It was a view most of us will never see — two views, actually — enjoyed from a vantage point most of us will never reach.
For Yakima climbers George Waymire and Doug Federspiel, those views were profoundly gratifying not only because of where the two men were, but where they had been.
They were standing on the summit of Mount Rainier, 14,410 feet above sea level. It was one minute after 6 a.m. on Aug. 21, and a perfectly full moon was sitting just above the eastern crater. In the opposite direction was the sunrise, a brilliant red ball glowing through the lingering haze of a Central Washington wildfire.
“It was a gift,” Federspiel, a Yakima Superior Court judge, says of that splendid dichotomy atop Washington’s highest peak.
And the gift had come in three stages.
Just 671/2 hours earlier, Federspiel and Waymire had enjoyed a similarly sprawling view from the summit ridge atop Mount Hood, at 11,250 feet the tallest of Oregon’s Cascades. And in the interim, they had climbed Mount Adams (elev. 12,280).
Three Cascade summits in three days.
Others have done it faster. “They were elite athletes,” Federspiel says, “and that was never our intention to challenge those records.”
Instead, the two recreational climbers — Federspiel, 50, a Yakima Superior Court judge, and Waymire, 36, acquisitions manager at Yakima-based Wilkinson Corporation — simply chose to challenge themselves.
They made their three-part uphill journey without a support team, driving themselves from one trailhead to the next, acquiring climbing permits at each stop and then carrying their bare necessities on their backs. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about their journey was that the two had never climbed together.
There’s a leap of faith made when placing one’s life in another’s hands, as climbers do every time they rope up together.
Each climber must be both skilled enough and alert enough to ice-arrest and provide a safe anchor should a misstep send the other plunging down the side of the mountain. If either fails, both can perish. Sometimes, it doesn’t even take a failure by either. Ice can break. Rocks can fall. Weather can shift.
And, yes, mistakes can happen.
“You don’t just do something like this without knowing a person well,” says Waymire, who had worked alongside Federspiel for five years when the latter was Wilkinson’s staff counsel before being elected to the bench.
“I knew Doug was a person who paid attention to detail,” Waymire said, noting how important it is to know that in a critical moment a climbing partner “is going to respond in a very calm, cool, collected way and will deal with the situation.”
Waymire, an avid climber since his teens who had already summitted Rainier three dozen times over numerous routes, also knew Federspiel was no mountaineering neophyte. In addition to having climbed each of the three peaks before, the judge had also reached three summits in Nepal, one of them at 21,247 feet.
Federspiel, too, had faith in Waymire’s abilities — and in his ability to make the hard choices.
“He’s been on search-and-rescue efforts and knows when to call it a day, and that’s important,” Federspiel says. “You can’t go blindly up there without being cognizant of the exposure. He’s been in situations where he’s had to call off the climb, and that builds up trust when you know he’s not going to go up there without any regard for the danger.”
That first hard choice came on Mount Hood, and it really wasn’t that hard.
Waymire and Federspiel had left Yakima at 3 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 18, driven to Timberline and ascended the mountain’s Hogsback (South Side) route to its famous — or infamous — “knife-edge” summit ridge.
To reach the true summit less than 50 feet above, climbers must traverse that harrowingly narrow ridge, a crossing that’s difficult enough in earlier summer when it’s snow-covered. By late August, that snow was gone, leaving behind sketchy footing atop what Federspiel desscribed as “loose shale and really rotten rock.”
Rangers at Mount Hood had told them they should not consider crossing the summit ridge, but the climbers had already decided against it.
“We decided purposely not to take those last steps across that knife-edge and the unsecured rock because of the precipitous fall,” Federspiel says. “You’re looking at 1,000-plus feet to the north almost straight down, and not as far (down) to the south but it would kill you if you fell off either way.
“So we got feet from the top and simply said, OK, this is where we stop. This our summit.
“I have a wife and two young kids. No use risking death.”
After descending to the parking lot at Timberline, they hopped into Waymire’s Toyota Land Cruiser and drove to the Cold Springs trailhead at Mount Adams. By 7 p.m., they were on the climbing trail.
They passed the Crescent Glacier before needing headlamps and reached the summit by lamplight and the glow of the nearly full moon at 2:30 a.m. Monday,
Most Mount Adams climbers descend quickly by glissading, a controlled slide while seated on the snow. But Waymire and Federspiel, wearing crampons and edging carefully down the frozen slope in the darkness, opted for a safe, albeit slow, walk back down to the trailhead.
Once there at 8 a.m., having stood atop two Cascade peaks within the previous 22 hours, they pulled out air mattresses for a little nap in the campground.
And it came easily.
“Really, I think it was about a minute after lying down,” Waymire said. “I was just out.”
They had, of course, saved the best for last. To be well-rested and alert, they opted for a comparatively luxuriant night of sleep in actual beds in a Packwood hotel before heading up to the crown jewel of the Cascades.
Waymire had climbed Mount Rainier by every route imaginable, most recently just two weekends before along the same Disappointment Cleaver route he would ascend with Federspiel, to see how conditions were holding up.
“The prime season (for that route) is June and July, and then in August things tend to break up a little bit and the crevasses start to open up,” Waymire says. “It still can be great climbing, but … you just have to be careful. You have to have a heightened sense of awareness about what you’re doing, where you’re stepping, just making sure you’re safe.”
Part of that safety entailed starting out very early, to avoid ending up in a bottleneck of climbers on Disappointment Cleaver — the peak’s most popular route, but one on which late-season ascents are increasingly subject to rockfall from loose, exposed rock dislodged by climbers higher on the slope.
“I have a particular aversion to being below people on Disappointment Cleaver,” Federspiel says.
So after reaching Camp Muir at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 20,, the two napped on bunks in the climbers’ shelter there before hitting the trail at 10 p.m. That meant relying on the light of their headlamps, even while stepping gingerly along the rungs of a ladder placed across a deep crevasse at 12,800 feet.
“I have something I always tell people I’m climbing with,” Waymire says. “Look at the ladder, but do not look down. Just keep going. If you start looking down and you stop on the ladder, you’re like, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s so far down there.’
“Now you’re in trouble.”
Not long after crossing the ladder, though, they weren’t in trouble. They were standing on top of the state’s tallest peak, looking at two amazing views — on top of the world for the third time in three days.
“Life isn’t easy. Neither is climbing,” Waymire says. “And that, for me, is what makes climbing a fun experience. It replicates life.”
And the view is always best from the top.