Paul was in front, I was behind Paul, Jack was behind me, Carlo and Catherine were our two guides. That is how it is done: two guides per group for two or more clients. That way, you have what’s called a “turnaround guide.”  

The others, led by Michael and Fernando, were about 50 yards ahead and moving well. Around 11:00 a.m., we approached a traverse that would take us on a long break at the cave. The last long break before heading for the summit. I sensed Paul was getting nervous as he viewed the 18-inch wide trail and the rockslide to our right that dropped thousands of feet. Not steep but very open and exposed.  

As we started onto the traverse, Paul froze about 100 feet in and said he was done. I tried to motivate him and assure him we were good. He seemed strong and unaffected by the altitude; I reasoned it was the openness of the traverse that was affecting his willingness to continue. I tried to encourage Paul, but guide Carlo got upset with me. “You are not the guide, it’s his decision.” Just as Carlo was scolding me, behind me, Jack’s crampon came loose and fell off his boot. There was not a lot of room on the exposed trail to remedy the crampon situation. So, guide Catherine headed back to safer ground with Jack. Once the trail was open for Paul to turn around, he did, and just like that, both Paul and Jack were headed back to camp with Catherine. I was now alone with Carlo, who was not happy with me. 

The language barrier did not help. I have been on other Alpine accents in the past with teammates who become unsure, and in those times, along with the guides, we would try to assure the climber they can do it, that they will be ok, to keep trying, because sometimes it’s just a matter of getting that boost from friends to help you believe you can do it. Of course, it is always safety and health first, but if that is not the issue, sometimes a little push from teammates is good. The inflection in one’s voice sends a spirited message that you will be fine. In my opinion, this was the case with Paul, but I suspect Carlo felt I was pushing him when I should not have. Carlo did not understand my message was all in good spirit. I was just trying to be a friend and ask Paul to give it a little thought before calling it quits.  

Carlo and I headed to the cave (21,817ft) and even with the time lost, we caught up to the others and took the break together. We were now a team of seven clients and three guides. I pushed hard to catch the group on the traverse and clearly moved too fast. I admit, there was probably some ego involved because Carlo was pushing me, and I wanted to show I could stay with him. But of course, when I sat down for a break, I was alone, essentially on my own island. No one came over to check how I was feeling as they did others. There had been no breath stepping (a slower pace, with each breath you take a step forward), which had been discussed earlier in the climb. 

A couple of the other clients were encouraging, but they were working out their own fatigue issues. So, I was now in a place I had never been before. I was feeling exhausted but not wiped out. I put my warming down jacket on backward and inside out as I ate, drank, and rested. I was sitting alone on a rock, surrounded by strangers from other teams. I was thinking, if I go on, I will slow the others down. If I do continue, that means a guide will have to privately take me up, and that would be Carlo. As the long break was coming to an end, still none of the guides had come over to me to encourage me to keep going or ask how I was doing. I got up, walked around the climbers, clearing the cave to find a view for some photos. Over my right shoulder, I could look up and see a good part of what was left. Around 300 meters, 984’ to the summit. 

Looking out over the mountain range before me were 19,000-foot mountain peaks below me. We were closing in on being at the highest point in the Americas. At the same time, reality was sinking in. The trip up until this point had been a struggle — from travel problems, not much sleep, language barriers, and now all the teammates I knew best had dropped out. I went over to our lead guide, Michael, and tapped out. It was devastating for me, but I knew it was best. I was not feeling it, I was not part of a team about to push into the hardest section of the hike. I remembered what a Rainier guide once told me, “It is about the journey. Sometimes you will get to the summit, and sometimes you won’t. Enjoy the journey, and be safe. That is what it’s all about.” 

I wanted to breathe step, but it did not seem like it was going to happen. If Jack, James or Ben were in break with me, I would have had teammates hiking at my speed and possibly the motivation and drive to go for it. For the first time at altitude, I discovered how lonely a summit push can be. I later learned the summit team never did breathe step, they all were in elite shape and well-acclimated. I was not.  

As I write this story nearly a year later, I often second-guess my decision having been so close. I wonder, what if? Did I quit? Or was it the right call? On my second trip to Rainier, I stayed at Camp Muir on summit night with one other climber. That was an easy decision, I was still recovering from a bicycle accident 10 days before the trip that fractured three outer vertebrae, so I was in pain the entire climb. The night of that summit attempt was tough weather, it was sub-zero wind chill, white-out conditions. As it turned out, no one made it to the top due to a ladder for a crevasse crossing being too short by a couple of inches. Our lead guide, Brent, who I had done an earlier Rainier summit with, explained in training talks to never let summit fever be the reason to push yourself. This is when you get in trouble. The mountain will be waiting when the time is right.  

Michael and Fernando with their six clients made the summit in great time. They were back to Camp 3 for an early dinner, exhausted but excited. All of us in camp congratulated them on their amazing achievement. They did it in 11 hours round trip — incredible.  

Day 10

The next morning we packed up camp and hiked all day back to base camp. Except for Jack. He stayed another night to make another summit attempt the following morning with oxygen and Carlo as his guide.  

We arrived at base camp in time for an amazing dinner with wine and champagne. We were exhausted but in high spirits considering our individual achievements. 

After dinner, the entire team, except for two of the Chilean climbers and myself, took the helicopter out of base camp to be met by a van to take them to Mendoza. So, just like that, it was over, and while we were on the upper mountain, the base camp had started shutting down for the season. We were one of the very last groups on the mountain, as the next climbers would be arriving in November, nearly 10 months away. Most of the team’s tents were down and packed up. With my celebratory wine buzz, I headed to a tent. The camp was so empty we could pick any tent still set up, saving us the time of setting up our own.  

Day 11

The early morning was foggy, cold and overcast, some weather had moved in. So now it was three guides and three clients packing up, loading the mules with our entire team’s duffles. As the sun began to shine, we were heading for the trail and the 13-mile hike back to the trailhead. We also learned the great news that Carlo and Jack had summited and were on their way down.  

During the hike out, I got to know the Chilean guys who summited. They were close to my age and spoke English. I couldn’t help but think that if only I had arrived on time and gotten to know these guys, who knows if the trip could have had a different outcome. The hike out was beautiful, we had a prepared lunch stop at Camp Confluencia, and after lunch, we masked up to protect from the dust and tackled another four hours of hiking. We arrived at the vans around 4 p.m. and went to the Mules ranch. We loaded up the duffles and headed back to Mendoza. While riding back, we made a couple of tourist stops and saw some amazing sites. Phones started working in places and I received a text from my wife. I was made aware that my sister had Robin re-route me to Seattle, from Mendoza, instead of back to Boston. My Dad was not doing well and had asked my sister to gather the family. The vans got us back to the hotel in Mendoza by 9 p.m. Now, all I could think about was my dad. Don’t go anywhere Dad, I will be there soon.  

Day 12

When I awoke, it was time to get my new travel plans in order, which meant sadly missing the climber’s goodbye lunch in Mendoza, which James attended. With the time I did have, I did some gift shopping in the city and then took a cab to the airport.  

Two days later, my family had gathered by my 92-year-old father’s bedside on Bainbridge Island, Washington. He acknowledged all of us. We knew he was happy because we had made it to hold his hand as his spirit left the room through a slightly opened window next to his bed. It was February 15th, 2022, the day after my mother’s birthday.  

The End