Friday, June 5, 2009


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.

lr route

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.


Tuesday, July 8, 2008



Tired and battling a little AMS, I slowly walked across the summit crater, wielding my snow probe in the diffused afternoon light that eeks through in a whiteout. We were looking for a wind-shielded campsite where we could set up our tents for the coveted summit overnight stay. “Hey Bucket, feels like there’s space here, give me a belay across this snow bridge.” Greg answered “No problem.” As he took in the slack and braced for a belay, I pulled out the probe and gingerly tested the questionable snow with a step. I slowly crossed the 4 foot long dubious stretch. It held. On the far side, I prepared to belay him across behind me. Then I heard him say, “No need. I feel totally comfortable with that. There are no crevasses on the summit.” Greg is experienced and focused on safety, and I had just walked across safely. I shrugged and continued on. Two seconds later, “FALLING!!!!” I dove into arrest position and waited for the pull. It didn’t come, but when I looked back, he was gone. The others in our party came running. Paul got as close to the hole that had opened up as he dared and shouted. “Greg!” No answer. “Bucket!” No answer. Oh shit…


Last year, six of us ventured to Mount Rainier in late May to try the Kautz Glacier route with an overnight summit stay. Injuries, weather, slow mornings, and giant ice blocks plummeting in our general direction all contributed to us getting to the ice cliffs and then punting. This year would be different.

We had replaced two of our members from the previous year due to one knee surgery (Geoff Work) and one medical residency (Geoff Keenan) that made it hard for him to take phone calls, much less a week off to travel to Rainier and engage in our particular folly. The team consisted of Greg Scharer (“Bucket”), Nick Segalle, Rob McGough (“McGoo”), Curtis Gifford (that’s me), and the two new guys, Dave Rapp, and Paul Grewall. The guys from last year had a good set of alpine, glacier, ice, and rock climbing experience, including guided Rainier summits by myself (once) and Greg (4 times). Dave had gone to school with Rob, Greg, and me (we were all Fijis at UVA), and I had climbed with him several times over the previous year, so I knew he would be solid. Paul was a med school friend of Dave’s, and although he had limited alpine experience, he had reached the summit of Kilimanjaro, and from all accounts would be a positive factor on the team. Having two doctors was obviously appealing (even two urologists!).

I had spent many late nights over the previous several months planning logistics. Defining objectives, team norms, and roles and responsibilities; listing gear status for every member of the team; gathering emergency contact information; route planning; training regimens; defining common skills & methods; detailing lessons learned from the previous year; and even buying a scale to weigh to the gram every piece of equipment I planned on bringing. “Intense,” “obsessed,” “overkill,” “anal,” “nazi,” etc. were all words that came to mind as I reflected on the master spreadsheet that contained all of this information. But I wanted to succeed this year, and without guides, that stuff fell to us. Bucket participated heavily in my mania as well. The upside is that we felt very prepared for just about anything.

The crew flew in over a couple of days, and as opposed to last year, there wasn’t the need for the massive REI trip to buy lots of shiny new gear that people would learn how to use in the car on the way down to the mountain. On Friday, June 27th, we had the obligatory grocery store run and then were ready to head down in 2 SUVs from Seattle towards Rainier, several hours ahead of our original schedule…a good omen.

The weather was beautiful and we had awesome views of the mountain during the drive to the Nisqually entrance. We passed the Copper Creek Inn just before entering the park, and that started 5 days of anticipation / obsession over the massive quantities of chow and beer that we would consume there upon getting off the mountain. We drove to Paradise, unloaded, figured out where to park, and checked in with the Rangers. When the ranger saw that our reservation called for a night on the summit, he looked a little funny at us. Upon quizzing us about our gear list, our experience, and our camp locations (“no sir, not at Camp Hazard, a few hundred feet below and to the West of it on the Turtle to avoid the ice condos that occasionally come rolling through…”), he seemed sufficiently convinced that we might have actually thought this through. We got our slip, applied the sun screen and started off at about 2:15.

