Mount Rainier - How Much is Judgment Worth?

4-15 Jun 2000 - by Dave German

Steve Eckert prefaces:

Preface: I heard this story around the campfire at Ron Hudson's SPS List Finish, and asked Dave to send me the text so I could post it - we talked a bit about continuing to travel two-on-a-rope even after proving with the first fall that arrests weren't working, and I suggested driving in a picket or two and running the rope thru a biner on it to limit the fall on future trips... not as safe as a belay, way safer than not setting pro at all. We also kicked around non-standard self arrest techniques that give you more grip in corn or powder snow. A GPS would have been more useful than wands, because they would have known how close they were to the route, and that could have gotten them out days earlier. Note that radios and cell phones cannot always get you rescued, because sometimes the conditions are too nasty to risk other lives!

I'm posting this on the gear list because it's as much about survival techniques as it is about making the summit. I'm not sure I would have done as well after getting in trouble, but then again I might not have continued climbing into the storm. Enjoy, learn, climb safe. Dave has done us all a favor by documenting his mistakes - way more useful than glossing things over, and I wish others would do the same (yes, Bob and Rich, I'm talking about Spanish Needle!).

Also, if you make the paper, remember to take the clipping so you get sympathy and don't have to pay the extra days on your rental car!

David German's original report:

Our trip started on June 3, 2000, with a frantic rush to the Reno airport, almost missing our flight. Judy Rittenhouse and I arrived in Seattle at around 10:00 pm, and picked up our rental car. We set off toward the mountain with high hopes, knowing the weather was predicted was to be good for the next several days and having seen clear skies surrounding the mountain from the air. We stopped about 2:00 am in a roadside park and slept until morning.

Sunday, June 4, we got a 4-day permit for climbing Mount Rainier. Our plan was to climb the Kautz Route, taking advantage of the good weather.

We set off and hiked upwards, following the Disappointment Cleaver Route (main trail) until our cutoff towards the Nisqually Fan at around 6,200 feet of elevation. We dropped 500 feet down to the glacier and crossed the glacier. On the far side, we encountered a large guided group doing crevasse rescue practice and saw our first large crevasses. We then proceeded up the Wilson Gully, which was full of recent avalanche debris and overhung by a large cornice. We continued up the route to about 8,800 feet of elevation and camped at one of the established campsites a few hundred feet below Turtle Rock.

Monday, June 5, we headed up at about 4:30 am, planning on summitting. By the time we approached Camp Hazard at 11,200 feet of elevation, the weather started to worsen, with fog rolling in. We decided to retreat and regroup, since we had allowed for inclement weather in our schedule.

Tuesday, June 6, the weather was still foggy, whited-out, and not looking good. Our food and fuel situation for a longer stay was not good, and our permit would expire the next day, so we opted to go down for a permit extension and re-supply. We spent the night at Lou Whittaker's Bunkhouse, drying out our gear and relaxing for only $25/person. We purchased additional fuel and food and made ready to head back up.

Wednesday, June 7, we set up a new schedule for an additional 5-day stay, through Sunday, when our flight would leave. The plan was to hike up leisurely over two days, since the weather was not due to break again until Friday. We hiked up to about 7,000 feet of elevation and set up a nice sheltered camp in the snow.

Thursday, June 8, we got a late start, knowing we had a short hike and worked our way up through zero visibility conditions and fresh, untracked snow to Turtle Rock at 9,300 feet of elevation. As we arrived at Turtle Rock, we passed through the cloud layer and conditions cleared. The summit became visible in all its splendor. Excitement coursed through me, for I knew we could climb and summit the next day. We pushed on in clear conditions, although blowing fog occasionally obscured our visibility, so we used compass bearings as a backup for the final climb up to 10,200 feet of elevation, where we finally established camp about halfway up the Turtle. Our camp, suggested by a climbing ranger, was in the lee of a boulder and nicely sheltered.

