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50 Years of Climbing: Holly Hollar & Mt. Rainier

Holly Hollar, RMI Guide Elias de Andres Martos, and the rest of their rope team on the summit of Mt. Rainier. ---- In honor of our 50th Anniversary, we are featuring stories of first climbs. Stories from guides and stories from climbers. Today, we are excited to share Holly Hollar’s story of her first climb – Mt. Rainier in May 2018. We have edited her story for length. ---- Our mountain guide, Elias, is yelling at me with his heavy Spanish accent as the wind wails around us and ice pellets sting our faces at 13,600’, “Come on girls, we are close now!” The sun is up now, our headlamps finally switched off, and we are roped up, three of us ladies, to Elias. I’m in front. Behind me is Laimei, a physicist trying to solve the global energy problem in her post doc, and Robin, a lobbyist who is trying to work with legislators on privacy issues and anti-money laundering efforts to ensure criminals can’t fund terrorist activities in the U.S. (I am outclassed by both of these incredible women). The snow is shin deep, making it hard to find purchase in our crampons. For Laimei and I, it’s our first time attempting anything like this, Robin is the most experienced of the group - she’s already climbed Mount Elbrus. We are screaming at each other because the wind is so loud. “Come on, let’s dig!” I shout back to them, because I am terrified of what I see overhead of us, two giant blocks of ice that, should they choose to break free, would surely scrape us off the face of the mountain and into oblivion. We’ve tethered into ice anchors, but it’s little consolation on the steep, icy slope. Only a few minutes ago I had wanted to quit. Frustrated by my inability to find secure footings, and slipping back with every step, I turned to Elias, who had told me they had someone waiting at the bottom of the pitch for a few extra minutes in case someone changed their mind about going further. “Elias, I don’t know if I can do this,” I said. He took off his sunglasses. “Holly, look at me. You can dig. Dig deep girl. You can do this.” I rack my brain for motivation. I think of the words of a personal coach who inspired me last fall, “Joy is always a choice.” I recited this to myself along with other positive thoughts as we continued toward the top. The three of us are all that’s left of the 9-person team who began this boondoggle two days ago. Meeting at the RMI BaseCamp in Ashford, Washington, we unpacked our gear for gear check with smiles on our faces. Everyone was jubilant on that first day as Elias de Andres Martos introduced himself to the group and laid out the game plan for the following three days. He explained his extensive climbing experience, having guided in the Himalaya and on Denali, and explained what would be expected of us. “I was a teacher, a kindergarten teacher, but I found I did not like teaching. I like it when my students listen. You will listen to me as we climb because I have knowledge that will help you be more efficient. Efficiency is everything. You do not want to waste energy. Sometimes people say I am too harsh. It is because I want you to succeed and I don’t want to take too much risk. We have a margin of safety. So I push and sometimes I yell. But we will get there okay?” We nodded our heads in agreement. RMI requires at least one day of mountaineering training before heading up Rainier, so we spent the following day learning techniques like rest stepping and using our ice axe to stop ourselves from sliding down a glacier or into a crevasse. I was worried about getting enough sleep the night before the big climb, but that was no issue as I had worn myself out partly due to the exertion of learning to walk uphill in knee deep snow and partly from the stress of Elias spontaneously screaming “FALLING!” throughout the afternoon to build our self-arrest reflexes. Holly and the rest of her RMI team on their way to Camp Muir. Finally, it was time to climb. The hike to Camp Muir covers 4,500’ of elevation gain in about 4 1/2 miles. So we climbed roughly 1,000’ an hour and stopped to break at each milestone. The pace was slow and steady, harder for some than others but mostly a slog for everyone. Though it was snowing and grey when we began, the weather cleared as we climbed and soon we were above the cloud line and rolling into Camp Muir. It’s a good thing I hadn’t imagined Camp Muir to be a sort of mini-Ritz Carlton Bachelor Gulch because I would have been sorely disappointed. The camp is basically five or six little huts and one big bunkhouse where the RMI climbers sleep. After dinner it was time for “real talk” with Elias. “Okay guys. Here is the deal for tomorrow. There is going to be three breaks and a break at the summit. At each break we are going to ask you to tell us right away if you are committed to climbing the next hour to hour and a half. We are going from island of