Mt. Rainier, Disappointment Cleaver route

9-12 Aug 2004 - by Richard j Hughes


Aug 9 Leave Cougar Rock campground, collect permit, climb to Muir.
Aug 10 Acclimatization and practice day
Aug 11 Summit climb day
Aug 12 Descend to Paradise

The incentive to climb Mt. Rainier came earlier this year when the Chofu Vikings, a high school alumni group from Japan, invited me to join their Pacific Northwest Reunion. They invited me to their reunion after I made a temporary discussion forum for them on my website. They normally use my discussion software, but their own website was down. When I learnt that the reunion was to be held just 1/4 mile west of the Nisqually Entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park I immediately thought that this would be a great excuse to climb Mt. Rainier. When we mentioned to Nancy Harris that we planned to climb Mt. Rainier in August, she wanted to join us. Our British friend, Paul Johnson, who now lives in Vancouver, Canada, also said he'd like to join us. A month or so before the climb, however, Paul (who used to live in San Diego) flaked out, deciding that he couldn't take more vacation time after just coming back from a holiday in the U.K. Just ten days before we were due to fly to Seattle we met Tommy Ramsden at Dad's, a pub/restaurant in Poway where we regularly eat and drink after Wednesday evening climbing with Los Alpinistas. This particular Wednesday, however, Nancy, Patsy and I had been practicing prussiking so we only met the group for dinner. Tuck Russel introduced us to Tommy, who'd just arrived that morning from Sheffield, England, for a three week holiday in San Diego. When Tommy mentioned that he might fly to San Francisco, Patsy and I asked him if he'd like to join us instead, and fly to Seattle to climb Mt. Rainier, figuring that he'd make a great replacement for Paul. Tommy had never before hiked above 3,000'.

We sent in a permit reservation request, $30 per person plus a $20 fee for four nights at Camp Muir, beginning Monday 9th August.

We all flew on Southwest airlines. At San Diego they forbade my taking the empty (aired out for one week) fuel containers because they had once, been in contact with gasoline. Fortunately, Stefan lives close to the airport and he was able to swing by to pick up the empty fuel bottles. Otherwise we'd presumably have had to throw them away. Michael Moore, in Farenheit 911, noted that butane gas lighters were permissible on the airlines, but he failed to document that completely empty fuel containers are not. This is a prime example of beurocratic stupidity. We flew into Seattle at 10 pm Saturday night, picked up our Budget rental car and squeezed the gear and all four of us in for the hour-long drive to Snoqualmie, where Hugh Gundry (a Chofu Viking) had kindly invited us to spend the night at his house. Saturday morning, Hugh took us to see the Falls and we ate breakfast before heading to REI's flagship store in Seattle. We purchased two 30 oz. MSR fuel containers and a gallon of white gasoline along with other items before driving south to Paradise, Mt. Rainier. We spent the night at Cougar Rock campground, at 3,180 ft. elevation, sorting gear and drinking beers.

Monday morning we finished packing our gear and arrived at the Paradise ranger station just before the 10 am deadline to claim our climbing permit. It had snowed on the mountain the previous Friday but the weather forecast for this week was all good. We began the long slog up the asphalt path from Paradise and thence onto the Muir snowfield. Suffering somewhat under the heavy burden of our packs we finally arrived at Muir Camp and set up shelter in the gully just east of the ridge. Since the public shelter was closed for renovation this gully was a small encampment of tents, looking like the base camp for an expedition, which, effectively, is what it was. Parties of two to four climbers were setting up tents all over the gully. I'd neglected to bring my snow shovel, figuring that we'd be camping on dirt. We did have to camp on snow and, fortunately, there were many other parties who had brought snow shovels, so there was no problem borrowing a shovel. All four of us crowded into our 3 ~ 4 man tent, snug as bugs.

That night, as we lay in our sleeping bags, we were kept from sleeping for quite a while by the intermittent roar of rock fall. We couldn't always tell where this was coming from. Some of it may have been Nancy's snoring, or Tommy's farting, but at 1 or 2 am we watched the headlamps of an RMI group freeze, and then run across the Cowlitz Glacier.

The next morning the rangers and RMI guides were very blaz about the rockfall. It happens all the time, they said. But not usually from over there, they added, pointing in the vague direction of the path to Cathedral Gap. Uh, okay I guess.

