A ski descent
Dates: May 19-21, 2018
Participants: Duncan Pawson, Tobias Huxol, Justin Krawetz
Note from the author: I apologize for my tardiness. I was debating whether or not to write a TR for this trip as it’s a relatively common ski descent and many a TR exist. That said, fun was had and gnar was shredded so I figured it’s worth it. Also to my knowledge, no VOC specific TR has been published on the subject. Hopefully I still get all the “facts” straight :p
Not much to say here. Tobias and I left Vancouver at a very leisurely hour (somewhere in the late morning/early afternoon) and met Justin in Abbotsford who had made the drive up from Princeton. I left my car at a park-and-ride lot and we hopped into Justin’s car. After an uneventful border crossing, we drove to Mt Rainer National Park where we parked and ninja camped at the Paradise lot (1600m). The sound of rain pattering the tent and draining down the catch basin in the parking lot made for some nice white noise to fall asleep to, all the while Justin’s car provided some much needed stealth cover for our left flank.
A relatively chill day. Alarm woke us up to a thick layer of fog around 7 or 8am. We had a quick bite to eat, packed, drove to the visitor center to use the washrooms (cause we were too lazy to walk), backed up into some dude’s car, drove back to our “campsite”, and then we were off.
Skis were donned and we began making our way up parallel to the Skyline Trail. It wasn’t long before we dropped off the ridge to the base of the Nisqually Glacier. It was also at this point when we had breached the fog and began to rise above the low pressure system, allowing us to observe, in full, the breadth of the mountain in front of us. We continued onto the lower portion of the Nisqually and began making our way across, traversing at distance from some gnarly looking large seracs (there were many of these to come). The crevasses on this lower section of the mountain weren’t too much to take notice of. They were fairly small and easy to cross. We were off the lower section of the Nisqually pretty quick and onto Wilson Glacier. After crossing Wilson, we hit the ridgeline (mix of rock and snow) which we followed, more or less, until camp at 2800m.
Arguably the most luxurious backcountry camp, we were greeted with a bone dry, flat section of ridge line. The sun was beaming down and the cloud inversion over the valley was ravishing. With temps well in the low 20s (°C not °F) it was T-shirt and man-pri (man + capris) weather. Shirts and pants rolled up, it was time to sit, eat, drink water, and then repeat this for the next couple hours until bed time. Justin engineered a quality water reservoir using the fly of my tent to contain and melt snow. Two other parties were with us at camp, one planning to go up the Fuhrer Finger and another going up the Kautz Glacier. To avoid carpal tunnel from intense typing, the Fuhrer Finger bros will herein be referred to as the FF bois.
We arose to the dimly lit glacier and the beautiful cloud inversion that we had enjoyed the day prior. This cloud inversion remained for the entirety of the ascent and receded when we began descending. Perfectly planned.
We ended up leaving camp around 5am. FF Bois started a bit earlier than us, but we quickly passed them by snagging the high ground (they traversed low to avoid a potentially weak snow bridge – the bridge was quite solid so we made the decision to cross it).
The majority of the elevation was gained via bootpacking, playing a bit of a leap frog with the FF bois. Watching the sunrise at the top of the finger was incredible and throughout the whole day, we were greeted with STELLAR views.
From camp until the top of the finger, when we rejoined the upper section of the Nisqually, we went un-roped. Few bridges existed during this lower portion (those that did were solid) and we agreed that roping up steep sections could prove more dangerous without placing pro to arrest a fall. The finger itself was the steepest part of the ascent and consisted of 40° snow for ~600m. The top of the finger opened up into a wider slope, where the angle eased off a bit.
During this lower portion (camp to upper Nisqually), Tobias was struggling a bit with his calves feeling the burn. Fair enough, given this was the steepest portion (of the ascent) and “should be the most strenuous”. Of course the same couldn’t be said for Justin and I.
