Pinned down by high winds and zero visibility in a hastily dug snow cave on the exposed summit saddle, I hunkered deeper into my sleeping bag, shivering and drifting in and out of sleep. The wind and spindrift were whistling through the gaps in our packs stuffed in the cave entrance in front of me. When my body finally relaxed into a partial sleep, I would be awakened with a hump on the head by my jostling cave mate's feet as we were four in a cave barely large enough to fit two.
Tim Hult, Doug Vickerman, my tried and true adventure partner, and I anxiously set about planning our intended route up Mt. Rainier's Liberty Ridge -- a Grade V, Class 4 route on the North side of Mt. Rainier and one of the popular "Fifty Classic Climbs of North America." Even with its classic status, it remains one of the more difficult routes to the summit, crossing the Winthrop and heavily crevassed Carbon Glaciers and then climbing the continuously exposed and committing Liberty Ridge, Mt. Rainier's steepest major cleaver. The first ascent of 1935 remained unrepeated for over 20 years.
Just days before our departure a front moved into the Pacific Northwest and the weather broke for the worse. An old friend at Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI) revealed that no one was even close to summiting and avalanche conditions were very risky, at best, with huge slides recently occurring on all sides of the mountain. RMI guides were not even able to push a rail far beyond Camp Muir on the notoriously populated Disappointment Cleaver Route. In similar conditions last spring, Tim and I were forced to bag it at the last minute and wait another year. We postponed again.
A week later, the weather improved and the conditions looked promising. It was Doug and my only chance until next season. Unfortunately, Tim, who originally planted the seed of our climb, was tied to his new duties as an international business man and would not be able to go. Doug and I reluctantly decided to go for it. Tim's good advice and previous planning did, however, provide us with much resourceful information.
On Friday, May 31, we packed quickly, jumped on a plane after work and arrived late night in Seattle to crash in an old climbing partner's pad in downtown Seattle. Last report -- conditions were stabilizing and the snow was consolidating. We were destined to time it perfectly! We might be one of the first ascents this season of Liberty Ridge.
Early the next morning we were off and, fortunately, chose to take the northern route, 410, unaware that the 123 on the east side was closed due to slides which would have cost us at least half a day. We stopped at the White River Ranger Station to purchase our "high mountain use permits," or climbing permits. As we filled out the registration form, detailing all of our mountain experience and the equipment we were packing, the three rangers stood around us in interrogation formation eyeing us suspiciously and sizing us up. Their thoughts, from years of experience, were written all over their faces... "Are these guys going to epic?" Are we going to have to rescue their asses? Do they know what they're getting into?" After seeing our rock climbing background and California residence, their suspicion further increased, judging by their faces and their response that every year at least one group of accomplished Californian rock climbers gets over their head in the unfamiliar alpine environment of Rainier. We had climbed Orizaba over Christmas, a handful of steep couloirs and alpine routes in the high Sierras and been practicing snow anchors and crevasse rescue on Shasta. We felt prepared for the climb. With a chemistry for good judgment between us and having tested our wits together many times before, always pushing the envelope on our abilities, we remained unintimidated by the nature of the climb. However, we did retain a deep respect for the unpredictable nature of the mountain. The rangers finally bid us good luck and we were on our way.
We geared up in the White River parking lot at 4,400' elevation and headed up the Inter Fork of the White River around noon, following a partially snow covered trail. In an effort to reduce weight and, considering the conditions, we each carried only one ice ax, a picket, shovel, and handful of ice screw and carabiners with enough gear each to enact a solo crevasse rescue on a pulley system. In addition to our usual winter gear, the weight added up fast to around 50 pounds. Only 10,000 more feet to go! The thought of carrying our entire loads over the summit was not an enticing one either since we would be making a round trip, returning via the Emmons Glacier. No lightweight summit day on this trip! Our hardest decision, one we might end up regretting later, was to leave behind the bulky two person North Face expedition tent. Instead, we each packed a lightweight Gortex bivy sack. We would need to pick our bivy sites carefully.
