Colorado Mountain Club Blog

Another day on the trail

Mt. Rainier Summit Camping

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For more background on this post, please see the July 14 blog entry, “Adams Glacier Success.

The weather had deteriorated rapidly in the days leading up to our trip. Right before we started up Mt. Adams, the long-term forecast for Rainier was sunny, clear and calm. By the morning of our approach, the National Weather Service was calling for winds verging on hurricane force. Oh well. All you can do is go and have a look.

A marine cloud layer made the approach humid, muggy and depressing. As promised by the climbing ranger at check-in, we began emerging from the fog at about 6,500 feet, where we left the main Skyline Trail at Glacier Vista to drop down to the Nisqually Glacier.

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Starting up the Skyline Trail.

Once on the glacier, a horizontal traverse leads toward The Fan, a prominent and obvious gully that grants access to the Wapowety Cleaver. A couple 40ish-degree snow sections saw us to the more moderate ridge crest, where we took a right and made a bee-line for the Kautz Ice Cliff.

We never planned on reaching Camp Hazard at 11,300′, as it’s fairly exposed to falling rock and ice. Many safer campsites exist along the left-hand edge of the Turtle Snowfield, and our goal was to park at about 11,000’. With the day getting late, the wind increasing and clouds rolling in, we instead pitched our tents at one of the first sites we saw, somewhere between 9,500’ and 10,000’.

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Kautz Ice Cliff.

The late afternoon and early evening were amazing. We melted water, made food and just generally lounged while taking in the stellar views. The sun disappeared behind a ridge around 7:30 p.m., and we retired to our tents to escape the cold. Alarms were set for 2 a.m., with the hope of being walking an hour later.

As always, it took us longer than expected to get packed up and ready to go. We weren’t moving until 3:45 a.m., only needing our headlamps for half an hour. A strong bootpack made the early morning routefinding a breeze, and we mostly just zoned out and trudged upward until the sunrise took our breath away.

I knew from my prior Pacific Northwest excursions what to expect, but sunrise high on a volcano will never cease to impress. The morning was wonderfully clear, with the faithful marine cloud layer below and only light winds. My camera was in rapid-fire mode at every rest break.

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Sunrise wasn’t horrible.

We reached Camp Hazard and searched for an alleged fixed line down some Class 4 rock that allows easy passage on to the Kautz Glacier. We wasted an hour trying to find it before giving up and blazing our own way down, right up against the ice cliff itself. This line required exposure to a garbage chute of large debris directly beneath a wall of teetering seracs. We hugged the rocks to avoid the direct fall-line and made our way down and out as fast as we could manage.

We were now staring up at the beginning of the technical difficulties: the first ice pitch. The beta we’d received said it was short and mostly snow, a simple warm-up before the more serious second pitch. We started simul-climbing without much thought. Before long, Sam, in the lead, started hitting bonafide water ice. It never got very steep (45 to 55 degrees), but it was dinner-plating like crazy. Gains were slow and laborious. My calves, still not fully recovered from the Adams Glacier and bearing the weight of a full overnight pack, were on fire. We sank a couple screws, clipped an established V-thread and topped out after a long 150-foot effort.

Gasping for air and massaging our calves, we stopped for a long break on the mellow snowfield between the first and second ice pitches. The second chute was reported to be much longer and more difficult, so we planned to pitch it out. Keegan and I tied onto the end of the rope, giving Sam most of the full 60 meters for his lead.

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Sam leading the second ice pitch.

As fate would have it, the second pitch was much easier than the first. Sam led the length of the rope on mostly snow, built an anchor at an existing V-thread and brought us up in a few short minutes. The second half of the chute had a bit of legit alpine ice, but the dinner plates had given way to hero sticks. When the pitch began laying back and Sam ran out of rope again, he built another anchor using a picket and a 19cm screw. Keegan and I easily climbed up, wondering how our pre-trip intelligence had been so wrong.

Either way, we were above the difficulties and only faced a 2,500’ snow slog to Columbia Crest. We stopped for a while to enjoy the views and return the rope to glacier-travel mode. The wind, forecast for almost hurricane-force, still only lapped lightly at our backs. It was welcome in the increasing heat of the day.

The upper Kautz Route involves a long traverse around 14,158-foot subpeak Point Success toward the left side of the summit crater. The final 500 feet was pretty brutal, as we had to detour around a giant half-mile long crevasse blocking direct access to Columbia Crest. Finally, sometime around 2:30 p.m., we staggered onto the summit.

Here the wind forecast proved true. Gusts exceeding 50 mph knocked us around pretty good, and I was the only one who grabbed a quick summit shot. At least the wind abated in the summit crater.

Our plan all along was a carry-over of the Kautz route with a descent of the easier Disappointment Cleaver. If conditions allowed, we had been entertaining the idea of sleeping on the summit. All three of us were pretty wiped, an afternoon descent on soft snow sounded terrible, the wind in the crater wasn’t too bad and we could see the wanded highway of the DC starting 50 yards away. It wasn’t a drawn-out decision process. We were going to spend our Fourth of July bivying on top of Mt. Rainier.

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Camp in the summit crater.

The best part would be a 360-degree view of fireworks from all the surrounding cities and towns, right? Wrong. The storm forecast for Saturday rolled in early, and by 6 p.m. we were ensconced in a full-blown whiteout. We retreated into the tents to pass a very long, very uncomfortable 13 hours.

Even with the vents as open as we could stand with the howling storm, the inside of the tent soon became coated in ice particles. Whenever a gust would snap the tent wall, it would shoot crystals at lightning speeds into our bewildered, half-asleep faces. Sam and I basically crawled into the fetal position, back to back, to stay as far away from the walls as possible. Keegan had his own tent and I can only assume slept like a baby.

First light came sometime around 5 a.m. A torturous hour of clearing rime ice off EVERYTHING, packing soggy gear and sorting the rope with mittened hands had us ready to walk down around 8:30 a.m.

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Walking down in a whiteout.

We emerged from the soup right at the top of the Disappointment Cleaver. Familiar views from my 2012 trip opened up: Camp Muir, Little Tahoma, the Ingraham Flats, Cathedral Gap. The storm up high turned out to be a lenticular cap, and the lower snow slopes had been baking in the sun all morning. Even at 10 a.m., it was like walking on 35-degree mashed potatoes. We took our time descending to the fixed ropes that traverse across the nose of the cleaver.

Once back on the Ingraham Glacier, a small uphill trudge under a minor serac band represents the end of any serious danger. We took long breaks at the Flats and Camp Muir to strip off layers, eat, drink and bask in the accomplishment.

The Muir Snowfield should be the descent off every mountain. Long glissades led to easy plunge-stepping terrain, which led to more long glissades. We were back at Paradise early in the afternoon. After quick showers in our room at the Nisqually Lodge, we walked a weary half-mile back to the Highlander tavern, where we enjoyed the best part about mountaineering: post-climb beer and burgers.

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Keegan, Sam and Jeff at Camp Muir.

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