Floridians aren’t usually associated with mountains. Growing up in South Florida, the highest point in the state is a mere 345 feet. When I announced my plans to climb Mt. Rainier, the response from those who didn’t know me as a climber was unanimous:

“Why would you do that?”

Although I’d established myself as an accomplished rock climber, mountaineering was a whole other game. Rather than climbing and training on the walls of my local gym, this would be a test of endurance rather than strength, braving temperatures colder than any Miamian would like to endure.

In the end I never got the chance to summit Rainier, but the trek to Muir and the two days I spent there allowed for some of the most memorable moments of my trip. What is widely considered as one of the most classic hikes in America put all my training and my endurance to the test. This is how I went from training on the sandy shores of South Beach to trekking 10,000 feet above the Cascades.

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My training began six months before the trip. Training for a mountaineering expedition in the flatlands is unique. I spent hours of cardio three times a week, strengthening my legs and building my resistance. Biking in the Everglades allowed me to get outside in the unique landscape and go over different types of terrain, and even though the uphill was extremely limited the distance made up for it. I have yet to hear of any other climber adding “dodging gators” to their training list. Running on the beach was the closest I could come to mimicking the kind of traction I would have in the snow. I augmented my training with rock climbing sessions in our gym nearly every day. Climbing was my version of meditation, it allowed me to concentrate on the task ahead and keep my mind focused.

When I set off for Washington in May, I felt like I was in the best form of my life. Conversing with some of the other climbers in my group coming from Arizona, Washington, India, and those who had previous experience on peaks like Kilimanjaro, I felt like the biggest novice of the group. Although I’d already been to Everest, we hadn’t touched snow until the last day there, and the fact that I had never climbed a hill or small peak in my training made me a little nervous. Still, I was undeterred, and I trained well with my group in the hills just above Paradise and learned basic mountaineering skills such as rest stepping and pressure breathing. When our group set out for Camp Muir on day three, I was determined to keep up.

As our bus meandered through the curves of the national park, I saw Rainier in full splendor for the first time. Intimidating was an understatement. When we first started out, it was hazy and there was a light snowfall. Trekking poles in hand, and crunching through the mild May ice, thoughts of the Everest trek flooded my mind, and for the first two hours I stared at nothing but snow and fog. As we entered the vast Muir snowfield, the sky miraculously cleared up and as we surmounted each of the hills, hiking up through the snowfield was pleasant with the Tatoosh Mountains at my shoulders, and flanked by Rainier’s slopes.

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Going into my first break, the temperature was a balmy 23 degrees, and in a move that would appall many fellow southeasterners, I worked my way down to wearing only my base layer, or going into the breaks wearing only my soft shell pants. Sucking on energy gels and handfuls of M&M’s I looked ahead to the next rise. This last wall heading up to the camp went uphill for almost two hours. All the training I had done was preparation for these next hills.

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My heavy mountaineering boots elicited soft crunches in the ice. My breathing was synchronized with every step and I forced out air for every deep inhale. Our team was in a uniform line but I couldn’t resist stopping every half hour or so to quickly admire the mountain on this perfect spring day. We took a break about three hours later in one of the few flat spots among the slopes. As I took a bite out of a bag of beef jerky I faintly made out a man in a bright jacket skimming rapidly down the slopes. The unmistakable figure of a skier, gliding down from Camp Muir zoomed down the incline and stopped right in front of us. My guide quickly introduced us to Peter Whittaker, co-owner of RMI and son of the legendary Whittaker climbing family. As someone who had followed and reveled in his exploits, I was absolutely thrilled that he would come down to personally greet our team, skiing down the mountain nonetheless!

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Buoyed by our thrilling encounter, we pressed on to the last few hills, and around three in the afternoon, we could finally make out the stone shelter of Camp Muir high above the ridge. Pushed between the Paradise and Cowlitz glaciers, my team trudged up the steepest hill, exhausted and reaching for every breath while the huts that meant our shelter seemed to be distancing themselves by the minute. After a time that seemed like eternity, we wearily climbed the last steps and set our packs down next to the shelter. Set up just along the ridge was the small yellow tents that would be our home for the next two days.

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As most of the group settled into their tents to rest, I was too eager to take in the view that had eluded be when I was making my way up the hill. Under a light dusting of clouds I could make out Mt. Adams and Mt. Baker far into the distance. Just to the right I noticed Mt. St Helens with her exploded core, it was the first time that I was able to clearly make out the crater and take in the full magnitude of the explosion. I didn’t mind that I wasn’t already climbing to the summit. For a Florida boy, I had already set my benchmark.

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After a deep sleep comforted by the sound of the wind buffering the walls of our tent, our group set out the next morning to hike to the tip of the Ingraham Glacier. It was the first time I would use an ice ax and a set of crampons. After a strong performance on the uphill portions coming up, I felt in great condition as I meandered my way between the gaping crevasses. We traced the first section of our climb through the Ingraham snowfield all the way just in front of Little Tahoma. Feeling good and acclimatized we settled back into our tents to try and get the little rest that we could before our summit attempt the next day.

I never expected how terrifying our downhill trip would be.

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Our climb had gone relatively well that morning. We had clear skies and a light snowfall as we completed the crux, the most difficult portion of the ascent, and were headed for the upper reaches of the peak. Just then Rainier’s unpredictable weather reared its ugly head and trying to stand up and navigate in increasingly decreasing visibility became a challenge far beyond that of the mountain itself. My team had to make a heartbreaking decision.

Our summit attempt was abandoned just fifteen minutes from the peak. High winds and blinding snow had followed us all the way back down to Muir, and in the midst of the raging storm, we had to hike the entire length back to Paradise. Distraught and exhausted from the climb earlier in the morning, I made the mistake of walking out of my tent barehanded. It was so cold that the condensation around my fingers turned to ice and they were instantly numbed. I quickly fumbled into my extreme weather gear punched my way into the snow. I hadn’t even bothered to take off my climbing harness and hung loosely around my waist under my hard shell pants. I could barely make out anything fifteen feet in front of me as we were in a complete whiteout coming down the hills. As opposed to the neat lines of groups coming up, we were now scattered in a ragtag fashion running down the snowfield. As I was coming down, I would make out what I believed to be the wooden structures of the Paradise Lodge only to be disappointed when it turned out to be a large boulder or ridge.

The farther we came down the hill, the more the snow settled, and as we cleared the last glacier, the land went flat, save for a few rises which, thanks to the fresh powder, offered us the opportunity to slide down on our backs. Some of these slides went on for quite a distance, saving valuable time and energy. One of the most comforting sights was to see other families and children near the base of Paradise Lodge and as I got close to the end, two women, seeing me still carrying my large pack and ice axe begged me for a picture, which was a bizarre way to end a harrowing day. Arrived at the parking lot, I was overcome by feelings of salvation and sitting on the bus, my legs trembling and my shoulders aching from carrying my large pack. I fell asleep near instantly.

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Although I didn’t have the same training or climbing opportunities than my counterparts had, and as someone who is ridiculed by my peers as coming from the “flat state,” I believe I had preformed admirably for the first time on the mountain. Although my trip didn’t end the way I wanted it to, it only strengthened my will to return and properly climb it again. My joy was already in reaching Camp Muir, and despite the events that transpired, I proved that even those from the flatlands have their place in the mountains.

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