We reached Glacier Basin late afternoon to catch the last of the tele-skiers carving lines down the Inter Glacier. A couple graceful lines complemented the mostly survival turns as the fresh snow of a week before puttied under the current warm front. The sound of collapsing snow and rockfall surrounded us. The fresh remains of many small slides along the sides of the basin were a constant reminder to stay alert and choose our path well. The fresh snow dumped just a week before was now loosening up under the current warm front. We could hear the water flowing beneath the snow and occasionally would post-hole a leg through a melted out section.
We carefully followed the lowest angled path around a recent snow slide up to St. Elmo Pass, at 7400', named after St. Elmo's Fire that was viewed there some time ago. I was relieved to reach the pass as each step felt like it might release the whole slope. We met group of three from Vermont, geared to the hilt with rock climbing, big wall and alpine equipment, prepared for what looked like an expedition style siege of the mountain. They didn't know what to expect so they brought all of it! I was amazed they had even made it to the pass! It turns out the group had made it to the base of Curtis ridge the day before, witnessed the largest avalanche of their life and immediately bailed.
The Vermont group now spread their gear and tent out over the only obvious bivy spot and dug a separate king sized snow cave in the last remaining flat spot. They kept suggesting different bivouac spots on precarious rock outcroppings below the ridge, making their request for privacy quite obvious. They wanted to sleep in the tent yet keep the snow cave unoccupied in case the weather turned bad. In frustration, we moved up the ridge and dug out a comfortable platform large enough to fit two in single file between a split in two blocks of rock jutting out of the ridge top.
A beautiful sunset and spectacular views of the Winthrop Glacier in raking light entertained us while we prepared dinner. Occasionally, at almost regular intervals, I would hear a spine chilling low rumbling thunder coming from over the Curtis Ridge. It had to be the avalanches the Vermont group witnessed. I thought it must be cutting loose from the notoriously dangerous Willis Wall, rising 4000 feet above the Carbon Glacier between the Liberty and Curtis ridges. I hoped its runout would allow safe passage to the toe of the Liberty Ridge or at least it would be regular enough we could pass under it safely tomorrow.
It rained lightly that night, to my surprise, but the morning brought back a clear sky. Typical Cascade weather I suppose. We roped up for the first time and crossed the Winthrop in the early frozen hours of the morning, following the continuous tobacco stains from one of the Vermont climbers. I recalled the culprit saying in an Appalachian drawl, haven't seen a lady chew tobacco before, eh? Quite frankly, never so tenaciously I thought.
Once across the Winthrop and its handful of crevasses, we then contoured around the wide lower expanse of Curtis Ridge. At 7,500 feet, on the edge of the Curtis Ridge, we received our first glimpse of the Carbon Glacier. The sight was awesome! Huge twisted and gnarled ice blocks and gaping crevasses filled my entire view. Far above, Liberty Ridge rose steeply up the mountain topped off by the overhanging ice cliffs of Liberty Cap Glacier and on the left the intimidating Willis Wall extended treacherously above the Carbon. There was not a cloud in the sky. It was a fantastic alpine wonderland full of white light framed against the deep blue hue of the rich sky. This is what I had come to experience and it was incredible to actually stand in the middle of it all - thriving to be alive. The whole place was alive!
With much anxiousness, we scrambled down to the glacier, tightened up our harnesses and rechecked our gear. We had agreed I would take the lead since I was lighter and it would be easier for Doug to pull me out of a crevasse should I plummet in figuring the leader has higher odds of going in than the trailer. I was also a bit slower and it made the rope management more efficient this way. Doug's ex-career as a national biathelete tends to force a good pace. To access the glacier, I had the choice of either navigating through a tight maze of crevasses and sinking snow or taking my chances walking under an overhanging section of loose cliff cemented together with mud and showing significant recent activity. I chose the shortest and quickest path, through the cliffs. A half an hour later, safely moving up the middle of the glacier, I heard a loud crash behind us. We turned around to see part of the cliff we just passed under give away and fall onto our footsteps! Initiation to the true unpredictability of serious alpine! These are the odds of the alpine game. Accept them before you play. We can increase our odds through judgment, good timing, awareness, and experience but sometimes it comes down to just plain luck.
