The main climbing route on Mount Rainier via Camp Muir and the Disappointment Cleaver can be described as a "zoo". Not only this is the most common route for climbers, tourist like to take the hike up to Camp Muir and back as a day hike. The trail can be packed with hikers shoulder to shoulder. On the other hand, the Kautz Glacier route is less popular with climbers, and it requires that one crosses the Nisqually Glacier with it's many open crevasses, leaving the tourists behind.
After crossing the Nisqually, our route ascended steeply to the ridge above the Wilson Glacier, and we set up our first camp on a large flat snow shelf at elevation of 7,800 ft. It rained on us a bit that evening. Starting early the following day we continued up the ridge along the edge of the Wilson Glacier and up through the "Turtle Snowfield" to Camp Hazard. They say that camp Hazard is named after a person, but I think there is more too it. Camp Hazard is located on a high ridge at 11,600 ft. The rock ridge continues for additional several hundreds of feet to a point where it is covered by the open edge of the Kautz Glacier. Looking from below, it is amazing that the entire glacier doesn't simply come crashing down and cover the entire area, but it doesn't, if flows to the left and to the right leaving the ridge bare.
We didn't plan to go all the way up to camp Hazard. It was a mistake, which cost Ted his summit bid, but of course we didn't know that at the time. Melting snow into drinking water is a laborious job. We had spent a couple of hours every night doing just that. Near camp Hazard there were 2 sources of running water, apparently, glacier melt. Ted traverse the snow field to our right to try to catch some of this water, and while collecting water some rocks came tumbling down hitting his foot. Even though he was wearing plastic boots, the injury was too great for him to feel comfortable to push for the summit the following day. After watching the rock fall activity for 2 days, I think the topography of the area creates 2 natural drainage paths, running either side of the ridge, which supports the camp. These drainage paths carry everything the glacier releases down the mountain, water melt, chunks of ice, and rock debris. You want to collect the water; you are likely to collect some rocks too. The camp itself is protected by the unusual topography, but I understand that it does get hit every so often, hence, the ranger recommends against staying there.
Friday dawned clear and bright, but we didn't wait for dawn. We were up at 2 AM and started climbing around 3:30. The route descends a couple of hundred feet to skirt a long ridge of seracs then climbs a steep chute on the other side. This is the crux of the route. Estimates on how steep the chute is vary from 35% all the way to 55%. My inclinometer showed 35% for the entire chute and 42-44% for the steepest section, but it was icy. We setup a series of fixed ropes in hopes of easing the climb for some of the less experienced in our group, but they used only one of them on the way up. Since I thought that self arrest in the steep section of the icy chute was almost impossible, I set up a series of running protections which where removed by Joe, who was the last person in my group, except for those protections which were also used for the fixed ropes. I wander; the other rope team climbed one of the steep sections without any protections. The chute in my mind is simply the back of the Kautz glacier. At first look, it is no different then many snow chutes in other places, but it is way too icy and broken up to be simply last season's snow. There are many small cracks throughout, but nothing more than an inch thick.
Above the chute our route kept angling to the right till we finally hit the Columbia Crest (the rim of Rainier's crater) at the same point the standard RMI route does coming from the Disappointment Cleaver route.
We got to the summit around 10:00 AM. It was bright and clear with visibility of several hundred miles in every direction. The temperatures must have been in the 40s despite the light wind. We took pictures, ate summit chocolate and headed down. Back in the chute, now soften by the warm sun, everybody used the fixed ropes to rappel, and I down climbed while Maxym gave me a belay from below. Down-climbing was not terribly hard, except for the few spots where hard glacier ice appeared unexpectedly through the snow. One group, which came behind us, used a boot-axe belay to descend the steep sections.
Back at camp by 3:30 PM, we decided to spend a 3rd night on the mountain and descended back to Paradise the next morning.
Generally, this is not a very hard mountain to climb, but the weather is the major factor. We were lucky this time. The following day, the weather turned ugly again with high wind and thick clouds.
Participants: Huy Nguyen, Joe Budman, Maxym Runov, Nathan Trinknein, and Ted Raczek. Leaders: George Van Gordon, and Ron Karpel.