Mountains: Mt. Rainier (14,411’)
Route: Started at the Paradise parking lot (5460’) on Friday morning and headed up the skyline trail to the Muir snowfield which started at ~7800’ by the Pebble Creek crossing. Followed the snowfield to Muir hut (10,080’). Began climbing that same night at 11:30PM Camp Muir – Cowlitz glacier – Cathedral Gap – Ingraham Glacier – Disappointment Cleaver – Upper Emmons Glacier – Summit (Saturday AM). Reversed the ascent route to camp by noon, napped, rehydrated and packed out of Muir on Saturday afternoon. Returned to Paradise by 4:30PM.
Crew: Ryan Brennan, Dana Walters and Prakash Manley
Distance / Elevation Gain: ~15 miles and 9100’ elevation gained including the pack-in (approx)
Prologue / Logistics:
I wanted to get some exposure to glaciers before attempting big international peaks and had started talking to Colin a couple months earlier about a trip to the PNW. Mt. Rainier came up as the first choice since it has the largest glacier system in the US (excluding Alaska of course) and boasts huge crevasses, some up to 900 feet deep. Although Liberty Ridge had been luring me for very long we’d missed the boat for this year timing-wise, besides common-sense drove me to pick the easiest route since it was after all going to be my first time on a big glacier with true crevasse hazard.
Colin was easy to convince since he’d been weathered off Rainier on a previous attempt. He soon roped Ryan in as well. The question of using a guide didn’t really come up in our discussions since all three of us had a fair amount of general mountain knowledge and experience with rope-work, climbing steep, exposed snow / ice and using related gear. I whole-heartedly agree that being guided is perhaps a great opportunity to learn a lot of stuff quickly but the loss of autonomy in the guided scenario didn’t appeal to us… the RMI (Rainier Mountaineering Inc.) price of $1800 was also not too attractive. At the root of it all though, I think for all three of us, figuring-it-out-on-our-own is a large part of why mountaineering is so appealing. Crevasses were definitely largely on our minds, especially since I’d heard a fair amount from local climber friends about how large and technical the crevasses felt on the DC this year due to the warm temperatures. Ryan Kushner a local friend who’d been to the PNW a week earlier went as far to say that it was the hardest he’d seen the DC in the three attempts he’d made on the peak. That said Colin and Ryan had traveled a fair bit on glaciers in S. America, the PNW and Alaska and still felt pretty confident. I was the only wildcard and decided to take a good crevasse rescue class, get in shape and stick to the middle of the rope team.
I’d read that Rainier permits (the camping ones) were hard to get in the summer and decided to put our names in the draw for spots. We ended up with a date for the weekend of August 16 – 18 which left a few weeks to get in shape and learn what needed to be learned about safe glacier travel and crevasse rescue (at least for me, personally). I took a CMS crevasse rescue class and learned a ton. There literally was so much material covered in the class that I needed to write it up for review before the trip- https://lostinmerica.wordpress.com/co-mountain-school-crevasse-rescue-class-summary-7-28-13/. Eric Whewell was our instructor and shared a significant amount of info basically teaching us a pulley system to set up and use in a 2-person scenario that afforded a 6X mechanical advantage. Eric is a CMS guide and instructor having led trips in S. America and Alaska and brought a lot of experience and info to the table. A couple days before our flight he also offered me a knot review session at the BRC which helped immensely. I also placed my copy of FoTH in the John for a few weeks and read up on glaciers, crevasses, terrain evaluation, rope work and protection as much as possible while doing the morning duty.
Roughly a week before D-day Colin realized that his knee wasn’t likely to put up with a slog like Rainier and had to back out. He still graciously offered to let Ryan and I use his solid 4-season tent. After searching around both locally on 14ers.com and on http://cascadeclimbers.com/ for a replacement I found Dana, a CA transplant to the PNW. He decided to join our rope team as member #3. After discussing skill levels and group gear it was set. He would pick us up at our motel in Seattle and we’d ride to the trailhead together. I also asked him to pick up a couple jetboil canisters to use on the mountain since we couldn’t fly in with those. I booked Ryan and myself into the incredible Seatac inn close to the airport which offered a free 24 hour airport shuttle and continental breakfast.