Far in front of us we could make out two dots, climbers, making their way up the middle of the glacier toward Liberty Ridge. We continued, following in their steps, or rather steps that a stronger group of four in front of them were now plowing far up the ridge. They had also wanded a safe passage through the maze of crevasses higher up the glacier. I felt satisfied enough following their trail and making it across the glacier without falling in! We continued straight up the middle and then followed the footsteps and wands around huge gaping crevasses, some over 100 feet wide. Others we jumped over as they disappeared into a black void beneath our feet. A few required walking down into their depths and up the other side. The snow still covered many, showing the long narrow depressions stretching over hundreds of feet.
While we walked, constant snow and rockfall slides spontaneously broke away in the distance from the sides of the ridges and Willis Wall. The glacier would occasionally moan as it shifted under our feet and loud crashes of collapsing seracs would always turn my head back toward the ice fall. Eventually we became accustomed to these torrents of nature with only the larger crashes turning our heads to look. The line we followed avoided the main icefall area by staying to the center of the Carbon until high up at 8800' where we cut west, out of harm's way from the Willis Wall avalanche runout, weaving through a network of crevasses to the base of Liberty Ridge.
The security of stepping onto solid ground was relaxing. I was glad to get off the glacier with the sun quickly warming up the snow. Doug was even happier to get off after my continuous delays to take photos of each new crevasse we walked past. Doug had a more practical attitude of you've seen one, you've seen em all, lets get the heck off this thing. The security of the ridge did not last long however.
We had made good time and were closing fast on the two climbers who were now growing larger on the ridge above us. It was around noon. CRASH, ROAR and then THUNDER!!! It sounded as if the whole world had cut loose! We both looked up to see impending doom stare us in the face. The feeling you get as you reluctantly witness horrifying events beyond your control, in rare times of your life, overwhelmed us. I had felt it years earlier when I watched Gordon Smiley go up in a ball of flames when his race car disintegrated into the wall in front of us at the Indianapolis Speedway.
It was an AVALANCHE! Not just any avalanche, but a granddaddy of avalanches. The ice cliffs on the overhanging Liberty Cap Glacier had spontaneously cut loose, sending down thousands of tons of ice and taking with it huge amounts of snow and rock as it thundered down the mountain directly toward the two climbers above us! Gigantic plumes of pulverized ice and snow rose hundreds to possibly a thousand feet into the air as it continued to pick up momentum racing down the 4000' drop.
Totally unsurvivable was the absolute outcome of that avalanche if one were to be caught in its deadly grip! I feared for those two climbers above and thought how helpless they were as we watched the avalanche take its own path down the mountain, undeterred by what lay in its way. I began to question our own safety and thought about turning, tail between legs, and running like the wind. Could it overtake the entire ridge? We waited further to see what path it would take. It was all in slow motion. Paralyzing, terrifying, but yet at the same time spectacular and amazing! The sheer power of nature was being demonstrated right before our eyes and I could barely grasp it. I looked again at the climbers still motionless and the avalanche quickly framing them from behind. I started yelling to the climbers under my breath and possibly out loud, "Get the hell out of there!!!," then began pleading with the avalanche not to overrun them. In circumstances like that, I think your basic survival instincts take over, not just for you, but for life in general, and you totally empathize or connect with those in trouble, thinking... knowing... that it could as easily be you.
As luck had it again, the avalanche began to take a slow westward turn as the natural drainage features of the wall shifted its flow. It disappeared behind the ridge and rumbled to a halt while the plumes continued to rise and then disperse. What a show they must have had!
