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The Circle of Rainier

 Photo: The mountain and one of the men it has shaped.

The Circle of Rainier: by Bill Wicheta

Life often swirls in circles.

I grew up in central Texas as part of an outdoor family. For vacations, the idea of seeing urban attractions like Disneyland was never an option -- my parents would take us to hike, camp, swim, paddle, fish and hunt. For our big summer vacations, we would visit our ranching relatives in Arizona or head to the mountains of Colorado, my dad driving as far as possible up wilderness roads until the car got nearly stuck.

In the winter of 1969, my parents saw an ad in the annual REI catalog with pictures of Mt. Rainier National Park. Intrigued, they decided that the long car trip to wet mountains would provide a unique summer trip for us Texans.

My dad wondered whether he misread the ad when we traveled into Yakima with dust devils spiraling over the flat, brown fields and local thermometers reading 104 F. After all, we were supposedly only 80 miles from this big mountain! But as we drove west past Naches and White Pass, we rounded a corner and gasped at our first real- life view of the massive, ice-clad Mt. Rainier soaring above the surrounding terrain. I will never forget that moment.

This trip was the beginning of many summer trips back. Not only did we fall in love with Rainier, our visits made us many friends and established strong personal connections to the region. Our yearly pilgrimages to Mt. Rainier also gave us a reason to return to Washington and explore new parts of the state. All of this set the course of my life.

As an impressionable young teenage boy, few things sparked my interest more than the cadres of climbers we passed on the trail with cool looking accouterments attached to their packs -- like ice axes, crampons, ropes, and pickets. Some were heading up to elevation, others were stumbling wearily back to Paradise, some were elated, and others were disappointed. The visitor center also had many climbing exhibits that fueled my imagination of what it was be like to be "up there".


Photo: Climbers headed up to Camp Shurman in an attempt to bag the Big One.

As we drove home after that first short trip, I told my parents I wanted to climb that mountain. My brother and sister were of like mind, so Dad said we were on – it would be the family goal to return and climb Mt. Rainier!

All through the next year, the presents for birthdays and Christmas consisted of outdoor equipment. In those days, there was a paucity of stores selling mountaineering gear -- especially in Texas. Many things had to be ordered and to outfit three kids and two parents required some budgeting. Many items like our wool clothing were bought on the cheap from Army surplus stores.

The next summer we returned ready to climb! Our first attempt had some of us suffering from altitude sickness and, a few hundred vertical feet from the summit, poor weather had us turning around. How frustrating to be so close.

With persistence, my parents, sister (age 16) and I (age 14), made it to the top. My 9-year-old brother didn’t make the summit that year.

We would return over and over to hike many trails in the park and complete other climbs in Washington and other states. At the age of 20 I led my brother (by then 15) up Rainier. We had the unusual pleasure of making the top as a Texas twosome.

Photo: Bill Wicheta somewhere on the flanks of Mt. Rainier.

All of this started and fueled my lifetime love of hiking and climbing in high wild places. Life’s responsibilities interrupted the fun along the way, but the direction for my life’s recreational pursuits had been set. Every chance I got during college and medical school I was out in the wilds with family or friends.

Later, when looking for a place to settle, outdoor recreational opportunities were a critical part of the formula. I looked at practice opportunities in Utah, Oregon, New Mexico, Idaho, and Montana. Due to all our family trips, I was particularly familiar with Washington, and had first visited Wenatchee and Leavenworth in 1981 on a climb of the Ice Cliff Glacier on Mt. Stuart. So when an opening became available in Wenatchee, I eagerly took it.

Now that I’m a parent myself, I’ve gained a huge appreciation for the energy my parents expended in overcoming the logistics of getting outdoors with kids. I’m fortunate here in Wenatchee because it’s so much easier than what my parents faced living in Texas. With so many outdoor opportunities on the very outskirts of this town, my four children have all developed love of camping, skiing, kayaking, and hiking.

Interestingly, I rarely took my children to the place that started it all for me -- Mt. Rainier. My parents, still in Texas, were surprised, but I explained to them that it is a long drive and the Wenatchee area had so much to do that was so much closer. My two oldest ended up slipping away from this area and pursuing careers on the East Coast without Rainier getting its hooks into them.

This summer Mark Shipman mentioned he was planning a Rainier climb with Dave Allyn and asked if I wanted to come along. Of course I said yes but I thought I shouldn’t let the fate of my oldest children occur to my two youngest, who are still college students. I asked Will (21) and my youngest daughter Sarah (19) if they wanted to climb Rainier. In hindsight maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but their resounding enthusiasm for the adventure caught me off guard.

Photo: The next generation (Will and Sarah) and the mountain.

It took some organizing to get everyone equipped and to arrange some practice session in the relatively short amount of time we had. We practiced prusiking (a technique for climbing ropes to escape crevasses) on a rope hanging from a tree in the backyard. Certainly there was a strong sense of nostalgia connecting me to those childhood family trips. It felt right to be passing along a passion my parents had kindled in me along to the next generation.

On July 8, 2011, we set off as a group of five to Mt. Rainier National Park and started our climb at the White River Trailhead. We headed up to Camp Schurman where we would camp before attempting the Emmons Glacier route. It was very rewarding do take this arduous hike to the high camp with my children and to see their amazement as this massive ice mountain loomed closer and closer while the summit itself seemed ever farther and farther away.

Photo: Majesty and memories that can leave you smitten for a lifetime.

It is said that climbing encompasses all emotions: joy and sorrow, elation and disappointment, success and failure, perseverance and determination. We tasted some of those emotions on our summit day when poor incoming weather forced us to turn around at the 13,500-foot level, less than 900 feet from the summit. This is part of mountaineering, I explained, and there’s a fine line between pushing yourself and being dumb. There was also a reoccurring family story here -- I reminded them of my family turning around just short of the summit in 1970 when we made our first bid for the top.

Photo: Will Wicheta -- happy that his dad had the good sense to get out Texas?

Will and Sarah were disappointed, but perseverance went to work. Although Will was unavailable, two weeks later Sarah and I returned for a rematch. We slogged up the 5000-vertical-foot climb between the trailhead at White River and Camp Schurman with large, heavy packs. The next day, July 23, the weather was perfect! We left camp at 2:30 a.m. and reached the windy summit at 10 a.m. Sarah was elated and seeing her happiness magnified my own many times over. My only regret was that Will, and my two other daughters weren’t with us.

The type of photo that makes a climbing father proud.

Sarah and I made the long trudge all the way down the mountain the same day and slept in the parking lot. The next day we toured around the Paradise area and I showed Sarah the historic Paradise Inn where I had spent time with my family. I told her and relived stories that were 40 years old now.

Photo: Siskel and Ebert give the adventure a hearty two thumbs up.

Driving home from the mountains from this trip there was richer sense of satisfaction than usual. Not only had we reached the top, but there was both history and future direction intertwined in this trip. The past (my childhood trips with siblings and parents), the present (my current trips with children), and the future (what my children might go on to do in the mountains) were all braided together here in the mandala of life. Mt. Rainier molded me as a person, influenced my passions, directed where I chose to live, and is now forging new connections with my children. I hope Sarah is just as lucky.