After a trip out to Shasta in June where I packed the kitchen sink and ended up using a fourth of my gear I packed a little more intelligently this time… I just brought my 38L Dakine Blade day-pack which has been great for light technical back-packing trips. I also brought a jetboil, air mattress, 0 degree synthetic bag, thermarest and bivy sack to hold all three together. This system has worked extremely well for me on winter camping trips. For clothing, etc. I brought mid-weight thermal uppers and bottoms, a wicking shirt, my Arcteryx Theta SV bib, Goretex mountaineering hard shell, NF Phantom down jacket, glacier glasses, balaclava, beanie, waterproof kayaking liner gloves and solid mitten shells, which although overkill for most, are a necessity for my previously frost-nipped fingers. I also brought my ski helmet and goggles for some additional wind protection. I brought my Vasque Super Alpinista boots for the trip, BD horizontal point alpine crampons and a shovel to set up camp. I packed some first aid stuff – bandages, alcohol swabs, etc. and plenty of food – pepperoni, almond butter packets, my new favorite MaryJane’sFarm backpacker meal, ramen, spicy Cajun fire trail-mix, a bunch of candy and honey shots, protein bars and Gatorade mix. For technical gear I brought my 60m dry, a rack consisting three prussiks (5’, 6’ and 20’ untied), a personal anchor system, five lockers, a couple belay devices, eight non-lockers, two long ice screws, a few double length slings, a straight shaft alpine ice tool with a hammer, a BD whippet and a hiking pole. Ryan would bring me a picket / draw that I’d carry up. I trial-packed the gear a couple days before I flew out and it all amazingly fit on my Dakine 38L pack. I then undid the trial pack and re-packed it all into a ski and boot bag since Frontier considers both of those together as one piece of checked baggage and will fly them for $40 round trip. I crammed the rest in my day pack for carry-on.
I’d been watching the weather like a hawk in the two weeks preceding the climb. While it was sunny all along two weeks before our trip, the week of the climb was supposed to yield 6 – 8” fresh snow. The system was set to clear out a bit on Friday but Fri and Sat still showed a 30% chance of snow and winds in the sustained 40 – 50 mph range on summit (30 – 40 mph at Camp Muir). At this point non-refundable tickets were booked, permits acquired, bags packed and a non-refundable hotel room booked so it made sense to go check it out for ourselves.
We flew into Seattle Thursday night… We arrived at the SeaTac airport, and after picking up our bags called ‘90’ from the courtesy van phone… the shady looking Seatac van showed up minutes later and marked the beginning of what would turn out to be a dirt-bag weekend. Duct tape on the shuttle driver’s seat was the first sign that our hotel was going to be a world class establishment…
The second sign of quality was when our shuttle driver headed for the laundry room as soon as he dropped us off… that said, Seatac got the job done and was adequate for sorting gear, getting packed up, sleeping for a couple hours and showering off the bed-bugs. At 6:30AM Dana picked us up and we began the drive down South to Paradise. My first view of Rainier was from sea level on the drive down and the 14,411 feet of prominence dropped my lower jaw down to the nut sack. I also couldn’t get over how tall and magnificent the trees were and how green the undergrowth was. We definitely don’t get used to that here in CO. We soon got to the park, paid the $15 entrance fee and began the windy drive up towards Paradise… the surprisingly good weather afforded us a couple nice up-close views of our objective… what seemed from a distance, like a giant, glaciated Sherman.
We arrived at the Paradise parking lot and registered for the climb and picked up our permit. We saw a few large groups (~10 per group) and many more small ones (~3-5) gearing up and decided that we had our work cut out for us if we wanted spots in the climber’s hut.
Each carrying packs in the 50-60 lb range we began hiking up the Skyline trail at 10:15 AM on Friday along with several other climbing groups, hikers and photographers. Paradise appears an incredibly popular destination… arguably more so than the more crowded parks I’ve seen in CO. We made good time up the trail and were soon up at snowline at the base of the Muir snow field which is roughly at the spot where the pebble creek crosses the trail.
Views of the Nisqually glacier were ominous in the backdrop of the slew of info Dana was feeding us about how casual day hikers headed back to Paradise from camp Muir in whiteout conditions had wandered onto the Nisqually and fallen to their deaths in the crevasses.
