Mt. Rainier & Naming the YExplore Blog
By John P. DeGrazio
In July 1996, I made my first journey to Seattle, Washington with my lifetime friend, Ram Rao. Let’s just say what started as a day hike turned into an immediate obsession and the nexus for the creation of YExplore. I was living in New York City and decided to visit Ram for some sightseeing and hiking in the Pacific Northwest. I never imagined climbing Mt. Rainier, but today I think of John Muir’s quote on the same subject. America’s greatest conservationist once penned to his wife “Did not mean to climb it, but got excited and was soon on top.” We just wanted to do a short day hike from Paradise. And then we went a little higher. The next thing I knew, my face was burning with overexposure and my legs were numb and powerless as we stood 100 yards away from Camp Muir. Many things raced through my mind at that moment, “How do I train myself to climb this mountain? Why can’t I feel my legs? Who is this Muir fellow?” An idea was hatched.
The next day I punished my body and poor Ram as I had a lot to prove by charging up the next peak he had arranged for us to hike. Determination has always been a strong suit, but temperance has only been acquired in the past few years.
While applying Noxzema on my sun poisoned skin, I felt my embarrassment needed a salve of its own. I called Ram from my NYC apartment and proclaimed “We gotta do Rainier next year.” The next person we called was Ed “Winston Wolf” Chao. He immediately accepted the challenge, and the trip was planned for July 1997.
We arrived at the Seattle Airport and decided to visit the information booth which was weird because who ever visits airport information booths? Although there were cell phones way back then, there was no app for that. We met the nicest woman at the kiosk who served us valuable information about Mt. Rainier. Gertrude had reached its summit a decade ago and was more than happy to encourage us for our upcoming trek. She was extremely proud of her accomplishment. Who wouldn’t be, especially since she did it after the age of 60. Gertrude helped mentally prepare us for our journey by offering tales of her own experience and provided a list of food items to bring. Sure, we had planned to bring plenty of ramen, GORP, and candy bars; but it was her one suggestion that forever changed our lives.
She told us about a sweet treat she brought along on her expedition. Despite protestations from her climbing party, she decided to stow a can of peaches in her pack. When they weighed it, the group leader begged her to remove the heavy item, but she remained firm in her resolve. I remember her description of the way “the sweet syrup” touched her lips on the summit and “it was the best decision” she ever made. She was sure to add how envious the other members of her group were as they witnessed her delight. Gertrude was a kind and generous woman and invited them to join her in dessert. We made an instant connection with Gertrude and felt we had found a guardian who would be watching out for us on this trip. The subsequent visits to REI and the grocery store yielded several items required for a Mt. Rainier summit attempt, none more important than three cans of peaches.
The following days were dark and gray with lots of, you guessed it, rain. We camped and trained in poor conditions. Our hike to Camp Muir on Day One went smoothly, however. We had trusted our very experienced guides at RMI. In retrospect, I learned a lot more on that trip than I could have imagined back then. Our guides helped shape a lot of my views on what is effective and what does not work when leading trips to the Half Dome summit.
On Day Two, we awoke and were summit bound well before dawn. Visibility was nonexistent because the conditions were bleak. Many in our group were forced to turn back due to health (sorry Ram), altitude sickness, and other various ailments. I was fighting my own demons with a pounding headache and my legs’ apparent decision to form a union and arrange a labor strike. My mind questioned the legitimacy of the strike and ruled that I would fight on to the summit. This would be for as long as the guides would allow, of course. At every checkpoint, they all looked to me. I just smiled and gave a thumbs up. I thought for sure they would pat me on the back, tell me I did a good job, and then zip me into a sleeping bag until they returned (as they had done with some other members of our climbing party), but they did not. I was forced to drink water and eat from Phil Ershler’s personal supply of Twix bars, and we were still chugging along over 13,000′. But the weather turned in an instant. We were stuck in a whiteout, and the guides were seriously considering ending our attempt at that very moment. Because of that storm system, there had been no successful summit groups on Rainier for days.
The nearly twenty minute delay was exactly what I needed. It gave me time to rest and refocus. We reflected on how close we were and rejoiced when the decision to move on was made as the snow began to subside. As I approached the final ridge, I did what every other emotionally drained, physically exhausted climber has ever done. I crossed my feet and tripped over my crampons falling flat on my face right into the summit crater in front of the entire party. I took solace knowing I helped provide the remaining twelve climbers with the cathartic laugh needed at the end of such a difficult journey.
There was only one thing to do after Ed and I posed for this photo. As I pulled the tab and carefully peeled back the aluminum lid, a fragrant aroma tickled my olfactory senses. I began to indulge in the tastiest of mountain treats. A spoon was not easily accessible so I poured the contents of the can into my mouth. As the soft sweet peaches touched my tongue, I release the emotions that were living inside of me for the last three hours and was certain not to remove my glacier goggles. I was thrilled to accomplish the largest goal I had ever set for myself, and I was enjoying a champion’s reward. I drank every ounce of the oversweetened syrup from my challis and was ready to tackle the long journey down.
To this day, I try to bring peaches on every summit I attempt, and living in California provides me the benefit of bringing fresh fruit from the San Joaquin Valley. I often think of our good friend Gertrude and how her inspiration has shaped my life. Just about a decade after our climb, I started my own guiding company in Yosemite. I remember the important message she taught us and share them with every new friend I make on the trails. When you meet each challenge you face in this life, make sure you enjoy your Can-O-Peaches!