Rainier, a Summit Too High

30 May 1999 - by Ron Karpel

We were sitting on an downhill lip of a crevasse which formed a small platform at 13,000 ft. The wind was relentless, and the temperature around 5 degree. It was too cold to stay sitting on the ice, so after barely 5 minutes, I got up and said "Let's go." The group ahead of us got up too, but instead of going up, they turned around and went down. I guess they had enough. I started to pull ahead. My team mates following. After less then 50 ft. I stopped to catch my breath. I was very tired and could only managed a few steps before stopping. Our progress was extremely slow. I looked back. The tail of our rope was dragging on the ice. Something must be wrong. Last time I checked, there was someone attached to the rope at that end. I needed a whole minute to figure it out in the thin air at this altitude. Our 4th team mate untied himself from the rope and remain sitting at the edge of the crevasse. A minute later we were on our way down back to camp.

I am not in a habit of writing trip reports for not climbing a mountain, but some people ask that I write this one. During our planing for this early season trip we were told that the Disappointment Cleaver Route was still closed and that the preferred rout was the Ingraham Headwall. By the time we climbed, the DC route was in full operation with a nicely cut trail in the snow and a fixed rope for the lower stepper section. By the look of things, I think the headwall would have made a fine rout too, but we climbed the cleaver.

We had an uneventful trip to Paradise trailhead and to the start of our climb. Luckily we had permit reservation, because they fill up the quota for both Muir Camp and the Ingraham Glacier. The ranger office was busy and filled with many happy smiling faces. We were promised that the weather forecast is excellent and that we should have little or no problem climbing, except that everybody else in the Northwest was going to be there too. Our plan was to hike up to Ingraham Flat and setup our high camp. Then climb from there the next morning.

We made it in good time to Muir Camp. There were hundred of people on the trail which made it into a giant staircase in the snow. Most people, day hiked just to Muir Camp and return to Paradise. A few remained at Muir Camp, and we could see only one group ahead of us crossing the Cowlitz Glacier on the way to Ingraham Flat. We roped up and continued. With full packs and after climbing all the way from Paradise it took us a couple of hours to get from Muir Camp to the "flats". The total for the day was 5,500 ft elevation gain. If I had to do it over again, I would have spent a night just below Muir Camp to break the climb and get acclimatized. It was 6PM when we arrived at Ingraham Flats. Digging up tents platforms, fixing dinner, and fighting the wind pushed bad time to 9 PM. Not much rest since we had 1:30 AM wake up on the following day.

Our 2 AM start time got pushed to 2:30. We were tired and disoriented a bit and couldn't get organized quickly enough. There were already several groups on the route when we started. We simply followed. Even before we reached DC, one of our team mate decided to return to camp and get a full night sleep... a good idea indeed, as it turned out.

We followed several groups ahead of us up the Disappointment Cleaver. Climbing the knife edge of the Cleaver was the first time I realized how bad the wind was. I had to lean hard against my ice axe to avoid getting knocked over. We stopped at the top of the Cleaver to rest. The trail at this point merges with the old trail leading up from Ingraham Headwall. Starting up again, we passed by a group that camped the night there and was just getting out to return down. The view up was a reminiscent of the biblical story of Jacob's ladder. There were groups going up, and there were groups coming down. It seems as if the trail was blocked at some point farther up, because no one was going farther up, but I couldn't see why. And it was crowded. The trail at this point was just a trace of many crampons stomping the ice. It went back and forth twisting around crevasses and climbing over snow bridges. We continued the exhausting climb at a slow pace, and by 7:00 AM got to the edge of the crevasse and the end of our climb, as I mentioned at the opening paragraph.

Upon returning to camp, we crawled into our slipping bags to complete the night sleep. By the time we got up, clouds were moving in obscuring the otherwise clear sky. Concluding that Monday is not going to be any batter, we packed our stuff and returned home.

Participants: Nancy Fitzsimmons, Stephan Meier, Stephane Mouradian, Ted Raczek, and your faithful scribe Ron Karpel.

Michael Gordon adds:

:The view up was a reminiscent of the
:biblical story of Jacob's ladder.  There were groups going up, and there
:were groups coming down.  It seems as if the trail was blocked at some
:point farther up, because no one was going farther up, but I couldn't see
:why.  And it was crowded.  The trail at this point was just a trace of many
:crampons stomping the ice.

Wow! Sounds like fun - a real "wilderness" experience. I probably would have turned around too. You can get crowds at home without having to blow a wad on plane tickets and lose sleep. Sorry it didn't work out.

Aaron Schuman adds:

> I am not in a habit of writing trip reports 
> for not climbing a mountain

Thank you for writing this report anyway. Sometimes it feels embarrassing to write about a summit you never attained, but it can be a valuable lesson for your readers. It's especially worthwhile to reflect on what you and your partners might have done differently, in terms of expectations, preparation, training, gear, group organization, safety habits, attitude, or whatever it was that defeated you.

Steve Eckert adds:

>Everybody did a great job on this trip, so I chose not to name names.  It
>is certainly foolish to untie on a glacier.  I considered staking the guy
>down for safety were he sat, but he might not have made it sitting down for
>any length of time in the cold conditions.

And the other 3 of you didn't know he had untied? Wow! Sounds grim. I'm glad you turned around. I turned around when I was there because we had to drag our leader off the peak. He was incoherent, and we also considered (for about 20 seconds) leaving him. Fortunately, we made the same choice you did and we all got the hell off the mountain. Missed it by 700', but we all lived. That was in the early 80s, but I'll go back some day...

>I thought this may be of a general interest, so I forward it to the list.

It is indeed of general interest! Thanks! I've heard several stories over the last year about other near-disasters, and I've been dissappointed that they weren't written up. It takes courage to tell of failure, but if you save one life or one limb the embarassment is worth it. (For an example, you can read about my hugely bad judgement, on Clyde Minaret, in the archives at http://www.climber.org/TripReports/)

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