Route: Liberty Ridge
Climbers: Dave Rapp, Greg “Bucket” Scharer, Rob “McGoo” McGough, Curtis Gifford (yours truly)
Dates: 5/29 – 6/1 (ok, 6/2), 2009
Results: Bordering on epic
Another summer, another shot at Rainier. After last year’s success on the Kautz Glacier Route (with an intended night on the summit), we were feeling cocky. It was time for Liberty Ridge. We made the plans, gathered the crew, loaded up the Explorer, and headed down early Friday morning to tackle the ridge.
[***NOTE*** To skip all the words and go straight to a sweet video compilation created by Dave Rapp, go here.]
Day 1: White River Campground to Lower Curtis Ridge
The road to the north side of the park on 410 was open, but no rangers were at the entrance (thus no car fee). We stopped at the White River Ranger Station and checked in for the climb. We were told that one other group was already on the route to Liberty Ridge, and that the route had been busy with all the fine weather. We parked at White River Campground and geared up ready to go. We were disappointed that all of the bathrooms (that we found) were closed, negating last minute relief prior to blue bag land…don’t say you weren’t warned. We were on the trail by 9:00, walking through forest on a mix of snow, rock, dirt, and brush. McGoo manned up to carry the rope for the majority of the day. Footprints in the snow were obvious at first, but then less so as we encountered the river again and again. We were eventually following as best we could little yellow strips of plastic like the kind you see around a crime scene. Along the way we ran into a couple single hikers who warned us of sloppy conditions ahead. We lost the trail a few times, but generally wandered upriver and eventually came into the open of Glacier Basin (this confusing opening would have consequences later).
After crossing the river, there was a reasonable boot path in the snow up to the base of the Inter Glacier and all the way up to St. Elmo’s Pass. The conditions were very warm, and so the snow was a bit slushy, but not unmanageable. Over the pass, we slid down scree and plunge-stepped down snow to the Winthrop on the other side of the pass. Here we roped up; one team of four. The Winthrop was in good shape, with only a few crevasses starting to show along the route. We ran into a couple groups along the way that were turning around. They told of bad conditions on the Carbon Glacier, and sloppy snow all the way there. The did clue us into a water source about 2/3 of the way across Lower Curtis Ridge, which was helpful. Near the end of the Winthrop, the boot track passed under a moderate slide that had recently released and another one about to (a large horizontal crack on the slope was visible). We moved quickly past the impending slide with no incident.
Figure 1: The Winthrop and Lower Curtis Ridge from St. Elmo's Pass (AAI Tents on right)
At this point we were on lower Curtis Ridge, and the long slog traverse through the slop continued forever. The heat slog finally ended, and we came to the edge of the Carbon. We set up camp on the snow on Curtis Ridge around 7,200 feet near the current access point to the Carbon, and enjoyed the views in the setting sun. The Carbon looked heavily crevassed, but a clear boot path to the base of Liberty Ridge could be seen.
Day 2: Ascent to Thumb Rock+
Descending to the Carbon was straightforward from 7,200 on Lower Curtis Ridge, losing less than 100 feet in the process. The boot path went across and up the right side, rather than up the left and around as is more normal (from what I’ve read). It was easy to follow, but there were several crevasses that needed to be crossed. Most were stepped over easily with only alert rope team members ready to catch a fall. There was one snow bridge that was ready to go, which we formally belayed for each man. We gained the ridge on the west side, near to the tip. The Bergschrund was not much of an obstacle, and crossing it put us on 30 to 40 degree snow / ice / scree. We continued simulclimbing up the west side of the ridge, and only put in a couple pieces of protection (pickets) when there was some exposure with scree.
Figure 2: Our approximate route on Liberty Ridge (missed Thumb Rock)
Here we made a routefinding snafu. We continued up steep snow slopes on the west side of the ridge, navigating to the right around rock formations. There was one sizable rockfall that plowed through where our last man had been 5 minutes earlier. It wouldn’t have been pretty. Eventually we came to about 11,700, had totally blown by Thumb Rock, and found ourselves looking down on it from nearly 1,000 feet above (we could see one tent). No way were we losing that much altitude, and it would have been tough anyway given the slope angle. Of course, we really didn’t see any other place remotely flat enough to put up a tent, much less 2. After much debate, we finally chopped/dug out a small platform between two rock outcroppings that was not quite big enough for one two-man tent…about 20% of the floor was not supported. We ended up putting 4 people in this tent, heavily anchoring it, all the gear, and ourselves to the mountain. Setting up was problematic as there was no place to stand or put down gear not being used. When we were done, we were exhausted. This would be more about bodily rest and keeping warm than sleeping. I think Rob was actually hanging off the edge of the platform in the corner of the tent like a hammock with Dave on top of him. It was pretty ridiculous. Long story short…we managed. We hadn’t all retired to the tent until about 10:00, so we abandoned our previously intended 1:00 AM wake-up call for an alpine start and moved that to 6:00, knowing that we had a contingency day built in.