Day 1:

We left from the old visitor’s center parking lot, and were immediately on snow. Bucket led us up the trails to Glacier Vista at a decent pace. Trekking poles were used by most to maintain balance in the sloppy snow. The heat was high with the unobstructed sun and the reflection off all of the snow. Let the sweating commence. Everyone seemed to be moving well under the load (60-70 lbs each). Upon reaching Glacier Vista, we charted a good route down into the Nisqually, and alternatively traversed and plunge stepped down the 400 feet to the glacier valley floor, past the lateral moraine. We briefly contemplated our options: 1) up the east side of the Nisqually along the lateral moraine, 2) cross the Nisqually and then head up the west side of the glacier and then on to the Wilson; 3) cross the Nisqually and head up the Fan. The ranger had told us that people had been doing a mix of 2 and 3. We had skipped the Fan last year, and I wanted to give it a try. It was in the afternoon, but the falling rock/ice hazard seemed manageable, plus there was a decent boot track heading up which would make the ascent relatively quick.

We roped up into 2 teams of 3 and I led across towards the Fan. Everyone was using one pole and once ice axe. With all of the snowfall from early June, we had no problems with crevasses. With all of the nice weather from the previous week, we had no problems with hip-high postholing (like we did last year). We left off the crampons. Other than being a little sloppy, we had great conditions. The Fan was steep, but not nearly as steep as it had appeared from the other side of the Nisqually. We made the decent boot track progressively better with each climber kicking better steps for the next guy. The ascent of the Fan passed by quickly, and we took stock during a break at the top of it (~7,000 feet at ~5:00). We were well ahead of schedule, we had great conditions, and everybody was feeling good with lots of daylight left. I decided to push on for a campsite we had used last year at 8,200 feet. We followed the boot track (which I started calling the Yellow Brick Road) and at 7,600 feet, came across a group of two mountain rescue teams (one from Tacoma and one from the Sierras in California) that were training together. They had a comfy camp site with light shelters rather than tents. We tromped through their camp as they good-naturedly mocked us (can’t remember what for, but I’m sure it was deserved), and we continued up to the target camp at 8,200 feet.

Heading up the Fan
Upon arriving, there was a single guy there in a sleeping bag up on the cleaver between the Wilson and Van Trump glaciers. I’m sure we ruined his sleep as we were in good spirits and quite loud. McGoo took the lead in setting up the campsite, digging out platforms for the tents in the snow and getting us tied down for the night. Our doctors took stock of everybody’s health, and the freeze-dried chowfest began. We made sure to melt lots of snow for water BEFORE going to bed (this caused us schedule problems last year). It was Paul’s responsibility to police this and he did (we also found out later that he was carrying over a gallon of water just in case for much of the trip). The views of Adams, Hood, and Mt. St. Helens were tremendous as the sun went down. I made the daily call on the satellite phone to my wife Jill to give status (to be e-mailed out to everyone’s loved ones) and to get a weather update (still looking good, but with a chance of “isolated thunderstorms” on Monday). My cough made its first pronounced visit (I had contracted a nasty cold 2 days before the trip of all things), but wasn’t too annoying that night. Not many slept well due to the excitement and the typical first night transition to glacier camping, but we were all comfortable.

Day 2:

We called morning bell at 6:00, targeting an 8:00 departure. Last year, schedule had been a problem, but not this year. Everybody was packed and ready to go on time. We actually left around 8:15 after roping up, but this was fine as we had plenty of time for the 3,000 foot climb for the day after our good progress on Day 1. We talked to our solo neighbor (apologized for invading his camp) and found out that he was with a group heading for the summit, but had stayed here when his knee started hurting; a previous injury that was flaring up. Again I led at a slow, comfortable pace out of camp, past the place a hundred feet from camp where McGoo had bailed a year earlier due to his own knee problems. No issues this year.

