My first attempt on Rainier, almost 20 years ago, ended 700' from the summit when our leader fell face down and didn't get up. He had acute mountain sickness, and had been misleading us about his condition for over 16 hours. When he collapsed, incoherent and hypothermic, we discussed staking him down with the rope so he wouldn't wander off while we finished the summit climb. Wiser heads prevailed and we pushed/pulled him back down the mountain to save his life. I never climbed with him again.
My second attempt was with only one other person, too late in the season, and we wound up knee-deep in fresh snow. Inexperience on the part of my partner meant I had to haul her out of two crevasses by myself and we turned back around 12500'. That experience, by the way, lead me to my current belief that two on a rope isn't safe. We survived, but only because I was much heavier and stronger and she did all the falling. Dave German's report documents what happens when the heavier person falls in.
We met in Paradise! Paradise is the 5400' trailhead on the south shoulder of Rainier, where we ate a reasonable $9 buffet breakfast and spread our gear on the pavement for sharing and packing. All but one person showed up on time, and the low but thinning clouds provided peeks at the peak as we compared tourists in shorts with our plastic boots and 60 pound packs. We got the permit, "blue bags" for packing out waste, and stunningly BAD route information from the rangers. Shawn showed up half an hour after we were supposed to leave, just about the time we started to re-think stove and tent partners. (The road in was slower than he expected, and he was pleasantly surprised to find us still there.) We finally got underway just before 11am.
Clumping up the PAVED TRAIL in our full battle dress was amusing to those with hiking shorts and bottled water. We clanked and thumped. They floated. When the patches of snow became continuous, however, our advantage was obvious and the tourists fell away as the sun came out for good. The rest of the trip was done under blue skies, an astonishing phenomenon for Cascade volcano climbing! (Meanwhile, our friends back in the normally sunny Sierra Nevada were on trips where it rained 8 days out of 11, hail and thunder drove them off peaks, etc.)
First view of the mountain as low morning clouds clear
(the moraine ridge we followed is the long central bare ridge)
(the apparent high point is Pt Success, true summit is to the right)
We stayed on the trail, heavily roped to keep people off the plants just melting out, until Glacier Vista. There are a number of use trails (which the ranger asked us not to use) but we only covered a few feet off snow before starting down a steep snow tongue that connects to the Nisqually Glacier. On the way, we detoured slightly to talk with two people headed out: They had both been hit by rockfall while descending the Fuhrer Finger route that morning. Not a good omen.
We had lunch and roped up at the east edge of the Nisqually. Brian left his only water bottle near here, but luckily Bob could get by without one of his. (It's good to have more than one of critical items like water bottles, but several people in our group walked past the dropped bottle without saying anything or picking it up...)
The Nisqually doesn't feel much like a REAL glacier until you reach the west edge. There the snow bridges require zig-zagging on tall thin towers that discourage picture taking. Our lack of experience as rope teams showed up in slack ropes, which would have yanked people off their feet had anyone fallen in, but with 4 people on a rope the ability to recover from a mistake is greatly improved (at least in places like this where it's not too steep). Another group (including Steve Rodriguez, and organized on the CONFUSED email list) crossed just behind us, but spent more time dealing with their rope so we got a bit ahead of them.
Stephane at the western edge of Nisqually
(with the Muir Snowfield dog route in the background)
From the east side, it's not obvious where you should go after crossing. Smoot's guide book says to climb to a saddle, failing to mention you turn sharply north instead of continuing west. After crossing, however, the route is obvious. We stormed 1500' up a steepish (30 degree) chute, stopping to fill water bottles from fresh water cascading down the side, and took a nice long break on warm rock slabs at the top (Point 6831). This outcropping we named "Blue Bag Barrel Bulge", since it holds the only waste receptacle on this route.
Going around Point 7620, Nisqually and lower Muir Snowfield behind
Sidehilling on 40 degree slopes until we bypassed the big square shoulder marked as Point 7620 on the map, we climbed about another 1000' to where campsites started to appear on the ridge. Basically, this route uses the chute to attain a moraine ridge, then follows that ridge all the way to 13000 where you traverse to Columbia Crest (14410', the high point) instead of climbing Point Success (14158', the left bump of the summit, as viewed from Paradise). Of course, there are crumbly cliffs, an ice fall, and a few crevasses that get in your way...