We continued on up the crest of the ridge, safely out of way. As we reached the point where our nameless climbers witnessed their harrowing show, another band of ice cliff ripped loose from above thundering down the mountain. This one even larger. In equal amazement and now with the assurance of safety, I uneasily watched the power unfold in front of us. The sheer power of it vibrated my chest cavity like standing in front of the rack speakers at a rock concert. I managed to take a series of pictures this time. A few minutes later yet another equally powerful avalanche cuts loose on Willis Wall on the east side of Liberty Ridge. We are center stage, the power of nature surrounding us on our island of security, now both grinning from ear to ear in a childlike state of astonishment.
We reached the saddle above Thumb Rock at 3:00 p.m. and caught up to the exhilarated climbing pair. Rick and Julian turn out to be from North Carolina, a very friendly pair with a heavy Carolinian drawls. Both were accomplished big wall climbers, but as the rangers predicted, not very experienced in the alpine environment. Rick had some previous experience on mixed terrain and was introducing the exhausted Julian to the world of alpine. As with most climbers, they were determined to summit and prepared to hack through. They decided to push on after their break. We decided to bivy at the saddle at 10,700' and push on early next morning, heeding the advice that bivy sites were very limited and exposed above. We dug a comfortable snow shelter under warm sunny skies, cooked dinner and developed an avalanche rating system complete with oohs and ahs. Just like watching fireworks on the Fourth of July.
In the distance, we could see other features projecting out of the northern horizon such as Mt. Baker, Glacier Peak and the jagged ridges of the North Cascades. Other sites were not as heartwarming such as the outstretched landscape of logged mountains. It appeared as if a giant out-of-control lawn mower had rolled over the area in automatic mode, leaving behind a tangled web of clear cut deforestation. This pattern continued for as far as the eye could see in every direction.
We woke up to an alpine start the next morning and found the snow to have iced over in the cold predawn temperatures. We headed up toward the narrow gully to our right that appeared to be the only option of climbing through the rock step above. It was solid ice! I had more experience setting ice and snow anchors, so immediately set my ice ax and equalized it with an ice screw giving Doug the rest of the screws for the lead. I didn't even know if Doug had placed a screw before, but gave him the quick rundown and was totally confident in his abilities. He seems to have the uncanny ability to pick things up almost immediately. We each had one ax and I needed mine to follow, so he was further handicapped with only one ax on 50+ degree ice, not to mention full packs! The angle tapered off about 15 feet away to around 45 degrees. I chipped away a step with my crampons, weighted the anchors and hung back of the slings into a secure stance as Doug led through the crux of the ridge and ran out the rope. We were really in our element, putting our technical skills to the test in the unforgiving alpine environment. We came to up the challenge, and it didn't disappoint!
As the dawn light began to brighten the sky, I noticed for the first time a broken layer of clouds sweeping around from the southwest. As I recalled from the guidebook, this wasn't a good sign! Doug signaled from the end of the rope. I followed and ran out the next length of rope, placing our only two pickets of the trip, reaching the top of the step.
We stayed roped together and continued up the ridge with expansive views on either side. Small patches of loose windswept rock would sometimes slow our pace; however, most of the ridge was covered by semi-consolidated snow with each step sinking down to around the ankle. Doug set a steady pace and I followed a third of a rope length behind. Protection wasn't necessary as the rope was for arresting a partner or ourselves should one of us slip.
By mid morning we reached the ridge crest near the base of a rock formation known as the Black Pyramid. The exposure was awesome, however the winds had increased enough that we sought shelter for a short break. The snow was beginning to loosen up under the midday radiation which made our traverse across this part of the ridge a bit dicey. The snow released under our feet would ball up and roll down the slope creating small funnel type slides. We dug into a sheltered spot in the rocks to grab a bite to eat and plan the rest of the day. As we looked out, the weather wasn't getting any better. The layer of low, broken, coastal-like clouds continued to pour in from the southwest and now covered the entire western horizon. A cloud cap had enshrouded the summit down to 13,000' and was slowly descending. All in all, it did not look that bad considering the Cascades reputation for less than ideal weather. It looked like it could be just afternoon weather moving in and might possibly stabilize into dreariness and not a full-on storm. We were not familiar with the intricate weather patterns of the Pacific Northwest, so were left to guessing. We figured a full-on storm that lasted a significant amount of time might take more than a day to develop, leaving us more than enough time to summit and descend safely. We decided to push on keeping a close eye on the weather.