Halfway up I took the rope from Dana to share the load. We passed several large (and small) groups on the way up and were starting to feel somewhat confident of getting a spot in the hut.
Camp Muir and Muir Hut:
We made it to Camp Muir (10,080’) at a little before 2PM and went straight for the Muir hut making a beeline across a foul stench from the solar toilets of Camp Muir that was not much unlike the scathing flatulence from a sub-sea-level-dwelling, poorly acclimatized, HAFE-inflicted Balrog of Morgoth from the depths of shadow and flame. The choicest prayer flags wouldn’t save us at that moment, it appeared, but we made it to the door and collapsed into the confines of the hut.
After finding ourselves spots on the wooden bunks, we made our way out onto a snowfield below the hut and began melting snow for lunch, dinner and the next day’s hiking water. Here I ate a large ham and turkey sandwich I’d packed up along with random dried fruit and nuts, trailbars spicy Cajun fire trailmix and gatorade. Ryan fished out a giant log of summer sausage and that was the best thing ever. A thick fog was rising up from the valley which made for some eerie mountain pictures.
On the far side of Muir hut from where we were (behind the Cowlitz glacier, I heard the loudest and most significant rock / ice slide I had ever heard.
Being in the path of one of those would not be good and it just did not seem like a good idea to be on this mountain later in the day when these slides would be more prevalent. The following article details one such ice avalanche resulting from glacial movement / melt that sadly caused one of the worst Mountaineering tragedies in Rainier history in 1981 – http://www.sarinfo.bc.ca/RainierIcefall.htm.
To avoid such ice falls and the bottleneck we had heard about above the DC, we hit the bunks a little after 8PM with the alarm set for a ridiculous 10PM in the hope that we’d be the first party to leave. Going to bed any sooner didn’t seem practical since a large, loud group of 10 ultra-marathoning, mountain climbing women and their tour guide had lugged up a grill and were cooking brats and downing gin. Four others were supposed to haul a full-sized keg up the next day. It seemed like a great party and they seemed like good people so it was all good… who needs sleep anyway?
A look at the Upper Cowlitz glacier before heading off to bed…
We arose at 10PM and began gearing up. All the commotion in the hut had ensured that we’d gotten roughly 45 minutes to an hour of sleep. It had all just about settled when the three of us woke up. We ate, drank, pooped, geared up, got on the rope, set up our prussiks and chatted with some German climbers who’d just arrived at camp and also another two-person rope team that was preparing to head up. By the time we left camp it was around 11:30PM but we and the two-person team were the first to leave Camp Muir. We would find out later that a couple groups from Ingraham flats had started on the route at about the same time or earlier.
The Cowlitz, Cathedral Gap and the Ingraham Glacier:
We started off without crampons since the Cowlitz was a low-angle glacier traverse, followed by a scree walkup until we got on the Ingraham. It was exciting to say the least, to set out on a glacier for the first time in my life. It was interesting to try and learn what it was like to cross a snow bridge for the first time under headlamps albeit there was a close to full moon which helped. Although I’d marveled at the scale of these crevasses earlier that afternoon the magnitude of the crevasses we were crossing over didn’t really hit me until our return to camp on Saturday. The snow bridges on the Cowlitz appeared crusty but firm. We soon walked across and shortened the ropes to climb up the winding trail amidst the scree of Cathedral gap. Once past the gap, we headed on, following ubiquitous wands until we got to snow. Here we put crampons on, marveled at Little Tahoma’s spiry summit (pic later in this report) and hydrated.
Moving on to the Ingraham glacier we saw a large group of possibly about 10 people that had left the Ingraham flats camp (11,000’) and were already on the Cleaver above. The Ingraham glacier I’d say was far more impressive than the upper part of the Cowlitz that we’d crossed, because of its steepness which created large, knotty ice falls and deep, deep crevasses. The snow bridges we crossed on the Ingraham were anywhere between ready to collapse, and fairly solid (on our way back we found a footprint that had punched all the way through one of the snow bridges lying over a crevasse that looked bottomless). We moved quickly across the bridges and made fairly good time up the trail in general until we were at the bottom of the cleaver.
