Where: Mt. Rainier, Liberty Ridge
When: 28th June – 3rd July 2017
Who: Caitlin Schneider, Julien Renard, Enrique Colomés
This is the report of, probably, a precipitated trip to Mt. Rainier. Julien and Caitlin returned from Hawaii the 22nd, and we had the idea in our mind of doing a nice trip before my departure the 10th July. We realized that, opposite to the Rockies, weather forecast was excellent for Mt. Rainier: sunny and no showers for at least one week, albeit too hot, which was the only negative thing as you will see. So right after their arrival and me with tons of work in my last days, we prepared this “adventure” and we left Vancouver 28th July with the idea of climbing Liberty Ridge, spending one night near the summit and exploring the following day the ice caves under the crater.
Day 1: Getting to Rainier
This day we just drove from Vancouver to White River, where we camped. But crossing the border was exciting and full of risk, a lot of adrenaline… I should mention that I was bringing an apple and a pear, that following Julien and Caitlin’s advice I declared… But I forgot that I was bringing also some broccoli, carrots, lettuce and another apple. Nothing happened, so far so good.
Day 2: White River campground to Curtis ridge
Once we purchased our permits, we started going up the excellent Basin Glacier trail (there is no way to get lost at this point) and kept going in the direction of Saint Elmo Pass (2231m). Views were awesome, weather even better and we enjoyed an excellent lunch around 2pm (an excellent schedule for having lunch from my Spanish point of view).
From there, we descended to the Winthrop Glacier that we had to traverse. Some crevasses appeared, but it seemed to us that there was no need of roping up. After crossing this (long) glacier, we arrived at the Curtis Ridge around 6pm, where we camped , enjoying the views of Liberty Ridge and talking about which way to take. It seemed to us that everything was quite steep and that maybe we were a bit overweighted. Was it a good idea to spend an extra day to explore the ice caves? As “dessert” we had some Fireball. Some people think this is a luxury, but for me it is a requirement. By the way, just saying, but the whole evening and night we were hearing rocks falling.
Day 3: Thumb Rock
We left camp at 6am and made our way to the heavily crevassed Carbon glacier (walking, not rappelling as we read somewhere). Upon crossing an icy crevasse that required a bit of ice climbing skills, I realized that these guys have more ice experience than me. They did it in a comfortable way, but for me it was a sketchy section (not more than 3m, but still…). Anyway, after 1.45h navigating through crevasses big enough to swallow buses, we arrived at the base of Liberty ridge. Two other guys (named Shane and David as we discovered later) were also climbing this route and got started on the ridge while we enjoyed our snack break.
The bergshrund was easy to cross and the snow was perfect for climbing, but soon rocks started falling from the rock bands above us (the snow on top of the rocks melts and the water washes away the dirt holding the rocks in place). They were passing us too close, and when I say too close I mean that they sounded like an insect flying close by. That was not good. In fact, just before arriving Thumb Rock, we had another close call when Julien had to dodge a baseball-size rock rocketing down the slope. The worst was still to come…
We arrived at Thumb Rock camp (3100m) around 11.30am. It is a short day, but seriously, you do not want to keep going with all the rocks falling and Thumb Rock is in principle the only safe and flat place to pass the night. The slopes on either side of the ridge deflect the rocks coming down from the cliff above the camp. There we met the other party climbing the ridge, already settled in their tent.
Three options exist to move past Thumb Rock: and exposed snow slope on the left, one on the right after a traverse and a narrow gully going straight up (with a 5m AI3 section). From the bottom the right option had looked the best, maybe because even if there was a crevasse, there was no cliff below, and this is always somehow attractive. The gully did not have any ice and the waterfall sprouting out of it did not seem appealing. The left slope now looked more attractive as it is the most direct way, but we had doubts that we would be able to stay on snow the whole way. Rocks had apparently decided to stop their suicide runs for the day since none had come down in several hours, so Julien and Caitlin decided to scout the left route. We did not want to cross through rock, since it was extremely loose. I must say that Rainier is in my top 3 shitty rock places I have seen in my life, and I have been in many very bad rock places. They brought back good news and conveniently left a nice bootpack in place. I hope my friends in Spain never see that, but we had cuscus for dinner at 6pm, and went to bed around 8pm. I am perfectly aware that our alpine schedule requires such early bedtimes, but my body does not want to accept it. Anyway, the plan was to wake up at 3am in order to be above the Black Pyramid around sunrise, to mitigate the rock fall hazard, climb the final bergschrund early, summit and build a nice place to pass the night. Very nice plan, but …
But just after one hour, around 9pm, we all woke up to the telltale signs that some Rock party is about to begin (one without a hot tub). The day had been too warm and some rocks barreled down from the cliff directly above the campsite. We waited for probably 30s, which seemed more like 30min and went out of the tent. Chateau Hanlon (property of the illustrious VOC member that bears the same name) had taken some hits. For instance, one rock had decided to go airborne, had flown right between the two sides of the vestibule that we had left partially open at the top and had landed inside the tent where it had made a sizeable hole in the tent floor (15cm away from Caitlin’s head). Another one, the size of a large baking dish and completely oblivious to the slopes flanking the ridge came straight down the center. It would have shredded the tent and its occupants if a snow picket had not stopped it at the last moment.
