At the Peak of Success
By Ted Callahan
Thanks to tireless training and dedicated leadership, Troop 474 Scouts reach the summit of Washington's Mount Rainier for the 25th year in a row.
The first faint rays of sunlight provided a much needed boost to the Scouts, leaders, and alumni of Troop 474, Kent, Wash., as they wearily made their way toward Mount Rainier's 14,410-foot summit.
On June 26, 2005, the 21 climbers had begun their ascent at midnight. Now the alpenglow not only illuminated the landscape but also revealed the extreme fatigue on the climbers' faces.
No one spoke of turning around, however. This climb marked the 25th anniversary of Troop 474's annual trek to the top of Mount Rainier. And for 24 consecutive years the troop's Scouts had never failed to reach their goal.
The weather had been favorable, with mild temperatures and a light wind. Soon the mountain's summit crater was in sight.
"I'm eating this up," declared Rob Bashford, one of several troop alumni on the trek and a climber whose recent attempt to reach the summit had been thwarted by bad weather.
The annual climb, the brainchild of Scoutmaster Kent Brooten, began in 1981 as away to keep the troop's older boys interested in Scouting. Brooten's teaching and organizational skills, combined with the Scouts' grit and determination, are responsible for a 100 percent success rate in reaching Rainier's summit.
Their feat is even more remarkable because one of every two climbers who set out to reach the top of Mount Rainier fails to make it.
Distance and altitude are the cause of most failures. Just climbing to Camp Muirwhich, at 10,080 feet, serves as base camp for most climbersrequires an approach involving 4,660 feet of elevation gain from the parking lot at the Jackson Visitor Center.
On its 25th summit attempt, Troop 474 arrived at Camp Muir in the afternoon, after several hours of slogging through soft snow. There was still plenty to do, however, as the Scouts dug tent platforms and secured their shelters against the likelihood of high winds. Then they began melting snow for water and got to work cooking, then eating and drinking. (Good mountaineers must maintain adequate hydration and caloric intake.)
From Camp Muir, the summit isn't visible, but the Scouts and leaders had plenty of opportunities to see it during their climb the next day over Mount Rainier's Ingraham Glacier.
The complicated terrain, another 4,330 feet from base camp to the top, combined with the effects of high altitude, often conspires to mentally defeat many climbers even before they step out of their tents into the frigid dawn.
However, while none of the Troop 474 Scouts seemed apprehensive, no one was complacent either. Instead, they projected confidence in their ability to safely ascend Rainier.
"Last time, I was pretty nervous, but this time I feel more prepared," Eric Morey, 17, explained. "We've trained for this, practicing crevasse rescue, avalanche awareness, and other skills."
Eric's friend Luca Maricich, an 18-year-old Eagle Scout, added, "You never know what's going to happen, [and that's why] it's got to be fun."
Mount Rainier, only 90 miles from Seattle, is a popular climb because reaching the top is a reasonable goal for fit beginners with a competent guide. Of the 9,000 climbers who attempted Mount Rainier in 2004, nearly one-third traveled with commercial guide services.
And that makes Troop 474's success rate all the more impressive because the Scouts plan, train for, and execute the climb without hiring guides.
To safely ascend, the Scouts had to be familiar with basic mountaineering techniques and be in top shape. Brooten, a mountaineer with 27 years' experience and 35 Rainier ascents, handled the instruction. (See sidebar.) "One of the main things about climbing with this troop is having Kent's experience," said Luca Maricich. "He really knows what he's doing."
For many people, reaching the top of Mount Rainier is a onetime experience, something they're proud of having accomplished but not keen to repeat. Perhaps the greatest testimony to Brooten's leadership was the number of Scouts who had made the climb before but returned for the 2005 ascent.
In fact, most of the Scouts participating in the 25th anniversary climb were Mount Rainier "alumni," and some had made considerable sacrifices to be there. Rob Healy Jr., for instance, had turned down a staff position at Philmont Scout Ranch to climb again.