We spent the morning practicing self-arrest, belaying and walking as a rope team. Most of the afternoon was occupied by melting snow, enough for two quarts for each of us except Nancy, who carried a gallon. We ate an early dinner and got everything, including a Thermos full of coffee, ready for summit day. We lay down for bed around 5 pm, Tommy sleeping outside the tent.

We actually managed to catch at least a couple of hours' sleep before the alarm clock went off at 11 pm. We shuffled around, numbly, in the cold and dark of the night. Patsy awoke with a bad headache and said she wasn't sure she could do the climb. After taking half a tablet of aspirin + codeine she felt much better and had no further problems. We drank coffee, ate granola bars, visited the toilets, roped up and set off at 12.15 am. One party of two had set off before us, but most parties had headed over to Ingraham Flat the previous afternoon. I didn't want to camp there because you have to carry *everything* off the mountain. Blue bags vs. toilets. Blue bags vs. toilets. No contest. We had already scoped out the path across the Cowlitz glacier the day before, and crossed this uneventfully. The giant was still asleep and the sky was full of stars, i.e., there were no clouds. We roped up. Me in front, then Tommy, Nancy, and Patsy in the rear. We threaded our way up and over Cathedral Gap and gazed down at the Ingraham Flat camp. Somewhat to my surprise we arrived at, and passed through, Ingraham Flat before anyone there was ready to leave.

At the base of Disappointment Cleaver we caught up with the party of two who had set off, ahead of us, from Muir Camp. They were intimidated by the transition from the glacier to the Cleaver, and offered me the lead. It did look intimidating. I couldn't see very far, even with a Halogen headlamp, but there was an abvious drop-off to the right, unscalable cliffs to the left and what appeared to be a snow bridge across a void straight ahead. We weren't going to stand there and wait for an RMI group to show us the way so Tommy put me on belay and over the bridge I went. Everyone followed. That was a good lead, a member of the other party said. We were in good spirits as we threaded our way up the Cleaver. It was laborious, however, and we were soon overtaken by a fast RMI group of three. You should be traversing a few feet lower, said the guide, then added I've only climbed this route a few hundred times. It was a first for me and, in the dark, it was never exactly obvious which way to go. The Cleaver reminded me of desert rock. It was a scree slope punctuated with rocky ledges. Down below we could now see what looked like a luminous centipede. There were dozens of headlamps moving across the Cowlitz Glacier many hundreds of feet below us.

Wait up. Just a little bit slower. Nancy was getting tired and requested that we slow the pace. We caught up with the fast RMI group at the top of the Cleaver and stopped for a long break. Above us towered the snowy/icy summit cone. It was still pitch dark, as the moon was very feeble. Only 2,000 ft. to go.

We set off again, switch-backing up the snow. The crampon points bit into the icy crust, providing secure footing on the narrow path. The path was now clear again, marked with wands and trodden by hundreds of feet. My headlamp died just as it became light enough to see. The rope tugged. Just a little bit slower. We started to be passed by faster parties. I was secretly glad to slow the pace. Umm, just a little bit slower. Soon we were doing an impression of pall bearers. Step, step, rest. Step, rest, step, rest. I was ever so glad to see the crater rim. We crossed the crater and unroped on the far (summit) side. We each huffed and puffed up to the true summit at our own pace. I was so focused on reaching the summit that I missed Register Rock and never did sign the register. It sure felt good to be on the summit. Expansive views. No more climbing uphill. Life was good. We lay down to rest and enjoy the ambience.

On the summit I barely managed to eat a granola bar as I felt slightly nauseous. Tommy reported that he felt very nauseous.

I tried to talk Nancy, Patsy and Tommy into joining me on a traverse of the crater rim. I thought at least Tommy would join me, but next time I looked round they were all heading back the way we had come. Alone, then, I began to pick my way along the west rim of the crater. It wasn't so difficult, mostly on gravel. What snow there was, however, was rock-hard and I was glad of my crampons. I fell once, dropping onto one knee, on some rock. Inside the crater rim were the entrances to the fern caves, entries to the icy cave system that wove a subterranean path beneath the summit ice. Outside the crater rim was the massive expanse of glaciers dropping away from the summit in every direction. Enormous blue crevasses split the glaciers.

