Mount Rainier, which at 14,417 feet rates as the 17th highest peak in the United States, is one of the most photographed mountains in the Cascade Range. It can be seen north of Seattle, Washington and provides about 10,000 hikers a year the challenge of a lifetime.
Marco Island resident Lynn Orr had conquered that challenge twice before and had always dreamed of someday doing it again, accompanied by his daughters Lauren and Jennifer. Half of that wish came true when earlier this year daughter Jennifer let her dad know this was a challenge that she wanted to undertake with him.
For many years, one of the Orr family’s favorite vacation spots has been in the Telluride, Colorado area. The entire family would come to fall in love with that area of Colorado and the Rocky Mountains, but it was Jennifer who truly took to her dad’s passion for conquering the high mountain peaks.
“Jennifer just doesn’t know how to say no to a challenge like this,” said Elaine Orr, Lynn’s wife and the mother of both Jennifer and her sister Lauren. Elaine works with her husband in their wealth management business, Lynn H. Orr Capital Management Group, Inc. on Marco Island, which they founded in 1998.
After months of planning and training, the two adventurers flew out to the West Coast to ascend the mountain and fulfill a dream they both held close to their hearts for many years.
Climbing Mt. Rainier is not child’s play, and requires conditioning, training, and a recognition of the serious nature of the deadly obstacles facing climbers. It provides a considerable test to those who attempt to scale her. The deaths of 400 hikers since 1897 stands as a testament to the serious nature of those challenges.
They arrived at their destination hotel three to four days prior to the climb. The plan was to adapt themselves to the 5,400 ft. elevation by exercising and letting their lungs get used to the slightly higher that one-mile elevation. “I really didn’t have an issue with the elevation at that level. One of the things that helped was this specialty sports drink which would help with that,” said Jenn Orr, who grew up at sea-level on Marco Island.
The day before they began the ascent to the base camp, which would serve as their jumping off point for the climb to the summit, the guides held a day-long class to familiarize the climbers with how to walk with crampons on the ice and evaluate their coordination level. “When you do start the climb if the guide feels you can’t keep up, they will send you back down as a safety precaution to both you and others,” said Lynn Orr.
The Orrs climbed with a group of 17 individuals, who went in segments of three climbers and a guide. Over the last couple of years, the park began limiting the number of climbers to improve the experience and enhance safety. From May through October the mountain will see 10,000 climbers attempt to make the ascent to the top.
From the parking lot at 5,400 ft. where the lodge was located, up to Camp Muir, the base camp at 10,100 ft., the climbers hiked in their expedition boots without crampons, as they were walking in snow for this segment of the climb. This initial portion of the hike gave the guides a pretty good evaluation of their group’s abilities, so they would know who should continue after basecamp.
The hike to the base camp however was challenging due to a heavy condition of snow falling on the hikers. “You really couldn’t see four feet in front of you with the white-out conditions,” said Lynn Orr, commenting on the conditions of the day.
When they did arrive at the base camp it would be close to 5 PM, and they were advised to nourish themselves and get some sleep. All 17 of the climbers crammed themselves into a small plywood bunkhouse at Camp Muir where they slept on plywood platforms.
The guides came in at 1:50 AM to wake the climbers, and by 3 AM they were roping up in full gear, including crampons. “That morning the winds were sustained at 25 mph, with gusts in the 40-45 mph range,” said Lynn Orr. “There were times that I had a difficult time maintaining my balance,” he added.
They would also have to climb without their goggles due to the problems created when fogging limits visibility. In some of the areas climbed, they were susceptible to falling debris; stopping on the trail would heighten that danger.
When engaged in climbs such as this, progress is measured by elevation, not distance. Lynn Orr commented that under these conditions the climbers made about 800 ft. in elevation in an hour.
“They also teach you how to step and walk to conserve your energy. Adapting your hiking style would be determined by the angle of the climb,” said Lynn Orr.
The other challenge the climbers dealt with was in regard to the rocks that they had to move across. With the crampons on, this became a major challenge.
By the time the group had made another 1,400 feet in elevation they realized that their ascent was in jeopardy. “The conditions were so brutal that it no longer was worth the risk,” said Jenn Orr. They had made it to approximately 11,500 feet when they took a break and were required to make a decision.
“We would balance risk with disappointment,” said Jennifer.
Of the 17 climbers in their group, nine individuals chose to make the same decision that the Orrs made. By the time the remaining eight individuals and their guides made it to the 12,500 ft. elevation, they too would choose out of an abundance of caution to reverse their climb and descend the mountain to the Camp Muir shelter.
Jennifer Orr is already planning “when,” not “if,” she will make a second try to scale the mountain that she and her dad attempted on June 6 and 7 of this year. Of the 10,000 individuals who attempt the climb each year, only half complete it.
Mount Rainier is part of the National Park Service and is the tallest mountain in the State of Washington. It is also an active stratovolcano and last erupted in 1894.