"I love it. I love mountain climbing," Healy explained.
"This is an incredible opportunity to be here on an anniversary climb, to climb with my two friends [Luca Maricich and Reece Kolbrick] and all the Ćold-time gurus,' the guys who taught us all this," added Eric Morey. "Before I joined the Scouts, I had no idea that this activity [mountain climbing] was so accessible to kids, in terms of skills, cost, and access."
Being fit to climb Mount Rainier means being able to hike uphill with a 25-pound summit backpack for as long as 10 hours and still having enough energy to make it back down. Brooten credited physical conditioning for Troop 474's extraordinary success rate. That, and the fact that "these kids are tough and experienced."
He pointed to Ben Gunderson, a 17-year-old Eagle Scout and said, "Here's my example of snow savvy: a kid with 200-plus nights of camping, much of it in the snow and the rain."
Scouts new to climbing Mount Rainier"newbies," in Troop 474 parlancewho ignore the advice of veterans often have difficulty completing the trek.
Eric Morey acknowledged that he underestimated his first Mount Rainier climb, in 2003. "It was pretty darn hard," he recalled.
To reduce their chances of getting caught by dark ("benighted") and to take advantage of firmer snow conditions, climbers leave Camp Muir well before dawn. Troop 474 elected to skip a hot breakfast in the interest of a faster start and, an hour after departing the warmth of their sleeping bags, they were "roping up."
To prevent sliding down a frozen slope or falling into a crevasse, the Scouts climbed as four rope teams. Each team of four to six climbers tied into the same rope. If one person fell, the other rope team members would immediately drop down and dig their ice axes into the snow to stop the fall.
The possibility of an avalanche was always present. Everyone wore an avalanche beacon on his forehead so if any climbers were buried in snow, the other Scouts could switch their beacons from "transmit" to "receive" and, following the signal, locate and dig out the trapped climbers with small shovels.
The Ingraham Glacier was a kaleidoscope of headlamp beams as Troop 474, alongside other climbing teams, threaded its way past crevasses and large towers of ice called seracs. A ladder placed horizontally over a wide crevasse required precise foot placementsnot the easiest thing to do in the dark while wearing spiked, steel crampons.
Pausing occasionally to drink, snack, and rest, the Scouts made slow but steady progress.
The trickiest section came just before the final snowfield leading to the summit crater. A large crevasse had opened up, and someone had fixed a rope across it, anchored on either side. Starting from a standstill on the downhill side, each climber grabbed the rope and jumped across. The group's loud cheer celebrated everyone successfully crossing.
At 8:30 a.m., the first of the four rope teams reached the summit crater. From this point, it was only a short horizontal walk to the far side of the crater and then another 260 feet of climbing to the actual summit. "Short," however, is a relative term above 14,000 feet, after up to 10 hours of climbing on a couple of hours of sleep.
The Scouts rested and, reinvigorated by the sun and the promise of only another hour of effort, trudged the final bit to the top of the mountain.
Once there, they were all smiles, and the sound of high-fives resounded across the otherwise silent summit. Although the climbers still had to descend to camp and, from there, to the parking lotseveral hours' worth of additional effortnothing seemed to detract from their joy and sense of accomplishment.
The only contrary note came from Dan (Percy) Percival, a 61-year-old parent active in the troop since 1978. "If I don't get in better shape," he declared, "I don't think I'll do this again."
"You've been saying that for 10 years," Brooten responded.
Then Percival admitted that "when I was on the first trip, 25 years ago, I returned to the parking lot, and Cheryl [Brooten's wife] asked me if I would do it again, and I said, 'Never.'"
But since 1981, Dan Percival has gone back to the summit 31 times, and true to the mountaineering spirit of Troop 474, he will undoubtedly be there again next year.
Veteran mountain climber and guide Ted Callahan lives in Seattle.
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