We skirted right of some rock outcroppings on the left side of the Wilson glacier. Again, we had no need of crampons due to the warm conditions and the reasonable boot track. As expected, the air got thinner, the sun got hotter, and the steps got harder, but we were still making decent progress. At around 9,100 feet, we encountered a talus field. The snow was sloppy with potential postholes, while the rocks were slippery as well. It was a tough little stretch and we took a break. I was hoping that we would find some running meltwater off the rocks, but it wasn’t there. I had stopped about 20 minutes and a couple hundred feet too early. We found abundant running water and stopped again (briefly) to fill up after about a 50 foot climb off path to an ice cold waterfall. Nick froze his arm off trying to get water, but it sure did taste good.

We continued up to the Turtle snowfield which is a relentless, steep slog, and took another break around 10,200 feet. The zinc, sunscreen, and chapstick was applied liberally (although not enough in the end for some of us). We continued up and reached 11,000 feet on the left (west) side of the Turtle and stopped on a small outcropping of rocks. Bucket decided to scout out potential campsites while the rest of us rested.

Life with a Full Pack on Rainier
Our schedule called for us to be here for two nights. This was Saturday afternoon, and the Turtle was packed with people getting ready to make Sunday Alpine starts. It was a beautiful late June weekend, but still more crowded than I ever expected to see the Kautz Glacier route. Most of the good sites were taken, so we improvised 2 tent sites on the cleaver, and a third on the snow that required a fair amount of digging to make a platform. This latter one ended up being the Taj Mahal as Bucket and Nick made continual improvements, including a tiled kitchen in the vestibule. McGoo and I set up our tent so that Adams was centered right in the view out the non-vestibule door. Sweet views indeed.

While searching about, Bucket also was able to scout out the entrance to the base of the chute via an existing rappel station (rather than the standard route of going up to Hazard and then coming down the gulley), and get some beta from other climbers. We resolved to start with the rappel station on Sunday (our practice day) and move to the standard route if this presented problems up or down. We made more chow and took literally hundreds of pictures. Most people slept better this night, although I had a short terrifying bout with AMS in the middle of the night. My heart was racing, I had a headache (which I never get), and my eyesight was throbbing. I think my cold/cough was definitely affecting me. I was momentarily concerned that my trip was over. Luckily this went away fairly quickly. Again, my cough was annoying, but not overwhelming. I got up later that night to take a leak, and was rewarded with the kind of sky you never get to see. The Milky Way was out in all of its glory, and the light of Portland illuminating the outline of Mt. St. Helens from behind was awesome. The mountain loomed above lit by the waning crescent moon. Good to be here.

Day 3:

Day 3 was designed as a practice day. The year before we had gotten up pre-dawn from 11,000 feet and shuffled up to the Kautz Ice Cliff, gotten lost on the way, and we had no real idea what lay ahead. This year, we wanted to make sure everybody was comfortable with the plan to get to and up the chute in a low-stress environment. We left camp at 8:00 with minimal packs. We did not rope up, and followed the climber’s trail along the cleaver up about 200 - 300 feet to the rappel station off the cleaver on the left side of the Turtle, still a few hundred feet below Camp Hazard. The existing rope and anchors seemed solid. Nick, our most accomplished rock climber, took charge and beefed up the anchor a bit, and prepared our rope for the ~20-30 foot rappel. He used a backup autoblock and dropped down the rappel first. He then used a fireman’s belay on the rest of us. I went second and it was a fun little rappel with an overhang that left one hanging free for the last 8 feet. The overhang is useful for staying out of the way of rockfall from above during subsequent rappels.

Once everybody was down, we went up along the rock wall and traversed over to where the snow started. We put on crampons and roped up to head over to the base of the chute. Again, there was a boot track to follow. Along this short traverse, you pass by the bottom of the gulley that is the normal descent to the base of the chute. This area is an ice and rock fall hazard, and you need to be careful not to leave someone strung out on the rope in this area waiting for others up front to start up the pitch. Short-roping or hand coils are useful here (we failed this first time around, but no one was hurt). At the base of the first pitch, we headed up about 50 feet of elevation gain until we got to the hard black ice, where we discovered there were a few crevasses hidden in the jumble. We set anchors with ice screws and belayed everybody up and tied them into the anchor. This was just a little exercise to get everybody comfortable with the steeper terrain (about 10 feet of dagger-style with the ice axes) and with clipping in to running pro. We discussed the plan for the next day, baked a little in the sun, and then down-climbed on belay one by one with Bucket going last. We returned to the belay station and Nick climbed via ferrata style up the fixed line with figure 8 (butterfly?) knots already in place. He then belayed the rest of us up the short ~5.2 rock climb to the left of where we had rappelled.