The two other guys were also lucky. Judging by the tracks on the snow, a similar rock had passed 1m away from their tent. This express renovation program added 3 new ventilation shafts, but it could have been much worse.
We decided to move the tent further down, took our shovels and … built a wall, a trench, some aircraft carrier style cable arrestor and randomly planted our shovels and snow pickets around the tent! Eventually, we tried to sleep, although I guess none of us really did it, not me at least. We were all worried and when wind started blowing, our feeling didn’t improve.
Day 4: Liberty cap
We woke up around 3.30am and left around 5am. Later than expected, but we didn’t rest that much this night. The going was a bit slower than expected and we were struggling to find some momentum. This however got quickly remedied at dawn, when rocks immediately started their bombing runs while we were still traversing under the ridge (one hit Caitlin’s helmet and another one hit my arm, which now has a scar as a souvenir).
We managed to reach the top of the Black Pyramid (3800m) and then, finally, there was only snow and ice to deal with. We steadily gained elevation on the sustained 45º-50º slopes and began to feel the altitude. Around 4000m, I found some ice and after placing an ice screw, I waited the others. Julien lead this part using some ice crews, we were tired and considered that it was a good idea to be cautious on this section.
After having a big snack/lunch close to a filled crevasse (the only more or less comfortable place we found), we reached the upper bergschrund. To cross it involved going over a snow bridge, followed by a 3m vertical snow climb. After building a snow anchor, I decided to give it a shot, but after punching through the snow bridge and better realizing that it was extremely vertical and with snow (not ice) I did not feel comfortable, so Julien proposed to leave his backpack and go himself. He built and anchor at the top and then Caitlin went. She did not have any problem, even going with her backpack; of course she was not leading, but still… She actually made it look so easy that she came back down to pick up Julien’s backpack. After that it was my turn, the snow bridge held and I started to climb following Julien and Caitlin’s advices. It was hard for me. The rest of the way up was straightforward and we reached Liberty Cap (4294m) around 2pm took some photos and descended to the col between Liberty Cap and Columbia crest.
Julien and I started digging up camp while Caitlin was melting snow. Thank you Caitlin, I was so thirsty. Our expectations regarding the architectural layout of fort Hanlon shrank even faster than one’s manhood in an alpine lake. A 20cm bulletproof crust made it extremely difficult to excavate snow and after testing that digging at 4000m is exhausting, we set up the tent and realized that the spot was exactly the size of the tent. And when I say exactly, I mean that we had like 15cm in between the snow wall and the entrance. Some acrobatic moves were required to enter in the tent.
We had a delicious mashed potatoes dinner, with veggies, cheese and sausages, some Fireball and we went to sleep. Wow, it was excellent, no noises, nothing falling… Pfff, this night we slept perfectly, maybe a bit of headache, but nothing else.
Day 5: The ice caves
We lazily woke up at 6am and found ourselves at the summit around 9am. A very sunny day, without clouds and blessed with very little wind and awesome views. There were quite a lot of people at this point. We descended in the crater looking for the caves entrance and immediately saw some fumes coming out of a hole. We went there and after a snack break dove right in. The tunnel was hot, humid and subsequently very foggy.
Narrow at first, the passage widened considerably upon reaching the main tunnel that circumnavigates the whole crater, roughly 80m below the surface. At some point I think some chambers were around 8m high and 8m wide. In some places hot air escaped from thermal vents (too hot to put your hand near them), testimony of the ongoing geothermal activity. After walking in the tunnel for a while (around 1.5h), we found a lake where we decided to swim (Tom you need that one in your list). I thought it was going to be a bit warm, but obviously not, it was f****ing cold.
We put on our clothes and decided to go up the nearest tunnel. This time we needed our ice tools to get out to the surface. Once out, we realized that we come up on the other side of Columbia crest, across the whole crater. We had left our backpacks at the other entrance, and I had also left my sunglasses. It was so bright that I closed my eyes, grabbed the end of Caitlin’s ice axe and let her guide me back to our starting point.
After a while, we started descending to camp Schuman (2900m). The only thing to be said about the descent is that there were a lot of crevasses, people, and that I broke another snow bridge, after Julien had crossed it by the way. Julien self-arrested in a very nice and (sorry Julien) unnecessary way, since I was able to stop with my arms. But this crevasse was deep, I was very happy not to have fallen in it. Caitlin managed to cross it a bit further by jumping over it.
We arrived around 3pm at Camp Schuman and after testing the stinkiest outhouse I have ever been in we kept going to White River. We arrived to the top of the Inter glacier and Caitlin got very excited about the bum sliding tracks on the snow. Although Julien and I were not very excited because we did not want to get wet, after seeing how Caitlin was descending, we did the same. Wow, that has been probably one of the best and longest bum descents of my entire life. So funny, and it was not straight, so you had to twist your hips in order to turn. We lost around 250m of elevation this way, almost to the bottom of Inter glacier. A couple more hours (around 6pm) and we arrived at the car, where we opened some of the Rainier beers that we had left in the car. It was late enough that we decided to spend another night there, so we made dinner and finished the fireball.
Ironically, we learned at the ranger station the following day that they had started telling people not to do the Liberty ridge route one day after we had left because of the rockfall hazard…
Thanks Julien and Caitlin for such a nice trip!