The Disappointment Cleaver, the Ladders and the Upper Emmons Glacier:
As Dana led through the DC we discovered that the route finding in the dark was not entirely smooth sailing because there were wands all over the place (both off trail and on) and it was difficult to find path of least resistance. One group of 3 caught up to us at this point. We let them go ahead thinking that they were faster, and they ended up completely hoodwinked and cliffed out almost immediately and they let us go ahead again within 2 minutes. At this point Ryan swapped to the front of the rope and we were out of the maze soon afterwards. At the top of the DC the route began switch-backing up towards the upper Emmons Glacier perhaps because of the nature of the crevasses at this time.
We soon approached the crux that the ranger had informed us about at Paradise. This was a 15 foot ice step with a 2 foot crevasse separating the lips on either side. A ladder bridged the gap. Pickets and screws had been placed on the far side of the step above the ladder anchoring the top in. This was the bottleneck we were hoping to avoid by beating the other groups on the way up. The second crossing was a more exposed 15 foot ladder crossing across a near horizontal fault. The ladder was reinforced by 2”X6” wooden planks and rope. A line of rope went across the fault as well for those that chose to clip in during the rather shaky crossing. The crossing was easier in the dark when the true depth of the crevasse wasn’t evident to us. The third crossing was a shorter 7-10’ ladder, also reinforced by 2”X6”s although this one didn’t have a rope to clip into. This ladder was at a mild angle since the far lip was several inches higher. What made the crossings difficult for a 3-person rope team was that each of us was on one of the ladders at the same time. That made the crossing-pace and the act of belaying each crosser a tad cerebral. To be safe we clipped into the rope with our personal anchors for the larger of the ladder crossings.
The Crater, Rim and Summit:
Above the ladders the route began switch-backing steeply up the upper-most sections of the upper Emmons Glacier. The wands appeared to lead us out onto the Emmons perhaps because of current conditions. We saw a couple groups returning, complaining about wind – these were presumably the folks we had seen leaving from Ingraham flats. The wind had picked up quite a bit so we couldn’t really communicate with them much and we were unsure if they’d summitted. We were close to the crater rim when the sun came up…
The route continued to switchback up towards the thin air of the crater rim… From living in sea level at Everett, Dana began feeling the altitude here. Ryan set a solid pace…
The wind was a sustained 40mph and the balaclava was certainly handy to have on. The windchill was surprisingly cold (–10F-ish?) for a mid-August 14er but I guess that’s what the PNW brings. We were soon on the flat crater, walking across to the high point…
I noticed these spindly threads of snow form all over my clothing. My only guess was that the moisture on my clothing was freezing in place from the wind… any thoughts?
Below the last stretch to summit we were fairly dehydrated and wanted to take a break from the wind. We hung out there for quite a while and ate some food and drank Gatorade. Ryan and Dana left their packs there for the final push to the summit. We made it up there by 7AM which was result of a fair pace given how long our breaks were, how much time we had lost on the Cleaver and the interesting ladder crossings. We saw some of the most amazing views I’d seen from the summit of a 14er…
Dana and Ryan were stoked to be on the summit of the highest Cascade volcano…
as was I…
We saw four others slowly make their way across the crater after leaving their packs at the crater rim… they would be the second known group to summit that morning…
The wind blew enough on the summit to where we decided to skip signing the register and head down. That is a formality that I don’t always satisfy or care to. The wind continued its assault and battery as we made our way back down to Ryan and Dana’s packs. We quickly went back past the crater and began our descent as more groups started approaching the rim…
Dana takes a break on the Upper Emmons Glacier…
We hauled across a few Emmons traverses that lay below large icefalls. We didn’t want to risk those breaking off and falling on us. Some groups did not seem to worry about those, breaking to adjust gear right below those features but we decided to be a bit over-cautious in those areas. We were soon down to the ladder crossings. Luckily there were no groups attempting to cross it. We found that the shorter 7’-10’ ladder had a broken rung which made it creak and wobble very precariously and unpredictably. It was a fairly quick and heart-pounding crossing. We were relived to be past the ladders and descended to the top of the cleaver. There were a few running jumps across 2’ – 3’ crevasses to get through before our next break above the DC. Here, at roughly 12000’, we found an international climber that had pushed the pace at altitude and developed a fairly serious case of HAPE. He was partially conscious and was awaiting evac by a chopper. His group had stuck around to wait for the chopper, a Chinook we were told. We hiked a 100 feet or so below them before we took our overdue food/water break because we were told that a Chinook couldn’t attempt a landing unless the immediate vicinity was clear of people.
