Doug Solfermoser, Bryn Hughes, Mark Scott-Nash, Shelly Scott-Nash, and Jim Gallo
It amazed me how enormously big Mount Rainier is. I've been on big mountains all over the world and have climbed in Colorado many years. This has produced a psychological effect in me of looking at Rainier as "only a 14'er". After having climbed it I now understand why there is such a great American climbing tradition coming from the Northwest.
Rainier has all the good and bad aspects of any big mountain in the world except for extreme altitude. Massive glaciers, long, steep routes and wildly varying, unpredictable and extreme weather. The accessibility of this mountain and low monetary and time cost (relative to a bigger expedition) make it a perfect training and testing ground for just about any other "big" peak in the world.
We arrived at the Paradise ranger station on June 28. While checking in, the ranger gave us a "long range" weather forcast for the next day: Unsettled. We decided to go for it even though we had built in several weather days in our trip. We threw in an extra day of food and started out for our high camp. The Furher Finger is a long, steep coulior that connects the Wilson and Nisqually glacier, and is generally considered the "shortest" route to the summit from Paradise.
From our route, we could see the masses of people heading up the Disappointment Cleaver route (standard) to Camp Muir. After about 6 hours and 5000 vertical feet of climbing, we arrived at our camp on the western edge of the Wilson Glacier. Our camp was at approximately 9000 feet. We saw no one else except a party that remained ahead of us all day headed for the Kautz Glacier route.
Climbing a route with no other parties on it has it's aestetic advantages to a mountaineer. It also has it's disadvantages. One main disadvantage is that you must forge your own routes through glaciers. We were planning on setting off well before sunrise the next day to avoid rockfall and avalanche hazard in the coulior. The first part of the route above high camp involves crossing the Wilson to the base of the couloir and would be dangerous to cross at night. Therefore, as soon as we arrived in camp, Doug and I set off to establish the route across the glacier while the others set up camp. This turned out to be an excellent strategy.
Doug and I arrived back at high camp a couple of hours later. The weather was good all day and we were getting great views of Mount Adams and St. Helens poking above the low clouds in the distance. We ate dinner and rehydrated as much as we could before catching a few hours of sleep.
The alarm went off the next morning at 1 am. By 2:30, we were all on the glacier. At the base of the coulior, we unroped and started up the gradually steepening slope that started out at about 30 degrees and flaired up to 45 or 50 degrees at the top. The snow was icy and crusty in areas. It was very surreal (maybe due to my low blood caffiene level) to see our team spread out on the slope, climbing by headlamp. By the time we topped out on the coulior above the Nisqually ice fall, we had come up an unrelenting 2500 feet of steep alpine ice. At this point we noticed why dawn was late, there were a lot of high clouds to the east. The weather was starting to look a little threatening.
The next part of the route follows the steep edge of the upper Nisqually glacier. There is a series of ice steps next to friable volcanic rock on this section. The steps sloped up to 70 or 80 degrees in sections, challenging our one-tool techniques. We started a running belay about half way up this slope using pickets for protection. The steepness ended at about 12,200 feet on a rounded "hill". We all agreed that it was an excellent mountaineering route with its varied climbing and exposure.
We weren't at the top yet. It was basically a walk-up to 13,000 feet where the Furher Finger route meets the Kautz Glacier route at a wide saddle. The team we had seen ascending the previous day was a little ahead of us on their route at this point. The other party had left one person here because of altitude illness. She informed us that her boyfriend leading their party had climbed "all over" and had climbed Rainier many times and knew exactly what he was doing. Well, I don't know if it was because of altitude (only 13K feet, a poor excuse), or tiredness, that we decided to follow them. My experience has been that it's always a bad idea to follow anyone in the mountains without talking to them first. They were headed up the western side of a large ice ridge above us. The summit, visible to us, was more directly accessible on the eastern side of this ridge.
Anyway, we climbed up to about 13,500 on the eastern side of the ridge. The conditions here were sustained 45 degree blue ice, much more difficult climbing than we had already done. We decided that if we had completed the face, it would take too long to safely descend it in what was now obviously deteriorating weather. By the time we downclimbed back to the saddle in a running belay, two hours had been wasted. We decided that it would be better to descend. This turned out to be a very wise decision.
We descended the Kautz Glacier route because it was basically a walk down. As we started our trek down, we noticed the other party (about 2000 feet above) descending the ice face above, roped together but without any protection placed. They had obviously come to the same conclusion as we did about turning around. Someone slipped and one roped team fell. Amazingly, one person held the other two falling, stopping them just short of a giant bergshrund. We watched for a while until they all recovered and headed down again. Later, when we talked to them, they seemed very shaken up by the incident. Lesson: It's dangerous to simulclimb without placing protection.
We continued down in what was now a thickening whiteout. Eventually, the slope steepened to 50 degrees, necessitating careful downclimbing for a few hundred feet. Eventually we found the exit coulior and got onto the rocks 2500 feet above our camp. We descended into what was now a full blown snowstorm to our camp. We arrived at about 7:30, a 17 hour climbing day. That night about 8 inches of wet snow fell, taking the Furher Finger out of condition with high avalanche hazard.
We got up late the next day to perfect blue, windless skies. After a leisurly breakfast and espresso, we descended into the cloud layer below. There were sluff avalanches coming off all the slopes around us. We made it back to Paradise by 4:30 and beer by 5...