I reached the others on the far side of the crater rim and we rested some more before starting down. Many parties, both private and RMI, were now ensconced within the crater rim. Soon enough it was time to rope up again. We chose to maintain the same rope order on the descent as on the ascent. The snow was by now noticeably soft and mushy as we began to descend. The rope tugged. Umm, just a little bit slower. Not aqgain. I was in a hurry to descend now, before the snow softened any more. It wasn't to be. Directly above the Cleaver we reached a junction. Three paths led away from this point and some argument ensued as to which to follow. I chose the lower right path. A short while later we reached a snow bridge over a crevasse. I didn't like the look of this bridge and opted to climb directly upwards to reach the higher path. We belayed up this steep section and across the upper section of the crevasse. The path then led across a snow bridge spanning the largest crevasse on the route. Fortunately, this was an enormous bridge. Shortly thereafter we reached the top of Disappointment Cleaver where we met up with The Whistlers, a party of three men who whistled when they exhaled. We couldn't figure this out and we should have asked, but we didn't. The Whistlers asked Patsy if she spoke any Japanese because there was a sole Japanese climber they were trying to dissuade from continuing up the glacier. Patsy managed to strike up a conversation with him. He did have a solo climbing permit and appeared quite competent. The snow was turning into mush, however, and none of us would have wanted to venture onto the glacier unroped. We think Patsy persuaded him to camp at the top of the Cleaver, but we weren't sure and he didn't follow us down. On the other hand he had a tent. He should have camped there and started up early the following morning.

Meanwhile, we unroped and began to descend the Cleaver. Tommy and I took off our crampons, whereas Patsy and Nancy kept theirs on. After about 20 feet, however, Patsy and Nancy had to remove their crampons also. Tommy bounded off down the Cleaver like a mountain goat. I followed not far behind, but then felt obliged to stop and wait after a few hundred feet for Patsy and Nancy to catch up. Tommy reached the bottom of the Cleaver and tied in to The Whistler's rope to cross the Ingraham and Cowlitz glaciers. I stopped and waited, every few hundred feet, for Patsy and Nancy to catch up. The descent was painfully slow.

At the bottom of the Cleaver we roped up again. Nancy suggested that here, below the unstable cliff wasn't a good place to stop, but I pointed out that one could at least see the rocks should any come down. The crevasses, on the other hand, could be hidden. We tied in and scuttled away as fast as we could. Below Ingraham Flat we had to regain the lower slopes of Cathedral Rock. These had clearly been pelted by rockfall and I was anxious to cross the area as fast as possible. The rope tugged. Umm, just a little bit slower. The pace was torturously slow, but the giant slumbered still. It wasn't until we had reached camp that we saw a section of the wall collapse above the path. Tommy, who had reached camp about an hour earlier and was lying in the tent, told us that he had had a close shave with two large rocks that came down.

We were lucky to have such good weather, although we were prepared to stay at Muir Camp for one extra day if we had to postpone our climb. As it was, we used this extra day's food to spend one more night at Muir Camp before descending the mountain.

I had carried a compass, Thommen altimeter, GPS with the approximate route pre-entered and both Patsy and I carried tri-band (6m , 2m, 70cm) Amateur Radio transceivers. We didn't have to use any of this equipment. I had a Black Diamond dual light-source headlamp, that provided both an LED and a voltage-regulated halogen light. The powerful, halogen light was really helpful in picking out the route, but it died without any warning. The LED uses a separate Lithium battery. I carried an extra set of six AA batteries (and four more for the digital camera), but didn't need them.

We were all very tired and lay down for a while. The warmth of the sun had left our tent sitting atop a 5 platform of snow. Tommy leveled this platform off, and built up the perimeter while I set some water boiling to make dinner. After dinner, I again lay down inside the tent and suggested we postpone eating desert until breakfast. Tommy was by now quite chipper, however, and offered to make desert in exchange for a joke from each of us. Not one of the three of us could come up with a joke, but we ate desert nonetheless. We slept that night like four logs, unashamedly exhausted.