From our break area, the Emmons Glacier’s crevasses looked deep and foreboding… that route seems a serious undertaking at this time.
Now, at ~9:45AM the ladders were starting to becoming the major bottleneck we were led to believe… our start time was good, ensuring that we were below the ladders before most groups began ascending through them.
We unroped for our descent of the DC and I bounded down it with glee, happy to be untethered for the first time that day. Staying on rope through the ascent of the DC was a big mistake – it was a drain of time and energy and also caused some rockfall that we really should have avoided. We managed to find a furrow of snow amidst the sun-cups and penitentes which was much easier to descend than the mess of scree and talus we’d ascended.
Scree wasn’t totally unavoidable though but Colorado definitely trains people to move rapidly on loose talus blocks and scree so there weren’t too many issues there…
Little Tahoma wore a blanket of feathery clouds to keep warm…
Ryan and Dana (in the background) descend the last snowy section of the DC…
The Chinook got to the ailing climber but wasn’t able to land… they circled a couple times, surveyed the area and left, followed by one other smaller chopper that also appeared, circled twice and also left. We didn’t understand what was happening.
We soon got to the traverse across the Ingraham and roped up again in an area safe from rockfall from above. Ingraham has some really deep crevasses. I have circled in red, a couple 6’ climbers traversing snow bridges above a gaping crevasse that appeared about 300’ deep.
Rainier really is a loose mess of rock and ice and it seems prudent to keep looking above you to make sure nothing is moving, especially before you select a spot to break for food or gearing up / down. We began traversing across the Ingraham, finding that the rare snow bridge from that morning had been punched through. We found a ladder across one such snow bridge that we hadn’t found in the morning. This route appeared to be changing rapidly at this late part of the season. Across most of the Ingraham glacier we stopped to take this picture of the Ingraham Flats camp. Again, pictures of the tents really show the scale of the crevasses that lie below.
One more look at Little Tahoma peak (11,138’) from the Ingraham Glacier…
Ryan, moments before we began the descent to Cathedral Gap…
The descent down Cathedral Gap and across the Cowlitz went very quickly. Back at Muir we saw a third chopper evacuating the HAPE-inflicted climber we found above the DC. Bone-chillingly we saw him hanging from the chopper at the end of a 100’ rope. That would be a great way to cure my HAPE and give me a heart attack instead but I do appreciate that he had to be lowered quickly and I couldn’t offer a better option.
It being a little before noon, we decided to pack up our gear and head back down to Paradise that same day… we had had enough of trail food and were craving large chunks of beef or other such substantial, hot animal protein. We hung out for a bit, packed up, pooped and were ready to begin hiking down by about 2:45PM. A thick fog and wind were now blowing up the mountain from Muir upwards… this was the unsettled weather that had been forecast for Saturday afternoon on the upper mountain. We had been lucky enough to time the weather window to our advantage. Descending the Muir snowfield in a whiteout wasn’t bad thanks to the wands and the scores of day-hikers and climbers that were heading up to Camp Muir. We were back at the car by 4:15 and drove down to a restaurant that served ½ lb prime rib sandwiches au jus, elk, wild boar and Bruno-sized beef burgers… not before we devoured the remaining summer sausage Ryan had brought. Since we’d finished our trip a day ahead of schedule and didn’t really have time for a second volcano, we spent the night with friends and did some touring around Seattle, eating Ahi tacos, visiting the Locks and watching the Salmon run…
Seattle is certainly a fantastic place with access to great peaks and terrain. For a good balance of Mountain access and Terrestrial comforts, Seattle is certainly #2 for US locations for me at this point, still after CO. It perhaps doesn’t have the same level of quick access to quality after-work rock and ice climbing as in the Greater Denver area but the access to glaciers and classic mountaineering routes is mouth-watering to say the least. The amount of fresh snow their BC areas receive makes me think that a trip back to the PNW with skis is not very far away. Thanks Ryan and Dana for a sweet trip. Thanks Brian and Elise for letting us crash at your place on Saturday night and for showing us the sights, and thanks all, for reading.