The Ascent

Columbia Crest, the snowy white tip of Mount Rainier, juts 14,410 feet into the Pacific Northwest sky. A stretch of icy bridges and deep crevasses protect the peak, and below that, an outcropping of ugly gray rock knifes up through the glaciated face of the mountain. They call this ridge Disappointment Cleaver. Mike Roderick has been there twice, but he’s yet to see what lies above.

Six years ago a fellow climber accidentally dragged Roderick down, smashing his knee against a rock. He attempted the ascent again four years later while suffering from a vertebra that slipped out of place, pressing onto the one below. He reached the cleaver again before shooting nerve pain overcame him. Roderick had surgery upon his return home to Dublin and will make his third attempt in July.

The most prominent mountain in the continental U.S. stands between him and the summit. 

Last year Roderick founded Embrace the First Step, a charitable organization committed to fundraising through physical challenges. He had dedicated his second Rainier attempt to raising money for the Christine Wilson Foundation, and he wanted to expand that idea to other charities. This year’s expedition will take him on the same route – the three-day Muir Corridor climb – and seven other hikers from around Ohio will join him for the “Taking It to the Top” challenge.

They are mountaineering novices, and only one of them has accomplished anything similar – reaching base camp at Mount Everest. Nevertheless, they are committed to working themselves into mountain-scaling condition for an assault on the summit, while attempting to raise $80,000 combined for eight local charities.

According to Gordon Janow – cofounder of guide group Alpine Ascents – the success rate of the Muir climb is around 50 percent for the whole season, though it can reach into the 70s during favorable July weather. But it’s an introductory climb, meaning that the hikers will need to learn mountaineering techniques and achieve their utmost physical condition to account for lacking experience.

The trek will take them to Camp Muir at 10,000 feet for their first night. The next day they will head to Cowlitz Glacier and learn how to walk in spiked crampons, how to breathe two-mile-high air, and how to self-arrest – stopping a slide from becoming a deadly fall. Then they will travel to the high camp a thousand feet farther up so they can acclimatize to the altitude.

They will make the final push the following day, carrying packs weighing 40-plus pounds and ascending 900 feet an hour to complete the journey to the summit.

Training for this feat on flat Ohio land requires the climbers to attain top aerobic and anaerobic shape, combining endurance and interval workouts. Alpine Ascents recommends spending at least four to six months beforehand undertaking a mix of climbing conditioning, core and lower-body strength training, cardiovascular workouts and flexibility exercises.

Group members work out together as often as they can, wearing full gear as they march the stairs in Roderick’s office building, all 10 floors, up and down, over and over. They train with loaded packs on the Snow Trails ski hill in Mansfield; on the stairs at Alum Creek; on the cement steps at the Horseshoe. Most time is spent individually though, and they push themselves in a variety of ways: running before work; practicing jiu-jitsu; using kettlebells; and reading personal development books.

For all the physical demands, maintaining their inner resolve could prove an even greater obstacle, as Roderick knows:

“They’re gonna face a mental challenge when they get up there. I guarantee you that.”

Alpine Ascents teaches a mountaineering technique known as the rest-step. Climbers use a combination of rhythmic breathing, brief rest and their momentum to propel themselves up the incline. Across Muir Corridor. Into Cowlitz Glacier. Onward to 12,000 feet – Disappointment Cleaver.

Inhale. Step. Rest. Exhale. Step.

Across the bridges made of ice and the glacier crevasses. Upward toward Columbia Crest.

Inhale. Step. Rest. Exhale. Step.

Roderick will push them, and himself, with his mantra – Embrace the first step. Embrace the second one. Keep pushing on.  To see what they never have before, something most never will…

Inhale. Step.