Friday, June 9, we got up at 3:00, for a planned 4:00 departure. It was after 5:00 am by the time we got started. We were roped up leaving camp, intending on staying that way the whole day. We climbed up towards the Kautz Ice Falls and Camp Hazard. It took us around 1 1/2 hours to make the 1,000 foot ascent. We quickly headed down the narrow gully (which resembles a bowling alley for climbers) under the icefalls to the 600-foot "technical" section. These pitches proved to be very arduous, since a 2-3 inch coating of hard crust covered hip deep powder.

By lying on the snow and crawling upwards, I could sometimes make as many as ten moves before breaking through the crust again. About halfway up, we were able to traverse over to the left side, which was solid ice coated with either rime or snow. Climbing proved easier here for the most part. I set a couple of screws on steeper sections. Finally we hit the top of the section. The relatively flat Kautz Glacier lay in front of us. I could see some clouds starting to swirl around and decided to wand the route across the glacier as well as use compass bearings. I set wands about every 200-250 feet as we crossed, in order to conserve my small supply (~30). We encountered several crevasses, which were crossed uneventfully. When we attained the ridge on the other side of the glacier, we encountered our first heavy winds at around 13,000 feet of elevation. This was at the small ridge where the Kautz Route variation, Wilson Headwall and Fuhrer Finger all join to head for the summit. By now it was obvious that the weather was deteriorating. Judy suggested that we turn back, but with the summit so close (1,400 feet), we continued to push on. I continued to wand the route and take compass bearings as we ascended. By the time we reached the crater rim, it was a complete whiteout and I had run out of wands. Judy again suggested turning back, but the summit loomed so close! We continued on, following the rim, leaving a couple of pickets as wands. Close to an hour later, we reached the summit, having post-holed around the rim. After briefly looking at the forlorn lump of snow on the summit in near zero visibility, we headed down.

We retraced our route around the rim, noting that our footprints were already filled in. Finally, after hiking for what seemed forever, we got back to our point of arrival on the summit rim. We set off down the slope, holding our compass bearing and following the wands. The system worked well and we were able to stay on course. About 3/4 of the way back to the ridge where the various routes met, we encountered our first problem. As I descended the steep wall (40 slope) of an old crevasse (which was now wide and open), I was unable to see the vertical drop over a smaller remaining crevasse, causing me to fall the last 10 feet or so. Judy was yanked off the steep icy wall, with no possibility of arresting and fell over 50 feet to land flat on her back beside me, gasping for breath. After regaining our wits and making sure Judy was ok, we decided to continue on. I headed on down, still following our wands. I knew I had skipped a small section (no wands), where I needed to turn right. I missed this turn and unbeknownst to me continued lower into the crevasses in the upper end of the Wilson Headwall. Shortly thereafter, due to near zero visibility and fogged glasses, I literally walked into a large overhanging crevasse. "Falling", I shouted, as I attempted to sink in my axe to prevent going over the edge. I continued to fall for a long time, bouncing many times along the way. As the fall continued I was certain Judy was plunging into the crevasse too. Judy, meanwhile, was digging into the fresh powder with little success in making a self-arrest. The crevasse was about 15 feet higher on the uphill side than the lower and Judy plunged over the edge and was catapulted to the other side of the crevasse, where she quickly arrested and set an anchor. Once Judy had come to a halt, I too stopped falling, after about 65 feet of total fall distance. I brushed myself off, checked everything out, and prepared to climb out, assuming Judy had an anchor set. I climbed to the surface. At about halfway, I heard Judy asking if I was ok. I replied affirmatively. Once I got out, we decided that with our current location unknown precisely and the blowing storm and zero visibility, we should bivy. We dug a snow cave near the side of the crevasse. Once we climbed in, we sealed the entrance, allowing the storm to add insulation over us. We each had almost a quart of water left and most all of the day's food, with some extra. We had brought a single insulite pad as emergency gear and each had a space blanket with us. We removed our boots, but kept on the vapor barrier systems and socks. One of the packs was used as a common foot bag to provide insulation from the snow. The rope and the insulite pad provided our main insulation from the snow. The other pack was used to seal the entrance. The night was cold, but we remained functionally warm, with occasional shivering in near freezing temperatures.