Our first camp, at 8100', with Mt Adams in the background
We camped at 8100' in well protected sites, with 6 hours and 3300' of gain behind us. There were large rock formations and a steep side to block the wind, and almost-level snow drifts from which to carve tent platforms. There was some disagreement over whether we should go higher, but an early stop left half the climbing for the next day and we had no guarantee of tent sites higher. Lower sites were definitely inferior! We could see Camp Muir across the Nisqually from here, and someone once counted over 100 moving people on the Muir Snowfield portion of the standard route. By comparison, our route was uncrowded!
The CONFUSED group (their name, not mine!) intended to go another 3000' to Camp Hazard that day, but ended up about 100' above us. (Their report says they camped at 8400', but this doesn't match my GPS waypoint or the map.) Pragmatism wins over enthusiasm! Other groups drifted by until 6:30pm, including one that appeared to have a husband/wife team and two heavily loaded sherpas. We found out the next day that the "wife" was actually a non-RMI (e.g. unauthorized) guide, the "husband" was a weak client being led down on a short rope, and the "sherpas" continued up on their own (although we never saw them again).
I wanted to start our day early so the NEXT morning's pre-dawn start would be less of a shock... but I was universally shouted down when I suggested we do a "practice start" to find out how long it took to get up and get going in the dark. I got up early anyway, snapped some great sunrise pictures, read my book, and had a leisurely breakfast while the night owls snored. Day 2 saw us leaving around 8am, with the snow already soft enough that crampons were optional (except for those who followed me up a 50 degree slope, ostensibly to avoid dulling crampons on some moraine but really just for drill).
We passed several reasonable campsites, none of which would have been as protected as ours, and camped at 10800' on dry rock-walled sites near the Turtle Snowfield (not marked on the map - see waypoints below). This turned out to be the highest campsite below Camp Hazard (11500'), and was SIGNIFICANTLY warmer because the wind was howling at the higher camp. We arrived in camp about 1pm, using only 5 hours to climb 2700' even with several long breaks. This part of the trip would be absolutely horrible so late in the day if not for the old tracks in the snow (yes, 1pm is late in the day here). The snow was very mushy, and stepping out of the tracks put you mid-calf in wet corn.
Camp Hazard is on one of the bumps in front of seracs, just below the ice fall
We avoided Hazard for several reasons: Ted had his foot injured by rockfall near there last year, and it ruined his summit bid. The rangers also told us the ice fall had "calved" onto the tent platforms, leading us to believe that Hazard really WAS hazardous (and not simply named after Joseph Hazard, as Smoot says). In reality, there was no ice anywhere near the campsite, no evidence of rockfall reaching it, and nothing but wind to make it dangerous or undesirable. The CONFUSED group reports nearly losing a tent while we sat around in shirtsleeves drinking tea and chatting or reading.
Bob, Ted and I hiked up to Hazard that afternoon to scout the route and put some clean steps in the soft snow (hoping they would be frozen stairs the next morning). It was COLD up there! We snapped a few pictures of the ice chute and seracs which had broken off the ice face, observed rocks rolling from the sluicing snowmelt, got cold, and retreated to our cozy camp for an early dinner. I hit the sack around 6pm, with ear plugs and eyeshades. It was hot, and I never fully zipped up my 20 degree sleeping bag.
Dancin' in the moonlight Everybody's feelin' warm and right It's such a fine and natural sight Everybody's dancin' in the moonlight
We didn't time it on purpose, but the moon was just past full, and high overhead in a cloudless sky when we arose at 2am. Stephane and I were ready to walk at the agreed 3am start time, so we sauntered out of camp to the immense surprise and possible displeasure of those who were still eating and packing. The ranger had warned us that we should be back by 11am to avoid falling ice in the chute, so this morning I wasn't accepting a late start. Except for places where the tracks were confusing, I climbed without a headlamp in the bright pre-dawn moon.
Sunrise low in the steep chute, the full moon and Rainier's shadow are visible
There is a bit of low 3rd class just below Camp Hazard, and a treacherous rocky traverse down onto the ice chute, but the chute itself wasn't as steep as it seemed from above (35 deg). We stayed off the dirty ice, crunching down hard snow from several weeks ago. A 200' drop leads you around the ice fall, to an hourglass-shaped chute that rises to the Upper Kautz Glacier in two steep sections. The lower section was 40 degree ice, dirty and hard to drive an ice axe into, covered in places with a foot-thick plate of newer snow that could (and did) come off in chunks. This part is one rope length, then the slope levels a bit (30-35 deg) before rising two more rope lengths at 45-50 degrees.
