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Originally published Wednesday, August 18, 2010 at 7:00 PM

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First conquered, then triumphant, writer climbs Rainier

Hiker Terry Wood wrote for The Seattle Times about the challenges of climbing Mount Rainier, but had never done it. It took two attempts, but July 26 he made it to the top.

Special to The Seattle Times

More information

See Terry Wood's blog entries at findout.rei.com/blogs. Under "posts by tag," click "Mt. Rainier."

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In February, The Seattle Times published avid hiker Terry Wood's piece titled "Is this your year to summit Rainier?" It detailed the challenges and rewards of climbing Washington's iconic peak. Last month, Wood took on the mountain himself for the first time. Here's his epilogue to the story.

Final score from Mount Rainier: Hiker 1, Mountain 1.

It's not exactly a break-even outcome, though. When the contest pits novice climber vs. highest glaciated peak (14,411 feet) in the lower forty-eight, my climbing mentors assure me that anyone who makes it to the top, no matter how many attempts are required, has earned a new notch in his or her personal victory column.

I'll take it. The historical success rate for summiting Rainier hovers around 50 percent. I, an in-shape fan of long-haul hikes, figured to be a cinch to summit Rainier on my first try.

Ha. My first attempt yielded a rake-handle-in-the-face reality check.

But on July 26, one week after an ego-deflating failure where I staggered off Rainier's real-life Cliffs of Insanity and into a personal pit of despair, I set foot on Rainier's icy crown. Long and hard, yes, but manageable. And when the climbing finally stopped, it was suh-weet.

First try

As a hiker and off-trail peakbagger, climbing has minimal appeal to me. Too technical — ropes, harnesses, helmets. All that stuff, not enough speed.

Then a friend asked me what it takes to climb Rainier. I said I'd look into it. That resulted in the February piece in the Times.

One of the people I interviewed for the story, Mark Scheffer, ultimately coaxed me into taking a climb with him. Scheffer is on the board of trustees of The Mountaineers, an instructor for the basic climbing course offered by the club and one of the most effusive, outdoor-loving people you'll meet.

"You really need to do this," Scheffer insisted. "You live in the Northwest. You like being outside. It'll make you happy."

Sold. Soon I was flinging myself down a snowfield at Alpental practicing self-arrest and crevasse rescue.

I trained hard, cranking on my gym's stair-stepper at a lung-busting pace. Three times during a nine-day span I lugged 40-pound loads up Mount Si.

So where did I go wrong?

• Burned up energy too fast at the start. Part of a nine-person group, I dashed around like a loon taking pictures of our ascent from every possible angle after we left Paradise (5,420 feet). Sweat gushed from me. Dumb.

• Inadequate food and water intake. I did not refuel or hydrate sufficiently to match my energy output. Really dumb.

• Insufficient rest. I bunked down at 8 p.m. at Camp Muir (10,080 feet) in preparation for an 11 p.m. wake-up call to begin the summit push. Didn't sleep a wink. Extra dumb.

Aiming for a sunrise summit, we started climbing at 12:30 a.m. With a large group behind us, I rushed my pace on our route's two difficult rocky sections. With fanged crampons lashed to my fatiguing size 13 hoofs, I klutzed out repeatedly on the rocks.

The final disgrace: Around the 11,600-foot point in the inhospitably rocky Disappointment Cleaver, I stumbled backward into Scheffer, short-roping me at the time, bonking helmets. My fall zapped his headlamp. End of climb.

As we turned around, I grasped what it felt to be a dead man walking. Scheffer and ropemate Rich Leggett were kind and encouraging, but the pall of failure felt heavier than my pack.

Second try

Chagrined, I was desperate to climb again as quickly as I could. But where could I find a climb leader on short notice?

Lucky me: During a training climb at Rainier, I crossed paths with John Colver, a senior guide with International Mountain Guides and director of AdventX, a pioneering training program that uses outdoor venues such as Discovery Park to build adventure-ready fitness.

Colver gave me his card and told me he was prepping for an eight-day, 179-mile crazy-man mountain race in Europe. He mentioned he intended to summit Rainier seven times as part of his training and had two climbs to go. Not long after I was back from my failed climb, I was on the phone, hoping to invite myself along on Colver's next climb.

Amazingly, the former British paratrooper and past national team cyclist agreed. Obviously this guy likes a challenge. "You're going to get to the summit," he assured me.

I did, in surprisingly strong fashion. A few keys to my turnaround:

• Colver mandated an almost pokey "guide's pace" on both the Day One ascent to Camp Muir as well as the summit attempt: Climb 1,000 feet, then rest and refuel. Conserving energy on Day One yields benefits on Day Two, he said. Very effective.

• I ate and drank in copious amounts. On this climb I supplemented my high-tech energy foods with a stash of two fairly gluttonous foot-long subs. Man, they were good.

• We took three days instead of two. If you're not a climbing regular, the extra time for acclimating at high elevation is nice. Colver, a mountain sage, cagily plotted an unconventional (yet effective, and fun) "sunset-summit" strategy. Since upper slopes are shaded by afternoon, they're quite firm for travel. So we slept in on our summit day and started climbing before 1 p.m.

• Pressure breathing (deep inhalation followed by a forceful burst of exhalation). At Colver's direction, I fought off a bout of summit-day altitude sickness by repeatedly performing this maneuver. Try it if you face a similar fate, plus force yourself to move a little (though you may not feel like it) while taking in small amounts of food and water.

Freelance writer Terry Wood is also editor of the Expert Advice section at REI.com. Reach him at farhiker@rei.com.

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