Above us stretched 800 feet of continuously steep 50-55 degree snow following along side the rock cliffs leading up to where Liberty Ridge merged with Liberty Cap Glacier. We decided to stay roped, confident that we could self arrest in the less than ideal snow and up to 50 degree slopes. The North Carolina duo did not follow suit and unroped as the leader steamed away leaving his partner to grovel up alone. We shortly passed the trailing partner, yelling encouraging words as he followed behind, still very determined. I worked to keep up with Doug's pace and high steps, trying to establish a rhythm in the thinning air. Looking past the steep rock cliffs that dropped off immediately to our right, the vast carbon glacier drainage filled my view. I had to watch my step carefully not to catch a crampon on the steep slope. The consequence might be a very long tumble thousands of feet down the edge of Willis Wall onto the Carbon Glacier, possibly taking my partner with me if we failed to arrest. I hoped he was watching his step as well.
After a long while of kicking steps and sucking air, we finally reached the top of the ridge. Pulling over the final section, I was greeted by the wind again. It appeared to pick up out of nowhere in an attempt to blast us off the mountain. Where the hell did that come from?, I wondered. The temperature seemed to drop 30 degrees in a matter of minutes and I was quickly chilled to the bone.
We and the North Carolinians merged into one group without much thought. Rick, Doug, and I huddled together to formulate a plan of action. At the same time, the visibility quickly dropped to he tens of feet as the cloud cap descended over us and snow began to fall. Everything seemed to deteriorate at once, instantly. It looked bleak and our options were extremely limited! Down climbing the ridge would be much more dangerous and time consuming than our ascent, not to mention a pain. We were already at 12,800 only 1,300 feet from the summit of Liberty Cap. Our quickest and shortest way back, by far, was over the top. I thought of digging in, however, there was no place for a snow cave and it was bitterly cold. As we huddled together, we had to yell at the top of our lungs to communicate. It was very basic, using one syllable words with a lot of arm gestures. The only option, one that we all agreed on, was to keep moving up and find a way over the top.
I consulted a page from the guide book which read, then climb westward over a bergschrund to bypass the upper ice cliffs for the final trudge to Liberty Cap. How far west? And what ice cliffs? The Liberty Cap Glacier ice cliffs? We were already beyond them. No features were visible above through the white-out conditions; however, we found a trace of footprints leading up and to the west in the quickly drifting snow. We set off following the prints, barely distinguishable, as the visibility dwindled. We soon lost the prints in the spindrift and fresh snow and were left to follow our gut instincts. We felt we were far enough west and started heading straight up as we could sporadically catch glimpses of ice walls to our west as the visibility drifted in and out. The rope disappeared into the thick fog with Doug tied to its end somewhere in front of me. My depth perception was lost in the total whiteness of my world. If it wasn't for the tracks I left behind, I would have thought I was standing still.
I followed, keeping an eye open for more prints, hoping a hole in the visibility would allow us to distinguish features around us. The slope was very steep, around 60 degrees, although we were getting better purchase in the fresh powder that had been falling for a couple hours at this altitude. It appeared as if we were following a drainage of sorts up the mountain, and I began to wonder about avalanche potential as the snow continued to accumulate. The visibility improved for a few seconds affording me a glimpse of more ice cliffs to our east, now on both sides. With this new discovery, we reviewed our options -- continue up or descend and move further to the west and try again. Both were just guesses, one not any better than the other, so we pushed on either to find a way to the top or be turned back by a dead end to try plan B. Decisions were not easy however. Your mind constantly played games with you, always wanting to second guess your judgment. Stakes were high and wrong decisions would be penalized by hard work, altitude gained in vain, and more time on the mountain. That wasn't a very desirable outlook in these conditions.
