It's 9 a.m., and we can see for 100 miles in any direction. But there's something surreal about the view. Eduardo Cabase is on the verge of tears. John Osmundson is doing a cartwheel. Chad Sauders is examining Seattle's skyline through binoculars. And Greg Henning is asleep.
We have been climbing since 2 a.m., training since June and dreaming since childhood to get to this spot. But I can't help but feel like I'm not really here.
The only explanation I can think of is this perfect view. It's missing the one thing I thought every perfect view in Western Washington should include - Mount Rainier.
For the first time, both physically and metaphorically, Rainier is not on the horizon. All 14,411 vertical feet are under our crampons.
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When this group of novice climbers set the goal of summiting all of the Northwest's volcanoes 14 months ago while staring at Rainier from atop Mount St. Helens, it was clear Rainier would be the ultimate challenge and thrill.
Despite our wide range of reactions, that's exactly what it was.
RAINIER LOOKS DAUNTING
Two nights before the climb, Eduardo sat in my living room with Rainier on his mind and his heart on his sleeve.
"You can put this in your story, " Eduardo said. "This i s the most nervous I've been with my feet on the ground."
Eduardo, 30, has sky-dived and bungee jumped, but he's from Boston, where the term "mountain" is used rather loosely. Eduardo lives in Boise now and joined the group last year after Kraft Foods promoted John, 34, from South Hill, to the cubicle next to him.
Eduardo saw Rainier for the first time on May 13 when he took his wife, Suzi, to Seattle to visit the Space Needle and watch his Red Sox play the Mariners.
At the top of the Needle, he scanned the horizon with a coin-operated telescope and gasped as the icy hulk of Mount Rainier came into view.
He reached for his cell phone and called John.
"That mountain is huge, " he said. "What did you sign me up for?"
Even those of us used to Rainier looming on the horizon had to admit it looked more daunting than beautiful as the climb got closer.
Rainier was clearly beyond our novice skills, which is precisely why we plopped down $795 each for the services of Rainier Mountaineering Inc. and requested one of their best guides.
Few know Rainier better than Alex Van Steen, a 44-year-old from Eatonville who'd stand on the summit for the 211th time if he could get us there. In 1999, he and legendary climber Fred Beckey wrote "Climbing Mount Rainier, " the first guide to the upper mountain.
The first sentence of his book ("Climbing is a dangerous activity, one in which you can get seriously injured or die") didn't do much to calm our nerves. But his presence, and that of fellow guides Mike Walter and Ben Kurdt, made us more comfortable.
After a day of training and a briefing in the Paradise parking lot, we were finally ready to climb.
50 MPH WINDS
Clouds shrouded the summit as we started hiking to Camp Muir.
We figured we could make the hike up to 10,188 feet in four hours, but Alex set a 5 1/2-hour pace, saying he wanted us to conserve energy for summit day.
As we poked through the clouds at 9,000 feet, we passed an RMI group on its way down. Mike and Ben spoke with one of the guides, and I didn't like what I overheard.
"Did you hear me hollering on the radio this morning?" the guide said. "That's as windy as I've seen it up there."
Winds as strong as 50 mph kept everybody from reaching the summit that day.
We had shown up in varying degrees of good enough shape, but no matter how hard we trained, we couldn't control the weather.
That night we went to sleep hoping the conditions would be better for us.
Getting good sleep in the black box that is RMI's bunkhouse is harder than climbing Rainier with your shoelaces tied together.
The small room has three layers of bunks, with as many as five people sleeping side by side on each shelf. We crammed 25 climbers into the bunkhouse and were encouraged to be in our sleeping bags by 6 p.m.
Of course, the odds of actually dozing off at 6 are significantly less than the odds of at least one in 25 people having a snoring problem.
To have any shot at sleep, ear plugs and a good perspective are a must. Alex warned us to think of our stay at Muir more as rest than sleep.
And, even then, it would be a working rest. We were instructed to drink water throughout the night to help fight off our mild headaches and other discomforts of high altitude.
Chad, a 35-year-old Teamster from South Hill, had no problem dozing off. Greg, a 43-year-old Steilacoom resident, wasn't so lucky.
He found himself wedged between two strangers, one of whom was a New Zealander who not only snored but occasionally draped his arm over Greg.
"I must have elbowed the guy a dozen times, " Greg said. "I probably slept less than an hour."
He would pay for his lack of sleep.
At 12:05 a.m. on summit day, I was trying to figure out if I'd slept at all when I heard the distinctive sound of climbing boots thudding across the bunkhouse floor.
A guide flipped on the solar-powered light and woke everybody else with a weather report.
Conditions, he said, were perfect.
A more chilling wake-up call came a few minutes later when the guide returned to give us each an avalanche beacon.
The real climbing was about to start.
After forcing down a cup of oatmeal, we roped up and, just before 2 a.m., headed out, stepping over crevasses as we traversed the Cowlitz Glacier.
The first hour seemed easy enough as we climbed up Cathedral Gap, making sparks as our crampons struck rocks.
On the flats of Ingraham Glacier we took our first break, and I inhaled a slice of pepperoni pizza while Alex explained that the hardest part was next.
Just then, as if to emphasize his point, one of RMI's earlier departures emerged from the darkness on its way back to Muir. Disappointment Cleaver had proved to be too tough.
Sometimes groups turn back sooner. Three weeks earlier a group at Ingraham Flats requested to turn around after watching an avalanche rumble down the mountain.
As we headed for the cleaver, I scanned what looked like a garden of abstract ice sculptures with the beam from my headlamp.