Thursday morning we awoke at 7.30 or so and set to work melting snow and eating breakfast. The snow around the tent was like an ice rink. We slipped and skidded around, packing up our gear. Nancy polled everyone she could find as to whether or not to wear crampons on the way down. Tommy and I had told her not to, but she decided to wear them anyway, for about a hundred feet. Tommy and I had already taken off down the Muir snowfield before Patsy managed to persuade Nancy to glissade, instead of walk down. We glissaded, but only in discontinuous sections, joined by flatter areas through which we had to walk.

Tommy and I waited on a rock, for Patsy and Nancy, just after the path changed from snow to gravel. Another climber came by and told us that they weren't far behind. We spotted them. Patsy's red parka and Nancy's yellow helmet were clearly visible, even from a distance. We watched curiously as Patsy walked to the top of the last, steep snow slope. This was a snow slope that Tommy and I had walked down. Patsy sat down, however. No way, she's going to do it. All of a sudden she pushed off from the top of the slope, accelerated downhill and shrieked from the joy of it. When they'd caught up with us we asked her why she glissaded there. Another climber had just hiked back up the slope so he could repeat that glissade. He had told Patsy, You just climbed Rainier; you can do this. So she did, and she had a blast.

Back at the Paradise parking lot we signed out from the climb with Asha, the climbing Ranger babe who'd climbed Liberty Ridge. Asha recommended that we eat lunch at the Paradise Inn. This was an excellent lunch and so I highly recommend eating here. We spent some time at the visitor center before heading down the road, leaving the Park, and joining the Chofu reunion. We had just left one adventure to start another

Neither Nancy nor Tommy had ever done any mixed (rock, snow, ice) mountaineering before. For this reason Patsy and I decided that we should be at the ends of the rope team. I led because I've got the most experience. Tommy took to mountaineering like a duck takes to water. Nancy was the weakest member of the team. This is not meant as a slight, as it's inevitable that someone will be the weakest member of the team. I'd have felt a lot more comfortable, however, if we'd been able to get down faster. As it was, both the ascent and descent took 8 hours.

I only drank 3/4 of a liter of water on the actual summit climb. I felt okay that day and the next, but on Thursday night, even after drinking a couple of beers and a few glasses of Whisky at the Chofu reunion, I couldn't sleep. On Friday morning I felt terrible. I drank a strong cup of coffee and I felt even worse. I waved Nancy, Patsy, Tommy and Paul goodbye as they set off on another hike. I stayed at the lodge and set about rehydrating. I think I drank two gallons of juice and water before I perked up. In retrospect we should have taken more soup, hot chocolate and Gookinaid. I find it really difficult to drink large quantities of water. Beer yes, water no.

We carried two full 30 oz fuel bottles to Camp Muir and used about 45 oz. fuel, mostly to melt snow. We had provisioned three (serves two) freeze-dried meals for the four of us for each night, along with soup and a desert. This was a barely adequate amount of food. We could have used more soup, coffee, and hot chocolate. Southwest Airlines at San Diego refused to allow the completely empty fuel bottles on the plane. At Seattle airport they didn't even ask, but I'd already left them with a friend.

This climb, which we undertook in 3 1/2 days, Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI) normally does in 2 gruelling days, for $775 per client. On the first day they climb to Camp Muir, on the second day they waken around midnight, climb to the summit and back to the hut, pack up their gear and descend the mountain. RMI schedules climbs to increase their profitability rather than to increase their clients' chances of success. There is only so much space in the RMI hut at Muir Camp and this schedule allows maximum turnover. RMI also appears to encourage their clients to rent plastic boots (for an extra $30). We passed many guided groups in which the guides were wearing Tevas and their clients were wearing plastic boots. The RMI guides who've led the most clients to the summit get the pick of the crop. They go around the room, asking the clients what kind of shape they're in and what their conditioning regimen has included, but their only real screening is to see how fast the clients make the ascent to Camp Muir. They appear to take the weaker clients further up to camp on Ingraham Flat for a head start to the summit.

Our climb was made much more enjoyable by following our own, more relaxed schedule. Had we followed the RMI schedule we'd likely have suffered much worse nausea and headaches. Besides, we didn't just want to climb the mountain. We wanted to savour the experience.

RMI does a great job marking the trail. There's no way we'd have been able to proceed above the Cleaver in the dark without their trail to follow. It's doubtful whether we'd even be able to proceed across Ingraham Flat in the dark without the RMI trail.

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