The North Carolinians, following in our footsteps, began to get anxious. "Are you sure this is the way? Do you see anything?" They didn't seem to have any better ideas so they followed the security of our trail, staying together for safety. Definitely a good call. I sensed a growing anxiety and yelled back, this is the way, it'll go! not knowing myself. We would make it work, somehow. We always do I thought. As the angle increased and the ice walls closed in, I too was growing suspicious of where this was leading. My worst fears were confirmed as a quick hole in the visibility revealed an overhanging 50 foot ice cliff directly above us! A dead end! I wondered how long before a chunk of it was to collapse and avalanche down our drainage. I kicked around the snow under my feet to investigate any sign of previous avalanche debris, but none was found. The snow and wind would cover it up quickly.
We kept climbing toward the dead end, determined to find a way through. Up left, Doug and I spotted what looked like a break in the cliff and climbed up to investigate. It was too covered with suspicious looking fissures and sagging snow to safely investigate so we retreated beneath the ice cliff where a platform big enough to hold four existed. I immediately drove in two ice screws and attached a safety line; although I doubted whether the ice wall was consolidated enough to hold our weight.
The North Carolinians arrived shortly behind us anchoring themselves in and unshouldering their packs. Lying back in the damp conditions attempting to avoid constant dripping from above, I couldn't help but ponder the grimness of our current position under tons of overhanging ice. One of the guys made a comment in his warm North Carolinian drawl that he felt much safer with all of us here, but I thought to myself that's just more people to get clobbered by this ice cliff when it collapses. As I further checked my screw placements I noticed that our platform was only a couple feet thick and partially overhanging a deep moat between the ice wall and the snow slope. It did lend one interesting idea however. I thought if the ice cliff above started to collapse, I would take my chances by jumping into the moat on my screw placement hoping the ice would pass over us.
After about 45 long minutes, the visibility finally lifted to around 50 feet and Doug set out to investigate our last option on belay. I belayed the last of the rope out, then followed. It did indeed provide our escape! Rick and Julian followed on belay and we all climbed the steep headwall, jamming holes with our fists deep into the snow in front of us and using them as steps below, climbing ladder-like up the snowy embankment. I estimated the angle to be around 70 degrees, slowly tapering off as we progressed.
Almost magically the cloud cap lifted as we neared the summit of Liberty Cap. I looked down at the North Carolinians below and could see the entire ridge spectacularly framed behind them. My anticipation of the summit quickly carried me the final steps to the top. We reached the Liberty Cap summit, approximately 14,150' and the logical conclusion of Liberty Ridge, in the late afternoon. We snapped our summit shots in sunny skies, wisping clouds, and dramatic views, then roped up again to cross over the summit saddle between Liberty Cap and the true summit, Columbia Crest. We decided against bagging the true summit this late in the day leaving it for another adventure.
With one last memorable glance, I spotted beautiful cloud formations spiraling their way up the Tahoma Glacier to the southwest, then we were off. I took the lead, leaning into the wind to walk a straight line. Just as I stepped down onto the saddle the clouds overtook us in a strong gust of wind, knocking me off balance and almost to the ground. Visibility instantly dropped to virtually zero and I couldn't even see the saddle in front of us anymore! The temperatures fell quickly with the wind chill sinking probably below zero.
In a quick break in the clouds, I took a bearing on a rock outcropping that might provide shelter splitting the saddle. Visibility dropped off once again and I attempted to navigate to it. Doug approached and yelled something that sounded like he wanted to change course to another location. There was some confusion that followed but I trusted his instinct. There was no time to bicker in these conditions. In our passing, the rope slacked and in that instant I saw him drop suddenly up to his knees in a hole. A crevasse! I hadn't thought much about crevasses up here, but we found one. For the first time, I saw a look of panic in his eyes that sent chills up my spine. Almost instantly it was gone and we continued on through the wind with the North Carolinians following in our steps. We found our way to the rock outcropping previously spotted after investigating a few other options. None looked promising.
