Icefall on Mount Rainier
Mount Rainier sits alone in the Cascade Range. With few surrounding peaks to speak of, it seemingly rises directly out of the sea and high into the sky. Rainier is a spectacle that, for hundreds of years, has inspired reverence. Religious or not, anyone who sets eyes on the massive tower of rock and ice will attest to the sacred aura which emanates from it. Long ago, the local Native American tribes named it “Tahoma”, or “mother of all waters” -- a reference to the towering glaciers which make their home on its slopes. To those living in the region today, it is referred to simply as “the mountain”. All it takes is a single sunny day to understand why. Although rare, on the occasion when the familiar blanket of clouds lifts over the Pacific Northwest, visitors new to the region collectively turn their heads in awe. Rainier dominates the skyline, demanding respect.
Although Jon Letko’s ultimate goal was to climb the challenging Himalayan peaks, he nonetheless found himself captivated by Mount Rainier. In fact, he’s gone so far as to call it “the gem of the West Coast”. Growing up, many of Jon’s mountaineering idols made their home in the Seattle area and climbed the peak with an astounding regularity. It wasn’t until many years later that he learned about the ongoing speed-climbing competition. Throughout the climbing season, the region’s best professional climbers compete to see who can make it up and down the 14,410 ft. volcano the fastest. At the time, the record was just over 4 hours and 40 minutes – an incredibly physical feat.
Upon learning of the record, Jon Letko naturally wanted to beat it. Ultra-competitive from a young age, this type of grueling challenge was precisely the sort of thing that got Jon’s blood pumping. After doing several training climbs, Jon headed for Rainier in hopes of setting the best solo speed-climbing time.
It should be noted that by almost every measure, Jon Letko is a smart climber. Before attempting a climb, he obsessively checks local weather reports, ensures that he is carrying the proper gear, and follows all necessary mountain safety protocols to a tee. If he has one fault, though, it is overconfidence. Indeed, the demise of many famed mountaineers has resulted not from their inability to scale a difficult slope, but from a tendency to ignore gut feelings and push on in spite of them. Looking back, Jon admits, this was an occasion when he should have listened to the voice in the back of his head telling him to postpone the climb.
Although Jon meant to get an early start, his car got a flat tire on the way up to the base of the mountain. As a result, he was significantly behind schedule. The prudent decision would have been to try again the following day, but that is not the Jon Letko way. Annoyed, but not willing to admit defeat, he went ahead with his attempt anyway.
The climb to the top of Rainier begins on its gentle lower slopes with few hazards, if any, to speak of. However, after passing the climbing camp named after the famous adventurer John Muir, the terrain quickly transitions. The snowfields abruptly give way to heavily-glaciered upper slopes, lined by massive cracks in the ice known as crevasses. These cracks can be up to fifty feet wide and hundreds of feet deep in places.
As Jon reached this portion of the mountain, the narrow climbing track passed closely by several particularly menacing crevasses. Even more foreboding, though, were the massive chunks of ice hanging off the steep rocky cliffs above him. Early in the morning, such hazards are nothing to worry about. However, as the sun gets higher in the sky and begins warming up the mountain, these features become at risk of detaching and falling on climbers passing below. However, Jon Letko was unfazed. He was intent on breaking the record, and had eyes only for the summit. Nothing was going to get in his way – least of all a few chunks of ice.
Heart rate running near maximum, Jon continued to push his body to its absolute physical limits. Looking down at his watch as he reached the final stretch of the climb, Jon was delighted with what he saw. At his current rate, he was on pace to break the record! A burst of adrenaline shot through his body, providing him the needed energy to make it the rest of the way. After cresting the final ridge, Jon did not delay – he took several deep breaths, snapped a quick photo of the summit, and turned back around to begin the descent.
For obvious reasons, the trip down can be completed at a much faster pace. The snow was now soft thanks to the afternoon warmth, and Jon made great time as he bounded down the upper slopes. Before long, he again reached the treacherously exposed section of the route. Looking out across the crevasse-filled glacier, then up at the hanging ice above, Jon suddenly felt unnerved – a sensation entirely foreign to a man of his confidence and ability. He glanced at his watch. The clock was ticking. Jon had little choice – this route was the only way down.
He decided to make a break for it. Moving quickly down the narrow climbers track, Jon kept his eyes on the snow in front of him. Halfway there. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Jon heard a loud *Crack*. His heart sank. A quick glance upward told Jon all he needed to know – high above a section of the ice had broken off and was now tumbling down the mountain, headed straight for him. He let out a scream and began to run.
It was too late; there was no escaping. Jon somehow avoided a direct hit, but was swept off his feet by the oncoming debris. As he slid down the face of the glacier, the gaping mouth of a deep crevasse rushed up to meet him. Finding himself on the edge of certain death, Jon swung his ice axe back behind his body in a last-ditch effort. Miraculously, the sharp point caught hold. Jon held on for dear life as a slew of ice chunks flew over his head and down into the abyss below. With the last of his strength, Jon managed to pull himself back up onto the glacier before collapsing in a heap.
Luckily, a pair of passing climbers happened to witness the dramatic series of events. Upon locating Jon, they were able to carry him down the mountain to safety.
While Jon Letko did not break the record that day, he did learn a valuable lesson: when in the mountains, always trust your gut.