We walked back to camp, ate lunch and then had a short review of rope management and ice axe skills and the plan for summit day before wiling away the rest of the day lollygagging in our tents and getting organized for the summit attempt in the morning. We planned on a 3:00 AM start despite our summit camp objective in case an emergency retreat dictated a return trip through the Kautz Chute in the warm afternoon. This also facilitated a comfortable pace to help minimize the risk of AMS. Plus, with full packs, we weren’t sure how long it was going to take us to ascend. We targeted a 1:00 AM wake up call.

We spied several large teams coming down the chute that afternoon, and they were all struggling with the conditions. Only the mountain rescue group seemed to be in high spirits. I’d never imagined the Kautz Glacier route could be so crowded, even on a beautiful Sunday afternoon at the end of June. We briefly talked to 4 guys whom we had seen earlier climbing the Kautz headwall and getting pelted by small rockfall. They confirmed that it was kind of miserable in that regard (but a sweet accomplishment).

Nice Digs

That night, we had our first bad weather of the trip. From around 7:30 to 9:30, we got pummeled with a thunderstorm, including high winds, heavy rain, and tons of lightning. I started counting the seconds between flash and boom, but stopped after awhile as most were within a mile. We all pretended to sleep through this. The tents held. I considered it a triumph that Dave didn’t get struck by lightning (he had been hit by lightning about a decade earlier on the mall in Washington DC, if you can believe that).

Day 4:

By 12:30, when we started waking up, the stars were back out and the wind had died down. The forecast had called for a 14,000 foot snow level, so we judged that there was no appreciable increase in the risk of avalanche hazard. My biggest concern was being caught in the chute when one of those squalls hit, but the sky looked reasonably clear in the direction from which the wind was coming (South), so we decided to proceed.

Everyone was packed up and ready to go by 2:45 (15 minutes early), a drastic difference from a year earlier when we were 2.5 hours behind schedule on summit morning due largely to leaving water making until the morning. We hiked up to the rappel station unroped on the climber’s trail on the cleaver. This was probably the most tiring 10 minute section of the trip so far. We were supposed to be well rested. I was really worried that I was having lingering AMS effects, but then everyone else noted that it was sapping them as well. Nick had gone ahead and gotten the rappel station ready to go. We decided to rappel down with full packs. This was slightly challenging in the dark and with the overhang (tendency to tip back), but not a big problem, and we quickly had our crampons on and were traversing to the base of the chute.

On Rappel

Bucket led the first team, I led the second, and Nick was on cleanup duty. Bucket and I each had an ice tool in addition to our mountaineering axes. The rest had only ice axes. Bucket placed 1 running belay anchor using a 22cm ice screw in the middle of the 1st pitch in the middle of the ice jumble near a crevasse. We had received beta the day before that one guy had fallen in a crevasse on the 1st pitch and wrenched his shoulder catching himself (they bailed at the top of the chute for that and other reasons). Nick managed to do the same thing behind me (probably the same damn crevasse), although I think his injury was less (nice to be in your 20’s). We negotiated the first pitch without too much trouble, but it took longer than I had anticipated. It was fully light out when we were done with this. The calls of “ICE!” were frequent as much of the ice we were slamming our axes and tools into was rotten and started careening down the chute at the trailers.