Later that day, while descending, I realized the upside of climbing at night. If you can't see the terrain, you're less likely to freak out.
The car-sized ice chunks we were walking between were the remnants of the avalanche that had spooked the group three weeks earlier.
Climbers call this area the Bowling Alley. I recognized the slabs of ice as the bowling balls, but I didn't see the pins.
Then it dawned on me. We were the pins.
'JUST PLAY DODGE BALL'
As we navigated Disappointment Cleaver, I was silently repeating Alex's advice to take on the mountain one step at a time when I heard Mike hollering from below.
"Hey, yell 'rock' next time."
One of us unknowingly dislodged a small rock and sent it careening down the cleaver and off Mike's helmet.
Not only is the cleaver the toughest part of the route, but it's also the most dangerous.
Alex describes the cleaver as bowling balls held together with kitty litter.
A woman broke her back here recently, and others have died.
Alex reminded us to yell 'rock, ' face the cleaver and point at the first sound of falling rock.
"Then just play dodge ball, " he said.
But the ascent was relatively smooth. We'd save the excitement for the descent.
ALTITUDE WEIGHS ON BODIES
I haven't puked since the second grade, but at 12,400 feet I was certain that was about to change.
As I choked down a half-frozen Snickers bar above Disappointment Cleaver while watching the sun rise over Eastern Washington, I waved Alex over.
"How nasty am I supposed to feel right now?" I asked.
"Pretty nasty, " he replied. "You've just finished the crux of the climb; nobody feels 100 percent here."
He said I'd feel better if I continued my pressure breathing - filling my lungs with air and expelling it rapidly with every step.
Sure enough, 20 minutes later I realized that the nausea was gone as I recalled the guiding axiom, "Climbing Rainier is 80 percent mental and 80 percent physical."
With the hardest part behind us, Greg was thinking the same thing as the effects of no sleep set in.
"Great, I've made it physically, " he said. "Now I have to make it mentally."
The mental hurdle of the upper slopes was most taxing on John, who has a mild fear of heights. At one point, he looked down the steep slope of Emmons Glacier and into a crevasse wide enough to swallow a bus.
"You know that feeling when you stand on the edge of a cliff and you're afraid if you look over you're going to fall?" he said. "It was like that. Temporary paralysis."
John turned his gaze to his boots and thought, "Oh, God, please don't let me fall to my death."
He rarely looked up again until he reached the summit.
While the rest of us were pushing ourselves, Chad, the best-conditioned of the group, never struggled.
In fact, while we made every effort to lighten our packs, Chad increased his load with binoculars and a Thermos of black tea to enhance his summit celebration.
"My goal wasn't to get up there with my last breath, " he said. "My goal was to enjoy the entire experience, and I did."
AT THE HIGHEST POINT
When Greg stepped in the crater, he barely had enough energy for a high-five. He asked Mike for a sleeping pad and slept for an hour.
Eduardo arrived a few minutes later, his emotions welling up inside.
"I started thinking about 100 other things, " Eduardo said. "I started thinking about my friends and family and my recent knee surgery. This was the hardest thing I've ever done."
While Mike stayed with Eduardo and Greg, the rest of us hiked across the crater and up to Columbia Crest, Rainier's highest point.
John was the first to reach the top and celebrated with a cartwheel. The rest of us settled for holding our ice axes above our heads and mugging for photos.
But we couldn't celebrate too much. We still had to descend 9,000 feet.
Imagine walking down a double-diamond ski run, with 40-foot-deep crevasses waiting to gobble you up if you slip.
John didn't want to think about this as he got to go first on the descent.
He occupied his mind by pondering the dynamics of his rope team.
"On my rope I've got a tired 53-year-old guy from San Diego (Kevin Paine) who I met the day before, a Red Sox fan (Eduardo) and a Yankees fan (Ben), and we all have to have complete trust in each other, " John said.
When we returned to the upper cleaver, we got to test that trust.
Still tired, Greg accidentally stepped over a ledge and fell headfirst toward the rocks.
Chad and Mike quickly flopped on the ice, digging in with their crampons and ice axes in time for the rope to tighten and jolt Greg to a stop. Mike credited Chad, who, like the rest of us, got his first ice ax lesson two days earlier, for stopping Greg's fall.
Moments later, the cleaver gave us one last scare.
Paine asked if his rope could stop for a quick break low on the cleaver. Ben knew better and encouraged Paine, Eduardo and John to keep going.
A few minutes later, safely off the cleaver, they heard a rumble behind them.
They looked back in time to see rocks falling in the area where they would have been resting.
"It was a good reminder that we have no control over our destiny up here, " John said. "It's all up to the mountain."
order out for pizza
Shortly after 5 p.m., more than 15 hours after we started climbing, we arrived at Paradise with tired legs, sore feet and just enough energy to celebrate.
Earlier, we'd asked Alex to attempt a personal mountaineering first. He obliged by calling for pizza at 11,000 feet, and it was waiting for us in the parking lot.
As we celebrated on the RMI shuttle bus, I peeked out the window at the perfect view. There, back in its place, Rainier dominated the horizon.
Clearly, we'd look at Rainier differently from now on.
As John and Eduardo drove back to Boise admiring Rainier in their rearview mirrors, they had the same surreal feeling I had up top.
"A few hours earlier we were standing on top of a 14,000-foot mountain, " John said. "Now we're just driving like normal people. It was hard to believe what we'd just done, but, for me, a 15-year-old dream had just come true."