Saturday, June 10, we dug out of the cave at around 8:30 am, planning on continuing. The weather was still bad, but we could see a rocky ridge adjacent to the crevasse field we were ensconced in. We roped up and headed over, thinking it was the ridge we had missed the previous day. After carefully checking it out and hiking around in the cold and blowing snow conditions for several hours, we decided to dig another snow cave, since our location was still unknown. We settled in for another night, after checking the weather again in the afternoon and seeing no improvement.

Sunday, June 11, we checked the weather again, morning and afternoon, with no improvement. Our water supplies were reduced to snow melted with body heat inside our jackets, and we began rationing food, considering the possible 4-day stay until the next predicted weather break.

Monday, June 12, we checked the weather in the morning, and noted no improvement. The afternoon check yielded clearing and reasonably good visibility, with continued high winds. We decided that starting out late in our debilitated condition and with the high avalanche danger of the recent snows was not prudent, and settled in for another night. We were, however, able to ascertain our exact location and plan our descent. We were less than 100 feet off route.

Tuesday, June 13, we got up early and broke camp just after 7:00 am, heading down to our base camp at 10,200 feet of elevation. Our movements were slow due to lack of food and water. Serious concern about avalanches weighed heavily on our minds. After about 7 1/2 hours of traveling we reached the tent. "Salvation!", I thought. The tent, however, hadn't survived the storms. The poles were broken and the sleeping bags in a puddle of water and snow. As we attempted to clean up camp, we noted climbers below, camping at Turtle Rock. After trying to revive the tent in the 50 mph winds and having yet another pole snap, we decided to pack up and head down to the lower camp. The fierce winds and the snow conditions, prone to small slabs and giant snowballs heading down, made travel difficult. Finally, we arrived at 9,300 feet of elevation. I chatted with the climbers, a group escorting Peter Rieke, a paraplegic, attempting to summit Rainier (3rd attempt) using a hand cranked snow pod. We dug a snow platform in a sheltered lee of Turtle Rock and set up camp, feeling pretty good at having survived. The tent was repaired with duct tape and bits of wands, i.e. it was barely functional. High winds continued to plague us through the night and we were still cold, having managed to only partially dry out one sleeping bag, with the other still sodden. We asked the Reike's team to use their radio to notify the NPS of our safety.

Wednesday, June 14, I woke up with numb feet and unable to walk. Frostbite, insidiously had invaded my socks during our bivies, but remained undetected until my feet had re-warmed. We again contacted the NPS, asking for evacuation help. No help was available due to avalanche danger, high winds and low visibility. The adjacent climbing team had a nurse available to help evaluate my condition heading up that day. I anxiously awaited her arrival. Upon examination, she indicated that I was capable of walking out. I felt relieved that my feet's condition was no worse than that. We settled in for another cold night with high winds in a marginal tent.

Thursday, June 15, we got up at 5 am and packed. The paraplegic climbing team had agreed to carry out part of our load (~10 lbs), while we retained enough gear for technical protection and a possible additional overnight. We needed to hurry down before avalanche danger became too high. Hiking was painful but possible and we made good time down to the Wilson Gully. There, post-holing slowed progress considerably. At the lower part, wracked by avalanches the previous day, standing glissades made the descent fairly quick. We roped up and crossed back over the Nisqually Fan, meeting several rangers on the far side. The rangers helped us down by taking our loads for the last three fourths of a mile of the hike back to the trailhead.

We had survived. Poor judgment cost us dearly, but competent mountaineering skills (and some Luck) brought us back alive (barely). Skills and technical competence are requirements for mountaineering, but nothing will ever substitute for good judgment.

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