Mt. Rainier. Elevation: 4392 m. Is the highest mountain around, part of the Cascade volcano range and according to Wikipedia is one of the most dangerous volcanoes around, since its eruptions could cause major disasters to the surrounding area. All the more reason to climb it before the entire thing explodes.
There are a variety of route options up this huge mountain, ranging from full on ice climbs to something akin to a glacier walk. But none should be underestimated. We picked a route a bit off the beaten path. This mountain is frequented by mountain guides and their parties. This means that those routes are super busy and can have a ton of traffic and traffic jams. So we decided on the Kautz Glacier route, which leaves from Paradise, goes up the trail for a bit and then crosses the bottom of the Nisqually Glacier, heads up the edge of the Wilson Glacier and then up the Turtle Snowfield to Camp Hazard. The camp has this name since it sits under the Kautz Ice cliff and sometimes giant chunks of ice come flying down into camp.
We left Vancouver on Friday morning around 8:30, thinking that this would leave plenty of time for the 5 hour drive and still be able to get our climbing permits and find a place to camp for the night. The drive took forever (the traffic was so bad we arrived at 4pm). The border guards decided to ‘randomly’ check our car and then steal all of the tastiest food. It seems that my grease covered jerky is ‘moist’ and Julien’s dried sausage must have been imported from Europe… where else would you get good sausage?
The next morning we woke up at 5, got ready to go and were at the ranger station in Paradise at 7am, exactly when they opened. The weather was awful. It was raining and sleeting, and there was no sight of the mountain. Not the best conditions to start our adventure. The ranger in the station had also mentioned that the summit attempts on the main route had turned back that morning due to weather and snow. Anyway, to maximize our chances, we decided to wait a day, since the weather was scheduled to improve. We hiked up a bit to see if we could scope out the route, but mostly we saw white and some snow blowing in our faces.
By the evening, the rain and sleet had come back and we really didn’t want to sleep in the tent outside. Soooo…. we found a clean washroom. Anyway…
The next morning was clear and beautiful. A lovely day to start the climb. We crossed the bottom of the Nisqually glacier without much trouble, and then I fell into a crevasse. Not all the way, Julien actually warned me and I tried to cross it at the proper angle, but it was hard to figure out where the edges were and I ended up stepping straight through the bridge. I caught on my backpack, so only fell through to my waist. We decided to rope up after that. We carefully crossed a few more before reaching the ridge.
Once we got on the ridge left of the Nisqually glacier, it was pretty smooth going. We stopped for lunch, met a few people coming back down who had turned back because of avalanche hazards from the fresh snow.
We walked along, sometimes on snow and sometimes on rock, and finally tramped into Camp Hazard. At that point we were already feeling the effects of the altitude which were slowing us down considerably.
There was another team of 5 already up there who had spent the past three days getting to the camp. Three guys came into camp a bit after us. We chatted a bit and tried to sort out leaving times in the morning to avoid traffic jams on the ice pitches.
The bivy spot was nice and offered beautiful views of Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens and even Mt. Jefferson in the distance. It was a nice place to have dinner, and we settled in for the night.
We woke up the next morning to questionable weather. Where were our clear skies!? Damn you weather man! Oh well. We set off just ahead of the three guys and walked out to the base of the ice.
The first pitch was a mix of snow and ice up to 45° so we decided to solo it. The new snow had hardened a bit but remained questionable, as far as avalanches go, so we stuck to edge of the slope, on the shitty ice. It was uneven and kind of dirty, and loved to just flake off when you swung. I was happy enough to have my ice tools with me for sure.
The second pitch was a bit longer and a bit steeper, up to 60°, so we decided to bring out the rope and start simulclimbing. We stayed on the far right side of the gully to avoid the avalanche hazard, and sometimes climbed through the ice cones that made up the edge of the ice cliffs. Some of them made nice steps to rest on. My calves were burning. The low angle should have made it easier, but I haven’t been on ice for way too long.
As we topped out on the technical pitches, we met the group of 5, who had started at midnight, coming back down. They had turned around due to the weather and avalanche hazard, So did the party of three behind us.
Given the information relayed by the party of 5 regarding what was ahead, we chose to traverse right across the upper Kautz glacier to get onto the ridge between the Kautz and the Nisqually glacier. At this point we had shortened the rope between us so that we could stay in sight of each other. This route also took us through significantly more crevasses than the center. Not that we could see that at the time.
We reached the ridge at the edge of the glacier and then traversed under some rock bands to more exposed slopes. All this time we were post-holing through the fresh snow, sometimes knee deep. Occasionally crossing the random crevasses. Post holing through fresh snow, with a big overnight pack, above 3500m is a brutal cardio exercise.
Further up, the ridge disappears and is replaced by a huge serac wall. This is the point where the route veers right onto the Nisqually glacier. This proved to be a tricky spot given the 20m deep crevasse running parallel to the ridge, which we had to cross. We wandered up and down a bit, looking for a way through. The fresh snow and strong winds had created unconsolidated snow bridges and treacherous crevasse lips. The weather had opened up a bit so we could see for a few minutes. Which was nice, but it quickly closed back in, leaving us in a worse milk jug than before.
By this time we had been on the move for about 8 hours, maybe more. We were still post holing through snow, trying to find a way up the Nisqually glacier, navigating around open crevasses. It is hard to know which way to go when you can only see a few meters in either direction. We made some best guesses, but it slowed progress. We were running on fumes, counting breaths or steps between rests.