Once again, we were faced with a tough decision. Should we push on or dig in? The other option was to attempt to locate the steam vent caves on Columbia Crest, but that seemed far fetched as they were 800 feet above us and we heard they were difficult to locate, especially in zero visibility. We huddled in the cold, screaming over the wind, rationalizing our next move. Darkness would soon approach, visibility was in and out, we were unsure of the exact way down and at least two of our newly formed group of four were totally exhausted, myself being one! To me, usually the risk taker, it wasn't worth the gamble. This time I wanted to play it safe. I knew that my fatigue would not allow a crevasse rescue should it become necessary. I also felt that another member of our group was probably in worse shape. If we pushed on, I feared we might take a wrong turn down the heavily creased upper Winthrop Glacier and end up deep within a crevasse at night, in the middle of a storm! The other outcome was that we might make it to the safety of Camp Schurman. My gut told me to not risk it, dig in and wait it out. Doug agreed and the other two nodded their heads.
The wind was really ripping and we were all starting to feel the affliction of cold setting into our bones. As the sun settled lower in the sky, temperatures would only drop further, so we didn't have much time to look around for the optimal location. With a quick sweep of the immediate area, we settled on a nearby location where the snow drifted against the rock outcropping and began to dig. We needed a shelter for four and between us only had two shovels, Doug's and mine. I have to admit I entertained the thought of digging for ourselves and leaving the North Carolinians on their own, nice guys or not. What did we owe them anyway? The thought quickly vanished as we were a group now, and groups stay together.
We quickly hit a layer of ice. Murphy! I thought. We began chipping away with our axes and found it to be only a few inches thick. The snow fell away in blocks now and we made quick progress. Soon, however, everything came to a grinding halt as we hit a dead end, solid ground! Ice covered rock. Damn! This wasn't working we have to make it work! I determined.
We started to dig another entrance to make a snow tunnel instead! Soon it was big enough to fit inside and I happily tunneled to escape the bone chilling wind with Doug digging from the other side. started to worry about Julian as he appeared to be getting lethargic but there wasn't much besides digging we could do right now. We took turns digging and I could hardly stand being outside for more than 10 minutes. I started to think we were really digging for our lives and possibly we were.
We had our snow tunnel completed in a little over an hour. It wasn't pretty, but it did pack in four of us, barely. It was two and a half feet high, four feet wide and about 11 feet long, the best we could do with what we had to work with. We slept practically on top of each other. It was a logistical nightmare getting out of our gear and into our bivy bags. Once inside my bag I curled up as tightly as possible, shivering to get warm. I wasn't thinking much about eating or drinking, although it would have gone a long way to warm my body. It was a catch 22. I was so cold and depleted of energy that I felt if I unwrapped myself from my sleeping bag to prepare food or drink, I would have trouble rewarming. Yet, I needed food and water to warm up and re-energize. Furthermore, the confined space made it difficult to move, let alone heat food or melt snow!
So there we were, pinned down by high winds and zero visibility in a hastily dug snow cave on the exposed summit saddle. I hunkered deeper into my sleeping bag, shivering and drifting in and out of sleep. The wind and spindrift were whistling through the gaps in our packs stuffed in the cave entrance in front of me. When my body finally relaxed into a partial sleep, I would be awakened with a thump on the head by my jostling cave mate's feet as we were 4 in a cave barely large enough to fit two.
I woke once again with a kick on the head, this time to bright light coming from the entrance. It was morning and I was covered head to toe in frost. I was still cold but had managed a couple hours of sleep. Rick and Julian soon decided they'd had enough and would go for it. The wind was as strong as ever and the temperature still bitterly cold, but the sun was now shining! Rick put it into perspective when sliding his frozen feet into his leather boots, saying rather matter-of-factly, "I wish I'd brought my plastic boots, I'm gonna lose some toes before this is all over." They packed quickly and hustled out the door while Doug and I stayed to wait it out a bit longer in hopes it might calm down. A half hour later the North Carolinians returned and quickly jumped back into the tunnel shivering. Julian was noticeably affected by the cold to a point where Doug and I separately worried. Still wrapped in my bag, I could hear him shivering and his teeth violently chattering as he huddled in the corner. If he became worse, we would need to take serious action, although I wondered how much I could do as I was also shivering and not entirely with it as well.