After a short, less-steep section in between the pitches, the second pitch began. Again, it was pretty straight forward for the first part (good steps and upright self-belays in decent snow with ice axes), but then got icy and steeper, requiring use of picks and both hands. Bucket set 3 separate ice screw anchors on this pitch. I’m still not sure how he got the 2nd one in, as there was no good place to stand (I found out later that he had tried several other locations but couldn’t find good ice…this was part of the reason, along with our fat packs, that it was taking so long). More ice axe/tool generated ice fall occurred here, and Dave and Nick spent a good portion of their time dodging small projectiles (I got hit in the arm once, and I know Nick got smacked a couple times with noticeable chunks). Dave ducked under one particularly large chunk that whizzed by me. Anyway, this section again wasn’t too much more technically difficult than anticipated, but it took a lot longer than I had envisioned. McGoo had one shout of pain ahead of me, and I had visions of another knee debacle, but he was able to shake it off and power through. By the time we got to the top of the pitch, the sun was just emerging from behind the ice cliffs, and the baking began.

After a rest, we set off across the Kautz glacier towards the cleaver separating it from the upper Nisqually. This was about 900 feet of climbing through a crevasse field. I punched through one, but was able to extract myself and walk around. I merged up with a boot track that wasn’t much help with the postholing (was a downhill sloppy track), but did keep us away from most of the crevasses, some of which were hard to spot after the storm the night before. We ascended the muddy cleaver to the crest and I wasn’t sure which way to go. The wind was blasting us here, and we were really cold for the first time on the trip. Nick had to take an emergency dump (when you gotta go…). There were a few sketchy snow bridges over to the Nisqually that didn’t look appealing. Someone found a boot track going over one of them, so we followed that (a few hundred feet below the top of the cleaver). We didn’t have any problems. Beautiful crevasses / seracs in this section.

The rest of the trip to the summit was a snow slog. We were able to follow some other boot tracks which helped. At around 13,400, I started to struggle (cold/cough, AMS, fatigue, whatever), and yielded the lead to Bucket who pushed on to the summit. We entered the crater rim at about 2:00 PM at about the 5:00 position (12:00 being North). The first team got there about 5 minutes before we did (I was moving slow at this point) and McGoo waited at the entrance to make sure we got the notch. We had had beautiful weather most of the trip, but we arrived at the summit in a small whiteout.

We had to jump an opening to the steam tunnels to get into the crater. The wind was appreciably less once we did that. After getting all safe and sound into the crater, we decided to look for a camp site and set up camp for the night prior to going for the true summit. Bucket and I tied in, I grabbed the probe, and started moving West; we figured the best location would be around 6:00 or 7:00 per the prevailing wind direction. It was still difficult to see anything in the conditions.

About 1 minute after starting, I probed a space under the snow. I asked for a belay which Bucket gave me. I then offered to belay him, but he said he didn’t need one “there are no crevasses on the summit.” Two seconds later he was gone. It was like something out of a bad movie where Karma always strikes those with hubris right after they proclaim their invincibility. I was in arrest position. I didn’t have a strong pull, but the rope was taut, so I wasn’t sure if I was partially supporting his weight, so I didn’t want to move. Paul came over close to the newly formed hole and shouted down but got no response. I started shouting out instructions to build an anchor with two pickets placed deadman style, for Nick to get ready to rappel down (he would be the fastest) and for Dave to tie in to the anchor once built and get ready to shout medical instructions over the edge. Paul headed to grab the satellite phone just in case. I kept shouting instructions, but that was probably superfluous. Everybody was anxious but went smoothly into action. I saw Rob, Dave, and Paul furiously digging out the t-slots while Nick was getting ready for the descent. Once the anchor was built and Nick was ready to rappel down, he got to the edge and finally got word from Bucket. Huge sense of relief here. He was totally unscathed and asking that someone drop a camera down to him so that he could take pictures. I wanted to drop a boulder on him. After getting some unique pics, the guys constructed a Z-anchor and hauled him out as he helped climb.

Watch that first step

Bucket and I should know better. Our trip, which had been meticulously planned and executed almost perfectly to this point was nearly shattered in an instant of letting our guard down. Word to the wise.