When we reached the upper Nisqually (~3600m), the glacier kicked up the gnar a bit, with many large crevasses and seracs. Justin began to feel the elevation at this point. We roped up through this entire section. Initially we continued with the boot pack until the angle softened enough that we figured we could do it with skis (Wahoo no more bootbacking!). With one significant crevasse barring progressing, we re-strapped the skis back on the pack and pitched it out over the lip of the crevasse. I led up (~7m) and belayed Tobias, then Justin, with a body belay. Skis were put back on and we continued up. Skinning here was full on, as a fall could mean slipping into the monster crevasse below as we traversed along the slope. We decided to unrope for this short section, as we weren’t confident that we could arrest one another if one were to seriously slip. Snow quality was decent for skinning at this point, so it was easier than anticipated (if it had been bad we likely would have boot packed). FF bois decided to rope up, and the faff was real. Interestingly, they figured we were the unsafe ones as they tripped over their ropes, with no pro, above a large crevasse.
As we gained elevation, progress slowed due to mild altitude impairment. At 4000m I started to feel the altitude (until then I was fine, but this was my first time climbing above 3600m and I wasn’t sure how my body would react). We decided to take a short break and melt some snow. I fell asleep. 3L of water and a quick 15min power nap later and we were off. This is where the real struggle began. Although the glacier continually kicked back in intensity as we rose higher, so did my ability to use my legs. I was glad to see that Justin was in the same boat. Tobias on the other hand was going faster than before (WTF!?). I felt like I was in one of those dreams where you try to run from impending doom but you just simply can’t. It was an odd experience. I didn’t feel sick, just unable to move fast. Around 4200m I needed a 5 sec breather every 10m. EFFICIENT. If I tried to push 20 meters, then I did feel sick. So on Justin and I went: 10m, 5 sec break, etc. We envied Tobias’s superior red blood cell count.
Eventually we reached 4300 meters and crested the dome of Rainier. Although technically the easiest terrain, it certainly felt like the hardest, and the last 92 meters taunted us every step of the way. Justin remarked that if we don’t summit today, we’re never going to have a “better time”. He was right. Weather and snow conditions were perfect. At this point we had never even put on a jacket (save a short period of time in the morning). We started and remained in base layers pretty much from the get-go on day 1. Tobias stormed onto the summit where he had to wait for us for ~30 mins (yes we suck). Of course, as we were doing the final 92m push, we spot ski-mo bro breaching Point Success – huffing and puffing his way up to the summit. Having an 80m advantage on him, there was no way he was going to do 92m in the time I did 12. I was able to narrowly pull it off as he pulled up to the summit just after me and just before Justin. In an unintended, self-deprecating manner, I asked him his time. “6hrs starting from the bridge below the paradise lot (~1400m)”. We had done 8 hrs from camp at 2800m. His skis were about half the width of any of ours though, so really he was slow.
Finally on the summit (1pm), we were enthralled. Views were still amazing and no one puked. When I stood still it felt as though I could be at sea level. I was mesmerized by the altitude effects, I had never experienced anything like it. Interestingly, I didn’t feel the same effects on the ski down. For the most part I was fine (save minor discomfort at the higher elevations).
We skied down and caught up to the FF bois who had attained the summit and left before Justin and I. We were going to ski down our ascent path (having made mental notes of the large crevasses/seracs and the path to take). However, before we (Justin, Tobias and I) as a group could make a decision we got caught up in following the FF bois over the face, one of them claiming he had skied this route before and it’s better/safer. In the end, we agreed it probably was better. Safer, however? Questionable.
Skiing the face was RAD! It was pretty full-on skiing. While lots of room for turns, the slope was ~45° with many a large crevasse looming down slope. We made note of this and decided it was a no-fall zone. The snow was great, however, and we breezed over the slope with relative ease. We let FF bois gain some distance so that they weren’t in our path (it was at this point we also realized they really didn’t know where they were going and we should make our own decisions). At this point however, we were pretty much stuck to following the same descent as them.
We continued onto ridge above the Nisqually where they were waiting. We asked them what was up and they seemed overly concerned about little amounts of sluffing, yet seemed unware of the dangers of what they just skied (i.e. the face), and didn’t put much thought into what lay beyond the rock that was blocking our vision. One of them nervously led. We followed, shouting to each other when it was safe to begin skiing. It was clear at this point that they were in over their heads and they asked if we could lead for the next section(s). To quote them, “We’re married and have kids, so do you guys mind leading?” I’m still not sure if that was a joke.