On the GPS, we could see a flat spot near the summit and made this our destination. It was 300 meters closer and less elevation gain than the summit. We were tired enough that this made a difference, and it was a flat spot.
As we finished setting up the tent and the rest of Camp Exhaustion, the clouds parted and we were treated to views of the summit. It looked so close… but oh well. We settled into the tent and started making dinner. Then came the thunder… The storm rolled in and brought some hail, kind of cute little snow balls, which melted nicely in the pot. I think we were too tired to run away even if lightning hit close by, but thankfully it stayed far away and we just curled up to sleeeeeep.
Sometime in the night the wind picked up. Serious wind. Strong enough to blow the tent against my face. Around 4am we realized that the tent was being buried by spin drift. Julien trudged out into the fierce wind and gallantly dug us out. The wind was so strong we didn’t really want to leave the tent even if it was past our leaving time. I started getting worried about the structural integrity of my tent so I sat up and used my back to support the tent. I fell asleep like that for a bit, woke up to find the spin drift in the vestibule had piled as high as my shoulder. I poked my head out to try to push it away a bit.
Eventually it became clear that the wind was not going to go away. However, the sky was clear so we decided to go anyway.
Taking down the tent was a bit scary, as I was really worried it would break or blow away. But we managed by leaving the entire tent staked out and then taking the downwind poles out of the sockets first and then the upwind ones. The tent was then flat on the ground and we could detach the fly and then the roll up the tent itself. Whew. We were packed and ready to go.
Just as we were getting the rope sorted, two other parties came into view, they had left Camp Hazard that morning with day packs. Seems things go way faster when you can see and are not carrying quite so much.
We enjoyed the view from the summit for a bit, took some pictures and then decided that it was probably better to get moving. We were going to hike down the guided route back to Camp Muir, as we figured it would be less stressful than going back down the Kautz Glacier.
It was less stressful, but I think that it was a bit longer. The entire route down was marked with little red flags and by hundreds of footsteps, so it was easy to follow. The path down was actually non-trivial and more convoluted than expected. It’s difficult to see the crevasses from above as they are all facing downhill, so we were happy to just follow the footpath.
The path crossed over some crevasses and winded its way past these gaping holes. Over a few sections of rocks as well. It was getting late and the snow was getting way too soft; there were a few sections where we needed to cross under some giant seracs. We just ran. Or in my case attempted to trudge faster. The views were lovely, though. The glaciers were impressive and the rocks had awesome layers in it from all times that lava had flowed down the sides of the mountain.
We finally came through the Gap and came into sight of Camp Muir. It’s an odd collection of wood and stone buildings perched on the ridge above the Muir Snowfield. It seemed really quiet when we arrived, but slowly people seemed to trickle out of the woodwork. They gathered around a standing table and seemed to be swapping storied about their summit attempts and making dinner at 5pm. We took a quick break and then kept on truckin’.
The rest of the trip down the snowfield was uneventful. We tried to figure out whether it was better to post-hole new holes or try to step into someone else’s post-holes. To be fair, they both kind of sucked. But we made it down. There were a few huge snow slides where people had been bum-sliding, but we no longer had our snow pants on, so we walked.
We arrived at the visitor center around 7pm and then turned in our climbing permit so that Search and Rescue wouldn’t be called. It was nice to see the car sitting where we had left it and we peeled off our socks and pulled on clean clothes. Now, all that was left was a long drive home and an uneventful border crossing.
It was a bit of an adventure, for sure, some solid type 2 fun, because I am already looking forward to the next possible sufferfest!
Here are an extra few thoughts about being on a mountain with a strong presence of guides and clients. Read at your own discretion, these are just my random thoughts and do not reflect the opinions of others.
Being on Rainier, it’s impossible to escape the fact that there are guided parties all over the place. The guides wand the route up the mountain, leading hundreds of people up the mountain each year. These people may have never climbed a hill or walked over a glacier. But for some reason they want to climb the majestic Mt. Rainier.
I guess I had never thought of paying someone to bring me up a mountain that I had no ability to climb myself. I had run into guided parties on Mt Blanc, where I watched them take clients up on super short ropes, and wondered then about why people would do this.
When we were climbing up to Camp Hazard we could see the full army of ants crawling up the Muir Snowfield to Camp Muir. Seriously it looked like some kind of invasion from our vantage point. So many people, so much traffic. Don’t we go up pointy things to stand on top of the world? I guess I never thought I would want to stand there with a ton of other people
So, I thought what kind of people are in these guided parties? Are they clueless, or entitled jerks? Are they people trying to learn how to climb? or people just wanting to do something different? I tried to listen to the guys standing around the table at Camp Muir, seeing what they were chatting about. Mostly the usual stuff, how did the other people find the route? What was the weather forecast? They asked each other about whether there were crevasse crossings on the route. Since I had just walked down it, I thought to myself, ‘Yes indeed…’.
I did catch the fact that as a client, they were not allowed to leave the dirt area around the buildings of Camp Muir. No wandering out on to the snow… could be dangerous out there.
On our way down the snowfield, we met a guy walking up. Turned out he was going to go up the other route as a client in 3 weeks and this was how he was getting ready. We asked him a few things and it turns out they spend one day learning the absolute basics of glacier travel and then 3 days to go up and down the mountain.
He seemed like a decent guy, not really some entitled jerk. Obviously not a mountaineer at all and didn’t seem to care that he wasn’t. But somehow I still can’t imagine paying about $1000 to be guided up. But I guess that’s just me.