On to the True Summit

In any event, we stopped the search for a camp and just said that the current position was good enough. It was getting clearer in the crater, and we were now able to see the extent of the crevasse (tunnel?), which ran in a large arc near us. We wanded it out as one border of our camp and dug out platforms. The work was much more tiring than lower on the mountain, but we had a nice summit camp before long. The weather then yielded to blue skies, and we trudged over to the true summit, careful to protect ourselves until we tested the route over to the RMI boot-tracks. Paul didn’t make the trip as he was suffering from some AMS. I was too, but the last time I reached the summit I punted the rim trip (was a whiteout) and didn’t want to miss it this time. The view and the pics were amazing, although it was hazy to the north, so we couldn’t see Baker. We ended up having the entire summit to ourselves for about 16 hours before the teams started coming up the next morning. We thought about exploring the steam tunnels, but after Bucket’s little impromptu expedition, and given that we were pretty beat, we just enjoyed the views, the weather, and the feeling of being on top. We could see into some of the openings, and we believe we could see the wing of a small plane that crashed on the summit circa 1990. That night we all had our best night of sleep on the trip so far.

Summit Camp

Day 5:

In the morning, Bucket got up early to take some nice sunrise pictures. Paul was feeling better, so we all made one more trip back to the true summit. I was really dragging, but Dr. Dave gave me some Sudafed, Advil, antibiotics, and who knows what else so that I could get down the mountain. We got the full group pic on the summit that was now crawling with several other groups of people. We packed up camp and left at a leisurely time of about 9:45.

Group Success

The first 2,000 feet down to Disappointment Cleaver were quick and somewhat uneventful. The RMI boot-track was easy to follow, if a little sloppy. We were finally able to get cell phone coverage briefly on this side of the mountain. The Cleaver presented challenges. The track followed the South side of the cleaver in the snow (not the rock), which was increasingly sloppy. We had decided to take off our crampons, but I’m not sure that it wouldn’t have been better to leave them on (at least for me as my crampons weren’t balling up). Each step was either slippery from being packed down, or a hip-high posthole from not being packed down enough. I tried to step on the sides of the trail to push new snow down with each step, but it was impossible to avoid the issues entirely. This took awhile. Beautiful views of Little Tahoma and some nice crevasses, though. At the bottom of the cleaver, there were some fixed ropes which we clipped into to take us over to that dangerous stretch above Ingraham Flats below the icefall. We moved through this as quickly as we could, although Nick still almost got pelted with some rocks (who did he wrong in a former life?). After a break here, we picked our way down Cathedral gap, taking in hand coils to avoid snagging on the rocks. We finally made our way down to Camp Muir, which was characteristically busy. Some climber offered us some water he was going to dump, which was perfect, negating the need to melt a little more snow (thanks to whomever you are, dude).

After a rest, we unroped and headed down the Muir snowfield. We kept looking for glissade opportunities, but the snow was mushy and sloppy, and long glissades were few and far between. In most cases I’m not sure it was worth the effort to have to struggle back to our feet under our packs. The rest of the trip down was uneventful, with the interminable trip through the slop. We spread out a bit and took a few wrong turns 98% of the way through the trip, but we all arrived at the visitor’s center within about 25 minutes, on average about 7 hours after leaving the summit.

We checked in with the rangers, took advantage of the best deal anywhere ($0.25 for 7.5 minutes of shower in the basement of the visitor’s center), found our car keys, and headed down to Copper Creek, which had been elevated to Nirvana status over the last 5 days as we salivated over steaks, blackberry pie, and beer. After that, we negotiated the MOST dangerous part of the trip: the drive back to Seattle (lots of drifting in the two cars).

This trip was awesome. We probably over-planned it (I can hear some people I know mocking me now), but things went off pretty smoothly, and the night on the summit was certainly a different twist. We got lucky with good weather, but were prepared for otherwise, including a contingency day which we didn’t end up using. The team was fantastic, with everybody coming ready to play and working together beautifully. This is something I’ll remember fondly for a long time.

Now…what’s next?