We caught up with two groups, and I was unwilling to mix with them in the steep chute. They had roped up, but weren't setting protection in the ice, so if any of them fell I think they would have all fallen together (it's impossible to arrest someone who jerks you off your feet on 50 degree ice). Remembering the Ptarmigan Peak disaster a few years ago in Alaska, where a falling rope team tangled with and took down many other rope teams, we carved out some benches in the snow and took a half hour break while the others cleared the chute. At first, I was fretting about the schedule slip, but then I focused on the sunrise and realized that the other groups were staring at the snow in front of them, not seeing or photographing the stunning scene at our feet: the Kautz falls away, below which is the Nisqually River drainage and foothills all the way to Mt Adams and beyond.
Still in the steep chute, Mt Adams and the seracs we went around are visible
It doesn't sound pleasant, getting up so early, but if you're rested and fed and clothed properly there is an indescribable majesty to the unfolding dawn: Low clouds in the valleys flow over ridges and splash against mountains, the sky goes from black to yellow to blue, and time is compressed as you perceive things on the MOUNTAIN'S scale and schedule. A half hour went by, and we continued up the steeper section of the chute unroped.
The top of the chute appears to be a large bowl, and most of us thought the route would climb that bowl. Not so! This bowl leads to Point Success, which is the false summit Brian climbed in a whiteout several years ago by a different route. The ridge we had camped on both nights continues above the ice fall and the route crosses it at 13100' (the top of the Fuhrer Finger route) to traverse through some more seracs toward Columbia Crest. (Once again, Smoot seems to have an error: he shows the route climbing the bowl.)
Beyond the seracs the nature of the climb changed. Awesome crevasses gaped open and the route became indistinct on snow worn into ice cubes by the wind. Packed snow was enticing to walk on, but often hid the openings of crevasses. I headed for the high point, ignoring the tracks for a change, and thinking about how different it was to navigate by track-watching instead of by map and compass. This area would be almost impossible to navigate in a snow storm, especially if you just blindly followed tracks up. I never used my GPS except to verify my pre-entered waypoints, but was glad to have it along. There were a few wands to mark crevasse crossings, but not enough to navigate by without watching for tracks (even in good weather). The map and the pictures in guidebooks don't "feel like" this wide open expanse appeared when we were there.
Did I mention the wind? Remember it was howling at Hazard? The ice chute, where we had to wait, was the only place that was calm on all of summit day! Above that there was no relief. My ice axe, dangling from the head, was pushed 30 degrees off vertical by the wind. I'm guessing 35mph, but I don't know for sure. All I know is that the temp was in the mid 20s at the top, I didn't need to wear my heavy fleece, but I thought my face would freeze off.
The first rope topped out about 9am, the second was probably 10-15 minutes behind. We had used FRS radios to stay in touch, an immense help because it meant we didn't need to stay in lock-step: The ropes could stop to fidget with gear one at a time, and set their own comfortable pace without losing the ability for one rope to help the other. (In the howling wind, 100 yards was out of yelling range.)
At the summit: Shawn, Bob (kneeling), Ted, Brian, Stephane, Austin, Heather
We spent more time on top than we should have, about 45 minutes, watching other groups "ring the bell and run down", watching steam curl from the fumaroles, and slapping each other on the back. Hey, getting to the summit is why I came, and I like to stay a while! Bob found a shallow depression that avoided some of the wind, and we tanked up knowing there wouldn't be many food or water breaks on the way down.
Excitement on the way down: Stephane leaned forward after loosening his helmet, and it rolled straight toward a big crevasse. I had just crossed a snow bridge, stopping to look down hundreds of feet into the blue depths, and I instinctively ran back across. Unwilling to go far off the trail, I dove onto the snow to spread my weight out and tried to knock the helmet away from the crevasse as it rolled by. I did hit it with my axe, but it had too much speed and popped over the edge never to be seen again. Further down, in the bowl above the ice chute, my foot broke through a snow bridge that we had all walked over earlier. Again acting on instinct, I pitched forward to clear the crevasse and rolled back to my feet (somehow without yanking on the rope, probably indicating there was too much slack behind me). Heather also put a foot through a snow roof, but no one went in and soon we were at the top of the steep chute.
