Editor's note: This is an installment of Cautionary Tales, an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors.
The moment of reckoning arrived shortly after sunrise on summit day.
One of our guides was explaining to me that I would be moved to a summit-bound rope team — we had four rope teams total, two soldiering onward to the summit and two heading down to our high camp — when I made the call.
"I think I'm going to go down with you guys."
We were at 12,500 feet on Washington's Mount Rainier in mid-July, hunkering down for a break in blistering wind, overlooking Emmons Glacier. At this point, the pink glow of dawn had started to fade, giving way to what promised to be a clear, if gusty, morning.
The day started inauspiciously. While I'm no stranger to hiking in the middle of the night, an alpine start at 1:30 a.m. after a poor night's sleep at altitude made for trying circumstances. I was slow to move, but my spirits improved after a break on the Disappointment Cleaver.
However, on-mountain conditions forced us to change course when we reached 12,700 feet on our original route. We backtracked, losing precious elevation and adding distance on the reroute, which sent us marching like tethered ants across a broad slope covered in snow and ice at sunrise.
By our next break, my legs were revolting against that slow, steady churn uphill. My asthmatic lungs were tired. And we had lost so much time that any climbers pushing toward the 14,410-foot summit knew we had to pick up the pace.
Sealing my decision was the understanding that our guide service required two guides accompany climbers to the summit, and there was a guide per rope team. So, after this break, if one person needed to turn around, a guide would have to go with them — meaning, then, that everyone would turn around.
I had much more faith in the others' summit prospects than I did in my own.
As soon as our half of the group started heading down to high camp at Ingraham Flats (11,100 feet), I knew I made the right decision, despite a swell of disappointment.
Making the call
Knowing when to turn around on a hike or climb is one of the best skills you can develop. I've bailed on trips for any combination of factors: harrowing terrain, a lack of cooperation from my body or adverse weather. Being able to pull the plug has kept me alive on subzero solo backpacking trips and crumbling ridges.
Of course, you'll never progress if you don't push your limits. But on any trip, it's crucial to be brutally honest with yourself and others.
Hungry or thirsty? Correct that before you start bonking and feeling faint. Got a nagging injury or blister hot spot? Adjust accordingly before you're forced to limp off the mountain — what I call the "long goodbye" because that descent will feel like it's taking forever. Have concerns about the route? Speak up, because you might see something other people have overlooked.
Lying in the tent on Ingraham Glacier, decompressing before we returned to Camp Muir, my mind drifted back home. And predictably, I was mulling over the Chugach peaks I wasn't climbing at the moment. Especially Ptarmigan Peak, whose scrambly, completely attainable 4,911-foot summit had managed to elude me on an embarrassing number of occasions. Ptarmigan would be a priority when I returned home.
It seems ridiculous to leave Alaska to climb a mountain. But Rainier is a mountaineering classic, and this was a fundraising climb: Billed as the Climb for a Cause, our trip was the result of a partnership between Washington's National Park Fund, International Mountain Guides and REI, where I work part-time.
REI brought in employees from across the co-op to climb Rainier and raise money for park search and rescue operations. IMG would provide guiding services.
I've never been thrown into this kind of adventure with a group of strangers before, and I don't know that I'll ever find this kind of camaraderie among a group of strangers again.
Mike Bello of Long Island, New York, trained for the climb by hiking when possible, and kickboxing. Kickboxing!
Kristen Evans, representing Las Vegas, is a biker and climber who had been doing some kind of activity outside every day for some 260 consecutive days, and counting.
For Anna Hertel, a diver who lives in Jacksonville, Florida, this climb was her first real experience hiking on snow.
Kazu Ishidera lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he's a maniac surfer and climber. He manages to make everything look easy.
Leah Koshiyama is a Seattle-based runner whose wife, God bless her, met us at the bottom with Double Stuf Oreos and a cooler of IPAs.
Denver's Brittany Mckee would fit in well in Alaska: She hiked up the snowy slope to Camp Muir (10,188 feet) in trail runners, caught air while glissading down in a trash bag and joined me in ordering an ice cream cone as part of our Day 1 breakfast.
And Rachel Ligtenberg, REI's Seattle-based vice president of retail operations, rounded out our group. Quick to encourage and share her ample trail snacks, she would laugh with us, struggle with us and always offer more sunscreen.
Our guides (lead guide Sara Cohen, Blair Hutchinson, Nate Sievert and Willie Webster) were professional, hilarious and keenly observant, and they deserve the credit for keeping us out of hairy situations on the upper mountain and giving everyone a crash course on cramponing and self-arrest. Also, this was the most luxurious climb I've ever been on: They melted water for us and cooked breakfast and dinner each day on Rainier. I'm still dying to know how they made curried chicken, broccoli and rice taste so good at 11,000 feet.
We cheered when we received word that the other climbers — Bello, Evans, Ishidera and Mckee — had reached the crater at the top of Rainier. Getting ready to move after a long break at Ingraham Flats, we paused until we saw them come down the aptly named Disappointment Cleaver and safely cross the glacier toward high camp.
Instead of waiting for them to arrive, we skipped down to Camp Muir, whose more-established facilities made it a better spot for a reunion. As the other climbers filed in, exhausted with faces several shades darker from sun exposure, we exchanged hugs and high-fives. Amid congratulations, they told us about how Bello almost lost his pack when the wind tore across the summit crater, how Cohen and Mckee prepared to pull Evans as she crossed a crevasse, how Ishidera knew the climb was rough because Mckee wasn't wisecracking like usual.
After four days, strangers can become family.
The snowy trek from Camp Muir down to the van at Paradise (5,400 feet) was a slippery, slushy, glorious mess. Most of our party opted to glissade. In shorts, sliding hurt, but it was worth it.
That afternoon, Rainier was playing hide-and-seek in a veil of wispy clouds, just peeking out as we neared the end.
We debriefed at IMG's headquarters in Ashford, Washington. Another round of hugs after that, and we parted ways.
On my flight back to Anchorage, I reflected on our climb. Rainier still seems like something out of a dream, disconnected from reality. The alien snow formations on the Cleaver. The sunrise spilling out into the sky above Emmons Glacier. Spotting Mount Adams, Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens on the horizon from Camp Muir on a bluebird day. Hearing a glacier calve in a thunderous roar.
I know I'll return to Rainier. It's only a matter of time.
But for now, I'm blessed to live in a place with abundant mountains, glaciers, rock and snow.
On Monday, I went back to Ptarmigan Peak on the edge of Anchorage. The scrambling didn't seem as tough this time; the steepness, less intimidating. I reached the summit under a sheet of clouds, alone and full of an exhilarated joy.
Sometimes, quitting is the best way forward. Once in a while, I need to be reminded of that.