I led the first section stopping at the first safe outcrop where I signaled to the others I was clear. Justin led the next section, which ended up being crevassed-out. He signaled for us to come but to go slow. I skied down to him, followed by Tobias. We instructed the others to wait as the crevasse looked impassable. We discussed our options. I suggested we climb up about 10 meters and cross over the rock band to see what the passage on the other side looked like. Justin proposed a more radical, albeit more efficient method. We huck the crevasse.
Tobias and I toyed with the idea, but I was ultimately against it, as failing to send the crevasse would result in, at best, a very difficult crevasse rescue or, at worse, and also most likely, death. Justin was confident however. We told him the decision was his to make, but if he were to do it, to be 100% confident. With balls of steel, Justin side-stepped up a couple feet and then straight lined it towards the crevasse. Adding a bunny hop at the end to give him extra sending power, he hucked it over the gaping crack, and just made it (the middle of his skis hitting the lip). The thing was monstrous. The crevasse itself was probably 5m across with Justin’s total distance of flight being upwards of 6m. Luckily, there were no further hazards after that crevasse as he didn’t stick the landing. To our benefit, from Justin’s vantage point he was able to spot a nice looking bridge over the crevasse on the other side of the rock band. If having one person huck the crevasse seemed stupid, having another go (given the narrow landing Justin demonstrated) would be irresponsible, especially now that we knew of a much safer, more reasonable passage. Tobias and I boot packed up the 10 meters to cross the rock band.
We signaled to the others to come down and stop at the rock band. We waited for them to arrive so that they wouldn’t end up in the crevasse. They arrived, and Tobias led. The bridge was solid and the slope was quite enjoyable to ski. Unfortunately putting skis back on the rock band, proved quite precarious and borderline sketchy – with it being decently steep and crevasses looming at the bottom of each slope on either side. Of course, it was also this exact moment when the heel piece of my binding decided to not clip in. No matter, I can teleski and was going to head down regardless as I figured remaining perched on this rockband was sketchier than tele-ing down a steep slope. But of course, I let one of the FF bois convince me this was a bad idea. In hindsight, the bad idea was that I let him convince me, as I attempted to fix my binding in a not-so-comfortable position. I told the other FF bois to go on ahead. Unable to properly fix my binding, I put my skis back on (one still in tele-mode). Almost humorously, last FF boi sees this and tells me it’s sketchy and I should fix it. Annoyed at the fact that I had spent any time trying to fix this, I replied with “no it’s fine” and went down with no altercations.
I skied over to Justin and Tobias, explained the delay, and apologized for the faff. We agreed to wait and let the FF bois gain much more distance on us so we could remain in our original groups. After all, we still had a decent amount of elevation to lose and the skiing had been pretty good. We were looking forward to what was to come.
Eventually we departed, and shredded turns down the wide, less gnarly slope, towards the finger. Skiing in the finger was pristine, and we were able to rocket down it to camp, passing the FF bois at the bottom of the finger. While technically a couloir, the finger is quite wide and allows for real good turns in the right conditions.
Back at camp, we knew we had passed most of the objective hazards, save the sun of course – its UV death rays were still beaming down upon us. Justin’s face was testament to that, and proof that sunscreen need be reapplied far more frequent than once. Burnt face and all, we were stoked, especially those of us that wouldn’t undergo large-scale face peeling. We packed up quickly and enjoyed the rest of the descent which was still quite good. It wasn’t until we surpassed the lower section of the Nisqually that the snow finally turned rotten and the slush gripped our skis like glue. No matter, until this point, the skiing had been unbelievable.
We skied as far as we could until we donned skins one last time (except Tobias of course who is a strong no-skin-during-descent advocate). Back at the parking lot, we cracked some warm brews and admired our line which was clearly visible from the Paradise lot. The trip had been exceptional.
Having to go for the alpine start to work the following day, Justin slept the majority of the drive back, while I took to the wheel. Back in Canada, I was happy to see my car had not been towed from the lot (I was unsure if you were allowed to park there for multiple days). We shook hands, parted ways, and were off.