Sadly, we had completely blown our 11am return time. It was now after noon, the snow was getting mushy, and previously safe crevasses were becoming a threat. Austin volunteered to freeclimb the chute, and set a couple of pickets for the rest of us to rappel down. Ice screws would have been useless on this pitch both in the morning and in the afternoon, since there wasn't any exposed ice. My concern was not just hidden crevasses - knee deep corn snow over a layer of ice in a 50 degree chute meant a real possibility of postholing and pitching forward into a bad tumble. The snow was too soft for an ice axe arrest. I went first, to test the slope, and was glad to have the rope. I set two more pickets, and the second rope, to rap the bottom half of the steep upper section. The radios again came in handy, since people at the top could not see the bottom of the first rope.
While we were shuffling people down the ropes, a group from Chicago asked if they could use our ropes. They had only one, and they wanted to save time. I hedged on the radio, worrying about liability and schedule, until Austin convinced them to let us use their rope for the lower section in return. This saved us more time than we lost, and it meant that none of us had to risk the plate ice below. Good trade! Austin reported that the upper chute was tougher than expected without the rope, but he did fine. I climbed back up and helped coil/carry the second rope down. The Chicago rope was anchored to two screws at the top edge of the icy area, but there was a lot of surface crud to dig through, and I'm not sure how solid the ice was so late in the day. The ice hammer backups were taking some tension, indicating the ice screws were shifting/melting.
While waiting for a chance at the lower rope, I watched one of the Chicago people drop to the waist in a hidden crevasse: The trampled route was safe, but just a few feet sideways was different. Zazzara and Runov zoomed by (coming within a foot or two of hitting one of the Chicago people) with their rope trailing. Their partner Braden followed at a much slower pace, looking like he might step on or trip over our rope. (They were all fine without the rope, so we probably didn't need it either, but it added a big safety margin.)
Finally we were at the base of the chute, with a scary 200' bowling alley to climb. It was 1:30pm, hours past when we wanted to be here, but there was no major rockfall. We were in camp by 2:15pm, and at 2:30 we heard a sound like a rifle shot and watched in horror as part of the ice fall calved off and rumbled down the chute we had been in just minutes earlier. Heather and Austin had stayed at Hazard to relax, and reported that two of the Chicago guys were IN THE CHUTE when about 50 large rocks (several up to 2 or 3 feet) and some ice chunks rumbled by. They got off to the side, in the clean snow I mentioned earlier, and were not hit. None of the rocks or ice hit Hazard, but people there were worried.
The chute below the ice fall (the face that calved off 45 min later)
(Camp Hazard is above the rock cliff on the right)
So, what do you do after 11 hours of climbing? Boil a billy of tea, of course! Brian and Heather were adamant about staying in camp, Shawn preferred to stay, Stephane and Ted really wanted to lose some altitude while the snow was soft, Bob was on the fence, and I didn't want another argument about when/whether to leave so I kept my opinion to myself while encouraging the group to decide without me. (Now I can reveal that I was completely against spending another night at 10800. The snow was perfect for glissading, and in the morning we would be breaking our knees with crampons instead of zooming down on our butts at 5000 ft/hr.) I broke out the rest of my booze, ate a muffin, and read my book in the tent while the continuing debate resolved itself. I did come out to tell the parable about the body parts deciding who was the most important, but it's too off-color for this report.
Stephane did the group a big favor and made his case well. In an hour and a quarter we dropped 4000 feet, including time to retrieve gear stashed at our first campsite (and time to debate whether to stop there or keep going). We camped at the lowest safe spot, Blue Bag Barrel Bulge, the occasional unpleasant whiff being balanced by flat dry ground, warm weather, calm wind, and the knowledge that we could be to the cars in a couple of hours the next day.
In fact, it was almost exactly 2 hours of backpacking to the cars. The snow bridges at the western edge of the Nisqually were melted back to terrifying pinnacles: 2 feet wide at the top, narrowing before widening as they went down dozens of feet, and it had remained above freezing overnight. They held, but I looked around for a better option before using them. Didn't see any.
At the cars, we did the reverse gear sort, changed clothes, phoned loved ones, checked plane reservations, and generally squandered a couple of hours before driving to Ashford (?) for lunch and splitting up.
No crater-rim-job for this crew. Everyone made the real peak! Bob had wanted to climb this peak for 3 years, this was Ted's 4th attempt, Stephane's 3rd attempt, Steve's 3rd attempt, and Brian climbed the wrong bump in a whiteout last time (but still maintains there is no reason to carry a GPS).
Here's a surprise: We covered 3 miles in 6 hours the first day, 1.5 miles in 5 hours the second, and only 3.5 miles ROUND TRIP to the summit in 11 hours. Each packing day had approximately 3000' of gain, 4000' with the dips around the ice field on summit day. This trip isn't about mileage, it's about CLIMBING! We could see the parking lot almost continuously after crossing the Nisqually.
