Teamwork And Training Led Us To Success
At 7:10 a.m., Saturday, June 25 our Georgia State team of 12 alumni, faculty and staff entered the crater of Mt. Rainier with our Rainier Mountaineering (RMI) guides and attained the summit at 14,410 feet. Sweet success, far from certain just a few hours prior, was ours, individually and collectively.
In the words of alumnus Nate Anthony: “My best memory of the entire experience was when all 12 of us made it up to the summit together. This is a moment I will never forget.”
Kris Varjas, a member of the Counseling and Psychological Services faculty, put it this way: “Realizing that WE reached the summit and that ALL of us made it was an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and pride, as tears streamed down my face knowing/seeing that we all did it. Priceless!!”
Less than 24 hours prior we had climbed through wintry weather to Camp Muir (10,188 feet). In a few hours, after dinner and a short rest, we would start our summit attempt from Camp Muir. Spirits were high and so were anxieties. Would the weather break as forecasted, would the snow conditions that had prevented other teams from summiting the preceding days also turn us back short of the summit, would the physiological effects of altitude or the physical rigors of the climb force one or more members of our team to turn back?
Professor John Horgan summed up the uncertainty that preceded our climb to the summit this way: “My single biggest challenge was sitting still at Camp Muir, trying to relax for the six hours before the ‘real’ climb. We were not sure if the weather was going to cooperate and offer us a window to make the climb. It was agonizing. But when (RMI) guide, Leon, came in at midnight and quietly told us that the weather was good, we knew the mountain was offering us a chance to climb. My mind cleared and I felt calm and ready.”
It was time to put the training behind us and have at the mountain.
The weather had indeed cleared. The clouds were below us, and above us were stars and moonlight. As we took our first of three breaks during the six-hour ascent, this one on the Ingraham Glacier and about an hour out of Camp Muir, team members marveled at the beauty around them. Looming nearby in the moonlit darkness the subordinate peak Little Tahoma stood out against the whiteness of snow, glacial ice and a pillowy world of clouds. Slowly night yielded to day and the magical beauty of a sunrise seen from high on a mountain was shared by all.
In the words of Professor Michelle Brattain: “My best visual memory was the sunrise above the clouds, just as the light was creeping above the horizon. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Mt. Rainier is an iconic mountain with a commanding presence in the Puget Sound region of Washington. It is the tallest mountain in the Cascade Range, an active volcano and the most extensively glaciated mountain in the continental United States. Only about 50 percent of the roughly 10,000 people who attempt to summit Mt Rainier each year achieve the summit. Weather, poor or dangerous route conditions, the effects of altitude and lack of physical conditioning all contribute to turning back thousands of climbers annually.
Our Georgia State team first met last December for an orientation meeting, and in January began training together to prepare for the challenge of ascending Mt Rainier’s 14,410 feet from a starting elevation of 5,400 feet. This effort was led by me and Carson Tortorige, Georgia State’s outdoor recreation coordinator. Alumni on the team were Nate Anthony (2016), Lindsay Gressard (2012), Sharon Murphy (2015), Joe Reinkemeyer (1981) and Todd Williams (1997). Staff members were Caroline Lombard (Legal Affairs) and Bob Toomy (Facilities), and faculty members were Michelle Brattain (History), John Horgan (Psychology and Global Studies) and Kris Varjas (Counseling and Psychological Services).
Each member of the team committed to a rigorous physical training program that included, in addition to regular aerobic, strength and endurance conditioning, training hikes of increasing difficulty. Our goals were to eliminate one of those factors that keeps climbers from summiting, and to be fit so the climb would be enjoyed rather than endured. Ten of our training hikes were group activities. All others were individually arranged and reported weekly. We progressed from two-hour hikes with 20-pound packs to five and six hours of laps up and down Stone Mountain carrying 35–40-pound packs. Over a period of months the team transformed their bodies to mountain-climbing fit.
Many members of the team faced physical challenges or obstacles in preparing for the climb. Everyone started from a different baseline of fitness, and there would be blisters, sprained ankles and torn muscles. However, Kris Varjas faced the greatest physical challenge of all. Just days before Christmas 2015 she was stricken with severe back pain from a herniated disk. Her chances of being on the team that would attempt Mt. Rainier in June looked bleak as she underwent surgery in January. Most people would have pulled the plug on themselves at that point. Not Kris. She is tenacious and asked for a chance to work herself into climbing shape. Nate Anthony, who studied exercise science at Georgia State, and I worked with Kris to develop a modified, adaptive training program that would give her a shot at climbing the mountain while also allowing her to heal from the surgery. Not only did she summit Mt. Rainier, she did so with strength, confidence and good form. As did every member of our Georgia State team!
The joy and satisfaction of climbing a technical mountain is not easily explained or shared. In the words of John Horgan: “There’s an indescribable feeling that goes with climbing a mountain like Rainier. I’ve found it difficult to explain to people how I felt on the mountain. In a few weeks from now I will sit down to think about what comes next for me in terms of climbing, but I can hear those mountains calling me already. This entire experience marks a new cornerstone in my life, and it won’t be the same forever.”
Joe Reinkemeyer put it this way: “This climb was the hardest physical challenge of my life. I have always talked about how hard work really pays off. But I never really experienced it to this extent. We trained very hard (and complained about it from time to time!) But in the end, it was all worth it. I now realize that I can, if I choose, take on more big challenges.”
That sentiment was echoed by Caroline Lombard: “There were so many aspects of this experience that changed me as a person. The training and climb itself pushed me harder physically than anything else I’ve ever done. We talked a lot about ‘disrupting our equilibrium’ so that our bodies could get stronger and stronger with each group training. Doing that helped me realize that I am physically capable of much more than I gave myself credit for before this experience.”
“The entire experience has changed me, my life and I am forever grateful,” said Varjas.
Sharon Murphy said, “The best memory of the trip was being able to witness the joy and pride felt by my teammates when it was over. Sharing this experience with them was a privilege,” and Michelle Brattain added “Everyone has a fantastic sense of humor and everyone was incredibly supportive every step of the way. I feel like I’ve made some friends for life.”
I am grateful to everyone who contributed photos for this blog entry, and particularly to Bob Toomy for his generosity in sharing his considerable photographic talents and skills with the entire team.