Figure 3: Precarious perch at 11,700 feet...note the rats’ nest of anchors
Day 3: To the Bergschrund and Back
By the time we broke down the rats’ nest that was our “camp,” it was around 10:00. Right out of camp we descended about 50 feet to the East to gain the ramp that would take us to the top of Black Pyramid. We found a boot track here and followed it. This was pretty straightforward steep snow travel; we set a couple pickets that were probably not necessary. Near the top of he Pyramid, there was a short 50 degree slope of dinner plate ice that I led using 2 screws. I anchored at the top and belayed everyone up. After this, we had a choice of another ice climb to the left to parts unknown or a snow traverse to the right. We chose the latter and this took us through a gap and up to the bergschrund proper. At this point, we stopped to assess our options. I’m not sure what officially qualifies as “left,” “center,” and “right” paths on the bergschrund, but we considered three options. There was about a 30 foot lower vertical wall that needed to be surmounted, followed by an increasingly steep (and as we would later find out, icy) slope leading to the top of the bergschrund. There was a left center and right center variation we could see to getting over the initial wall. These were options 1 and 2. Option 3 would have been to do an end run to the right all the way around the obstacle, as we had read that was a possibility. We started with the center right version first as we had seen a team of two working their way up that.
Figure 4: Bergschrund options we considered…finally succeeded (on Day 4) by Left Center
As we were stretched out on our rope around a pinnacle with Greg leading the pitch, I heard a little cracking from the wall and moved up and out of the way behind the pinnacle in case some large block of ice tried to target me. About 10 seconds later, something did indeed come hurtling down to where I was just standing, but it wasn’t ice…it was Greg. The entire slab he was climbing had come off, including his 2 pieces of protection, and he had bounced down the mountain a total of about 50 feet before being stopped by the rope. At first I thought he was dead, but after about 3 seconds he bounced up and grunted, “Where’s my tool?” I should have known better…Greg is experienced at absorbing falls above 13k feet (last year he had fallen 20 feet into a crevasse in the summit crater to no ill effects). Anyway, we abandoned that route, retrieved his ice tool and made our way to the left variation.
This started with a snow bridge crossing and an exposed front-pointing traverse to the left. I was just about in position to see over a lip and determine if the route would go when Dave reached the bridge and it collapsed. He didn’t fall far, but the bridge that was left was not substantial, with 3 guys on the other side of it. We made the decision that I should come back and that we should look for the easy route around. I did so without incident. But when we went to look for the easy way around, we found no route from where we were to get there…we would have had to drop 500 feet of elevation and then find a way that MIGHT have gone around.
At this point, we noted the time and decided to make another camp and resume fresh in the morning when conditions would be more firm. This time we were able to probe and dig out a platform just big enough for both tents below the bergschrund and between a crevasse and a serac. Fairly comfortable for 13,200 feet…certainly much better than the night before. I think we were all feeling the altitude at this point. I went right to bed without eating as the thought of it made me ill, no matter how much I knew I needed to chow.
Day 4: Summit (and how long back to the car?)
We decided to get up a 6:00 again. We knew we should be getting up earlier, but I think we were just chasing rest. I actually got 2 hours of sleep early in the night…the most I had gotten consecutively since being on the mountain. I sat up at 5:00 and started eating, knowing I needed to get some food in me, but also knowing that it would take some time. A mini-bagel salami sandwich, which I would normally consume in about 2 minutes, took me 30 minutes to chew and swallow. We broke camp, and after some discussion, decided to try the left variation again. I led across the bridge (no issues…it was firm), the traverse (which I protected this time because it was hard to get good footholds this morning), and over the lip. I set in a total of 4 pieces of protection (mix of pickets and screws) and realized that I didn’t have enough to keep going. So, I spied a shallow crevasse on the slope I was climbing and decided to build an anchor there. I belayed everyone up. We swapped gear and I led out again, protecting until we got on the open slope that appeared to be a straightforward snow climb up to the slopes of Liberty Cap. However, after a short section of kickable snow, the route became icy again, and the slope above revealed itself to be steep. It would require another set of protection. I was out. Plus the sun was brutal, and I needed some water. I kicked a makeshift pack ledge and foot ledge in the snow and belayed Rapp to me. Bucket offered to swing into lead since he had most of the gear now, and I had no problem with that. This climb was straightforward up the slope with a couple pieces of protection, but then required a calf-busting steep traverse to finally get to a snow slope that would lead us to gentler terrain. It was well led by Bucket. We at the bottom spent most of our time trying to merge with the mountain so as to avoid the massive amounts of ice raining down from those above. Lots of small bruises, and helmet dents, but no major injuries.
