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50 Years of Climbing: Justin Bowers’ Rainier Climb Launches his Climbing Career

My first RMI climb was also my first climb of a glaciated mountain. Born and raised in Charleston, SC. I grew up hiking, backpacking and rock climbing in Appalachia. I wanted more, to go higher, farther and to learn the skills to take myself. “No Shortcuts to the Top” was worn and dog eared on my bedside table. I had spent hours staring at pictures of Ed Viesturs, standing on the summits I hoped to one day stand as well. He spoke of a mythical mountain in the Pacific Northwest where he got his start, Mt. Rainier.  In the Spring of 2007, I was finishing my junior year at the University of South Carolina. I thought back to Mt. Rainier and checked “No Shortcuts to the Top” again about the guide service Ed worked for. I did some research and booked the standard 3-day climb for the end of June. I had done lots of backpacking and hiking but had never stood higher than 5,000 ft or so in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I flew to Seattle, arriving late that night. I checked into a cheap hotel downtown. Behind the desk was a big picture of The Mountain. It looked much bigger now, maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew. I wasn't old enough to rent a car. I found a bus that left from Seattle, went to RMI headquarters in Ashford, around the mountain and back. I got on that morning with the rest of the day tourists and was a bit out of place with my big backpack. When the bus stopped in Ashford I just got off and didn't get back on when it left. I planned on jumping back on in few days after my climb was over. I do not think you can pull this off anymore. Climbers everywhere, climbing gear sprawled out all over the lawn. You could tell from the sunburns and facial expressions who had finished their climb and who had just begun. I checked into the bunkhouse and got fitted for all my rental gear. What am I going to do with all this, I wondered? Early the next morning, we met the guides and team members. Mark Smiley and Tyler Jones were the guides that day. We left base camp for mountaineering school and headed up to Paradise. The mountain was socked in. I had not seen it at all since arriving in the PNW. It was there somewhere, hiding in the thick clouds. The snow came all the way to the parking lot, it was deep. We grabbed our gear and hiked about 30 minutes to some slopes leading up the mountain. We learned how to move as a rope team and how to self arrest a fall. It started snowing pretty hard and after a few hours we headed back for Ashford. Word on the radio was that no one was making the summit that day.  The next day we met again early and were split into summit team A and B. I was part of team A and we had a new guide; her name was Melissa Arnot. We packed and left for Paradise again. The mountain was still hiding. Clouds and light snow greeted us as we started the hike up. The pack was heavy but I kind of liked it. We would hike for an hour and rest for 10 minutes and repeat. At around 8,000 feet my life changed forever. In almost an instant we climbed out of the clouds and I saw her for the first time. I was in shock at how grand she was, excitement and a bit of fear took over me.  I was hooked instantly. The sun was shining bright above us and snowing below, where am I? A few more hours of hiking and we pulled into Camp Muir at 10,000 feet. We spent the rest of the day resting and getting ready for the climb that would take place later in the middle of the night. Around midnight we were woken up and told to get ready. I walked outside and not one cloud in the star filled sky. We headed up the mountain, Melissa on my rope leading the way. I felt like I was on another planet and I also knew my life would never be the same. We got up and over the infamous Disappointment Cleaver and it got really cold. At the top of the Cleaver, Melissa told me something I will never forget, “mountain climbers must have a high pain tolerance and short memory.”  We crossed over huge crevasses, snow bridges and ladders and finally had our last break. At around 7:00 AM we crossed the rocks at the rim of the crater and on to the summit. I was overcome with new emotions. High on a drug I have yet to come down on 12 years later. Our group hugged and took pictures but it was only half over. We made it back down to Camp Muir, then to Paradise, and finally back to RMI BaseCamp. I was exhausted but elated.  June 2019 was almost exactly 12 years to the day of my first summit.  On July 6th, I flew to Seattle for my 5th climb of Mt. Rainier, having summited all but once due to a week of terrible weather. I always stay the night before at RMI BaseCamp in Ashford, it is nice to remember where it all began. A lot has changed since that first climb. Climbing mountains became an integral part of my life. The summer after my Mt. Rainier climb I took a 2-week mountaineering course in Alaska. The year after that, a 42 day all-inclusive guide school on the northern ice cap in Patagonia, Chile. Before I left to come home, the company hired me on. I worked for them for a few years back and forth in Alaska. In 2015 my guide friend in India brought me over to help him lead a trip in the Indian Himalaya. Two weeks after I returned, I took my brother to stand on the summit of Rainier. The next summer, me and some long-time climbing friends summited Denali. Last summer, I took a group to Mt. Blanc in the Alps. In 2014, 2017, and 2019 I took more friends to Rainier. Showing others this incredible world high above the clouds is my new summit. For those I feel not ready enough to be a part of my independent team, I send them to the wonderful guides at RMI, always remembering my very first trip and the incredible woman who led me to my first summit.  Little did I know back in 2007, that Melissa Arnot would become one of the premier climbers on the planet and the first US woman to summit Everest without O2. In these 12 years, climbing mountains has introduced me to incredible places around the world and many of my dearest friends are those I have shared a rope with.  It all started with RMI guides, on my now favorite mountain on Earth.  

Comments (3)

I’ve always been amazed at your mountain climbing. Enjoying seeing the mountains through your eyes. Proud of you Justin and your brother!

Posted by: Robin Legare on

Wayne and I have followed his climbing and know him, his brother and family personally. We are so proud and in awe of all he has done. He is a fine young man and indeed a mountain climber. Well done Justin!

Posted by: Wayne & Carol on

Bad ass bro Reppin SC

Posted by: cory on

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