After months of lectures, z-haul practices, carrying excessive quantities of water to the tops of various terrain features and climbing snowy things in the dark, our team was finally poised to climb the Kautz Glacier route on Mt. Rainier. The “Kautz Potatoes” consisted of our three fearless leaders, Brandon Daniell (Gassy Potato), Kelly Greaser (Greasy Potato) and Dan Arnold (Peeled Potato); the HAMS grads (listed in order of the number of times they exclaimed “Make America Great Again” on the trip), Justin Schaffer (Cheesy Potato), Dale Statler (Sweet Potato), Megan Cruise (Hot Potato), Stephen Henry (Red Potato), and Rick McLaughlin (Baked Potato); and myself, the team mascot, Spud.
Day 1: The days leading up to our arrival were filled with subpar weather, and after speaking with the resident climbing ranger/ meteorological authority/European heart-throb, Stephan, we reserved ourselves to the first day of our trip being our weather-margin day. We spent the day gawking at our first glimpses of crevasses alongside hordes of tourists, and our afternoon consisted of sampling the local fare.
Day 2: We got an alpine start the next morning in order to make our first camp before the weather deteriorated. Dale’s powerful stride broke trail across the lower Nisqually Glacier and got us to camp right as the 11 a.m. storms rolled in. If you’ve never met Dale, imagine if the most interesting man in the world had a child with an ox, and you’d be pretty close. Most of the afternoon was spent taking endless selfies inside our brightly colored 4-season tents and building snow walls, which Dale deemed structurally underwhelming. As our first day actually on the mountain drew to a close, spirits were high — probably a mixture of Rick’s unrelenting optimism, and all the high-altitude hooch.
Day 3: Five inches of snow fell overnight, with more drifted in along the ridge. We broke camp in the morning, excavated our gear and began breaking trail uphill through the snow and the clouds. The second day of humping a 50-pound pack up steep sections of deep snow drew a lull in the normally gripping conversation. What little banter that was exchanged had been reduced to profane grunts regarding the weather, and Rick and Megan commenting on Justin’s magnificent mane of hair (which drew comparisons to that of the great Reinhold Messner). We reached Camp Hazard at 11,200’ right as the 11 a.m. weather onslaught began again. The resulting wind whipped along the ridge and made camp setup a serious and uncomfortable undertaking. By 1 p.m., all of us were in camp with our tents anchored acceptably to the mountain via snow stakes, parachutes, rocks and/or the accumulating snow drifts. The next few hours of 40 mph winds were spent uncomfortably staring at tentmates while they drifted in and out of sleep.
Day 4: Suboptimal weather persisted through the night, relenting only at dawn when the sun rose upon clear skies and clouds cascading cloud-like amidst the valleys below. The persistent poor weather the prior three days left unacceptable avalanche conditions, and we were forced to spend another weather day not progressing up the mountain. Unable to extend their stay any longer, Brandon, Dan and Rick (and one of our two ropes) headed back down the mountain, triggering a small slide on their descent. Around the same time at Camp Hazard, the remaining five Potatoes witnessed a large storm slab break loose on the face across the lower Kautz and empty into one of three enormous crevasses.
Day 5: Our 11 p.m. start time came all too quickly. Justin took the lead after roping up at the base of the ice climbs. His meandering route rode a fine line between beauty, genius and madness. At the top of the chutes, Stephen navigated the group through some gnarly crevasse territory. He begrudgingly guided us over the larger snow bridges against his wishes of leaping over each one. Stephen ferociously broke trail through waist deep snow, although his pace left the more avalanche-weary members of the group unimpressed. Our only remaining leader, Kelly, somehow managed to find herself waist-deep in a crevasse. To this day we’re still unsure of how it happened. We contemplated cutting the rope, but she popped out just before Justin found his belay knife.
As the wind grew stronger and the visibility dwindled to roughly 20 feet, Dale’s comforting and steadfast narration guided us until we ultimately arrived at unacceptably deep snow on an avalanche slope. By around 13,000 feet, the wind was sapping our heat and depositing rime on everything exposed. What began as a sophisticated, objective assessment of the situation quickly deteriorated into a profanity-laced dispute. In the end, the entire team agreed that it was time to retreat. We reversed course across the upper glacier, and after Stephen lead six rappels down the chutes, we found ourselves back at camp sharing Stranahan’s poured over glacial ice that Dale had harvested from the ice cliffs above. We glissaded and plunge-stepped down the turtle snowfield, then roped up for the sun-baked descent of the lower Wilson and Nisqually glaciers. With Megan in the lead, I’m sure the rope team shattered any existing speed records.
After what turned out to be a 23-hour day, perhaps Dale summed it up best when he prosed after the descent:
“The mountain finally lifted her veil as we stepped off of her glaciated flanks, perhaps in jest, but more likely in cold-hearted geological indifference, just like we deserve. We toasted to our own indifference with brews stashed in the parking lot. We feasted on pie ala mode, and other food that was not rehydrated in bags, pooped in receptacles other than bags and slept luxuriously in beds that were also not bags.”
Those were the best five days of my life. Thank you to all of the instructors and those who volunteered their time to prepare us for this amazing adventure.
(Contributing authors Justin Schaffer and Dale Statler, and the rest of the Kautz Potatoes)