Figure 5: Upper bergschrund...Bucket starting the icy traverse, the rest of us dodging ice mortars
Finally we were on the upper slopes, and from there it was straightforward to the Liberty Cap summit. Of course, right as we got there, some clouds rolled in and obscured much of our view, but they ended up being intermittent, and we did get to enjoy the fruits of our labor. Then we looked at the time. It was 3:00. I couldn’t believe it had taken us all day to get up 1,000 feet. 4 people on a rope in technical terrain, laying protection, switching leads, with full packs, etc. takes time, but geez. I still have suspicions that we actually entered a time warp or were laid unconscious by some volcanic gas for awhile. In any event, we did not linger. We immediately punted any idea of going to Columbia Crest (we had all been there before) and headed into the saddle to find a path to the Winthrop / Emmons.
Figure 6: The Glory Pic from Liberty Cap
After some searching, we found a solid boot track that traversed east across the Winthrop to the Emmons around some major crevasses and then down the “Corridor.” Other than a few stumbles and one short 2 minute water break, we pretty much went without stopping until we hit Camp Schurman. The Emmons was variable higher on the mountain with a little hard snow/ice, but mostly deep and sloppy and wet. During this time, we had about ½ hour of whiteout (but solid bootpath to follow), a little snow, and some threatening thunder, but in the end it went away. At Schurman, we availed ourselves of the facilities and tried to stay out of the wind. We chatted with Ranger Cooper and Brent Langlais, who was one of the Alpine Ascent guides running the 8-day course. Brent had been one of the guides when McGoo and I had taken our 6 day mountaineering course on Baker with AAI a few years earlier. He’s a great guy, but in my tired state I think I grumbled something about spending more time on routefinding for his students. They both gave us beta about the hike out from Glacier Basin which was worrying us as we knew it would be in the dark and had been confusing on the way in. My understanding is that there was a summer and a winter trail. The winter trail was more straightforward, but it wasn’t clear if the required snow bridges over the river would still be in place. Without a very clear idea of what the plan was, we roped up and headed out again. We would have stayed the night at Schurman, but 3 of our guys had flights out Tuesday morning.
The hike up to the Inter Glacier was straightforward, and after descending to the big rock halfway down, we decided (based on our observations and also beta from Brent) that it was safe to unrope and glissade the rest of the way down. There was already a path, and that next few minutes was the best part of the descent as we lost well over 1,000 feet of elevation lickety split in the twilight under a half moon. At this point it was after 10:00 and time to put on headlamps. We trudged down the snow along the valley, following the bootpath. Unfortunately, this dead-ended at the river at one point with no obvious way across. Avoiding the urge to lay down and die, Rapp finally pushed a plan to hike back up river to the point where we thought that we had emerged from the forest and the summer trail on the way in a decade ago (ok, 3 days ago). We did this and using a combination of path watching, marker finding, GPS, and the Force, we eventually found our way back to the car at 2:30 AM.
The last cruel joke was staring at us…my Explorer had a flat tire. Bucket took the initiative (clearly he was further from death than I was, and he has the same year, make, and model) and did most of the work to change it. We piled in the car, chose the least comatose (again Bucket) and drove away. We ended up getting back to my house at 5:10, and the cab to take Rapp and Bucket to the airport was coming at 5:30. Talk about a mad dash to wash off 4 days of filth, sort gear, extract fuel canisters, etc.
Overall it was a beautiful climb that tested our skills. We made mistakes but were able to work as a team to overcome them and still finish the route.
The moral of the story for anyone trying to glean beta from this is that, as the previous post by Rainier rangers stated, the route takes longer right now than you think it will. You will need a mix of screws and pickets as the terrain currently changes rapidly. Certainly experienced parties can get away with more soloing than we attempted, and parties with less than 4 on the rope will move faster as well. You will definitely want 2 ice axes for all party members (we went with 1 tool and 1 axe for each person, and that was the right combo). If you forget your helmet, turn around.