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.
Alpine wildflowers greet us in a swirl of colour as we climb, giving way to rock and then ice fields higher up. Following in the footsteps other climbers had kicked in the snow, we trudged upwards, reaching our destination six and a half hours later.
Camp Muir, deriving its name from the naturalist John Muir, perches at 3,048 metres. Here a ranger station, solar toilets, a public shelter and a multitude of brightly coloured tents dotted the glacier.
After a restless sleep, the next day was spent preparing for the summit attempt. That night teams assembled in the moonlight and headed up. Choosing to stay behind as I hadn't had enough time to train for the summit push, I watched the procession of bobbing headlamps as the teams moved up the Ingraham Glacier Direct route and counted shooting stars as I shivered in the cold.
The wait seemed endless the following day so I killed time melting snow for drinking water. At last, 15 hours later, the team emerged over Cadever Gap and staggered towards camp.
Exhausted but elated, they had made the summit.
It was a profound experience for them all — I could see it in their eyes.
"At that altitude you definitely start to feel that you are pulling your breath in," said husband Simon describing his time on the summit.
"I felt very much alone up there and through that aloneness, I felt an immense connection and love for everyone close to me in my life."
Fallat noted that she not only felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, she also fulfilled a personal mission — to bury the ashes of a friend's son and read a letter of encouragement from her partner, Aimee Molinaro, who wasn't able to participate due to an injury.
Jane Metcalfe's son Eric died in 2001 from a brain tumour. She asked Fallat to take some of his ashes to the summit — the rest are spread all over the world, from the tops of mountains in France to the foothills of the Himalayas.
"He was a huge mountaineer and had been to Rainier several times so it was awesome to get him back up there to rest," wrote Fallat in an email. "His ashes are all over the place as friends continue to take him where he loved going."
Hours later, as we drive back to the big city and the massive mountain shrinks in the distance in the rear view mirror, I think to myself that this is more than just a mountain — it's become a place for people to challenge themselves, to undertake an immense physical and mental test, to be humbled by nature's fury and to find solace in the clouds.
Although mountaineers tackle Mount Rainer all year long, the best period to climb is deemed from May to August.
People lose their lives on the mountain each year, so play it safe — check weather reports frequently and consult the ranger at Camp Muir for more up-to-date reports. It is advised not to summit on your own — there are several companies that offer guided summit climbs.
More on Mount Rainier can be found here: mountrainierclimbing.blogspot.ca.