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On Mt. Rainier, a climb beyond expectations

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is part of a group that ascends the 14,411-foot peak. A Times reporter joins him for part of the journey.

July 16, 2009|Sam Farmer

It was close to midnight when I could stand it no longer. Determined to stave off altitude sickness, I had downed six liters of water on the first leg of a climb of Mt. Rainier, drinking even when I wasn't thirsty. Now nature was calling.

I fumbled in the darkness for my headlamp, switched it on, then pulled on the down jacket I was using for a pillow. Descending from my plywood sheet of a mattress, I slipped into my cold, damp climbing boots and, as quietly as possible, creaked over to the shelter door, doing my best not to wake the 15 others bunked in our hovel of a home. Lifting the beefy latch, I braced for a blast of wind, never noticing I was illuminating the ceiling.

"Dude," whispered a more experienced adventurer, "your headlamp's on upside down."

I had to laugh. But I could afford to. The toughest part of my journey was over.

Not so for another first-time climber.

A football field away, across a boulder-strewn ridge and in a similarly spartan hut, rested one of the most powerful people in sports, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. He was lying in the dark but wide awake, dreading the final push to the 14,411-foot summit -- what he later would call the biggest "physical, emotional and probably mental" challenge of his life.

"Tod Leiweke made a good analogy," Goodell said of the Seattle Seahawks' chief executive who organized the climb. "He said it's like Christmas Eve. I said, 'Yeah, but one difference is you're not getting presents.'

"You had nothing but bad thoughts. Things like avalanches, crevasses. . . . I'm thinking, 'Hey, I'm not out here to kill myself.' "

Actually, Goodell, Leiweke, Seahawks Coach Jim Mora and a group of Pacific Northwest business leaders were making the trip for charity. They raised about $400,000 for the United Way of King County (Wash.) and put a spotlight on the NFL's Play 60 program, designed to encourage children to get at least an hour of physical exercise a day.

I was allowed on part of the journey -- participating in training school, and meeting the group at base camp on the way up and accompanying them on the way down. The biggest challenge in that: the 4 1/2 -mile slog I made apart from the group from the trailhead in Paradise to the base camp at Camp Muir. The distance wasn't the tough part; it was the grind of the nearly relentless incline -- a gain of about 1,000 feet in elevation for every mile.

At Camp Muir, elevation 10,080 feet, I met up with the rest of the climbing party, and we rested as best we could for a few hours in wood huts. Goodell's group of 12, which included four guides, rose at 1:30 in the morning and -- equipped with headlamps, crampons, ice axes, and with ropes binding them in three groups of four -- made the push to the summit.

The guides included two of the world's best climbers, Ed Viesturs and Peter Whittaker, co-owner of Rainier Mountaineering Inc.

Viesturs, who had recently climbed Mt. Everest, described my portion of the journey as a hike, whereas the trek from base camp to the summit is true mountain climbing.

It didn't take long for Goodell to discover that. Within an hour of leaving Camp Muir, his path lit by just a small circle of light, he encountered his first crevasse.

Whittaker, who was about 20 feet ahead of him at the front of the rope, never hesitated in stepping over it and plodding on -- he grew up on Rainier and had climbed it 226 times. Startled, Goodell stopped at the edge and peered down at the pit of blue ice.

"It's scary," said Goodell, 50. "I've got to tell you, when you look down and literally you can't see the bottom, and then they ask you to step over it, you say, 'I don't know about this. Let me think about this for a second.' I hadn't really focused much on that, and there's a lot of [crevasses] out there."

There were other perils too. Every so often, pieces of loose rock, many fist-sized or larger, broke loose from above and tumbled past the climbers. Then there was the surreal scenes, such as the woman Goodell's group passed who apparently had given up on making the summit and plopped down dangerously close to a gaping crevasse.

"She was sitting there right on the edge because she had freaked out," Goodell said. "Ed went over and tried to help."

Goodell and the rest of the group reached the summit about 9 a.m. It was the second time Leiweke had gotten to the top, and the first time for the commissioner and Mora, who grew up in the shadow of the mountain.

Scaling Rainier isn't climbing Mt. Everest -- according to the National Parks Service, roughly half of the 10,000 climbers who attempt to top Rainier each year reach the summit -- but it was a significant accomplishment for a first-timer such as Goodell, who spent months training for the trip.

Much of that training was done in the stairwells of New York skyscrapers, where he augmented his usual workout routine by lugging weights from floor to floor.

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