safety to island of safety, so you cannot quit in the places between our break points because it is too dangerous. If you are going to turn around, we will send a guide with you back to Camp Muir. But here is the issue. We can only have a team of three guests per guide. That is our ratio. If we lose too many guides, and don’t have the ratio, we may have to turn a team around. So, it is best if you be decisive and, if someone else is going already and we are at break number one and you are iffy, you need to decide to go down. Remember, the true summit is the parking lot at Paradise, not the top of the mountain, okay?” We were told a few tips on what to pack, how to pack and what to wear and then we were put to bed with the promise of being awoken sometime between midnight and two in the morning to begin our climb. The first stretch out of Muir was hard but not terrible. The deep snow made for some challenges, and for some it was simply too much with the altitude or poor boot fit/equipment mishaps, to continue. So, we lost several climbers at the first stop. But then the real fun began. Though we had planned on climbing another 1,000 feet or so before the next break, we came upon another climbing team who was ascending the wrong route up the Ingraham Glacier. I could tell Elias was getting frustrated, as every second we were stopped the team grew colder. One moment you were sweating in two layers with max exertion uphill and the next the sweat was freezing to your skin. Time was passing, with every second contributing to the deterioration of the climbers. Elias made a quick call. “Okay guys! We will take a very quick break here to let the other team get ahead of us. Put on your parkas!” We dutifully threw on our parkas. I could feel my fingers begin to burn and wondered if this is what the beginning of frostbite feels like. Fortunately, it was too dark for me to see that we were surrounded overhead by refrigerator-sized ice blocks that had tumbled off the glacier and come to rest, for the moment, just so. I got a good look at those coming down and I’m not going to lie, it put a bit more pep in my step. We began ascending again, this time to the proper break point where we did another quickie-style break. Sunrise on the upper slopes of Mt. Rainier. The final stretch seemed to go on forever, I think in part due our scheduled stops being disrupted by the other climbing team. We took one final, brief rest below the crater. I realized then that looking up was a mistake. Every time I looked up at the mountain I felt a soul crushing disappointment that we still had so far to go. It was much easier to look down and see how far we had come. The wind is ripping around us, we’re hanging on to our parkas for dear life and we begin the last push of five hundred feet or so. Final doubts come and go, but we are pushing onward. At last Elias looks down at me and says, “Holly, that is the crater rim, right there. You are going to be so proud.” In five more minutes, we cross the rim and tears come to my eyes. They are tears of relief that our efforts have finally landed us at the top. I turn and yell to the rest of the girls “It’s right here! We’re here!” It’s a cry fest up top, but don’t think for a second it was just the ladies. There’s a special kind of catharsis reserved for suffering of that nature, and now I know what it feels like. We have the crater to ourselves and take full advantage by snapping pictures and taking a much-needed water and snack break. In the back of my mind, I’m wondering how it’s possible, that what began as a dream with a picture at my desk five years ago, finally became a reality. The descent was not completely without drama, and certainly not as fast as I would have liked. Now, in the light, you can see all the hazards and scary stuff you couldn’t see on the way up. I’m eager to get out of harm’s way and back to Camp Muir. Everyone knows the worst accidents happen on the way down, not on the way up. Thankfully, we got to Muir in one piece. The rest of the folks were kind in helping us remove gear and get situated inside to recover for an hour or so before hiking the rest of the way down. It was a gorgeous afternoon as we rolled into the parking lot feeling like heroes. We gathered for one final time at Rainier BaseCamp to reflect on our climb and trade contact info. I am so grateful for having met these awesome ladies and for sharing with them what is without question, a peak experience in my life. I am also left with a lasting lesson learned: no one gets up there without a little help. If you are open to accepting help and guidance, and you follow through on it, you have a distinct advantage over the individual who thinks they can do it their way and ignore the advice of experts. I am grateful to our guide and the experienced team at RMI who took a novice mountain hiker and turned her into a mountaineer. --Holly Hollar

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