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Mount Rainier

Finding solace on the summit



It's 5:30 a.m. and although I am weary as I glance out the car window as we speed along the I-5 south from Seattle, my eyes are drawn to something in the distance. There, squatting on the horizon like a massive, well-fed troll, Mount Rainier commands an unmistakable presence.

Rising from the earth to a mighty height of 4,392 metres, Mount Rainier is worthy of respect — an active volcano which last erupted in 1894, it boasts the title of the most glaciated peak in the lower 48 states and is the origin of the birth waters of six major rivers. The mountain is also the tallest peak in the Cascade Range and being seated just 87 kilometres southeast of Seattle in Washington States, it is considered one of the most accessible mountains on the continent, appealing to mountaineers who are training for Everest and other high-altitude expeditions.

It is this looming mountain which was our destination on this early morning drive as five of us — plus a heck of a lot of gear — crammed into a station wagon and set forth for an adventure of a lifetime.

We were a motley group of mountaineers, ranging in age from late 20s to late 70s. Our team leader Paul Russell, 78, had been up the mountain five times previously but was as eager as any of us to climb it yet again.

"It's funny," he remarked afterwards, "Because I have been on the mountain six times (now), I can almost visualize the steps up there now."

But that doesn't stop him from returning, he says, because there is always a different group of friends to go up with and he added: "I'm always game for another go."

Helen Fallat knows all too well about repeat performances. Russell is her stepdad and in 2009 they climbed Rainier together, only to be turned away 305 metres from the summit due to gale-force winds. Russell, an experienced mountaineer, likened it to nearly being blown off the mountain.

But Fallat does not give up easily, describing her last attempt as a "major defeat" that she wanted to overturn.

Her second chance began a few hours later when we found ourselves in paradise, literally.

The Paradise ranger station sits at the end of the road in Mount Rainer national park, where the rest of the way is by foot.

The very first ascenders of Mount Rainier were General Hazard Stevens and Philemon Van Trump who, in August 1870, succeeded in summiting via the Gibraltar Ledges route. The local Yakima people guided the party up the mountain, which they had originally named Tahoma. Captain George Vancouver renamed it after Admiral Peter Rainier of the British Navy during a scouting expedition in 1792.