetter, my pack way heavier, the hike much longer, and no powder turns to look forward to at the end! We had a couple brief rests on the way up but Peter felt it was important to get to Camp Muir as soon as possible due to the storm. All of us were wet inside and out – even Gore-tex failed in this weather. I was so grateful that my hood at least sheltered my face.

As we got up higher on the snowfield the guides helped us over several narrow crevaces. Our team was very tired and hungry. I started to bonk (literally run out of fuel) about 15 minutes below our destination and was saved by a granola bar from one of the guides. My team mate was having very painful cramps in his legs. There was no choice but to push through.

Finally, we could see Camp Muir! We were quite happy when we arrived. We stayed in a bunk room that slept about 13-18. Our accommodations weren’t exactly luxurious. There was no heat, one bench and the outhouse was outside and at the back of the bunk house. We all got in our sleeping bags after peeling off the layers of wet clothing and hanging it to dry. Never has a dry sleeping bag on plywood felt so good!

We ate more packaged food in 24 hours than I eat in an entire year. My favorites were Tram Bars, Rice Krispie Bars, and Cliff Shot Bloks. Getting to the outhouse was a trek. I had the unfortunate need to get up and go in the middle of the night. It was blowing and snowing so hard that I was quite soggy upon my return with snow in my neighbor’s borrowed boots. The door to the outhouse had to be shoveled to open and then shoveled to close. The whole experience made me appreciate the comforts of home. The wind blew so hard that night it made the walls of the bunkhouse hum.

When we awoke early the next morning the sky was clear with a bed of clouds that reached as far as we could see below us. It was so beautiful. The wind had quieted. To the south we could see a hump of clouds over Mount Adams. After breakfast we did some exploring and listened to more stories from Peter. He has many of them with decades of outdoor adventures and guiding.

We hung out in the bunkhouse and talked gear, told stories and discussed off color topics. The plan was to leave for the summit around 2am although Peter had already said it was extremely unlikely. Another storm blew in by midnight erasing any slim chance of a summit attempt.

The next morning we packed up our gear. The visibility was so bad that we were roped up together in case one of us found a crevasse before the guides. My ankles were very bruised from the hard mountaineering boots so while everyone was finishing getting ready I quietly stashed my mountaineering boots in my pack and put on my hiking shoes. Ted, head of all product, also my boss, saw my shoes and said if I really wanted to my shoes to work I should put plastic bags in them. Sean, one of the tent guys, had given me some handwarmers which I put in my shoes between my sock and the plastic. When Peter and the other guides saw my shoes they told me they highly recommended I wear the mountaineering boots down but let me do as I thought best.

Down the mountain we went with the guides periodically on their bellies looking for crevasses with their poles. It had snowed about 4 feet since we left Sunday morning. The wind and snow made for very poor visibility. All of us were randomly postholing up to the top of our thighs. We stayed roped up until we were off the Muir snowfield.

As we approached Paradise it became more and more slushy and just plain wet. I was the slowest through the slush thanks to my shoes but my feet were pain free, warm and dry! The guides were very helpful both on the way up and down. Their job requires a great deal of patience and excellent judgment.

When we got back to HQ in Ashford, we headed for the showers (heaven!!), had lunch and laughed over stories. I was thrilled when I found out their massage therapist was available. She was amazing. Gaston, guru of technical construction, looked so blissed out after his massage we couldn’t help laughing every time we looked at him.

Although we didn’t get to the summit of Mt Rainier, it was a fantastic trip. We all learned invaluable information about the product we work on in the best and most memorable way possible – through experience. Face to face guide feedback was very illuminating and really helped us see where we could make important improvements to the overall performance of Mountain Hardwear products. Last, but as important as all the above, our adventure on Mt Rainier brought an already extraordinary team closer. I am very grateful for Ted’s generosity and wisdom in making this trip a reality.