This route lends itself to 3 or 4 day trips, whereas the dog route encourages 2 or 3 day trips. We had lots of time to relax in camp and acclimatize to the altitude. That (and a lack of crowds) is the main reason we picked the route! I think it paid off: no one was altitude sick beyond a mild headache, we were well rested for summit day, and we got a chance to enjoy the mountain instead of racing up with our heads down. Many thanks to Ron Karpel for his trip report last year, and additional details for this trip.
We intended to take food for 5 days, one person ran out in 72 hours. Fuel was OK, but in general people underestimated how much they would eat. I recommend 3500 to 4000 calories per day, which works out to about 2 pounds of food unless you bring fresh fruit and vegetables (or canned food). You should be getting stronger while climbing, not losing weight and getting weaker. Most people carried 2 quarts of water, but even that's not enough for an 11 hour summit day. With only one quart, as one person carried, dehydration is inevitable (with a corresponding loss of capabilities and judgement). Climbing doesn't have to hurt!
Route Notes and Waypoints
Static map including waypoints is on the right:
We didn't take the Moraine Trail, but apparently in late season it is difficult to get down to the Nisqually from Glacier Vista (at least without wrecking the plants). Someone was camped on Point 7620, but it's out of your way. Moraine ridge campsites exist from 7800 to 8500, again at 9200, 10100-10200, 10600-10800, and 11500. There might be others, but we found few places where you could put three tents together (as noted in the main report).
The Kautz route shown in Smoot's book is the intuitive way I would have gone just looking at the bowl. Perhaps in other years there is a line here, but the slope is steeper than the combined Finger/Kautz traverse, and with little or no traffic crevasses would be a greater risk. I'm not going to provide a picture with route marking, because the mountain looks so different when you're on it that pictures are just not useful!
Below are GPS waypoints matching those plotted on the static map. The comment field (last column) should be self-explanatory....
Datum,North America 1983,GRS 80,0,-1.6E-7,0,0,0 RouteName,1 ,RAINIER CLIMB RoutePoint,D,RAIN00, 46.7861700104,-121.7362299692,07/19/2001,04:20:46,PARADISE PERMITS RoutePoint,D,RAIN01, 46.7887200104,-121.7369399692,07/19/2001,04:20:46,ABOVE BM 5552 RoutePoint,D,RAIN02, 46.7918000104,-121.7365499691,07/19/2001,04:20:46,ALTA VISTA RoutePoint,D,RAIN03, 46.8013000104,-121.7355699690,07/19/2001,04:20:46,GLACIER VISTA RoutePoint,D,RAIN04, 46.8034000104,-121.7381999690,07/19/2001,04:20:46,NISQUALLY EAST RoutePoint,D,RAIN05, 46.8083400104,-121.7460999689,07/19/2001,04:20:46,GULLY BOTTOM RoutePoint,D,RAIN06, 46.8104800104,-121.7468199689,07/19/2001,04:20:46,BLUE BAG BARREL RoutePoint,D,RAIN07, 46.8168000104,-121.7551799688,07/19/2001,04:20:47,LOW CAMP RoutePoint,D,RAIN08, 46.8243000104,-121.7567199687,07/19/2001,04:20:47,CAMP SITES RoutePoint,D,RAIN09, 46.8322100104,-121.7623499687,07/19/2001,04:20:47,TURTLE CAMP RoutePoint,D,RAIN10, 46.8355972388,-121.7623042669,07/19/2001,04:20:47,HAZARD CAMP RoutePoint,D,RAIN11, 46.8352400104,-121.7643899686,07/19/2001,04:20:47,BOTTOM ICE CHUTE RoutePoint,D,RAIN12, 46.8392400104,-121.7620899686,07/19/2001,04:20:47,TOP ICE CHUTE RoutePoint,D,RAIN13, 46.8433000104,-121.7592099685,07/19/2001,04:20:47,MEET FINGER ROUTE RoutePoint,D,RAIN14, 46.8453872358,-121.7567261974,07/19/2001,04:57:22,UNVERIFIED RoutePoint,D,RAIN15, 46.8528500104,-121.7603099684,07/19/2001,04:20:47,MT RAINIER 14410 FT RoutePoint,D,RAIN16, 46.8457800104,-121.7674299685,07/19/2001,05:06:13,PT SUCCESS 14158 FT