Imagine climbing 9,000-plus feet up, across glaciers, deep crevasses and unstable rocks – all in weather that can change in an instant – to reach the peak of your state’s tallest mountain.
Now picture doing it at 78 years old.
On Monday, July 10, Rose Vanderhoof of Ashford, Washington, became the oldest woman to summit Mount Rainier, the 14,400-foot volcano that towers over the western part of the state. The previous record was held by Rainier legend Bronka Sundstrom, who was 77 when she reached the summit in 2002.
In an interview with FOX TV Stations, the 4-foot, 11-inch tall mountaineer said she didn’t set out to break her friend’s record; she tried to do this climb two years ago at 76 years old, but it didn’t work out. Last year, she discussed climbing Mt. Rainier, but opted for the 93-mile Wonderland trail that circles the mountain instead.
When she was asked earlier this year if she’d be attempting to summit the mountain at 78, she said "it’s up to God."
"I was going to leave it all in his hands," she said.
Vanderhoof started discussing a potential climb, then learned her son and granddaughter wanted to join as well. That’s when the conditioning began, and it became a family affair.
They did steep hikes and climbs, and trained on glaciers with ropes and ice axes to get ready for their big ascent. But at 78 years old, Vanderhoof was no longer able to carry the 40-pound pack required to make it up the mountain. They found volunteer "sherpas" who were willing to hike eight miles – twice – to carry gear up to and back from Camp Muir, a base camp for Rainier climbers.
The dangers of climbing Mount Rainier
Mountaineering is not for the faint of heart, and Rainier, also known as Tahoma, has its own set of unique challenges. Hundreds of people have died while attempting to summit.
According to Summit Post, an online climbing community, among the long list of hazards you face when climbing it include:
- Altitude sickness (high altitude cerebral edema, pulmonary edema)
- Crevasse falls
- Sliding on ice and rocks
- Falling rocks
- Unstable glacier cliffs
- Weather: High wind, frigid temperatures, humidity, blizzards, lightning, and intense sun, rapidly changing conditions
This wasn’t Vanderhoof’s first Mount Rainier summit – it’s her ninth – but it was her last and most monumental. Vanderhoof has been mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest for about 35 years. She has summited Washington’s other volcanoes countless times – Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams and Glacier Peak – and she attempted Mount Baker.
"I know this is a really, really tough climb," Vanderhoof said. "It’s not just physical. It’s a big mental thing."
Vanderhoof’s final ascent
The group started their arduous journey on July 8 for what would be a four-day trip. They camped two nights going up the mountain, and one night coming down. Before the trip started, Vanderhoof said she didn’t care all that much if they reached the summit.
Mountain climbers walk in a line on Mount Rainier during the Mount Rainier Celebrity Climb benefitting the Nisqually River Land Trust. Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA. (Photo by �� Bohemian Nomad Picturemakers/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Ima
"I just wanted this to be a fun climb for all of us that would be like a big camp out, and if we summited, it was just a big bonus," she said. "I wanted my son and my granddaughter especially to really enjoy the climb, whether we did it or not. The focus was fellowship with each other and also to give glory to God because we're all people of faith."
Along the way, they faced freezing temperatures, hail, rain and more, but Vanderhoof said the group stayed strong. She even found her granddaughter at base camp consoling a fellow climber who was crying and afraid to finish the trek.
"About halfway up, my son looked up at me and said, ‘Mom, I have a new appreciation and respect for you,’" Vanderhoof recalled. "He didn’t realize how difficult this was."
The last leg of the upward journey began at 11 p.m. under calm skies, but the group faced altitude sickness and extreme cold winds as they trekked around huge crevasses to make their final ascent.
"It got to the point where I wasn’t sure I was going to make it," she recalled. "I was totally exhausted. I was praying and praying: ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’ I kept repeating that.
"I could just see the faces of the people who had encouraged me and prayed for me," she continued. "And I thought, ‘I can’t stop.’ And so I just pushed myself harder than I’ve ever pushed in my life."
Rose Vanderhoof, her son and her granddaughter with their climbing group at the top of Mount Rainier (Rose and Ted Vanderhoof)
By the time they got to 13,000 feet of elevation, the sun had started to rise. Vanderhoof could see the clouds below her and the storm clouds with lightning and thunder in the distance. When the group reached the summit around 8 a.m., there were cheers, tears – and a lot of hugs.
"We could look down and see the sunrise," she said. "Everything was just so beautiful."
Like many climbers, Vanderhoof left a note in the peak’s register box, letting everyone know she had just become the oldest woman to summit Rainier.
"We took our time and took it all in, because this is the last time I’m going to come up here," Vanderhoof recalled.
But what goes up must come down, and so began their descent, another dicey, two-day excursion through extreme conditions. When the group reached base camp, their "sherpas" greeted them with food, drinks and cheers. The rangers all wanted to hear about Vanderhoof’s big feat.
She was treated to similar fanfare at the bottom of the mountain, where her husband was waiting with balloons and a warm embrace. Then came the pizza and celebrating.
"It was a beautiful time," Vanderhoof said.