After another hour of teeth chattering vegetation in the snow tunnel, conditions were about the same and we weren't getting any warmer. None of us wanted another cold night packed in a snow cave like sardines, so we decided to get the heck out of there. We geared up, twisting and turning inside the cramped tunnel. I exited and emptied my bladder for the first time in 14 hours. As we gathered the last of our gear together outside, we noticed two dot headed up toward the summit. Two climbers on the Emmons! I felt relieved, figuring conditions must be much better down that side. It also confirmed our way down.
I had not eaten or drank much of anything for over 16 hours, and was now dragging myself across the last traverse as we contoured along Columbia Crest above the Winthrop Glacier skirting the upper crevasses at 13,600'. Once we started to head down the Emmons, the wind died off quickly. The North Carolinians quickly descended in front of us as I'm sure they were anxious to get off the mountain. Doug and I took a slower pace down, now relaxed to be off the exposed summit ridge in sunny and warmer air. We again followed some wands around a few crevasses and then rambled lethargically down the expansive Emmons Glacier to Camp Schurman at Steamboat Prow (9,520'). We were greeted warmly by the NC's and other climbers with candy and drink! Most were preparing to make their bid on the summit the next day via the Emmons Glacier.
Rick and Julian took off just after we arrived, hoofing down the mountain at Olympic pace, the last we would see them on our trip. We stayed another half hour loading up on carbos before Doug talked me into pushing on down the mountain back to the White River trailhead and our car. A soft, warm motel bed did sound more inviting than anther night in the snow. He knew the right buttons to push.
With renewed vitality, we climbed up our last 300 feet to the top of Steamboat Prow and glissaded over 2000' down the Inter Glacier in the golden hour of sunset. The only casualty of our trip turned out to be the seat of Doug's pants, shredded from the long glissade. We laughed and hurried the remaining few miles back to White River arriving at nightfall.
Driving out, clouds once again engulfed Mount Rainier as rain began to fall. I smiled as I turned to Doug, "I'm glad you talked me out of Camp Schurman."
Climbers attempting this route should be well versed in all aspects of mountaineering and glacier travel including avalanche and crevasse rescue techniques. The route requires technical ropework, route finding abilities and at times technical ice climbing skills. Climbers should be ready to encounter various objective hazards such as rockfall, icefall, avalanches, and crevasse crossings in addition to extreme weather.
Best time of year - Early Season (late May) when the snow consolidates yet there remains a large enough base of snow to safely traverse the heavily crevassed glaciers.
Gear - ice ax (or two), crampons, rope (9mm), pickets or snow flukes, ice screws, non-consolidated snow may require the use of skies or snow shoes
Climbing Permit - You are required to fill out a climbing registration card and obtain a climbing permit (approx. $15.00) above Camp Muir/Camp Schurman on the high mountain (available at the ranger stations)
Transportation by air - SEATAC Airport, Seattle Washington
Mount Rainier, once known as Tahkoma by the local Indian tribes of the area is the highest volcanic peak (14,410) in the Cascades which extends from Mount Garibaldi in British Columbia down to Lassen Peak in northern California. Mt. Rainier is a dormant composite volcano, or stratovolcano, made from sluggish, intermittent lava flows and explosive eruptions of ash and rock. The Cascade volcanic peaks are part of a larger formation known as The Ring of Fire, circling the Pacific Ocean.
The first documented ascent of Mt. Rainier was in 1870 by General Hazard Stevens and Philemon Van Trump who were force to spend their summit night in the steam vent caves near the top.
Discover the rest of Mount Rainier National Park Seattle - See one of the hundreds of travel guides Puget Sound Olympic National Park and Hurricane Ridge Climbing Gyms and some local crags
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