It almost ended before it began.
The night before Colton Kennedy, Benjamin Grammer and six others began their ascent of Mount Rainier, they called it off. Avalanche conditions were too high. All their preparations, planning, training, gone with the blasts of the mountain winds.
The two Coeur d'Alene men were ready to head home. But the next morning, a new weather report came in: Avalanche conditions were moderate.
The attempt to reach the 14,410-foot summit of Rainier was back on.
And against the odds - facing high winds, trudging through thigh-deep snow, navigating "maze like" glacial fields ridden with crevasses, crossing snow bridges - they made it.
On Thursday, Jan. 3, at 8:28 p.m., the group reached the top, six days after their first steps, the first to reach Rainier's summit in 2013.
"It was a sense of accomplishment, of achieving something rather unique," Kennedy said.
They didn't stick around to soak in the sights, enjoy the scenery or share a toast. There was no time for a party. Not at 12 degrees. Not with a blizzard rolling in. Not with two of the group showing signs of Acute Mountain Sickness, an altitude related illness that can significantly impair a person's physical performance and judgment.
"You get to that point, you look around and head back down," Kennedy said.
But no doubt, there was satisfaction in cresting Rainier.
"It was a great trip," he said.
How tough is Rainier?
Come summer, perhaps not so much.
Kennedy has topped Rainier four times before in the summer. But an effort last winter with friend Grammer fell short when a whiteout at 11,000 feet forced them back.
In any given winter, less than 5 percent of all climbers will reach the summit.
On this attempt, Kennedy and Grammer were joined by six members of the Iowa State Mountaineering and Climbing Club. Two four-person teams spent six days on the mountain battling harsh winter conditions as they trained and slowly made their way.
A rare break in otherwise extreme weather patterns - blue skies - allowed the climbers to make the 20-plus hour final attempt on the summit.
"We were really fortunate with the weather window we had," he said.
The climb was long, exhausting and not without trial.
During the climb, one member lost his footing around 13,800 feet while crossing a precarious snow bridge across a seemingly bottomless crevasse, Kennedy said.
The climber plunged 15 feet into the crevasse before being caught by the rope that tethered him to the team. He was pulled back, unhurt.
"The comprehensive training undergone by the club had paid off," Kennedy said.
On its descent, the team struggled through a blizzard, following a trail of flags they placed to mark their course during the ascent.
The team relied on GPS units when visibility became too poor.
Descents are dangerous.
Most accidents and injuries happen on the descent, Kennedy said.
"For any climb, the biggest thing is coming back down, not going up," he said.
A few members collapsed back at base camp, but recovered.
The team returned to its high camp at 10,000 feet, by 4:02 a.m. and descended the remainder of the mountain the following day to return home.
The celebration once they finally got off the mountain?
How about hot showers, burgers and beers.
"It was nice to have a glass of water," he said.
Supplies and fuel
Their climb started at 5,400 feet at the Paradise Ranger Station. Around 10 a.m., under blue skies, the group set out, each person carrying about 70 pounds of supplies.
Their first camp was at 7,500. The next day, they hiked to Camp Muir at 10,000. Next, they reached the 11,400 foot level.
For the final climb, they departed around 11:20 a.m.
There was never a time the group considered turning back.
Kennedy and Grammer, both 22, have been climbing mountains since their Boy Scout days in Coeur d'Alene BSA Troop 211. Kennedy has successfully climbed Rainier four times in the summer and served as a guide, too.
Both know what it takes.
"Your body really pushes itself. As long as you're in those dangerous situations, you can adapt," Kennedy said.
Fueling up is a must. Each climber burned more than 7,000 calories a day. Each lost four to five pounds on their trek.
Climbers subsisted on dehydrated food, dried rice, chicken, dried soup mixes, Clif bars and candy bars. For liquid, just good old water, by way of melted snow.
Well, and sometimes, a little more.
"One guy had a flask of scotch," Kennedy said.
For anyone considering climbing a mountain, a few tips from Kennedy:
Push aside ambitions and temper them with wisdom. Make decisions based on conditions, not your goals. Be cautious. Expect and prepare for the worst.
Kennedy said sometimes, the only way to really get a sense of how difficult mountain climbing can be, the risk involved, the disappointment that awaits, is when you have to turn back without reaching your goal.
The Spokane Mountaineers often practice on the slopes above Stevens Lake in the winter.
Stevens Peak is in the Idaho Panhandle on the Idaho-Montana divide, about 2.5 miles south of the town of Mullan. It has long been a popular climbing, hiking, and cross-country skiing destination, and a good place for test runs.
Mountain climbing, Kennedy said, can be tense at times, stunning at others. Some outings offer unparalleled beauty. Others, unforgiving blizzards.
The elements - winds, rocks, ice, cold - can swallow you up.
Conditions always change. Rewards always await.
"Every climb is different," he said.
Ted Angus, Benjamin Grammer, Colton Kennedy, Payton Hand and Chris Stolte at the top of Mount Rainier.
The scenic view during the Mount Rainier climb.
Payton Hand prepares a tent deep in the snow.
Before starting up Mount Rainier the group gathers for a picture. From left, Chris Stolte, Payton Hand, Elliot Hunt, Colton Kennedy, Ted Angusm Celia Clause, Benjamin Grammer and Andrew Klein.
Hikers countinue to climb up Mount Rainier.
Benjamin Grammer heads Mount Rainier.